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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

"The Best Of Times, The Worst of Times": A Paradigm Shift In Surfing *Updated*

* Read Gordon Clark's Letter
Santa Cruz Sentinel: "Closure could spell end of custom surfboards"
LA Times: "Foam Factories Demise To Cause Ripple Effect" This article leads me to believe that something fishy may be going on.

Oh so beautiful...
I apologize in advance for the esoteric nature of this post. For assistance make use of these glossaries of surfology.

A dramatic shockwave pulsed through the surfing industry this week affecting my life and the lives of committed surfers everywhere. And no, I am not referring to the death of Malik Joyeux last week at Pipeline, as tragic as that was. On Monday, December 5th Clark Foam closed its doors after thirty years of supplying the world's surfboard shapers with the foam blanks they need to produce surfboards. In an industry wide fax, Gordon "Grubby" Clark alerted the industry that he would be "ceasing production" due to an apparent inability to meet US and California environmental regulations and standards. This "Black Monday" will likely induce a "Great Depression" (both economically and emotionally) in the surfer nation. Right now the true outcome of this event is mere speculation, with some clinging to the possibility of Clark coming back on line in a few weeks. But speculate I will do- and from the details in Clark's letter, it sure doesn't sound there is going to be any attempt to do so.

Since the 1960s the majority of surfboards have been made of polyurethane foam, sealed and strengthened with layers of fiberglass and polyester resin. Many surfers project an aura of environmentalism, while ironically the EPA has waged war on the chemicals that comprise the very instruments of their innermost temporal pleasure. Clark supplies the world with an estimated 80% of the foam blanks needed to meet the demands of surfers. As stockpiles of blanks quickly diminish, it can be assumed that surfboard prices will skyrocket until becoming unaffordable for the common surfer. The infrastructure simply does not exist to quickly and efficiently fill the void created. It is reported that at many surf shops surfboard prices have already increased $100 over night, and the big retailers have locked in orders for every last board available by the big name shapers. I predict a run on surfshops over the next few weeks and fully expect by the first of the year, scarcity will at least double the price of a new surfboard. Also, in the interim, due to demand, the price of alternative material boards such as Surftech will increase. But, with a new demand will come increased supply; volume will offset production costs and perhaps these types of boards will radically drop in price once suppliers flood the market with product. I would be delighted to see Surftechs drop to under $300, making their limitations easier to swallow.

The end of the custom foam surfboard is at hand, or at least, of boards using the materials and techniques as they currently exist. Surfers and shapers have long resisted the paradigm shift now imposed upon them. New technologies and materials have been under development for sometime, but resisted by an industry obsessed with the past and status quo. Many of these technologies and materials are still in their infancy, and it is hard to say which one will emerge as the future industry standard. EPS foam and epoxy, EPP foam, wood laminate, bamboo laminate, carbon fiber, and a variety of NASA grade plastics all have been the subject of experimentation, each with its own proponents and detractors. Whatever the outcome, the Bronze Age of surfing is on its way out. For many this is a dismal tragedy, but to others (a minority at this point) it is ushering in the oft dreamt of New Age of enviromentally friendly and unbreakable surfboard.

The most dismal implications fall upon those people whose lives are wrapped up in the custom shaping of surfboards. Their finacial future is literally hanging in the balance, and likely thousands of minds which typically fall asleep dreaming of planing surfaces, outlines and rockers tossed and turned last night over worries of paying the mortgage in coming months. The big names like Al Merrick and Rusty are in semi-retirement. They only need sell their design rights to the mass producers like Surftech, and tell them to forward the residual checks to their new island address. It is big name underlings that will be hit the hardest. Please pray for these families. Many of them already love Jesus; pray that God might use this time to grow them spiritually, and that the Church will be of great resource and comfort (as it should be for all niches of society).

Personally, I have mixed feelings. This is because I have mixed surfboard tastes. One of my favorite boards is a custom shaped single fin egg that is nostalgic both in style and materials. But, paradoxically, I was one of the first surfers I knew with an epoxy composite board, a board possessing feather-like lightness, damage resistance and speed unparalleled, but which broke the bank and literally broke in half under the lip of a heavy Oceanside barrel. I am open to all the new ideas out there, but you better believe I will be hording my quiver like a fire breathing dragon sitting atop a millennia’s worth of treasure.

Additional Articles:
Transworld Surf: Clark Foam To Close It's Factory?
surfer: Clark Foam Shuts Down
Surfing: Clark Foam Closes Its Doors

Backyard Shapers Respond:
Swaylocks Forum: Clark Foam is over!(this a really long thread)
Swaylocks Forum: Black Monday


  • Garet,

    Don't forget the remarkable ability of the economy to correct shortages. Walker foam can supply a few more blanks than before, and I'm sure that there are plenty of Aussie blank suppliers that will be happy to sell to the US at a premium.

    If Clark isn't too disgusted with the whole scene, there is always Mexico. It is my understanding also that California's regulations are what are the real killer.

    Ultimately, this will be very, very good for surfboard quality. EPS is at the point of being as good as polyurathane foam, and it is seeing development from building industry. Polyuruthane and polyester resin are dead-end technologies. No other industry in the US uses polyester resin. And for good reason! It really is very toxic.

    The beauty of EPS is that other industries have developed CNC hotwire machines that will produce a closer tolerance blank than Clark ever did. The machines are relatively cheap compared with the cost of making molds for individual blanks like Clark does.

    As for getting a truly traditional board, there will always be some access to PU blanks. The real pain will begin when the EPA bans polyester resin.

    I don't doubt that there will be pain in the short term, but the market always fills the gaps.

    By Blogger Jeremy Felden, at 7:04 PM  

  • Of course I didn't forget; you know I have faith in a free market economy. And it will be more than just an econcomic correction, I thought my allusion to Kuhn's theory of scientific revolutions was obvious. Once a paradigm exausts itself, a more useful one will emerge. The surfboard industry is its own scientific field of sorts. I don't doubt the best surfboards are yet to come- it's just that is going to be a while.

    By Blogger Garet Pahl, at 7:40 PM  

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