It’s been said that the universe was born from spontaneous symmetry breaking. “Only some living things have the pleasure of a sex, whereas everything in the world, whether animate or inanimate, is provided with a direction,” writes the French philosopher Michel Serres. “Things lean to one side: force fields, boreal auroras, twisting turbulences, cyclones, spots on the planet Jupiter…”
In a sport where balance is of the essence, is the idea of an asymmetrical surfboard, designed to counteract or balance out the universe’s inherent asymmetry, really such a strange one? Not according to media darling Ryan Burch (an actual darling too! Read the interview here) and a growing cadre of fashionable surfers and shapers dedicated to the asymmetrical cause.
But how do these boards actually work? And might there be a gaping, asymmetrical black hole at the heart of your quiver?
One rail at a time
It’s one of the small mercies granted by the laws of the aforementioned universe that no matter how shit your surfboard, and no matter how shit you are at surfing it, it’s impossible to bog both rails at the same time. You simply can’t do it – not even if your shaper has inadvertently hotboxed the shed and, high on a combination of ganja, sawdust, and resin fumes, made you a surfboard of the unintentionally asymmetrical variety.
The same principle applies to the surfboard that’s asymmetrical by design. A surfboard generally traverses a sloped surface, and so one rail is almost always “engaged” at any given moment – but only ever one rail at a time. Perhaps this is obvious or intuitive but it’s a thought I had never properly registered until recently, and one that’s worth bearing in mind when grappling with asymmetry.
You might assume that an asymmetrical surfboard would veer naturally right or left like an old skateboard or a car with knackered steering, and that its rider would be forced to compensate. In fact the most notable thing about stepping on an asymmetrical board is just how normal it feels. This is precisely because of the oblique or one-sided fashion in which a surfboard moves across a wave.
When I first had a go on one, I took my failure to perceive anything radically different about it as merely another sign of my own incompetence. But it turned out I was not alone. I spoke to Dane Reynolds, who had recently ridden an asymm shaped by Travis Reynolds (no relation), and who said it felt “just like a normal board” – so normal that “if [I] were blindfolded I wouldn’t have thought it was anything bizarre”.
It’s in the transition between turns that the asymm justifies its existence and achieves a more tangible effect. If the rails are of different lengths and shapes, and only one of them is active at a time, then in a sense you’re surfing two different surfboards in one – or rather, one surfboard when you turn in one direction, and a subtly different surfboard when you turn in the other.
“The entire approach is geared toward helping you surf the way that you stand,” I was told by the South African shaper Donald Brink, whose highly rated, stance-specific asymmetrical designs are intended to go forehand and backhand equally well. And how do you stand? Surfers don’t confront the challenges thrown up by the universe head-on, but side-on.
Even head-on, the human body is not quite as symmetrical we like to imagine (tits, testicles, ticker, etc., not to mention right- and left-handedness). But side-on the asymmetry is of an altogether different order. Consider the human foot, with the centre-line of the stinger dissecting the foot’s arch. Clearly the toe side is not a mirror image of the heel side.
When you lean on your toes, the foot acts as a kind of lever for the weight of the body, whereas the heel has no such leverage. The leverage not only makes it easier to exert pressure on the toe-side than on the heel-side, but allows that pressure to be exerted with greater control. Stand on your toes and then try standing on your heels for a rudimentary demonstration of this fact.
Two types of turn
All turns can thus be grouped into one of two categories: toe-side and heel-side. As Swellnet’s Stu Nettle puts it, “it takes completely different body mechanics to perform a heel side turn as it does a toe side turn”.
Brink’s stance-oriented approach is typical of most shapers making asymms today. Carl Ekstrom, when he pioneered the asymmetrical surfboard in the ‘60s, was simply trying to match board to body, mindful of the latter’s asymmetry. Ryan Burch, whose thrillingly offbeat lines at G-Land several years ago were many surfers’ first introduction to asymmetrical surfboard design, has likewise said his boards go both ways; it’s the stance, not the wave, that dictates the board’s asymmetry.
The Scottish shaper Jason Burnett, who makes beautiful resin-tint asymmetricals under the name Jay Surfboards, believes asymmetry can “enhance both backhand and forehand surfing” at the same time. “Having a straighter rail on your toes gives a faster ride, and a curved rail on your heel side provides better heel control.” Whether the surfer in question is going forehand or backhand doesn’t come into it.
That’s the standard outline: a longer, straighter rail on the toe-side, equating to a square or swallow tail, and a shorter, truncated, round tail on the heel side. Thus, in theory, a regularfoot would order a board with a straighter rail on his right-hand side and a curvier one on his left-hand side, and surf it in whichever direction he pleased – right at Rincon, left at G-land, or left and right on the same peak in the same session, it wouldn’t matter.
Two more types of turn
But that isn’t quite the whole story, for there are two other categories of turn: top turns and bottom turns. Waves, and the way we surf them, are not symmetrical either. The timing, the balance, the shift of weight required at the bottom of a wave is subtly different to what’s required at the top.
“I kinda get the stance thing – you know, toes vs. heels and leverage etc.,” said the Australian shaper Chris Garrett, “but my thoughts were purely about adapting a board to suit the wave, regardless of stance.” He started making asymmetrical boards specifically to surf Gnaraloo, a fast, down-the-line left-hander in Western Australia where speed and drive off the bottom are essential. A longer rail outline provided the speed and drive, but inhibited tight turns in the pocket. A longer inside rail paired with a shorter outside rail, he found, fit into the wave much better.
