The good folks at Firewire Surfboards came into town again, this time at my local break. They set up their truck in front of South Coast Surf Shop and had a good selection of boards with them. I had already tried a few here and there, but this time I wanted to give them the big test: a multi-hour session in 2-4 foot wind swell.
I got there just in time for the truck to open. Same guys I had seen at previous demos, same deal: sign a release form, hand over your drivers license, and get the board you want. You can either bring your own leash, or take one of those they have handy.
I did my research before showing up and had both the models and the sizes in mind. The guys that were there are extremely helpful, and they could direct you to the right combination for your skill level and the surf of the day.
Of all the possible choices, I first went with the short and fat Baked Potato. It is a thick board that gets to the right volume for me (about 34 liters) in a very short and wide package. I took it out first, in the 5’5″ variant, and was stoked.
Today’s surf was a choppy and bumpy wind swell, Mostly NW, but with some annoying cross-swell from the SW that made the rights real scary at times. I wondered how well the Baked Potato would do in that funky mix, especially as a demo board with no traction pad.
The first wave threw me out completely. I barely managed to get standing when I completely oversteered and landed on my butt. I was about to return the thing, but I figured it was a little (lot) silly to give up so soon.
The next wave was really ugly. I was in heavy backwash, and the ocean behind me was churning wildly. The wave front was uncertain, getting steeper in places and then letting go, making any prediction guesswork. I paddled in, just in time for a section to reach me. One, two paddles, and I stood up.
Lo and behold, the Potato rocked! It was perfectly solid in the swell, like a mini-aircraft carrier, slicing through the worst of the bumpiness, hopping on the churn and sliding left and right to accommodate. I though the lack of traction pad and of familiarity with the form factor would be an issue, but instead the short length is more forgiving. There is not a whole lot of area to land on, so that wherever your front foot leads, it’s victory.
After this wave, I continued my successful streak. It was fun to watch people sit out waves that I easily paddled into and traced, and after the first few boo-boos, it was really easy to make it all the way in even on a rocky surf. The only problem was getting out again, and it wasn’t the Potato’s fault: near shore, there was a dead kelp forest that kept getting tangled up (when is someone going to invent a way to prevent the leash from tangling up?)
I kept the Potato for an hour, then I decided I wasn’t going to be able to try anything else if I didn’t leave. I went back to the truck and asked for a Vanguard. It’s a performance board, so it was definitely not the right day for it, but I wanted to see how it handled at least.
The Vanguard is a board like no other. Instead of being an oblong egg like most surfboards (tails notwithstanding), the vanguard looks like a deformed rectangle. The nose, in particular, doesn’t have the pointiness and is flattened and broad. In theory, the design should behave in a similar way to a regular, longer board, since the tip is pretty pointless in floatation.
Handling of the Vanguard was fine. The surf had gotten really bad by then, and it got a lot more crowded, but I managed to snag a few waves. It was definitely harder to paddle out, which was to be expected. It behaved well when ridden, but I don’t really have the skills to sense the difference with respect to a regular design. It seemed no better or worse.
I kept the Vanguard for another hour, then returned it with no love lost, and no love gained. The Baked Potato stoked: it was fun to ride, unexpectedly even-keeled, and forgiving (paddling was a bit of a chore, though). The Vanguard was less of everything, and I guess I would have to wait another year or two or three before I can appreciate the advantages.
The next board was a little less clear. I could have gone for the Spitfire, an excellent all-around board, or try the Sweet Potato, the Baked Potato’s cousin. Maybe a Dominator? An Alternator?
I had my curiosity set on one board: the Unibrow. It’s design appealed to me: it was long and narrow, but thick. That would translate in easier directionality, superior paddling performance, but also higher instability.
As everyone that has even been on a longboard (or SUP board) knows, the advantage of stability is directly correlated with the disadvantage of lack of manoeuvrability. If you can move something easily, it can be moved easily. In the first case, you can easily make the board do the turns you want. In the second, it’s the ocean that decides what happens.
As I paddled out, I already loved the board. After 2+ hours in the choppy surf, trying to fend off a South drift that kept sending me into the pier (and the crowd gathered there), I was tired. I sincerely doubted I could do any amount of testing in the time my arms gave me. But I got out easily, and** the board ducked under the windswell as if it had been made for the task**.
I pulled up to the lineup and looked around. There were several demoers, which was a good thing: they would be unfamiliar with their boards and less likely to jump into the fray. We exchanged our war stories about the different boards (which was slightly pointless, because none of us would fess up to being only a decent or less than decent surfer) and sat.
The waves and the wind had gotten more forgiving. The backwash had finally decided to concentrate into an ugly brown rip current to the North of us – a dead zone out of which several surfers had to paddle themselves out, tired.
To my utter surprise, waves were coming all the time, but nobody was even trying to catch them. I waited for three, four where the guys with priority didn’t do anything, and then I launched.
The Unibrow behaved just like I thought it would. It threw me off like a bronco. I faceplanted, assdove, even managed to hit the fins on one of the trickier waves. But there was just something I loved about it: it paddled into waves others couldn’t imagine to ride, and it did so consistently. Yes, it would kick me out, but at least I stood.
I caught wave after wave, and after a while I started getting a feel for where to stand and how to balance better. The waves, by then, had become choppier again, and the guys around me had started getting annoyed at this loser in their midst that would catch all the waves. So the competition started, and it was fun to watch.
A series of groms had decided to demo Vanguards, and it really didn’t work for them. They kept moving back and forth between inside and outside, having a hard time catching the outside waves, and getting hammered by the sudden break on the inside.
A few of the adults had gone for an assortment of boards. We had a few longboarders (not foamies) and determined bros. The Firewires were mostly Spitfires and the like. The competition was on.
The thing that was most surprising to me was to see the waves I could catch that others didn’t try. It went on forever: I would see a wave, compute a good angle and pray, then turn at the last second and see that everyone else was looking beyond this wave into the distance.
I started becoming exhausted. The wind swell was hammering me on the paddle out, and once in a while a big wave would slurp me up and send me packing back. I took one of those in, not ready to wait for a Glorious Exit.
I say the Unibrow is my board. Finicky and jumpy, but also flexible and able to follow my lead.