Design Matters: How Women Have Shaped and Been Shaped by Surfboard Design

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Updated 196d ago

As part of International Women's Day, we've handed the keys to the site to Lauren Hill, author of She Surf: The Rise of Female Surfing. For this week-long celebration, Lauren will be dropping an article on MSW every day until March 12 that will feature female surfers, the history, culture, the present, future, the evolution of design, podcasts and more. We'll also be featuring a range of articles from other female writers and photographers, which we'll link to in these intros -- and be bringing you more articles over the coming months too. See The History of Female Surfing, Review: Girls Can't Surf, The Art of Shooting Unknown Waters with Sarah Lee and Introducing Cornwall Photographer Clare James.

Words by Lauren Hill

Before she was a Hollywood starlet, Marilyn Monroe was a surfer. In the 1940s, she was part of the emerging scene in Southern California and developed a relationship with notable surfer and lifeguard Tommy Zahn, who took her tandem surfing amongst California’s cold winter swells. In Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe, Zahn recounts Monroe’s athleticism: “She was really good in the water, very robust, so healthy, a really fine attitude towards life.”

As in the dramatised surfy beach movies of the era, something of a love triangle emerged between Zahn, Monroe and aspiring surfer Darrilyn Zanuck, whose father was a Hollywood producer. Allegedly Zanuck won Zahn over, and subsequently became a muse for one of the radical changes in surfboard design history.

Read more: Review: Girls Can't Surf

Leah Dawson charging.

Leah Dawson charging.

© 2021 - Jason Acott.

Noticing how overpowered Zanuck’s smaller frame was by heavy redwood boards, Zahn went to noted shaper Joe Quigg and requested something that she could more easily carry, handle in the surf, and load into her convertible. Quigg hunted down the lightest timber he could find—balsa—and reduced the length and weight of the board considerably.

Soon, lots of guys were having boards made for their girlfriends. Eventually they started borrowing them, too and recognising the manoeuvrability of smaller boards.

“Girl boards,” or the “Malibu chip” as they were later called, shaped surfing in the 1940s and 1950s, and ignited the trajectory toward the modern shortboard. Lighter, more maneuverable boards meant surfers could more easily slide along the wave’s open face and ride closer to the pocket—the curling power source of a wave.

In general, the surfboard dictates how a surfer rides a wave. Longboards tend to be slower and for smaller waves. Shortboards tend to be faster and for bigger, hollower waves, but usually require more exertion to catch them. It’s a common misconception that women have only recently begun engaging with surfboard design and craft. While rigid gender norms tended to keep women out of the shaping bay, there have been pioneering women along the way

Surfboard design has refined exponentially over the last century or so, with millions of experiments in the major and minor elements of surfboards, including: length, width, nose, tail, rocker, rails, fins, bottom contour, foil, deck, and volume.

There have been several major eras in the design of surfboards: the old wooden boards of Hawai‘i, Californian fibreglass longboards, the shorter “single fin,” thrusters, and modern longboards, to name a few. As much as surfers have literally shaped the boards, the boards have also shaped surfers’ approaches to riding waves.

It’s a common misconception that women have only recently begun engaging with surfboard design and craft. While rigid gender norms tended to keep women out of the shaping bay, there have been pioneering women along the way.

© 2021 - Regina Nicolardi

In fact, the oldest known surfboard was a woman’s. It dates to the 1600s and belonged to Princess Kaneamuna. The wooden board was found entombed with her on the Big Island, resting any doubt about the importance of surfing for ancient Hawaiian princesses.

“It was a combination of modesty, morality, and the unbearable heaviness of hardwood that kept the majority of women out of the water from the 1800s into the 1900s,” Ben Marcus writes in Surfing: An Illustrated History. But when surfing migrated across the Pacific and nestled into the chillier shores of Southern California, new adaptations were needed to better suit the new surfing environment. It is widely recognized that women on the scene in California during this period, in the 1940s and 1950s, were instrumental in changing the approach to board design.

Hawaiian transplant Joey Hamasaki started working as a surfboard glosser and glasser in 1963, finishing the shapes of renowned board builders such as Hobie and Weber. One of the first women to commit to the process of crafting boards, Hamasaki was notoriously humble but rose through the ranks of women’s surfing with impressive wins like the 1966 Malibu Invitational, over Joyce Hoffman. That same year, California’s Wardy Surfboards distinguished Hamasaki’s surfing by introducing a signature Joey Hamasaki model to the market, a testament to her fluid and graceful style, and making her one of the few women with her own surfboard model. Reflecting on her fellow surfer, world champion Hoffman said, “Joey Hamasaki was a hell of a good surfer. Innately, I think she was a better surfer than I was. But she didn’t have the drive I had.” Hamasaki moved back to Hawai‘i in 1973 and stepped out of the limelight altogether, despite her potential for great competitive success.

Cher Pendarvis has been discreetly shaping surf culture since the 1960s with her art, board building, writings, and work in laying the foundations for professional women’s surfing. Pendarvis began tinkering with shaping around 1968, and by 1975, she was the first woman on staff at Surfing Magazine. In the 1970s, she was one of the very first surfers to stand up on the confounding “fish” design—a radically short design concept: under six feet (1.8 meters), with two fins— created by kneeboarder Steve Lis. Pendarvis is still making surfboards today.

Ashley Lloyd.

Ashley Lloyd.

© 2021 - Wetfoot Photos

“In my humble opinion,” Pendarvis says, “attitudes toward women in the line-ups in certain areas and attitudes toward strong women in those decades held women back as much as some surfboard designs of the times. Some men did not like physically strong women and talked negatively toward them, sometimes calling strong feminine women ‘dykes.’ These men preferred to see women soft and on the beach in bikinis rather than strong and in the water. We women surfers pressed past these narrow-minded men and did our thing.”

