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What's the best surfboard for small waves?

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3 women going surfing
Peter Augustin/Taxi/Getty Images
The question: What is the best surfboard for small waves? The answer: With so many types of surfboards in the world, there is no perfect board but rather a perfect combination of elements.

For one, a good small wave board needs to paddle fast and get into a wave easily. This groveling beast should be fast and controllable. In order for a board to paddle fast and get into waves early, the formula remains the same. Go flat! Go wide! Go thick! Before Curren’s crazy power made extreme rocker look good functional in the 80’s, everyone knew that boards with flatter bottoms make for faster acceleration on small waves. It’s basic physics. If the wave face is flat, then the board’s bottom should follow suit to lessen the friction and push of water.

Now, add a thicker core to this flat board and you’ve got yourself a board that sits high in the water with very little drag. So logic follows that you will paddle faster and thus enter the wave earlier. Thinner boards were all the rage in the 90’s mainly because a teenage Kelly Slater was slipping all over the place and the rest of the world wanted to do the same. They soon found that there was only one Slater. The rest were trying sad emulations. Thinner rails can be an asset in gnarlier surf in that the surfer can use the burying of the rail as a guiding element through turns and tubes.

Now, your perfect small wave surfboard is thick and flat. Next, go shorter. This is only the way to go for surfers who want to complete radical, progressive maneuvers. If you are more of a cruiser or beginner, get yourself a longboard and get stoked. Otherwise, go for a shortboard and find more fun in small waves. A shorter board gives the surfer more options on the smaller wave face. It’s simple in that the less space your board takes up on the wave face, the more space you will have to work with. Now if you know anything about surfboards, you might be saying to yourself that short, fat, and wide sound like the dimensions of a fish surfboard.

What is a Fish Surfboard?

Retro fish are everywhere these days and offer loads of loose, wave catching fun with their excessive width and thickness, but the wide split (swallow) or fish tail and short length make the boards so loose that they are NOT the best choice for beginners.

Fish surfboards generally have a wide point farther up towards the nose and a wide swallow-tail (at least 6 inches between the points). Essentially they look like a fish!

Fish surfboards are usually under 6 feet and at or about 19+ inches wide. Back in the 60's the original fish boards were made as kneeboards, but stand up surfers soon saw their shredding potential.

Fish surfboards are small and wide and can generate lots of speed but are notorious for not being the best off the lip for vertical maneuvers. They are, however, great down the line and turn tight in the pocket.

Think about your Tail and Fins

So now you’ve got yourself a short, fat, flat, wide design. There are other elements to consider like the tail. Boards made for gnarlier waves usually sport a pin or squash tail. The strength of these designs is that they allow a uniform flow of water to flow past the tail and thus promotes longer and more controlled turns. The narrower and fuller tail design helps the tail hold in faster and more vertical surfing situations.

On the other hand, tail designs like the swallow tail, bat tail, or moon tail all have a area cut from the center of the tail, thus breaking up the flow of water past the tail and allowing the surfboard to not only release from turns more quickly but also turn on a tighter radius. Sounds great, but these tails will spin out and lose control if pushed too hard on too critical of a wave.

Now, let’s talk fins. You have many types of fin configurations, but for small waves, you want the one with the least drag. The fin(s) furthest back are responsible for the most drag, so put your focus there.

If you are going with the traditional tri (3)-fin design, try a shorter third fin (trailer fin). Although you board will have less drive off the bottom and torque out of turns, it will maneuver faster around the small wave’s contours. Quad (4)-fins are a lot of fun in small waves as well. The smaller trailer fins which are situated closer to the rail of the board offer very little drag with exceptional acceleration and some really fast ricochet out of turns. In my opinion, the quad fin design is best for small waves in terms of control and speed, but I love riding twin fins. This two fin design eliminates any drag whatsoever but also offers very little control. Twin fins fly down the wave and require some real skill to hold a line through turns.

So, let’s review. For small waves, you want a short (less than a head taller than you). You want a wide board (at least 20 inches wide). You want a thick board (around 2 inches thick). You want a flat bottom rocker. You want a tail with its area cut out like a swallow tail. You want smaller trailer fins (quads are best but twinners are crazy awesome). Lots of new surfboard designs come with a 5-fin set up which enables the rider to create any combination of fins he/she wants.

Have fun and go rip!

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