shortboard revolution

Surfboard design phase lasting from roughly 1967 to 1970, when average board specs dropped from 9'6"by 22" and 26 pounds to 6'6" by 20" and 10 pounds; accompanied by an equally radical shift in wave-riding styles and techniques.

Shortboard revolution details are complicated in places, with key figures still in disagreement as to who contributed what, but the accepted view is that the movement began with Australian Bob McTavish and Californian George Greenough, with Nat Young and Wayne Lynch of Australia as the main test riders (and Midget Farrelly doing similar work), and was then refined by Hawaii's Dick Brewer. There is no disagreement as to the profound change the shortboard revolution brought to the sport. Surf writer Paul Gross called it "a mass desertion from everything that had gone before." Surfer editor Drew Kampion described it as the "greatest conceptual shift in surfing history."

Experimental short surfboards had been used prior to 1967. Dale Velzy of Hermosa Beach was making 7' boards for younger surfers in the 1940s-50s. Jim Foley of Santa Cruz rode a 7'10" in the early '60s, Southern California surfer Mickey Muñoz used a 6'8" board in 1964, and Hawaii's Wally Froiseth often stood up while riding a 4-foot bellyboard in the '40s and '50s.

But the seeds of the shortboard revolution, along with the turn-activated shortboard style of wave-riding, were planted in 1965 just after Santa Barbara kneerider George Greenough arrived for a long stay with Queensland-born surfer-boardmaker Bob McTavish in the North Coast of New South Wales. Riding a thin, flexible, dished-out 4'10" "spoon" kneeboard with a narrow-based fin patterned from the tail of a bluefin tuna, Greenough was able to climb and drop across the wave face while remaining close to the curl. Stand-up surfers were turning also, but usually not anywhere near the curl, and were more concerned with riding the nose—hanging ten was the ultimate surf move. McTavish kept a keen eye on Greenough and wondered what kind of equipment a stand-up surfer would need to be able to draw similar up-and-down lines across the wave.

In the fall of 1966, Australian surfer Nat Young, riding a thin 9'4" board with a Greenough-made fin, won the World Surfing Championships in San Diego by turning harder and sharper than anybody else in the event. Noseriding, Young said afterward, had led the sport into a blind alley; "involvement" was the phrase he and close friend McTavish used to describe a more active style of riding that put the surfer closer to the curl, and it became a buzzword for the upcoming shortboard revolution.

McTavish later said that "three-quarters of the development of the shortboard" took place in 1967. In March, working in Sydney's northern beaches, he built the first vee-bottom board, a 9' by 23" wide-backed squaretail he nicknamed the "Plastic Machine," featuring a two-panel V-shaped planing surface along the rear section that more or less forced the board to tip over into a turning position. Just down the beach, 1964 world champion Midget Farrelly, working alone, was crafting similar boards. Six months later a group of top California surfers including Skip Frye and Mickey Muñoz, all riding boards 9'6" or bigger, visited Sydney for a competition and were astounded to find local surfers on vee-bottom shortboards, some as short as 7'6".

McTavish and Young flew to Hawaii that December for what amounted to the international debut of the vee-bottom design. Competing in 12-foot Sunset Beach surf during the Duke Kahanamoku Invitational, McTavish and his strange-looking board were a washout. But a few days later, in six- to eight-foot waves at Maui's Honolua Bay, the vee-bottoms worked beautifully for both McTavish and Young, and their best rides formed the closing sequence to The Hot Generation, a 1968 surf film by Paul Witzig that captured the transformation from longboard surfing to "involved" shortboarding. (Witzig's follow-up, Evolution, released the following year, presented 17-year-old Wayne Lynch as the first true master of the shortboard.)

Boardmaker Dick Brewer, regarded as the world's best longboard shaper, was living and working on Maui in 1967, and was at Honolua when McTavish and Young showed up with their vee- bottoms. Brewer was then developing what was called the "pocket rocket" or "mini-gun" design, essentially a light, narrow-backed pintail longboard that some (Brewer included) view as the true shortboard prototype, rather than the vee-bottom. It's probably closer to the truth to say that Brewer's contribution to the shortboard revolution came in 1968–'70, after the movement's initial phase, as he figured out how to make the new boards work in Hawaii's big surf by streamlining the templates, making subtle but crucial changes in the board's nose- to-tail thickness, and helping reconfigure the rail profile.

The new push in surfboard design was first referred to as a "revolution" in the April 1968 issue of Petersen's Surfing magazine, just a few weeks after the vee-bottoms were introduced in California. By early 1969 the vee-bottoms were phased out as boardmakers shot off in all directions looking for the next groundbreaking design, creating 5'8" by 23" double-ender blobs and 7' by 16" stilettos; using 12" narrow-base fins and 3" "finger" fins; and marketing their latest board ("stick," "tool," "surfing utensil," or "kinetic vehicle" in the going argot) with mumbo-technical ad copy that referenced displacement hulls, rail camber, and S-rocker.

The shortboard revolution was disastrous for the big-label surfboard companies, all of whom were caught with a huge inventory of obsolete longboards. It was low-overhead boardmakers working out of backyards and garages who got the early jump on short surfboards, and industry titans of the mid-'60s either scaled back their operations or shut down altogether.

As quickly as surfboard design was changing, so, too, were surfing techniques, with riders now jamming up and down across the wave face, rebounding off the whitewater, and riding ever deeper inside the tube—an area of the wave that had been mostly off-limits on longboards.

The entire sport was also being re-shaped by Woodstock-era drugs, music, language, graphics, fashion, and politics. Surfer magazine cover captions went from "Jock Sutherland charges down the face of a Pipeline giant" (1966) to "Tom Stone suspended in the Pipeline vector complex" (1970).

At the 1970 world championships, held in Victoria, Australia, the heavily favored Aussies rode balky sub-six-foot "mind machines" and were beaten by Californian Rolf Aurness, who used a sensible 6'10" roundtail. Board experimentation would continue in the years and decades ahead, but Aurness's win in Victoria effectively brought the shortboard revolution to an end.

Furthermore, by the mid-'70s the revolution was in a sense coming undone. "Re-enter the longboard," Bob McTavish wrote in a 1977 Surfer magazine article, saying how he'd returned to a 9' by 22" board when the waves were small. "It's good to see them back."

Going Vertical, an Australian documentary chronicling the early days of the shortboard, was released in 2010.