Green Surfing: Surf Schools and the “Shock of the New”

City Beach Groyne, Photo by Jase Riseborough, Australia, www.surf-forecast.com
City Beach Groyne, Photo by Jase Riseborough, Australia, http://www.surf-forecast.com

Green Surfing: Surf Schools and the “Shock of the New”

by Philip Scott Wikel (Originally published in 2004 but still quite relevant)

We are young despite the years,

we are concerned,

we are hope despite the times.

— From “These Days” on the Lifes Rich Pageant Album by R.E.M.

Surfing is one of the greatest contradictions unto itself one might ever attempt to embrace. In our quest to commune with nature and purify ourselves of all that we find negative and otherwise distressing about the world, we strap on watercraft and don wetsuits made of some of the most toxic chemicals ever produced. Never mind the wax. Where is the final redemption in this? Is it enough that we feel more clear, generally better and more focused after we surf and are able to re-enter the world in “the right space” and therefore raise the positive vibration of the collective? Or is it that it just doesn’t matter anymore and we might as well have a good time and make money while we can still breathe and the water is still at “acceptable levels” of toxicity that we might justify paddling out? Is it time to send in the clowns?

Like them or not surf schools, especially those with comprehensive camps, might be the most powerful means to turn the current tide of things and move away from the contradiction. Those running the camps say that all of the folks they work with would have otherwise found their way into the sport. This I think is debatable and nearly impossible to verify. I agree that the more people who experience the joy of surfing the better. I’d even go so far as to say if the Middle East had consistently good surf there would likely be fewer problems there. But, at the same time, we are, as a tribe, responsible for fueling the destruction of the earth at a disproportionate level when compared with many other sports or past-times. (A quiver of surfboards and a collection of wetsuits to cover the seasons represent a far larger impact on the environment than a skateboard, a pair of rollerblades, or a soccer ball).

If you’re willing to accept that surf schools are the door through which most new surfers are finding their way into the water, then you might say that surf schools like Chip Bell’s Surfclass are the best case scenario in terms of providing an education in the full scope of the surfing experience. What Chip and his instructors do might have the power to help us pay down our environmental deficit. Since Chip’s regular job is the position of receptionist at Patagonia’s corporate office, the core of their teaching is derived from the core values of the Patagonia clothing enterprise; innovation, reduction of waste, environmental stewardship (which includes a voluntary payment of an earth tax equal to 1% of sales), and quality. Chip feels it’s most important to teach his students “to take care of what they love.” His camps cover things like tidal fluctuations, beach conditions, weather patterns, surf culture, what it means to be a true waterman, and most importantly that the simple act of picking up a piece of trash has great power. Chip’s Surfclass had 400 students this past summer, 75% of which were beginners. And being that they’re, not what Chip calls a “stand up, pay up” school, a large number of well-versed surfers entered the lineup. Parents please choose well and find a school similar to Surfclass.

With the education of new surfers resting safely in the hands of a dignified surf school, the rest of us might look at what we can do as concerned veterans to add a little, and maybe even a lot, of green to our surfing experience. Point Blanks Surfboards, begun by Yvon and Fletcher Chouinard and based in Ventura, California has for more than five years been producing surfboards that are stronger and a great deal less harmful to the environment. Stronger means they last longer and are not quite as disposable as other surfboards. They use Western Red Cedar stringers which are 67% stronger than commonly used basswood, extruded polystyrene foam which absorbs 73% less water than the standard polyurethane blank, two layers of the highest quality fiberglass on both sides of the board which offers “a balanced lay-up to create a strong I-beam in conjunction with the stringer” and epoxy resin that is 300% stronger in withstanding dings than standard resins. This EPS foam has fewer Volatile Organic Compounds so it’s “safer for shapers to use and less toxic to the planet.” Their fiberglass is devoid of chrome and doesn’t go through the washing and drying process of regular cloth and therefore has less impact on the environment. Epoxy resin has 75% fewer volatile organic compounds and two thirds fewer VOC’s find their way into the atmosphere than in the use of polyester resin. And according to an article in Longboard Magazine (V.9 #7) the average surfboard shaper using standard technology wastes over five times as much materials compared to one using epoxy technology. Point Blanks’ ambassador Brent Flaaten says, “My boards kick ass, they’re light and flexible… Fletcher is a god. He’s so far ahead of the game and no one gives him the credit he deserves as a shaper.” Point Blanks has a decent overall following, but, as another step toward narrowing the contradiction more of us might seek them out. They also welcome other shapers to use their raw materials, but very few have.

