• In 1969 George Greenough was the most advanced shaper in the world. A regular visitor to Australia, Greenough attracted a coterie of disciples who absorbed his theories on surfcraft design and put them to work, setting in motion the Shortboard Revolution. Despite its name, the Shortboard Revolution was much more than a radical reassessment of length. Inspired by Greenough, surfers looked at their boards anew: at fin design, hull shape, planshape, and flex patterns. They threw out the old ideas en masse and applied Greenough’s futuristic designs, building upon his work, either pushing them to breaking point, or morphing them into new concepts.

    This was true for all Greenough’s ideas bar one - flex.

    “Flex remains the one area of George’s teachings that hasn’t been fully explored,” says Mitchell Rae of Outer Islands Surfboards.

    In the late-60s Mitchell Rae sat at the feet of George Greenough, and in time he assimilated George's ideas with his own native understanding of surfboard design. For the last fifty years he’s applied a singular approach to board design, utilising deep concaves long before they were accepted, sleek nose lift, and the one thing everyone else overlooked, flex.

    Mitchell Rae grabbed George’s baton - the one that yields and springs -  and he ran with it. He kept on running with it. And fifty years later Mitchell hasn’t stopped. He’s been ceaselessly building upon that seminal idea of flex: let the board store energy and release it. From the initial fibreglass flex tail, Mitchell’s current quest is a "controlled flex" that grades from nose to tail. Many who ride his boards say they feel alive, that they feel animate underfoot. All Outer Island surfboards come with ‘spirit eyes’ on the rails. A favoured colour is red. Cut them and they’ll bleed.

     

    George

    I was fortunate to surf with George Greenough when he was in his absolute prime. When we started Outer Island surfboards in '69, I was the junior member and Glynn Ritchie was my mentor, and we used to do a lot of trips surfing up the North Coast. We'd surf Lennox mainly, which had no crowd back then. We were on shortboards, early versions of our extreme down rail, deep concave, single fins. In many ways they were the antithesis of George's design, with the drive lines and turning curves in opposite areas of the board.

    Geoge was so connected with the pocket, he was able to go in and out of the tube with ease due to the flexible nature of his board - the acceleration was just amazing. I often used to just watch what he was doing. I was in awe. That surfing always stuck in my mind.

    He opened my eyes to observe and study the natural world, how fish and birds are so perfectly designed. They meld form and function. He was a pro fisherman and many of his theories came from that.

    George was prepared to sacrifice everything to get the flex he wanted. Almost all the foam was removed from his boards, so much that some of George's boards would actually sit below sea level. I remember, he brought down a new one and he dropped it in the water and it went about three inches below the surface of the water and sat there. That was its float ratio! But he could use flippers and stuff to catch waves...

  • George Greenough at Lennox Head
  • First boards

    The very first flex tail I built was for Andrew Witton, who was a kneeboarder from down at Merimbula. He wanted a Greenough-esque flex tail kneeboard, only he wanted a bit more foam in it, he wanted to be able to paddle it, which ties in with my criteria for boards as well.

    That first one had a large flex tail area and Andrew took it to Bali. Later he got me to do another one which was his gun kneeboard. In early '74 we met up in Bali and I rode his gun kneeboard standing up at Ulus in pretty substantial waves. It was the first flexible board that I'd actually ridden. The board had a little too much drift, because being a kneeboard it had a broad tail, yet it did some insane things: amazing acceleration, extension of drive lines, incredible direction changes. The feeling was addictive and I got to thinking about how I could best apply it.

    Soon after I built my first stand up flex tail, a deep single concave, single fin pintail, with a Persian slipper nose.

  • The grape and the mango, Mitchell's first two flex tails, and at left is Mitchell squeezing the grape during a mid-70s bottom turn
  • Hollow stringers

    Back in the day, I’m talking late-60s, early-70s here, when the stringers were really thin, we started bringing back serious stringers. Half-inch thick, even one inch thick cedar stringers, which we chambered out so there were solid sections about six inches long with a six inch bulkhead, a hollow chamber, in between, and that pattern ran the length of the board.

