Free Flights To America
Free Flights To America
More than any other surfboard design, the channel bottom has suffered from misconceptions. From who invented them to how they ride, they’ve been the victim of myths that just won’t quit.
Another myth about channel bottoms - and the reason I’m typing this and you’re reading it - is that they’re a wave-specific design. History and visuals play a big part in this belief. The aesthetic appeal of those stacked parallel edges insinuating the fastest way from point A to B is the straight line.
Then when dropped into the underside of spear-like shooters from Al Byrne and Murray Bourton they just made so much sense. I name those two shapers as, to the wider surf community, the region most closely associated with channel bottoms is the Gold Coast with its concentration of grinding, down the line, point waves.
Under the feet of Kong and Rabbit, AB also made an incursion into Hawaii. His streamlined six channels provided exceptional handling for the speed of Sunset and Pipe.
But hang on, let’s just slow the conversation down for a moment. We’re racing ahead and glossing over a few inconvenient truths about channel bottom history.
You see, Col Smith, the surfer whose name is forever associated with channel bottoms and who had the most competitive success on them, came from a bog standard Oz East Coast beachbreak. Sorry Redhead surfers, I’m sure your local turns on occasionally but there’s a reason we don’t hear more about the little town south of Newcastle.
Even if we’re to take in the wider Redhead region, including Newcastle, it doesn’t account for how a design that suggests unlimited speed took root at a place that more often provides join-the-dot beachbreaks. With the odd inconsistent reef, I’ll grant you that, but they aren’t the prevailing flavour of that coastline.
Same goes with other channel pioneers, Phil Fraser on Sydney’s northern beaches and Mike Davis in Kiama, each area without a consistent offering of what we consider classic channel bottom waves.
I know what most of you are thinking and I’ll give voice to it right now: Yes, channels prefer speed, power, and waves with 'bottom tension', yet they’re not as one-dimensional as many would make out; they can work in waves without those qualities.
There’s also another point to make about the feelings channel bottoms imbue in the rider, but that’s something I’ll circle back to shortly. The reason for gathering you around wasn't merely to mythbust but to discuss the coming arrangement that will see channel bottoms of the classic kind - not belly channels, not soft versions out the tail, but six of the best starting amidships and exiting aft - being produced in America.
Whether it was because of national pride or the character of Californian waves, channels received short shrift stateside when they rose to prominence in the late-70s. At the time, Australian surfing had ideas and enthusiasm, and a lot of success whether it be on the burgeoning pro tour, the corporate boardroom, or what was coming out of our shaping bays.
There was a certain level of indignance, especially from older American surfers, that they were being overtaken by upstarts from Down Under in a sport they’d founded - at least the modern version of it. An argument could be mounted that this, at least in part, was why US shapers largely ignored channel bottoms and thus they remained the province of Australian shapers.
In time, most Australian shapers would call a day on the design. Design evolutions, first the Thruster, then the Reverse Vee, then the big one, the popularity of concaves beginning in the 90’s, was the death knell for channel bottoms - almost.
There may have been other shapers*, but Phil Myers is noteworthy for continuing with channels when others didn't. Asked why he didn’t acknowledge evolving designs and move with the times, Phil’s reply is straightforward: “I’m pig-headed, mate. When I believe in something I just keep going.”
Truth is Phil did bend, ever so slightly, to the prevailing fashion, doing less of the deep channels and dropping his vent system into whatever the preferred bottom curve of the day was. Phil's vision of water flowing over fibreglass always incorporates edges and he didn’t care if everyone gave up on that idea. “I’d sooner walk away from it then stop doing it,” says Phil.
The 90’s were dark years for channel bottoms. Even Occy riding a 6’5” six-channel Dahlberg at the 1997 Bells Skins event, doing the best surfing many had witnessed, and arguably the best surfing ever done on a channel bottom, somehow failed to move the needle against the single to double paradigm.
Phil almost did walk away. Left Brothers Nielsen, where he’d been shaping for Barton Lynch, started shaping for Lennox Underground, a label name that befits where he saw himself in the surfing world. Yet, somehow, the surfing world came calling again. Channels came back into vogue. Perhaps it was Mick Fanning’s win at J’Bay on a four-channel DHD, or perhaps it was younger surfers wanting a new feeling, or maybe senior surfers rediscovering an old one? Phil even thinks that maybe it restarted when he shaped a board for Rique Smith - Col Smith’s son - and the interest from that spread.
