Which Surfboard Should I Buy? | The Basic Types of Board

Unsure what surfboard to buy? Here's a beginner surfer's guide to the main different types of surfboard

The best surfboard for you — that elusive “right” surfboard — depends on three main factors, the last of which is somewhat dependent on the first: your surfing ability, your size and weight, and the type of waves you plan to use it in. Pick the wrong surfboard and you might as well be learning to drive in a Formula One car, trying to run the 100m in Usain Bolt’s size 13s, or teeing off on a par 5 with a mashie niblick.

Surfboard Types: The Mini Mal Surfboard

Thou shalt resist, initially at any rate, the temptation to buy the slimmest, sexiest surfboard fluttering its eyelids in the rack at your local surf shop. Opt instead for something a little more voluminous. There is no need to be embarrassed about this.

“The most common mistake people make is going too short too soon”

The basic principles behind a beginner surfboard are simple. The bigger the surfboard the more buoyant and the more stable, thus the easier it will be to paddle, catch waves with, and stand up on. But bigger surfboards are also more cumbersome: harder to carry, harder to keep hold of as you battle through the white water, harder to turn, and potentially much more dangerous.

This Bic mini mal is a fairly standard beginner surfboard.

Enter the mini mal, a slightly smaller version of the “mal” or longboard design and by far the best type of surfboard for learning to surf on. Round-nosed and usually three-finned, they are typically 7 to 9 feet long, 21 to 23 inches wide, and 2 1/2 to 3 inches thick. When you go for a surf lesson or hire out a surfboard this is the sort of board you’ll be given, and unless you make uncommonly swift progress it should be the first sort of surfboard you buy, too.

“The more waves you catch, the more fun you’ll have and the faster you’ll progress”

Obvious though it may sound, it’s worth pointing out that the more waves you catch, the more time you’ll spend actually surfing, thus the more fun you’ll have and the faster you’ll progress. When you’re just starting out your paddle strength will be relatively low and your knowledge of where and when to catch waves limited, so it would be wise to compensate with something user-friendly. The most common mistake people make is going too short too soon, usually due to pride and/or exaggerated notions of their own ability. They end up catching maybe two waves per session if they’re lucky and making it to their feet on neither.

Surfboard Types: The Shortboard

Generally speaking any surfboard under 7’ can be considered a shortboard, although the cut-off point I’ve suggested is arbitrary and flexible. Within the basic shortboard category are numerous sub-categories of surfboard, the main ones being…

The hybrid/funboard

The step up, or rather down, from the mini-mal to the standard “high-performance” shortboard is extremely steep, and trying to tackle it one go would be foolish. By combining elements from the mini-mal, the thruster and the fish (see below), the “hybrid” or “funboard” enables greater manoeuvrability and a more advanced style of surfing while still providing sufficient float, stability, and wave-catching power for intermediate surfers, or indeed advanced surfers in small and gutless waves. If downsizing from a mini mal, look for something with a rounder nose and plenty of width and volume to help ease the transition.

The rounded shape and added volume of this surfboard – the “Chilli Bean” by Fourth Surfboards, which can be surfed with either a thruster or quad set-up – makes it ideal for intermediates looking to downsize from a mini mal.
The thruster

Pioneered in the early ‘80s and within a matter of months accepted as the pinnacle of high-performance surfboard design, the thruster is a standard shortboard with three fins. Geared towards technically demanding surfing characterised by tight turns in the steepest part of the wave, a thruster will generally have a sharply pointed nose and narrow tail; its pronounced “rocker” — the curvature running lengthways through a surfboard as seen in profile — is better suited to the steeper curves of barreling waves. It’s still the type of surfboard most professionals ride from day to day, although the last 10-15 years have seen a tendency towards wider, flatter thruster models even at the highest level.

A typical high-performance shortboard designed by renowned Californian shaper Al Merrick of Channel Island Surfboards.
The fish

“95% of the people that were surfing in the ’90s were probably on the wrong surfboard,” reckons style guru and former world no. 2 Rob Machado in Fish: The Surfboard Documentary. The “wrong surfboard” he’s referring to is the very narrow, very thin thruster design that was in vogue among top pros — and consequently among the general surfboard-buying public — during the early years of Kelly Slater’s long reign. On these “banana boards”, so called because of their exaggerated rockers, even the most skilled surfers struggled to generate speed when the waves were small. The fish, by contrast, is much flatter and wider and thus planes across the water with speed and ease. The predecessor to the thruster, the original fish had a blunt nose, a wide “swallow tail”, and two large fins (hence the synonym “twin fin”), but nowadays people tend to apply the term to any stubby shortboard with lots of volume towards the nose. Lending itself to a smooth, lyrical style of surfing, the fish tends to struggle in heavy, barrelling waves but comes into its own at long point breaks or the kind of small, sloppy beach break often found in the UK.

“95% of the people that were surfing in the ’90s were probably on the wrong surfboard”

Surfboard Types: The longboard

Toes on the noes: one of the longboarder’s primary objectives. Photo: iStock

Easy to catch waves with and to stand up on but difficult to manipulate, the longboard or “mal” is the surfboard of choice for many experienced surfers, who simply prefer the mellow, playful approach and slower tempo enabled by the longboard’s additional length. It was more or less the only option available for much of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and goes best on long, leisurely waves under head-high. Classic manoeuvres, ideally performed in a casual, upright stance, include cross stepping (walking up and down the board) and noseriding (positioning one or both feet on the tip of the nose, known as “hanging five” and “hanging ten” respectively). Due to their size and consequent unwieldiness, longboards are best left alone by beginners, in whose hands they are transformed into lethal, indiscriminate weapons.

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