    Initially it was to remove weight, but we quickly realised that by reducing the amount of timber, we were taking a stiff piece of wood and effectively creating a wooden bow. Like William Tell. And it was a really beautiful flex pattern. The discovery was a by-product of weight reduction.

    The boards would not only flex, but they had more of a controlled flex, which was set by the timber. It was an interesting innovation which a lot of people weren't aware of simply because they couldn't see it. A lot of my early boards had that combination of cedar stringer and flex tail.

  • Chambered cedar stringers were an early, albeit accidental, discovery of natural flex
  • Basic beginnings

    Those early flex tails were just regular PU surfboards with a stringer running down them and maybe eight inches of fibreglass flex on the tail. We were limited in our approach. Unlike George, I didn’t want to remove too much foam from the tail and sacrifice paddling power. Also, this was the single fin era. I could only take the flex up to the back of the single fin, though sometimes I did a small cutaway underneath the back of the single fin to get an inch or two more flexible area out of it.

    In later years I’d introduce different materials so the boards retained buoyancy, and I’d extend the flexible area, even having the fins on the flex material so they moved with it.

  • 'Persian slipper' nose, deep concaves, and fibreglass flex tails: avant garde ideas from 1978
  • An idea unrealised

    In the early 1970s the Wilderness boys at Angourie - Greenough’s disciples - experimented with their own version of a flex surfboard. They took a different approach. They built a hull-shaped bottom a bit like a Greenough spoon but they made the last 18 inches of the tail flexible, using a false deck for something to stand on, independent of the bottom. 

    Their boards delivered a large area of flex. Chris Brock did some great surfing on them at Lennox, but being labour intensive few were made. To this day, flex remains the one area of George’s teachings that hasn’t been fully explored.

    I remember getting a phone call from Nev Hyman after he'd just been watching someone surf a flex tail. He said to me: "I can see what it's doing and it's amazing. I’m keen to do something with flex. Is it OK with you if I do?"

    I told Nev that it’s fine, but I also told him it’s never going to fit into a production line. He’d have to alter his production methods and put on extra staff because it's a completely different build.

    That's why flex tails have never been popularised. It's because they're labour intensive. They don't fit into the regular framework of construction.

  • Each of Mitchell's flex boards is unique, even his logo used to be hand-drawn
  • The OM Bali Pro

    By the late-70s, early-80s I'd been taking my own direction for quite some time. Professional surfing was gathering pace but I didn't have much to do with it. I shaped boards for good waves and competitions weren't often held in them. I didn't pay a great deal of attention to it.

    That OM Bali Pro was my first crossover with mainstream surfing, with what professional surfers were riding and what they were doing. I made it through a lot of rounds, into the last six surfers, bowing out in a tight semi with Joe Engel. It felt to me that I was going faster than anyone in the water, drawing unique lines, doing things a bit different to what everybody else was doing.

    I'd always had the strength in my belief, in my ideas, but it was nice to have them vindicated.

  • Mitchell at the OM Bali Pro, Canggu, 1980, surfing different lines on a self-shaped flex tail
  • Where flex works well

    The flex tends to work better in a better wave. For small, underpowered waves you don't get a great deal of advantage from the type of flex that I build. But once there's a little bit of sting in the waves they really come into their own.

    When I'm building them, I take into account the body weight of the rider and the locations they're gonna be surfing. A lighter rider for smaller waves I'll make the tail more flexy. If the board is designed for bigger surf where there's more power, and you're also putting more power down on the board as well, I'll make them a little stiffer.

    I think there's a lot of scope for flex in really big waves. Taking a drop on a rigid board, you need to let the board settle and then feed in some rail before you can jam a turn. On flex you can drive the turn earlier as it cushions the landing and dissipates the energy at that critical moment. Similarly, it allows the rider to drive tighter arcs and snaps off the top, loosening up big boards, making them surf like a shorter board off the back foot.

