When you’re just starting out surfing, it’s pretty obvious what kind of board you need: A big log of a longboard, ideally with a soft top so you’re less likely to hurt yourself or others. But as you progress and decide to transition to a shortboard, things become far murkier. The wide array of sizes, nose shapes, tail shapes, widths, thicknesses, bottom contours, and fin-box setups make finding the right intermediate surfboard an extremely intimidating process. Believe me, I know.
Despite having surfed for about 15 years now, I haven’t been able to spend as much time in the water as I’d like, and I’m still very much an intermediate surfer at best. I’ve been riding shortboards for over a decade, but most of them were either a bit too big or a bit too small. This winter I moved back to L.A., and I’ve been getting to surf more than I have in years—and yet, I’ve been struggling. I miss waves I feel certain I should’ve caught. So, I decided to see if maybe a new board would finally unlock that next level for me. Guess what? It did.
Here’s the three-step process I devised to help anybody find the right intermediate surfboard.
Step 1: Online Research
Since you’re currently reading this article online, congrats! You’ve officially started Step One. Online research is a great place to start, but it can also be confusing or downright misleading. You may see it suggested that you find a pro surfer who’s about your height and weight, then find out what they’re riding. This is generally useless for an intermediate. First, these pro athletes are probably in way better shape than you are. Second, they’ve likely surfed almost daily since they were tots. Ultimately, it’s probably going to lead you to a board that’s way too small.
In the last decade a lot of talk around surfboard design has been focused around a metric that wasn’t really talked about much before: volume. It’s typically measured in liters, as in how many liters of foam are actually in the board. This is a very good indicator of how much float the board is going to have. Too little, and you’ll struggle to get the board hydroplaning and up to speed. Too much, and you won’t be able to get enough of your rail into the wave to turn properly.
In recent years a lot of the big surfboard brands have added volume calculators to their websites. Typically, you enter your height, weight, and ability level, and the calculator will tell you your ideal volume; many will even recommend specific boards and dimensions for you. This is great, but also potentially confusing. For instance, if I go to the volume calculator at Rusty Surfboards (which is the best one I’ve found), it says my recommended volume is between 37.1 and 38.8 liters. But if I use the volume calculator from Lost… Surfboards, it tells me my max volume is 29 liters. That’s a massive difference! You can also look at calculators from Board Cave, Super Branded, JS Industries, and more.
Each of those calculators gives me a different answer, but there were clues in there. I knew my current board is a 5’8” and came in at 33.6 liters; and I’ve been wanting to get into waves earlier, but if the wave doesn’t have a lot of push, I tend to sink. That to me suggested I probably wanted a bit more volume for greater float and glide. I figured I should skew more toward Rusty’s recommendations. But there are a lot of ways to increase volume. Did that mean I wanted a longer board? Thicker? Wider? It was time for some outside help.
Step 2: Work With a Coach
Taking a simple surf lesson may not seem like the coolest move in the world, especially if you’ve already been surfing for years, but there’s always more to learn. Working with someone who can analyze your every move in the water can be hugely helpful. The key is to find the right teacher. Generally, you want someone who has a lot of experience coaching people who are at or a bit above your ability level. If you’re trying to get better at shortboarding, you probably don’t want to work with someone who mostly teaches first-timers on 10-foot soft-tops. If there are local high school or college teams near you, see if you can find out who coaches them and if you can hire them for a private lesson.
For this story I sought out two teachers. The first was Chris “Stingray” Stiegler at Malibu Surf Coach. I really wanted to work with Chris because he used to run Quiksilver’s Surf School in the Canary Islands, where he taught up-and-coming pros, and would later coach the Malibu and Santa Monica High Schools’ surf teams. Being a local meant he knew the type of waves I’d find myself in most often, too.
I met Stiegler up in Ventura on a day where the waves seemed most promising. He wanted to see me on the board I’ve been riding, but before I even got in the water he said it didn’t look right for me. He said the width and thickness looked good, but he estimated it was five or six inches too short. Seeing me in the water reaffirmed this. He said he could see me struggling to get the board planing, and I needed something that would give me more paddling power. He also noted the shortness of my board makes it far less forgiving as far as weight distribution. He thought what I really needed was two boards: A small-wave board (known as a groveler), and a board made for bigger, more powerful waves (known as a step-up). If I was going for something in between for an “all-around” board, he thought a 6’ 1” or 6’2” hybrid shape would be the way to go.
Because I love making myself crazy with second opinions, I also reached out to a coach closer to my home break. This time, I surfed with Chris Lefevre (are all surf coaches named Chris?) of the Santa Monica-based Surf Academy Collective. Lefevre also coaches local high school surf teams, and he’s just a few miles from my go-to surf spot.
In the middle of our session, Lefevre and I switched boards so he could see me on something else. His was a 6’ 8” step-up made by local shaper Jose Barahona. He immediately saw my paddle speed improve dramatically, and I was able to get into waves earlier, but the length was definitely overkill, and it wasn’t easy for me to turn. He thought something in the 6’ 2” to 6’ 4” range would probably work best for me. He left me with another great piece of advice: Ask your surf buddies for advice. If you have friends you surf with regularly, they’re likely to know what you’re doing right and wrong better than anyone. They may even have a board you can try (free demos!). Unfortunately, most of my LA friends are longboarders, so spending an hour or two with a coach proved to be invaluable to me. With that, it was on to the last step.
