THE MISREPRESENTATION OF VOLUME - this article appeared in Pacific Longboarder magazine Vol 17 no. 4
Compared with other industries, the Australian surfboard industry is unique in being essentially free from formal regulation. Admittedly the EPA requires certain emission standards be met with respect to the glassing and sanding of surfboards. (Something that some of the manufacturers of surfboards from Asia have been able to largely avoid.) But other than that, at present, surfboard builders and online distributors appear to be free in practice to make any claims about their products they like. Many claims about surfboards which are currently being made are frequently not evidence based, or even based on logic. However because very few surfers have a comprehensive working knowledge of surfboard design and manufacture, the stage is perfectly set for unsubstantiated claims to be made by some in the industry.

This process is now in full swing. Indeed in my 35 years of surfboard building I have never witnessed the variety of questionable claims and distortions of the truth which are now occurring on a regular basis. For example the claimed superiority of epoxy over polyester construction, and the relatively recent idea that surfboards can be chosen largely on the basis of litres(volume) are in my opinion, questionable.

For now, I'll restrict my comments to the concept of litres. If you are researching new boards on the internet or through magazines, then you will certainly be familiar with this term. The practice is evident in relation to Longboards, Midlengths and Shortboards.

Surfboards are now frequently described as having so many litres of volume. Some sites provide so called volume calculators, ostensibly to assist you in determining how many litres you need in your new board. However in my opinion these calculators are highly problematical, and buying a surfboard largely on the basis of literage is fraught with difficulty.

But why is this single issue so important and worthy of critical analysis? Well, for two reasons really. Firstly, new production methods or different ways of thinking about surfboard design should always be examined. Secondly, the concept of using litres to select surfboards is having the effect of dumbing down and homogenising the whole process of buying surfboards. Even just a cursory inspection of these calculators conveys the impression that all you need to do is plug in some numbers, and hey presto, out pops the design for you. It's just like sausage making, that easy. However those of us who are committed craftsmen, know that designing good surfboards is far from easy. In that sense, the calculators can be perceived as an attack on the industry we love. Now to the discussion.

Firstly, it simply is not true to assert that the number of litres of volume can be used in a meaningful way to determine which board you should buy. In fact, whilst very important, volume is only one of many variables which need to be considered. It certainly cannot be used in isolation.

Naturally volume is critical in a surfboard. Appropriate volume is perhaps the single most important variable in surfboard design, particularly since it relates to ease of paddling. However the actual amount of displacement or float converted into a number(litres), is not nearly as important as how well the board actually paddles a given surfer. Other variables, in particular rocker (bottom curve), length, width, the distribution of the volume within the surfboard, and foam composition, are also very important. Rocker in particular though is the variable which is most intimately associated with volume since it relates directly to how well a board will paddle. This is a fact accepted by all experienced shapers. Since the interaction between volume and rocker is so crucial, one cannot be divorced from the other. For example, lets say we have two 8'0” midlengths which are exactly the same width and thickness, and so have identical volume. However one of them has more rocker than the other. The board with less rocker will paddle better. How much better, is directly related to the amount of rocker. Even using this simple example, it's obvious that choosing a board largely on the basis of volume is ridiculous. Yet this is essentially what you are being invited to do. To ignore the influence of rocker and other significant variables, as these calculators do, is naive and misleading. At best, the calculators require inputs from you concerning age, ability, fitness and intended wave size. But even a cursory knowledge of the literature concerning self report measures, would immediately disqualify much of this data. Evidence from various fields, demonstrates that people simply cannot reliably and objectively self-report on their own ability or fitness.

Some proponents of litres would have you believe that all you need to do is fill in the required fields on their calculators and out pops the model/litres to suit you. However you only need to fill in identical field data on different sites to see that you then receive widely discrepant results! How can this be? It occurs because these calculators are using different data and using different assumptions and loadings for certain variables depending on how they are constructed. This is not what I would consider a reliable or predictable system. I would be most interested to know whether these devices are underpinned by any rigorous empirical data or accepted design theory. On balance, it would appear that the calculators are really an attempt at product differentiation and engagement of the consumer. Once engaged, surfers may then question their existing boards, which then opens the way for a potential new purchase. Frequently now, people with Miller Surfboards contact me to find out how many litres are in their current board. After reading claims/recommendations made on these calculator sites, they have become concerned that perhaps their board is inappropriately volumed. Closer questioning from me invariably reveals that they are entirely happy with their current board, but that “the website says I should have X number of litres” and so on.

Frequently, the result of ordering boards solely with reference to volume calculators is that the resultant board is too small or too big for the surfer. How do I know this? Because on a regular basis I receive telephone calls and emails from people wanting to discuss what they should do next with a board which they purchased online. In this connection, a careful survey of Gumtree and Ebay also makes for interesting reading. There, surfers often admit to getting it wrong on the net, or being talked into too small a board by a guy in a surf shop who recommended a board with a certain literage.

The second main issue involved here is the severe dumbing down of surfboard design which is occurring through the introduction of these devices. Volume calculators create the impression that buying a suitable surfboard is a very straightforward process which can be undertaken without the need to speak with a real person. They also create a perception amongst consumers that by using a calculator, that person is somehow customising their own board. Certainly this is not the case.

The only definite way to obtain a board which really suits you, is to deal with a highly experienced shaper. What a professional shaper should do, is to obtain as much relevant information from you as possible and interpret it carefully. Many variables are important and not necessarily in the following order: Age, height, weight and how much rubber you normally wear, level of experience, wave size and type, injuries, fitness level, balance, front foot/back foot orientation, frequency of surfing and typical duration of sessions, past preferred boards, weight of board desired, age of commencement of surfing, preferred style of surfing and so on. These variables are then used by the shaper to calculate and precisely determine the best dimensions for you. In this sense, an expert shaper is really operating like an advanced computer. When I am designing a clients new board, I am not interested in how many litres of volume are in the board. What I am interested in, is ensuring that the board has appropriate volume for him/her. This can only be known through vigorous prior consultation and experience. I'm quite sure that other professional shapers I know, like Steve O'Donnell, Mark Rabbidge and Sean Wylde would also approach the shaping of their clients boards like this. To propose that a literage number produced by an impersonal volume calculator can help to provide the same quality of surfboard is obviously untrue. As a career shaper, ideas like this are a personal affront to me. Increasingly though, surfers are faced with a stark choice between online ordering or working directly with a shaper. However real choice is only possible with awareness. If legitimate shapers fail to bring these issues into focus, what hope is there of greater consumer awareness?

Finally, the argument has been put to me that if a surfer knows how many litres of volume are in his/her current board, and he likes that board and it paddles him properly, then surely this is important to know the next time he gets a new board. The idea being that he just has to select a new board with the same number of litres. Whilst perhaps this notion is reassuring to the naive, the only time when this logic would hold, is when the new board is exactly the same as the old one. That is, exactly the same in every respect including volume. Why? Because as noted earlier, even just a small change in rocker can markedly affect the performance of the new board/ or fin position/ or tail width/ or rail shape/ etc. Complicated isn't it? This is why a surfboard from a good shaper is not cheap. That is not to say however that all expensive boards are good. Indeed not.

To me, these developments are very regrettable. Certainly not nearly as regrettable as having Abbott as PM, but right up there nonetheless. However in a largely unregulated industry with minimal intellectual scrutiny, perhaps it's not really surprising. Let the buyer beware.

Grant Miller.