    Rob Conneeley told me of watching Manno [underground charger, Scott Mainwarring] surfing a 9'6" flex tail gun I made him in 20 foot waves at the Bommie at Margaret River. Surfed it like a beachbreak apparently, driving vertically off the bottom, carving under the lip.

  • "It's like having powerband on a two-stroke motorbike," says Manno, pictured above, who rides Mitchell's flex tails as shortboards, guns, and tow boards
  • It’s not just the reflex

    There are two major things that flex boards do. You get a loading effect, which is similar to a diver on a springboard where the diver uses the flick off the end of the board to launch themselves. That's what I call reflex, and you get that coming out of the turn. Once you've come through the fulcrum of the turn and you unweight the board you get this feeling of reflex, which is forward drive.

    But lesser known is that with flex boards, especially those with controlled flex running down the board, you also get a variable curve. The rocker curve bends, it gives you a variable curve so you can carve a different line. You can carve a tighter arc in the turn.

  • Art meets science as Mitchell Rae falls down the rabbit hole of flex
  • When Midget went stringerless

    I talk about controlled flex a lot these days, so let me put it like this. In the late-60s Midget came up with the stringerless board. This was when boards had a lot of timber in them for rigidity. Midget was looking for a good competition board. He wanted a lighter board, so he had the idea of leaving all the wood out and doing a stringerless board. It was quite revolutionary and all boards for quite a long time were stringerless after that.

    But besides being light, stringerless boards have what I call uncontrolled flex. They bend where they want. There’s no pattern, it's uncontrolled. So what I've been trying to do is control the flex pattern.

  • Midget Farrelly, November 1967, sweeping off the bottom at Long Reef on a stringerless boards
  • The V stringer

    A stringerless board like Midget's will belly out. It'll bend where you are standing and driving from - which isn't desirable. For me, good boards needs a rigid nose and a flex pattern that tapers backwards through the board. The rigid entry holds a clean line, the progressive flex gives a variable curve and brings the board to life

    I was struck by this thought twenty years ago, so I began making V stringers - two pieces of wood which run at diagonals from the nose. Each stringer runs out through the rail of the board, initially a few inches forward of the fins. After a while I slowly shifted it forward as far as I could, which is about a third of the way up the board.

    The V stringer gives me double thickness of wood through the entry of the board. So the nose is more rigid than normal and the tail has no stringer so it’s flexible. The flex is tapered through the board - relative to the foil and outline. It's subtle, but it's very tangible, and it does the same things as what the flex tails do, which is to give variable curves through a turn and reflex coming out of it. It's like a sports car hugging the corners.

    The stringerless tail will bend as much as half to three-quarters of an inch.

    What I'm also finding is that flex alters other dyamics: I can vent the deep concave further out the tail instead of feathering it to stay loose; I can employ hard edges further up the board which gives more bite and drive so you need less fin.

  • Carbon tails

    I've always tried to keep an eye on new design and new materials. Carbon came out of the space research program, they were using it to build lightweight components to launch into space. I think George might have been the first person I saw using it, so I embraced it real quickly.

    Cabon has a whippier type of reflex than fibreglass, and you can also use a thinner tail as it’s a more robust material. However, it has certain high-end properties. You need better resin, because if you use conventional resin with carbon, it will fail before the carbon does.

    I found that the larger the flexible area the greater the drive - like a diver, the bigger the flipper, the greater the propulsion. Larger tail areas, like swallows and crescent tails, also twist more creating a three-dimensional flex. Bend plus twist equals torque.

    I really liked carbon so I started making the largest flexible tail area that I could. The thing is, if you remove all the PU foam in the tail you change the foil of the board so again I was limited. But then the bodyboard revolution occurred...

    Le boogie

    With the advent of boogie boards I twigged that these new flexible plastic foams could be a solution to my problem. I began experimenting, replacing the removed PU foam with EVA, restoring the original foil and buoyancy

    This was a real breakthrough. It allowed me to alter the game considerably and move the flex further up the board. And this was the Thruster era, where the front fins were considerably further up the board, so I started taking the flex right up to the very back of the front fins. The tail fin was sitting in the flexible area, twisting and flexing with the tail. It was a whole new feeling, the tail alive with flex!

