The history of asymmetry and the pursuit of balance
“Symmetry is what we see at a glance; based on the fact that there is no reason for any difference.”
Until last year I'd never had a reason to ride an asymmetric surfboard. I could turn with equal proficiency off my toe side and heel side, while riding backside was as enjoyable as riding with my face to the wave. It didn't feel like my surfing had a shortfall that required an amendment. There was no reason to try anything different. My surfing felt balanced.
Yet I ordered an asymmetric board. My first one. The desire was borne out of sheer curiosity, which is a powerful force for someone who's surfed for over 35 years and tried just about every design that's been named. Instantly I recognised it as a magic board, a concept that I'd long since relegated to grommethood but now had to revisit. After six months of heavy use I proclaimed it the best board I'd ever ridden, so when it was destroyed I got another one shaped with minor adjustments. Amazingly it went even better.
These excursions into asymmetry have caused many hours of lost sleep. Images come to me late at night: the sight of water flowing over fibreglass; the myriad shapes a human body can make; how those shapes control the boards we stand on. It's an excitement that's intoxicating, a veritable narcotic for a surfer on the cemetery side of forty who knows his best days of surfing are behind him. Through the fervour the thought occasionally arises, 'If only I tried this when I was twenty!'
“Don't confuse symmetry with balance.” - Tom Robbins
The beginning of any conversation about asymmetrical surfboards starts with the human body. Humans have bilateral symmetry, meaning just one axis of symmetry. It runs directly down your body from your head to your crotch and separates your body into left and right sides. A typical surfboard also has bilateral symmetry, the lone axis runs down the stringer.
The trouble begins when the axes – those of the body and the board – don't align. The usual riding stance puts them at 90 degrees to each other and that's where the imbalance begins; it takes completely different body mechanics to perform a heel side turn as it does a toe side turn.
There are many ways to demonstrate the difference but an instructive one is to assume your normal riding stance on flat ground, then rise onto your toes – an easy transition to make. Then try and take the same riding stance but roll onto the heels of your foot. If you're put together the same as I you'll discover it's a decidedly more awkward movement.
To a large degree the physical difference between heel side and toe side turns is compensated by our ankle, knee, and hip joints moving in unison. In wider, more expansive turns there's almost no difference, however, during short arcing turns the shortcomings of bilateral symmetry become apparent.
To begin with, humans have less range of movement when leaning backwards - as happens in heel side turns - compared to leaning forwards. This is mostly due to our knees only bending one way and our hips and ankles having a forward bias. This means any error turning off the heels is harder to correct, there are simply less shapes the human body can make to counteract that error.
This corporeal asymmetry is exaggerated during short clean arcs which are easier to do off the toe side as opposed to the heel side. Think about weak waves – say, small Bells Beach – and how backsiders have an advantage when turning off the top – their toe side – as they can lean forward and use body weight to wrench the board back down the face. Natural footers can struggle to get the board back off the top as short, clean arcs are that bit much harder to perform off the heels. Also, any error in weight distribution is harder to correct.
One turn isn't better or worse than the other, they're just different.
Snowboarders have long known this, hence asymmetric designs have been an accepted tenet in the mountains for nearly thirty years. Their reason for asymmetry is the same as ours, a disparity between toe side and heel side turns, the snowboard solution being a deeper sidecut on the heel side edge that initiates and controls a turn off that rail.
Though asymmetric boards have been around in surfing for over fifty years they've never captured the wider imagination of surfers. They've come and gone numerous times during the past half century, each time presenting a solution to design but ultimately proving too difficult or confusing for the buying public to buy in.
“Asymmetry is the rhythmic expression of functional design.” - Jan Tschichold
Accepted wisdom says that Carl Ekstrom invented the first asymmetrical board in 1965 and that he patented the design in 1967. It's an oft-repeated fact, never questioned. Yet recently I was flicking through a copy of Jack Pollard's book The Australian Surfrider, the tone and content of which placed it firmly in the 1960s: lots of toes over the nose, Ray-Ban Wayfarers, and boards upward of 10 feet. Amongst the '60s conventions was a small photo of Midget Farrelly's then-current board. Called the 'hook board' it had one rail shorter than the other, the two rails joining at the tail to form a shallow hook – it was an asymmetrical by any other name.
I quickly flicked to the colophon and found the book was printed in 1963, two years before Carl Ekstrom 'invented' the asymmetric board and four years before he patented it. My curiosity sufficiently piqued I dialled the number of Surfblanks Australia and asked to speak to the CEO – Midget Farrelly.
Midget has a reputation as a curmudgeon, which is not wholly unjustified, because while he retreated from the media - or maybe it was the other way around? - he somehow managed to keep his opinions in circulation. We should be thankful, the surfing world is richer for it. “The hook tail [in the book] is really a Scotty Dillon creation,” admitted Midget. “It's a variation on an asymm I did at Keyo's in 1963.”
In December 1962, Midget won the Makaha contest, then regarded as the unofficial world championship. He was the first Australian to win a major international contest. After Hawaii, Farrelly travelled to Southern California where he visited the Yater factory and spied Bob Cooper with an asymmetrical.