Whatever the case, Phil Myers’ Free Flight channel bottoms once again became sought after machinery, part of a wider rebirth of the channel bottom that now takes in the modern mid-length twin. However, it’s still mostly an Australian design. They’re just not that common elsewhere.
Christian Beamish calls himself Pan-Californian. Raised in Newport Beach, he moved north to Santa Cruz for college, shifted south to San Clemente where he worked for The Surfer’s Journal and built a boat - wrote a book about it too - and now lives with his wife in Ventura. However, it’s the first location, Newport Beach, that’s pertinent to our story.
As a grommet, Christian called 54th Street at Newport Beach his local. 54th Street embraced Australian surfing’s ideas and enthusiasm more than any other part of America. While the 'white board, black wetsuit' mentality endured in San Diego and environs north, the uniform of Newport Beach surfers was polka dots and jockey panels. Quiksilver HQ was just up the road, establishing a forward base of cultural export. Not just fashion, but attitude and board designs too.
“There was a shaper from up the coast named Mike Lytle,” explains Christian, “and he had this six-channel, and you have to understand that was not a common design, so for me it was like seeing a spaceship. I was blown away.”
Newport Beach in the early-80s was a place where it wasn’t uncommon to see McCoy Lazer Zaps in the lineup, plus local labels incorporating progressive designs and sprays. If anywhere was going to accept the avantgarde of channels then this was it.
It also helped that the waves were conducive to the design. “There are jetties [rock groynes] every 500 yards that are built to stop beach erosion,” explains Christian, “so sand would stack up against them and you’d get these wedging, punchy waves.” The dumped rocks reflected energy into focussed wedges offering rare bottom tension for Southern California.
Christian’s formative years in Newport Beach left an impression on him, as did the channel bottoms he saw there. Being a shaper himself - plus a writer and a boat-builder, he’s an industrious fella - Christian incorporated channels into some of his designs, and using Instagram he started contacting Phil for info.
It’s here where a story that spans decades concertinas down to weeks. Following occasional online banter, Phil recalls Christian telling him he may come to Australia. “I said OK,” laughs Phil thinking it was a throwaway line, “and then he said he’s coming next week!”
Before readers interpret Christian as a clingy fan boi, it should be noted Christian’s wife had business here anyway and he made time for a side-trip up to Lennox and Byron. Nevertheless, things progressed fast; from faceless texting across the world they were now face to face discussing design, which led to discussing business.
“I asked him if he wanted to do anything like this in America,” says Phil as the two were checking Phil’s boards in Heart Of Glass, Byron Bay, “and he was keen. It wasn’t planned, it just arose from talking.” They shook on the deal, signed it off with a beer.
In recent years, Phil’s boards had been attracting attention in America and a distribution deal was in place till COVID kicked it to the kerb. The deal with Christian isn’t distribution but rather involves licensing of Free Flight Col Smith Design channel bottoms.
“Christian surfs really well and he knows how to shape,” says Phil. “He’s got the files and he can customise them after talking to people - that’s always better to do face to face.” The boards will be cut by machine with Christian hand-shaping the channels.
Beyond the Newport jetties, Christian can imagine them working well in the canyon-assisted punch of Black’s Beach in San Diego, the down the line speed of Rincon, and a number of Central Cali reefs that he’s loathe to name publicly.
However, it’s into a world removed from 80’s Newport Beach that Christian’s Free Flight’s will be created. Surfers, irrespective of nationality, embrace different design ideas and the sensations they provide. In a recent Stab interview Kelly Slater said of his ever-evolving notion of design:
“I like to try so many different boards…I might go down a road that maybe doesn’t look the best, but it feels a certain way, and it keeps my ideas fresh.”
Older surfers don’t need 11 world titles to understand the wisdom in that statement. Even a hoary old walrus can stay connected to surfing as long as the feelings stay fresh. Might be the sideways slip of an alaia, might be the clean release of a six-channel singley for a lifelong Thruster devotee. New feelings keep us fresh.
Christian’s far from the first American to shape channels, however he is aware that with the Free Flight label and more so the Col Smith connection he’s availing himself of a much-loved aspect of Aussie surf culture: the classic channel bottom and the bloke who rode them to acclaim.
“You guys really are the lucky country,” says Christian. “There are so many elements that made this design the way it is and I’m looking forward to doing them.”
// STU NETTLE
*Rodney Dahlberg for one.