Coming into focus are some “fringe” technologies that may constitute giant leaps forward. Hemp glass cloth, sugar-based epoxy, veggie resins, wood veneer and bamboo in place of glass are currently being tested and developed by companies like Eco-synthetix whose vision is to “create and commercialize new bio-based, high-performance products by applying intelligent design to renewable resources.”

The greatest challenge will be to gain the same strength to weight ratios of the standard technologies. Gary Young, a Big Island micro-entrepreneur and owner of Tough Skins Bamboo Surfboards says, “not only does bamboo fiber look promising, but non-toxic epoxies based on vegetable compounds are under development and are looking good as well.” Bamboo is extremely light and is the strongest natural material on earth. Windsurfing champion Robbie Naish, has experimented with this material and surfing champion Sunny Garcia recently rode two of Gary’s boards and said, in an interview with Chris Mauro of Surfer Magazine, “They’re insane… The bamboo has totally changed the character of the board.” The boards have an EPS foam core and use multiple slivers of bamboo instead of fiberglass that are vacuum-wrapped around the stringerless core. The result, Mauro’s article goes on to say, is “a board with its primary strength stored in the skin (instead of the stringer), with the weight distributed away from the center of the board.” This adds up to a lighter and stronger board with “unbelievable flexing qualities that positively affect the performance.”

In an article from Surfer Magazine by Tim Baker, dated September 3, 2003, Tim says that the Burleigh Heads-based shaper Chris Garrett “came up with an alternative that jibes with the sensitive sensibilities” of “earth child” Dave Rastovich. “A little timber veneer model ‘Rasta’ reckons is the closest thing to a non-toxic board going around at the moment.” The construction is a fusion between the timber veneer tinkering of long-time film industry set builder David Franks and Garrett. Their application uses no resin or fiberglass and harks back to old boat-building techniques. The legendary eccentric Bob Simmons worked on a similar idea as far back as the 1940s when he put plywood over veneer and managed to cut the weight of the modern surfboard considerably. Other innovators have come and gone since then and it seems now that Garrett and Franks have created the most palatable, if not quite attractive, incarnation of a modern, wooden surfboard, that is lightweight and sacrifices nothing in terms of performance. And, as quoted in Baker’s article, Frank’s says, “they’re so beautiful. Even down to the smell, you can rub a bit of citrus oil on them and they smell so nice.” (For similar information, see surftech.com, which features a Santa Cruz, California-based wood veneer operation.)

There’s still the question of wetsuits. And there are only rumors about the possible development of an organic surf wax. Troy Peters of True North Surfboards says, “We’re all used to the current technologies, and low-cost materials that are lightweight.” As architect, environmentalist, and Professor at the University of Virginia, Bill McDonough says, we need to be looking at ways of keeping resources out of the landfills and in a “cradle to cradle” recycling and recyclable mode. He goes on to say that we should look at creating a relationship with the environment that is like a good marriage and asks the question, “Do we want a ‘sustainable’ marriage or one that is thriving?”

Are we stuck? Well it seems that until greener technologies are more readily available, cost-effective and can consistently produce the kind of surfboards we’re used to, we’re going to keep riding what we’re riding. The alternatives are good but it seems the responsibility lies with us as individuals to seek out and support the fringe. The fringe has to become the norm to bridge the contradiction — we must demand these things of our shapers. As campers in the old analogy, our campsite is getting much worse for the wear. The human race is past due for this sort of advancement.

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