“My Keyo was a variation of Bob's” says Midget. And though Midget's asymmetrical was photographed in The Australian Surfrider, he quickly moved on from the design. “I was always moving to the next thing. I didn’t hang around waiting for approval or otherwise.”
Scott Dillon, however, put the hook board into production. “Scotty was a loveable bullshitter who went hard on the hook” recalls Midge. “He made dozens and dozens - the surfing public loved it.” ...but only for a short while. The same photos used in The Australian Surfrider were incorporated in an advertisement which ran in a 1963 issue of Surfabout. Yet by the end of '63 Dillon had stopped shaping his hook tails.
“As a business proposition they're a loser” is Bob Cooper's blunt assessment of the commerical viability of asymmetrics. “They do not have shelf appeal and you get bored answering dumb questions.”
Cooper has spent 55 years answering 'dumb questions' about asymmetrics; the first board he brought to Australia back in 1959 was asymmetric – it had an offset nose – and he's been dabbling with them ever since.
He wasn't, however, the first to skew a board's symmetry. Says Cooper: “The first asymmetrical board was shaped by Reynolds Yater out of wood, the idea and the design were Grubby Clark's. Yater showed up at Malibu and it made so much sense.” Bob dates the board as either 1959 or 1960. “It was balsa and it was pre-Gidget.”
Bob subsequently went on to produce his own asymmetric model for Morey Pope, called the Blue Machine. Built and distributed throughout 1967 and early 1968 the Blue Machine had an asymmetric fin set up with a bias toward the heel side rail (see image at right). It also had a wicked resin tint.
“The Blue Machine was a great board in its day,” says Cooper. “Very progressive and out there when everyone else was conservative. I still get compliments about the machine, but as to its selling...” Cooper's voice trails off. However, the effect isn't to imply how few boards were sold but a polite way to broach Karl Pope's business conduct. “I wasn’t allowed to know about the books and was later informed by a secretary that I’d been ripped off in my commissions by the company.” A year later Bob Cooper moved to Australia for good.
Before he emigrated, Cooper befriended a surfer from Santa Barbara and employed him at Morey Pope. Michael Cundith was a protege of George Greenough, and like George and Bob, he would later move to Australia. Cundith calls the Blue Machine “one of the all time great designs.” However his own discovery of asymmetrics is illuminating.
As a teenager Cundith fixed dings at Owl's Surfboards between Santa Barbara and Carpinteria. “The boards came into the shop in bad shape because there were no legropes,” says Cundith recalling his job description. “Sometimes the tails would be really beat up and rather than patch them I'd urge the guy who owned it to just reshape it and seal it up.”
This wasn't merely an example of teenage labour cutting corners with workmanship, Cundith knew a shorter rail line would help with the heel side turn. “I was young, I was riding shorter boards so I knew they'd turn better.”
Cundith recalls an older guy coming in after he shortened his rail following a ding repair and reporting on the board's performance. “It goes great,” the guy said excitedly. “It turns much better when I cutback.” This exchange occurred in the late-1950s, Michael Cundith was yet to meet Reynolds Yater or Grubby Clark, or even Bob Cooper for that matter. He'd struck upon the concept of asymmetry independently of those surfers.
Maybe this scenario isn't unusual. It could be that many discoveries happen this way, with numerous 'inventors' chancing upon the discovery while working independently of each other. However, convenience dictates that only one person gets the accolades, multiple narratives being harder for the public to grasp – much like the asymmetric concept itself.
If the above proposition is true then the central narrative belongs to Carl Ekstrom. As mentioned earlier, Ekstrom is widely considered the father of asymmetrical design. Like Cundith, he'd never heard of the concept before picking up the tools and customising a design that balanced surfer and board.
“Before designing and building my first asymmetrical surfboard I had never seen or heard of a surfboard designed to be asymmetrical,” says Ekstrom. “My asymmetrical concept came to me while surfing at Windansea in the early-60s. The concept was based on the fact that surfers stand asymmetrically on the surfboard and the surfers were either right foot forward or left foot forward.”
In 1965 Carl applied for a patent over his asymmetrical design, and in 1967 he received Patent number US3337886 A for an asymmetrical surfboard which, according to the US Patent Office, “compensates for the offset weight distribution of a rider in normal stance and gives the board substantially equal turning ability in either direction.”
After it was approved, Carl built many asymmetric surfboards in his “ten-board-a-week store” and he also sold the rights to California Company Surfboards and Jacobs Surfboards. “My design goal," says Carl, “has always been to design surfboards that have a natural tendency to do what the rider wants them to do.” Ekstrom is still shaping and still applying the same 'functional design' principles of asymmetry, however he's applying them to shorter, high performance boards.
Over the years many shapers have dabbled with asymmetrics, including many big name shapers, such as Bob McTavish, who set up his boards for Lennox Head, and Nat Young, who rode an asymmetric in the opening scenes of Morning Of The Earth. Other shapers include Peter Drouyn, Peter Townend, Allan Byrne, Col Smith, and Mark Richards.