  • While surfers were mocking bodyboarders, Mitchell saw opportunity, using EVA plastic to retain float and buoyancy in his increasingly complex flex tails
  • Carbon rails

    In the early 2000s I was playing around with a lot of carbons, not just in the tails but elsewhere in the board to control the flex pattern. I began experimenting with laminating six and eight-ounce carbon around the rails. The rails became the main spar, not the stringer, so we went back to thin central stringers. The boards worked great. They became the "Stealth" model.

    However, as I started to go down the path of V2 flex I drifted away from the carbon rails, preferring the organic flex that I was getting with the wooden stringers, and also the elegant simplicity of the V2 build.

  • A breakthrough at the time, Mitchell gradually shifted away from carbon on the rails preferring the "elegant simplicity" of the V2 stringer
  • Zen Blade

    Many years of design science and R&D have led me to this board. Combining the two elements - the natural board flex of V2, and the full carbon flex tail - a third of the board becomes alive with flex. It generates amazing whip out of turns, long projections, and tight arcs at high speed. These are the top end of what I do.

    There's nothing like slicing and dicing on a flexible blade!

  • "There's nothing like slicing and dicing on a flexible blade!"
  • All my flex boards are based on how I like to surf, and I guess I've always been a purist. This stetches back to when I was a young fellow and the whole alternative movement occurred, which I was a part of. At the time we diverged entirely from contest surfing and chose to build boards that were designed for surfing real waves, which was what we were chasing.

    We wanted to surf perfect waves and ride them on a better surfboard, and when we'd do this we'd take surfing to a higher level.

    Real waves were my inspiration. They still are.

    - Mitchell Rae, 2018

    Outer Islands Surfboards

Comments

stan1972's picture
stan1972's picture
stan1972 commented Monday, 9 Jul 2018 at 11:46am

Good work Mitchell I've always admired your boards.

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet commented Monday, 9 Jul 2018 at 12:41pm

A photo that didn't make the cut but perhaps should've. Three Outer Island flex tails and a cat:

Also, check the stringer on the board at left, a reverse of Mitchell's later V stringer.

Lanky Dean's picture
Lanky Dean's picture
Lanky Dean commented Monday, 9 Jul 2018 at 3:27pm

Great article! Had a six six that was an outer islands. No flex tail, amazing board. Went great and had a cool spray. Highly recommend!

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy commented Monday, 9 Jul 2018 at 4:16pm

Very interesting. Always good to hear about someone who has followed their own path. Mitchell was known as a very talented surfer from an early age. Our circles over-lapped though I don't remember actually meeting him. I had a few great boards from Glynn Ritchie when he was at Peter Clarke's in Brookvale and suspect that Mitchell was there at that time learning the trade.

freeride76's picture
freeride76's picture
freeride76 commented Monday, 9 Jul 2018 at 4:29pm

"But lesser known is that with flex boards, especially those with controlled flex running down the board, you also get a variable curve. The rocker curve bends, it gives you a variable curve so you can carve a different line. You can carve a tighter arc in the turn."

I was so glad to see Mitchell mention that.
George always told me that the chief benefit of the flex in his boards was variable rocker curve.

Spuddups's picture
Spuddups's picture
Spuddups commented Monday, 9 Jul 2018 at 4:59pm

Great to see a shaper who's persisted with an unusual design feature over a long period of time. Thanks for sharing.

morg's picture
morg's picture
morg commented Monday, 9 Jul 2018 at 7:29pm

What a great read. Thanks Mitchell, and thanks Stu. My buddies and I first stumbled onto the whole flex thing in the late 90’s but we were making boards for kite surfing. We were destroying our knees on kiteboards and made a few “springy ones” to make it easier on our knees. That lead us down the path of discovery. Uncontrolled flex, controlled flex, reflex, carbon rails etc etc (all that stuff Mitchell had been refining for years). Had we known of Mitchell we probably would have saved a fortune, but missed out on the fun journey. Eventually life got in the way and we could buy basically what we were making, so we stopped.

