Saturday with Skip: 1984 McCoy Tri Zap
Not all surf sessions serve the same purpose. Sometimes we surf with the explicit goal of improving performance, sometimes to escape work or domestic drudgery, and sometimes – perhaps the vast majority of times - we surf simply because it's a habit. My motivation to surf this afternoon wasn't driven by any of the above impulses but rather by curiousity. I had a few old boards sitting in the shed that I hadn't ridden yet.
So into the back of the wagon I threw a 6'4” four channel Nirvana thruster ('86 vintage or thereabouts), an '84 McCoy Tri Zap, and a Webber Insight thruster circa '93 (approximately).
With a mid-range south swell and south winds the first stop was Sandon Point, but low tide and a hefty Saturday crowd meant there'd be minimal return on investment. In those conditions each wave becomes too valuable for anything less than proven craft; a bogged rail takes on greater significance if you've been waiting 30 minutes for the wave. Two headlands south a righthander was breaking off the rocks running gentle and open-faced to the inside bank where it squared up and closed out. A crowd of two made the decision easy.
The decision to ride the McCoy was similarly easy; the Webber didn't have enough volume for the sloping faces, the Nirvana too much for the attendant surface chop. The McCoy had sat untouched in the shed for years anyway, it needed to be ridden.
It was the first vintage board I bought off eBay and resulted from what's since become a familiar pattern; a Saturday night drinking red wine, doing the rounds on the 'net, the odd bid on eBay, and a surprise email on Sunday morning – congratulations you've won!
It often takes a while to recall what exactly I'd bid on, and even worse, what price I'd paid. Fortunately this one was cheap, my winning bid was just $120 for a 1984 McCoy Tri Zap. When I picked it up from North Bondi the seller clearly expected more for the board. At the time I felt bad for winning but I've since come to view eBay as a gamble; a seller who gets paid above market value feels no guilt so why should a buyer who receives something for less?
In any case, I was the one who felt duped when I took a look at the board. Yeah it was a McCoy, but it wasn't shaped by Geoff, instead the message on the stringer was 'Skip for Rod '84'. Skip was Skip Lindfeld, McCoy's California shaper when the label took off during the Echo Beach boom of the early 80s.
In 1980 mainland US was coming out of the surfing wilderness. For ten years they'd been disillusioned by the collapse of the Southern California dream, then the community was aggravated by intense localism. American surfing had turned inward and paranoid, black wetsuits were the new black. Yet at the turn of the 80s the heartbeat was returning, in Newport Beach surfers wore bold print Quiksilver boardies, and surfers such as Danny Kwock and Jeff Parker rode McCoy's with polka dots and check print sprays - the antithesis of California 'soul'.
Although his boards evoked beach party playfulness, Geoff McCoy was a strange bedfellow for the Echo Beach crew. In 1984, the same year this board was built, Geoff McCoy was interviewed in Tracks magazine. “I was driving in my car thinking about surfboards and it hit me what they really are.” Said McCoy delving into the realm of metaphysics. “I couldn't drive any more and had to pull over to the side of the road.”
That kind of personal investment in surfboards, where design becomes a proxy for a spiritual quest, meant that Geoff McCoy's designs were always taken seriously – very seriously.
History lesson over, Skip Lindfeld and not Geoff McCoy shaped the board I bought. I hadn't thought to ask before bidding and I walked away feeling a sucker. Perhaps that's why I didn't ride the board straight away, it went into the shed and slowly worked it's way to the back of the rack.
This afternoon I pulled it from the back of the wagon and applied the first coat of wax it'd had in years. I walked down the headland and slipped out in the current pushing against the rocks.
Although only 5'7” long it has more volume than most modern shortboards, but rather than spread across the width the volume is compressed into the thickness. The dimensions aren't written on it but the board feels 3 inches thick, and it retains that thickness all the way to the nose which ends with a classic bird's beak. The wide point is two thirds of the way to the tail and tapers all the way to the once-revolutionary McCoy no nose. “Put all the width in the tail,” Geoff said. “That's where you turn from.”
The arrangement makes for a top heavy feeling when paddling. Because of the volume the board sits high in the water but has less width to stabilise it. A similar feeling is present when paddling into waves, but it's only partly to do with how high the board sits in the water. Of equal influence are the fins.
In 1983 Geoff McCoy could ignore the prevailing wisdom no more. He'd persisted with Cheyne and his single fins ever since Simon unveiled the Thruster. For two years they'd presented counter arguments in the broadsheets augmented by Cheyne's out-of-the-box surfing displays, but it wasn't enough. The world was going to three fins and he was a businessman. He'd never relent though, if Geoff McCoy was gonna whack three fins on a board then he'd include a bit of his own spin. Hence the Tri Zap with three fins clustered wide around the bulbous tail block, and the side fins sanded down to about ¾ the usual fin base and area.
The reduced fin area is most keenly felt when turning the Tri Zap, 'cause despite having side fins it replicates the Lazor Zap's habit of pivoting without projecting. It's a feeling that's utterly absent in the modern shortboard with their ever-present lift and drive. And while it isn't a feeling I'd seek in a surfboard this session wasn't about that.
I'd always wondered why Cheyne Horan never rode thrusters. Perhaps part of it might have felt like capitulation – no surfer nailed his individual colours to the mast quite like Cheyne did – but perhaps part of it was performance too.
The Tri Zap felt great when it was tight in the pocket, it rode best when pivoted in the steepest part of the wave, when every jam results in another downhill burst of speed. However, it had to be held back when the wave started to flatten out 'cause losing speed through a turn was the board's fatal flaw.
It demands a certain kind of surfing. No doubt part of it was imagination but the posture and movement I'd adopted to handle the board felt like Cheyne: the knees bent slightly more than average, the wiggle off the back foot. At the same time it's not ridiculous at all; just as every person who rides a finless board assumes a crouched position similar to Derek Hynd in Musica Surfica, so must everyone who rides a Zap bear some resemblance with Cheyne. Particular craft demand particular responses.
There's very little similarity between the 1984 Tri Zap and the modern high performance shortboard. Most of the things that Geoff McCoy staked his reputation on – no nose, wide tails, increased thickness - have been refuted, but that's not to discount their value in surfing's historical timeline. We stand on the shoulders of giants and all that.
It's one thing to understand that information, to academically compute it, but it's another to physically feel it. And it's an experience worth much more than $120.