Until the recent Ryan Burch-led resurrection, most attempts at asymmetrics have bamboozled the public and the boards have ended up in the shapers' personal quiver.
“Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” - William Blake
As the name suggests, the shortboard revolution saw boards dramatically reduce in length and also subsequently in weight. In combination this made them easier to turn and somewhat lessened the need to find design features that aided turning. However, just a few years later the surfing world's burgeoning professionalism put an acute focus on performance. Board design flourished as shapers sought incremental advantage for their riders over other competitors. Almost every facet of design was open to experimentation: fins, rails, planshape, thickness, length. Curiously, asymmetrics played only a very minor part in this rush of ideas and their side show role continues to this day. No surfer has ever won a top tier competition riding a deliberately asymmetric board.
Martin Dunn is arguably Australia's most successful surf coach, and he's definitely the longest serving. Dunn has been dishing out advice to top level surfers since the mid-1980s, yet not once in all those years and whilst servicing all those surfers has he had to factor in asymmetric design to a surfers' technique.
“It's just not something I have thought about,” says Dunn when I spoke to him about asymmetric designs. “I've never coached a surfer who was riding them.”
Dunn's admission suggests an incongruity: if shapers such as Carl Ekstrom are creating high performance boards that “have a tendency to do what the rider wants them to do”, then why aren't professional surfers, whose livelihood depends on performing at their the best, using the advantage of asymmetry?
The answer may lay in the fact that most top level surfers have such good technique that it compensates for the mismatch of axes. Their weight distribution during turns is more precise, body mechanics more able, and hence the asymmetric advantage becomes redundant. It's also not unusual to read that pro surfers want their boards to be neutral and predictable. Just give them soft curves, a single concave and they'll do all the rest.
There's another factor for asymmetrics' lack of popularity amongst pro surfers that should be considered. That being commerce. Most pro surfers have board sponsors and Bob Cooper's dictum about asymmetrics - “ As a business proposition they're a loser” - is as relevant today as it was fifty years ago. Set up for naturals or goofys, asymmetric boards impede the manufacturers economy of scale; they halve the production run for each board while doubling the required models.
Of interest is the impending arrival of wave pools. The promise of wave pools is that they take the variability out of the surfing equation, providing perfect wave after perfect wave so surfers can improve their technique. The same may hold true for surfboard design, where consistently perfect waves would allow shapers to hone in on the minutiae of design without the white noise of water in flux.
In a 2011 interview with Swellnet, Greg Webber said surfboard “experimentation will go nuts and surfers will be able to try amazing new concepts” in wave pools. Webber also mused that some pool owners might link up with world class surfboard designers. Said Webber eagerly: “Imagine riding all the unusual stuff that you would never risk buying for yourself?”
Webber's idea may be prescient with the recent rumour that Channel Islands, the world's biggest surfboard company, is a financial backer of the Kelly Slater Wave Company and plan to use his pools as test centres. The inexorable march of progress may yet match an asymmetric rider to their board.
"I think that symmetry is a neutral shape as opposed to a form of design." - Robert Rauschenberg
Over the years I've had many custom boards built for me, yet until last year I'd never questioned symmetry. Now that I have, and now that it's working, I can see a great well of possibilities opening up. I can also see the pitfalls.
When Carl Ekstrom patented his idea it had just one unique feature - different length rails. However, asymmetry isn't one lone configuration, like say, a twin fin or a Thruster. Asymmetry implies an infinite arrangement of configurations. Ekstrom's patent won't work over most asymmetrical boards because there are so many ways to achieve it aside from different length rails. And this is where the wariness creeps in.
Many surfers - and I include myself in this assessment - aren't wholly sure why existing features on a surfboard work. Our knowldge is rudimentary. So increasing the complexity of a surfboard is a daunting proposition. Take for example Ryan Burch's asymmetrical designs. Like modernist art, Burch appears to eschew all conventions, rearranging known design features into an exotic form. And the form is deliberate, it's functional, testament to that is how he surfs on them. However, Burch has a savant-like understanding of surfboards while the rest of us are scratching our heads wondering.
In a recent interview Cape Town shaper Donald Brink, who's an asymmetrical acolyte, said his modus operandi was to "look at the frustrations common to a specific design and make subtle changes to promote the board's design characteristics." He achieves this by allowing "the harmony between the elements," that is the board, your body, and the wave, "not oppose one another."
In short, everything balances.
I believe my first two asymmetrical boards - the agents of those sleepless nights - were so exciting because they were simple. Compared to Burch's abstruse versions, the functional form of my asymms are relatively Apollonian: clean, ordered, elementary. I wanted drive off the toe side and turn off the heel, thus the rail was two inches shorter on the heel side, and the fins were also pushed slightly forward on that side too. It was a quad, the fin clusters were equidistant from the stringer. The whole board is symmetrical till the last third. Why it works is very clear to me. They're the most customised boards I've owned and they're also the most balanced.
They can, however, be improved...