Fast forward to me entering my mid fifties and wanting (or perhaps needing) surfboards with a bit more buoyancy (but not bigger). As good as those higher volume surfboards are to paddle, catch waves and get moving on, the one thing I notice on a lot of them is their stiffness. Or more correctly their lack of flex and reflex. It’s one of those things that you don’t notice until it’s gone and I’m only talking about small wave boards (not grovellers) that are 33 litres instead of 27 litres. As soon as you beef it up they get stiffer and just don’t seem to perform as well. Hopefully Mitchell and other aging good shapers will keep refining their designs to help those of us who aren’t quite ready to admit were too old.

freddieffer's picture
freddieffer's picture
freddieffer commented Tuesday, 10 Jul 2018 at 7:10am

Morg, I was fortunate to get onto Mitchels's craft a long, long time ago, and quickly came to know that nothing rides like an Outer. I'm no smart guy when it comes to the intracacies of board design or the physics of materials or mother nature. When I first saw OI boards in action in the water, they went places and did things on the wave that were beyond my visual and cognitive comprehension. Even from a distance, I could tell if (an unknown) surfer was riding an OI by the way the board behaved and functioned on a wave.

It is absolutely true what Mitchell says about flex boards, they're like getting on a magic carpet. You'll never get off one after that.

Riding a wave on one silently speaks to the soul of this old surfer; and that's been my long-held experience and my purest joy.

eat-your-vegies's picture
eat-your-vegies's picture
eat-your-vegies commented Monday, 9 Jul 2018 at 7:37pm

Never admit it morg
Never too old

neville-beats-buddha's picture
neville-beats-buddha's picture
neville-beats-buddha commented Monday, 9 Jul 2018 at 7:40pm

Bucket list board for me. One day.

Geereg's picture
Geereg's picture
Geereg commented Monday, 9 Jul 2018 at 10:27pm

Great read. Thanks

Gg

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet commented Tuesday, 10 Jul 2018 at 8:00am

Here's an interesting fact: the 'Wilderness' flex board Mitchell mentions above is in Morning Of The Earth!

In 2010 I interviewed Chris Brock about some boards he was making, here's an excerpt:

"George Greenough's surfing equipment was so far out, like nothing anyone on the planet had seen, and it took a few years for people to get their head around trying to ride boards that small standing up. His ability to turn and trim from the one point was my inspiration to try and head in that direction. Along with Ted Spencer and Gary and Terry Keyes we started making boards like that at 'Wilderness', Angourie.

"I made my first flex board - which I am riding in Morning of the Earth - and the back third of the board was flexible. It was a big job to construct. I then thought I need to be able to make a hard board that fits the waves contours like the flex tail."

Elliedog's picture
Elliedog's picture
Elliedog commented Tuesday, 10 Jul 2018 at 10:18am

Would love to try one. The idea for larger type surf just seems to make perfect sense. Does the flex mean less breakages?. That would also seem to make sense????. I've had a shitload of boards over the years and the lightweight 4 once glass jobs seem to last longer compared to a heavier glass job as far as snapping them is concerned. In my mind its due to flex compared to rigidness?.

Luba

Lanky Dean's picture
Lanky Dean's picture
Lanky Dean commented Tuesday, 10 Jul 2018 at 1:53pm

Elliedog,
Maybe be too many variables to blame it on the actual fabric i.e. 6 ounce Vs 4 ounce. It opens up the pandora's box of ...
Fabric weave, manufacturer, foam type, foam mix, stringer lay , stringer material, temperature when glassing, sander, storage of board, resins type.

modulus of elasticity............

sanded's picture
sanded's picture
sanded commented Tuesday, 10 Jul 2018 at 5:28pm

Elliedog there is different composites cloths that could blow your mind! The biggest challenge is the get it accepted by 1st the shaper and then the customer!
Shaper - usually says "that's more work" and "that costs more, than my normal imported cheap fibreglass"
Customer - usually says "which pro is riding it?" or "it doesn't look the same as everyone else" or "why is going to cost more"
So the mainstream stays using the same products or whatever is the flavour of the month.