After her 50 plus years as a surfer, Pendarvis has insight into what design elements have enriched women’s surfing, noting how “single fin and keel fin shapes encourage flow, glide, and smooth transitions between turns that can be complementary to feminine style. I absolutely love the smooth drive down the line of a good keel fin fish, and the smooth transition during a well-placed full roundhouse cutback.”

One of Pendarvis’ contemporaries was Hawaiian Rell ‘Kapolioka‘ehukai’ Sunn who excelled on the 1970s mid-length single fin boards, shapes in between longboards and shortboards, around seven feet (2.1 meters). Sunn is widely regarded as one of the most stylish and soulful women to have graced the waves. Her hips forward and open-hearted style was as striking then as it is today. Sunn’s surfing was unapologetically feminine: fluid, powerful, and bold.

For modern professional freesurfers like Leah Dawson, the 1970s era of single fin boards was something of a golden era for women’s surfing. For Dawson, surfboard design of that era matched women’s bodies well with a magic combination of paddle ease, manoeuvrability, and a long rail for fluidity: “I think the down rail, single fin was the most favorable design for women throughout the generations of shapes. If you watch footage, the top women seemed almost equally matched with the men. Lynne Boyer, Jericho Poppler, Rell Sunn, Margo Oberg, and many others looked like their wave knowledge, execution of maneuvers, and flow seemed on par with the men. Single fins seemed to accentuate their femininity.”

Leah Dawson

Leah Dawson

© 2021 - Jason Acott.

Dawson explains how “this is because jerky movements don’t really work while riding single fins, as they respond much more to slower, drawn out motions, stemmed from utilizing the length of the rail, instead of only driving from the tail. There’s often a hunched squat that would form in women’s styles as they tried to follow suit with the maneuvers men were doing, but that hunched squat doesn’t work on a single fin.”

“Personally, I felt styleless and like my surfing was far from beautiful before I began riding single fins,” Dawson says. She grew up riding shortboards that were way too big for her and high-performance longboards that could be pumped and turned up into the lip. “Seeking competition results, I was all about manoeuvres instead of focusing on the most beautiful aspect of surfing: individual style.”

The 1980s and early 1990s were not an era of ease for women’s surfing. Gender relations continued to erode as toxic masculinity reigned in the surf, along with the trend toward increasingly aggressive approaches. In the same way that the heavy boards of the early 1900s kept many women from pursuing surfing, the ultra lightweight, thin, and narrow boards of the latter 20th century also worked against women’s bodies in the surf.

They required extreme upper body strength to maintain adequate paddle speed to catch waves—body strength that women’s smaller statures tended to lack. Men had, and continue to have, the physiological advantage in these concepts of design and performance.

Ripping, shredding, and destroying waves became the cultural ideal. It was not a welcoming environment for many surfers, especially women. Surfboard design shifted toward long, thin, three finned boards called “thrusters,” in a phallic nod. I think our biggest challenge, just like in the early nineties when board shorts and the first women’s clothing came out of the industry—everything was not quite the right fit. It was the same with surfboards

“I think our biggest challenge, just like in the early nineties when board shorts and the first women’s clothing came out of the industry—everything was not quite the right fit. It was the same with surfboards,” remembers Rochelle Ballard, who spent 16 years on the world tour (1991 to 2007). “We were all on boards that were way too big for us, they were too skinny and narrow. They were actually hard to surf. Women’s surfing comes from the hips, we don’t come as much from the ankles and legs and the feet like men do. So as surfboard design started to shorten and widen, it started to become a lot more dynamic for women.”

Lauren's book, She Surf: The Rise of Female Surfing, is an incredible read and we recommend it to everyone.

Lauren's book, She Surf: The Rise of Female Surfing, is an incredible read and we recommend it to everyone.

Alongside “potato chip” thrusters, longboards came back into fashion, but with a new look. They were thinner, lighter, and designed to be easily maneuverable, unlike their earlier manifestations. Women like East Coast legend Mimi Munro, who walked away from her surfing career as a national star at age 16, picked up one of these longboards in her late thirties. She hadn’t surfed in decades but proceeded to enter, and win, contests against women half her age. The stability and lightness of the modern longboard made surfing more accessible and easier to learn. Women came back to wave riding in droves.

And women moved into more prominent roles of the surfboard industry, too. Margaret Calvani, for one, joined her husband Matt in taking over the institution of Bing Surfboards, which has been crafting quality boards for more than 60 years. Margaret runs the business as Matt shapes and designs—a long-standing but unrecognized dynamic in the world of board building.

In the film Think Bing, Margaret pays homage to the many unrecognized women who backed up their husbands by making viable businesses out of their husband’s surfboard hobbies. Many of the iconic brands—Bing, Jacobs, Greg Noll, Weber—were run by women who, as Margaret puts it, “made this industry possible.” Ashley Lloyd Thompson is one of the shapers who was mentored through the Bing Surfboards legacy.

Ashley Lloyd.

Ashley Lloyd.

© 2021 - Regina Nicolardi

She is an exceptional surfer, unparalleled in switch stance nose riding and has been shaping since 2002. Her brand Ashley Lloyd Surfboards leads the way in utilizing more environmentally sound materials in surfboard construction.

“Everyone has a different surfing evolution, so it really depends on what the individual’s goals are, what kind of conditions they’re surfing, what their experience has been like with their equipment so far, and their body type,” Lloyd Thompson says of her approach to shaping boards for women. “We’re all different and that’s one of the things that is so fun about this for me. I get to help people enjoy their uniqueness. Now, with the ‘every board’ outlook that is happening with different surfboard options and openness, there are great things happening for women’s surfing.”