“You can draw long lines and get a lot of speed out of the bottom turns but it also comes around so quick off the top,” said Ryan Burch about an asymm he surfed at Mundaka several years ago. It accentuates, that is, the transfer of energy in a good bottom-turn-top-turn combination: energy is loaded up through the coiled bottom turn and released through the top turn.
But wouldn’t a regularfoot at Mundaka want that same ability to draw long lines off the bottom yet come round quickly off the top? And wouldn’t his ability to do so be compromised by a stance-specific asymmetrical, with a longer rail on the toe side?
So far as I’m aware, the only surfer to have experimented with asymmetrical craft on the world tour is Josh Kerr, and like Garrett he took a wave-specific rather than a stance-specific approach. Kerr came equipped with a whole quiver of asymmetricals to the contest at Teahupoo a few years ago, all of them with a slightly longer inside rail – the heel-side rail for Kerr, in direct contradiction of the stance-specific school of thought.
The inside rail was not only longer but also “a bit lower than the right side so it would bite harder on the bottom turn edge,” he told Surfer, explaining that “sometimes you can lose the tail off the bottom” in backhand barrels. He also mentioned, echoing both Burch and Garrett, that he really liked “the feeling of the way this board drives off the bottom and releases off the top with the shorter toe-side rail”.
In other words, depending on whether a surfer is going forehand or backhand, the stance-specific approach and wave-specific approach either reinforce or butt up against one and other, possibly even cancelling one and other out.
But even if an asymm does have a “right” and a “wrong” way, it’s not like it simply “won’t work” going the “wrong” way. “My asymms still go both left and right,” said Garrett, “but they have a ‘bias’ for a particular wave or direction. The thing I’ve discovered about asymms is that they all work and your body adapts to the difference in the board’s performance characteristics.”
Fins, rocker, concave
Once you start tinkering with the outline, you then have to think about adapting the rest of the board. The wide point, or points, may be staggered, the fins almost certainly will be, and even the rocker and concaves may vary either side of the stringer.
Probably the most common asymmetrical fin set-up features one fin on the toe-side, like a twin-fin, and two on the heel-side, like a quad (see the Jay Surfboards photos, below). Such a set-up is typical of a stance-specific board, and has the advantage of incorporating the forehand feel of a twinny while avoiding the awkward backhand feel that people so often complain about.
Brink’s fin set-ups are more idiosyncratic, and vary from model to model. Most wave-specific asymms seem to sport a staggered quad set-up, with the leading and trailing fins the same distance from the tail on their respective sides. As Garrett said, “there are no rules as to where or what kind of things should work”.
The theory of asymmetrical rockers and concave is even more nebulous. Brink spoke to me about a “twisted rocker” on one of his boards, which helps it “fit into turns and wave shapes”. I assumed that this meant there would be more rocker on the heel side and less on the toe side. “That twist orientation is correct for the aft section but spirals into a reverse balance forward,” he said. “It’s usually better simply saying it’s twisted than isolating one part of the craft’s curve. Too much info. Ha ha.”
In other words it’s complicated as fuck. Or, as Brink puts it, in a typically awkward yet striking turn of phrase, asymmetry is “a beautiful can of worms”.
Some asymmetricals are intended for larger waves, some for smaller waves, but people tend to assume that asymms only really come into their own – only really make sense – in solid, reeling point or reef breaks. No doubt the success of Burch’s G-Land clip has had something to do with this. (Burch’s boards, incidentally, are apparently very difficult to ride.)
But arguably the small-wave asymm is just as fit for purpose, if not more so. “Grovel-type boards lend themselves to more changes and benefit more from the design tweaks,” said Brink. “Picture a challenging small-wave canvas where flatter rockers and wider outlines thrive. Now imagine how frustrations on the heel side in particular can be avoided without losing the wide tail block and overall flow of the groveller. That’s a good choice when it’s weak, small and difficult to begin with.”
BeachGrit’s Longtom recently wrote entertainingly about a small-wave asymm by Insane, and made a similar point. “Unless your name is Ryan Burch or Bryce Young [see 00:45 above], experimenting with asymmetricals in good waves is too risky. Choose a more reliable dance partner.” It’s a conservative approach, but perhaps a sensible one if you don’t have regular access to really good waves, as most of us don’t.
He found that his short and stubby asymmetrical injected life and energy and excitement into sloppy surf he would otherwise have turned his nose up at: “Loose, unpredictable, slippery, light headed, unreliable, hyper-reactive. Dangerous fun. Like teenage sex.” Surfing the right-hand points of northern New South Wales, he would have been predominantly on his backhand, too.
He was wrong, though, to describe the board as a “gender fluid little small wave toy.” The analogy of gender fluidity is tempting but ultimately inaccurate.
It’s the conventional symmetrical surfboard that attempts to have it both ways; it doesn’t recognise the difference between lefts and rights, nor between regularfoots and goofyfoots. It is all things to all men (and women).
The asymmetrical surfboard, on the other hand, has made up its mind, one way or another; it understands that all things lean to one side. Its oblique approach is less versatile, but perhaps ultimately more refined.