This is why people like Mitch Rae going on their own path are so admired and have done amazing things for surfboard industry.

indo-dreaming's picture
indo-dreaming's picture
indo-dreaming commented Tuesday, 10 Jul 2018 at 5:41pm

Not sure how i missed this, good article, love the look of his boards and ideas, true works of art, always been disappointed he hasn't experimented more with EPS/epoxy composite builds.

Ignore button is ON for Crypto knight

(Really no point entering into any discussion with such a sad bitter abusive old man, so go ahead bait and abuse me all you like)

downtown train's picture
downtown train's picture
downtown train commented Wednesday, 11 Jul 2018 at 3:59pm

As a wise man once said, "if it was easy to do everybody would be doing it".

Mitchell chose his path a long time ago, not the easiest one to tread, but it was honest and he put his heart and soul into it. No-one can ever say Mitchell Rae took short cuts or followed someone else's tracks.

Its been a pleasure to watch him hone his craft all these years and may there be many more to come.

DT

roryshannon's picture
roryshannon's picture
roryshannon commented Wednesday, 11 Jul 2018 at 6:04pm

Great article!
I have a Livewire TJ Pro mal and it flexes quite a bit. It's great flexing of a hard bottom turn to get that "whip" up the wave face. The only issue is that on any wave over 6ft, it will "unflex" on the way up off the bottom. Everything that flexes, at some stage, wants to straighten out again.
Don't know if this is considered "uncontrolled" or "controlled" flex pattern in the board.

Dan OConnor's picture
Dan OConnor's picture
Dan OConnor commented Thursday, 12 Jul 2018 at 12:44am

Great article . Beautifully crafted and finished boards . I've tried a few of outer island flex tails . Noticed how important it was to get the flex right in relation to your back foot weight ratio . For those interested and inspired buy the article . There's others out there playing around with this concept too . I've been inspired by riding Jed done's flex design . It's a good idea, being flexible.

Dan OConnor's picture
Dan OConnor's picture
Dan OConnor commented Thursday, 12 Jul 2018 at 12:50am

Great article . Beautifully crafted and finished boards . I've tried a few of outer island flex tails . Noticed how important it was to get the flex right in relation to your back foot weight ratio . For those interested and inspired buy the article . There's others out there playing around with this concept too . I've been inspired by riding Jed done's flex design . It's a good idea, being flexible.

Adman's picture
Adman's picture
Adman commented Saturday, 14 Jul 2018 at 9:37am

Great insight from a master craftsman. I had been hunting a second hand outer islands V2 for a long time. Not surprisingly they don't get moved on very often by their owners, but anyway I got one not long ago in my shortboard dimensions a 6'3". First surf was in shifty pitching back hand wave and I didn't feel anything out of the normal from the board as was to be expected. Last Thursday was the day, 3-4 ft glass on my forehand. Wow. By the 3rd wave this board was slingshotting me off the bottom like a nothing I had ever ridden before. On a normal poly shortboard I would delay a bottom turn then pump of the bottom to get to where I needed to be, but on this board no push or pump of the bottom was needed. It has sooo much acceleration. My brain was to slow to keep up with where the board was sending me. I was smiling and giggling just in awe. Lots of soul arches and hooting. I didn't get to do any cutbacks as the waves where quick down the line type of waves but I cant wait for that surf. In clean good overhead waves im hooked. Flex is fun.

Dan OConnor's picture
Dan OConnor's picture
Dan OConnor commented Monday, 23 Jul 2018 at 5:57am

I've got a brand new v2 I'd Sell you for half price , $500.
5'10" x 19 . Maybe 30 litre . It's the fish model .