The Mid-Lengths That Ate Surfing
Have we just passed a milestone in surfing without really noticing? Passed a threshold that might only appear significant in retrospect?
I'm talking about the almost complete domination of the surfboard market by the mid-length.
It seems worth our while to take a moment to survey the scene.
My first inkling that we might have reached a boiling frog moment was when my brother texted me raving about the Lost Track Atlantic films - a series of cinematic explorations that function as the ultimate endorsement of the mid-length, particularly the mid-length twin. I'd been a bit blasé because I'd seen it happening day by day at my local. Watching Torren do his thing at the point had become totally commonplace. I didn't realise the impact it would have in the wider world.
Simon Jones, the shaper of Torren's twins and a man who might lay claim to being the hottest shaper on Earth right now, has such a backlog he's shut off orders for the year. Remember when Asian popouts were going to kill the custom shaper? Now the custom shapers are so busy building boards that have nothing to do with the professional tour or competitive surfing they are turning away business.
Luckily, the big boys are stepping up to fill the void. JS has a mid-length twin on the books, Pyzel has the Mid-Length Crisis, while over at Santa Barbara the CI Mid is, according to my intelligence deep within the surfboard industry, their biggest selling surfboard. Ponder that for a second: A company with performance DNA encoded into every facet of their existence is now selling more mid-lengths than any other board.
Julian Wilson - remember him? - our last true title contender just dropped a clip riding a Big Baron, the JS mid-length twin. Other sponsored pros getting in on the act: the Guduaskas Brothers in California, Craig Anderson in Australia, are all giving the audience a soft shoe shuffle to easy listening music on the mid-length. You could make an argument that the influence of Mikey February is far greater on his twin pins off the tour than riding high performance boards on it.
Something is happening here Mr Jones, and we don't know what it is.
The origin of the mid-length is murky. No doubt it's an artifact of the Shortboard Revolution; a remnant of a rapid transitional stage that was raced through and largely abandoned as board length dropped from 10 foot to 5 foot-something. George Greenough shaped a 6 foot shortboard in high school that was basically a shrunken longboard. His next effort, a 7'8” balsa board named 'Baby', built in 1962, was much more sophisticated. With the pulled in nose and modern mid-length template it would not look out of place in a current line-up.
These proto-typical shortboard concepts were picked up by Greenough proteges: Mike Cundith in California, working out of the Santa Barbara Wilderness factory, and Bob McTavish who roamed both edges of the Pacific. Bob McTavish's 7'10” Rincon Tracker, built in January 1968 in Ventura, with a pulled nose and tail, but sufficient planing area to distinguish it from Brewer mini-guns, remains the prime template and high point in mid-length evolutionary advancement before boards quickly shrunk to below 6 foot. Wayne Lynch's board designs in conjunction with South Australian builder John Arnold and featured in Paul Witzig's trilogy: Sea of Joy, Evolution, and Hot Generation were seen as state of the art and facilitated the modern turning style of surfing.
Fast forward a few decades and it's McTavish who deserves the credit for rescuing the mid-length from it's fossilised position, buried beneath decades of ultra-commercialised pro surf led culture. In a 2000 article for The Surfers Journal, McTavish describes “kicking over the traces” of the shortboard era and discovering the paddle power, manouvreability, and flat out trim of the 7'0” to 7'6” length boards. With modern rail profiles and bottom contours the results were revelatory to the ageing legend.
One man who has ploughed this field since his own foray into the pro surfing world and has refined a range of designs in that genre is Neal Purchase Jnr. He sees some of the interest from the big name manufacturers as bandwagon jumping: “They see a market and they want a piece of it”, he tells me. “It's a bit stinky”.
The phenomenon has multiple causes, no doubt. Purcho identifies the changing, ageing demographic of surfers. “Guys in the 90's have hung onto shortboards as long as they can”, he says, yet board with flatter rockers and more length, “paddle better and run better”. People catch more waves, have more fun. That equation is incredibly simple.
The explosion of new surfers brought on by new work from home requirements catalysed by the COVID 19 pandemic has been a huge factor. People with more flexibility, more time, and who are unable to do the things they might have otherwise done have turned to surfing in unprecedented numbers. Absolute beginners, or close to it, can get on a mid-length and cut the green face. More experienced surfers feel that to compete in the arms race they need the paddle power of a mid-length. The genre also suits surfers coming back from injury, or other lay-offs.
A less tangible factor, I believe, is that the mid-length is completely outside of any competitive architecture. The Woz 'owns' longboarding, it also owns the Big Wave Tour, as well as the multiple levels of the shortboard tour on a global scale.
There is no Mid-Length Tour, nor is there any likelihood of one. Zero chance of Torren's surfing being boxed up and a number put on it.
Lost Track Atlantic's last instalment was dropped around the same time as the Woz ran a longboard comp at Kelly's tub. Watching judges trying to throw scores at logs riding machine-made waves was one of the most surreal, soul-numbing spectacles imaginable. The contrast between that and Torren's free-wheeling searching and surfing was intense. Vast.
Speculating that mid-length surfing is a kind of backlash against the Wozzle's corporate control of surfing might be an over-reach, but it doesn't seem so crazy to admit the cultural dominance of one over the other.
Remember the breathless claims made by Woz CEO Erik Logan that the Olympics were going to bring on a boom in competitive surfing and that visibility would enable up and coming CT surfers to ride a wave of outside sponsorship?
You probably weren't watching the Challenger Series event in Portugal, held at a long chubby right-hander that looks like Bells on a bad day, but I did. It was a slog but I wanted to keep tabs on the Australian aspirants. They did pretty good. One young fellow by the name of Callum Robson is on the cusp of qualifying for the CT next year and you've never heard of him.
I barely had either, and despite the fact he lives 45 minutes down the road from me, I've never seen him surf.
Torren Martyn is a global surf star. Yet as for Callum Robson, a guy on the cusp of the big leagues, his local boardriders club, Half-Tide Boardriders, are selling raffle tickets and running a GoFundMe page to help him get to the next comp.
The disconnect between where the bulk of the recreational surfer mindset is at and competitive surfing seems at an all-time high to me. At least if we follow the money.
The money, the films, the board sales from mainstream board builders. The waiting lists for the custom builders who specialise in the design.
Are mid-lengths a symptom or a cause? A crutch for a culture grown old and decrepit? A rebellion against corporate control? An easier way to have fun in the sun? A sign of Dave Parmenters's predicted kookocracy finally ascending to the centre of the frame, at least by weight of numbers?
I say: All of the above.
How do you see it..?
// STEVE SHEARER