3. Talk to a Shaper
Generally speaking, the best thing you can do is find a well-respected local shaper and make an appointment to talk to them. These people will know the waves you surf, and matching the board to the wave is almost as important as matching the board to you. You want to find someone who will really listen to where you are in your evolution, which brings up another important point: Be honest about your abilities! Resist the urge to try to make yourself sound cool. You’re trying to get the right board for you, not impress the shaper (which is generally impossible anyway).
In a perfect world, you would be asking this shaper to make you a custom board. These boards can be tuned to your body, your abilities, and the waves you want to use it in. This doesn’t have to cost you an arm and a leg either. There are some shapers in Los Angeles, who charge as little as $350 for a custom board. That said, they likely have a lot of stock models on the shelves (and maybe even some used boards) if you want something you can walk away with.
I decided to reach out to a master. Dan Mann is a legendary shaper who’s made boards for some of the biggest names in surfing, including some recent sticks for the GOAT himself, Kelly Slater. He makes boards with his own Mannkine branding, but he has a longtime partnership with Firewire Surfboards. I met up with him at the factory in Carlsbad, CA.
“Volume is very important,” Mann told me. “Is it more important than any other element? Probably not. But if you don’t factor it in, then you’ve narrowed your field of view quite a bit.”
To him, it’s all about how the board planes, and while volume is a part of that, the board’s outline (think silhouette) and bottom contours are at least as critical. Using the 6’ 8” I’d just ridden that morning as an example, he said, “I’d argue I could make you something that’s 5′ 6″ and would catch waves even easier, and the volumes would be the same.”
Mann agreed that in a perfect world, a two-board quiver is a great solution. “I did a lot of traveling, and I always had two boards with me,” Mann said. “One was on the grovel side with an overlap into bigger surf, and the other was a good wave board that could also kind of grovel.” He said that covered him for just about everything.
He acknowledged that having two boards is a luxury not everyone can afford. So, if you’re looking for an all-around, day-to-day, one-board quiver, he recommends erring on the side of the groveler because, “You can have so much more fun, paddle so much faster, and get into the waves so much easier…then if you want to tweak it so you get more drive or carve, you can do that by changing up your fins.”
Fins are a whole other conversation. It’s such a broad and confusing category that even a veteran like Mann finds it overwhelming. His advice is to find a local surf shop where the people really know their stuff, and can advise you. Generally, he’d say get a five fin set (as long as your board has five fin boxes). That will give you the most room to play with 2, 3, and 4-fin setups. He said at my size/weight (6’1”, 170 lbs), I’m right on the border between needing medium fins and larges, but considering my skill level he recommended I start with large for additional stability. Better to have to push a bit harder to turn than lose control.
So, what board did he recommend for me? His initial thoughts were one of his two new models: The Dominator II and the Twice Baked Potato. The Dominator is a hybrid shape with some grovel tendencies, somewhat similar to the board I’d been riding, but with the volume shifted back toward the hips, which should make catching waves a whole lot easier. The Twice Baked Potato is a pure groveler, a round nugget of a board that’s ridden short (he’d actually recommend a 5’7” for me) and is designed to be a wave-catching machine.
In a vacuum, that’s the board he would have picked for me, but here’s where talking to a shaper who understands what you want to do is so important. In talking to Mann, he understood my goals were to get barreled, and into some deeper carving turns, so he thought the Dominator II was the way to go because it’s longer for those more drawn-out turns, but narrower so it’ll fit in the pocket of a barrel better, and it should still have great paddle power and be fairly forgiving. I was lucky that they had a 6’ 2” on-hand, and I drove off to see if all this research was actually going to pay off.
I took the Dominator II out the next day. Coming in at 37.8 liters of volume, it basically had one gallon more foam than my old board, and I felt the difference right away. I wiped out on the first couple waves as I figured out where the balance point is, then suddenly it clicked. I could get into a wave so much earlier, and suddenly I had enough float to get me over flat sections.
I’ve been using the Garmin Fenix 6 watch to track my surfs for a while now and, amazingly, starting with my first day on the board, my daily wave count instantly doubled. Because I’m catching so many more waves and spending more time on my feet, it’s like my progression has shifted to the next gear, and I’m able to work on my turns in a way I haven’t been able to before.
Since I’ve had it there have been days with small, wimpy waves where the pure groveler would have been nice, but there have also been bigger days where I made steep drops I had no business making. The phrase “game changer” gets thrown around a lot, but that really is what this board has been for me. It has me more excited to paddle out than I’ve been in years, because I’m having such a blast every time.
Ultimately, finding the right surfboard for you is tricky. In fact, the whole concept of the “right” surfboard is subject to change every day, depending on what the ocean is doing. It’s possible, though, through research and asking the right people the right questions, to find a board that’ll be right for you most of the time. Hopefully these tips will help you find it, and get you to that next level.
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