Editor’s Note: Welcome to our new series, “By Design” with Sam George that examines the genius, and sometimes the mystery, of surfing’s storied design history. Sam has been writing about surfing for more than three decades and is the former Editor-in-Chief of SURFER magazine. He won an Emmy for his work on the 30 for 30 documentary, Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau. Today, Sam looks at the under-the-radar development of tow-in surfboards.
Quick, tell us everything you know about tow-in surfboards. They’re short, right? Have deck straps. And that’s probably about it. Which is odd, considering that measured by a performance-to-consequence ratio, tow-in boards, having completely redefined giant-wave riding, are without question the ultimate high performance design. Yet the tiny rockets are hardly ever mentioned in any discussion of contemporary surfboards. Shortboards, longboards, mid-lengths, guns, fish, even soft-tops; surfers endlessly parse surfboard paradigms, and almost always in terms of performance advantages. And still the tow-in board, responsible for the most profound quantum leap in performance the sport has ever seen, receives no attention at all, lumped in with skis, sleds, ropes and inflation vests as merely another piece of equipment.
“People haven’t talked too much about tow boards over the years,” says Laird Hamilton, tow-in surfing’s most prominent progenitor. “Because they haven’t changed all that much. And that’s because Brewer got it right from the very first day.”
Laird certainly has the authority to make this statement, having worked with the late, and legendary, shaper/designer Dick Brewer right from the starting gun, so to speak. For some reason accepted surf history has left out the fact that Brewer was there on the sand in 1992, watching as Laird, Darrick Doerner and Buzzy Kerbox first towed into substantial waves at Backyard Sunset, essentially inventing the discipline.
“We were riding our regular guns,” Laird says. “But when we got back to the beach, the first thing Brewer told us was that we needed to go faster. And to do that we needed shorter boards.”
Brewer, already the most influential big wave gun designer in the business, immediately began to re-conceptualize the state of the art he was directly responsible for creating, all without an existing template.
“It wasn’t as easy as just cutting them down, making a shorter board,” explains Laird. “What he did was actually miniaturize his existing paddle-in gun design, which is completely different thing. So if you look at the first boards he made us, the width, outline and the rails, a 7’6” was proportional to a 9’6”, but with much less wetted surface. Which increased our speed by, what, thirty, forty, fifty percent?”
Further innovation came quickly. Remembers Laird:
“At those higher speeds, straps were a no-brainer, along with added weight. It was hard to beat a wood core. With fins, we started experimenting with really stiff aluminum, and because at speed we didn’t need lift our fins didn’t need to be canted. The angle got more vertical. But everything was about adapting to the increased speed and maneuverability. Suddenly riding a paddle-in gun was like being on a skateboard with the trucks cranked down tight. Tow boards just loosened the trucks, so we could go anywhere we wanted to on the wave.”
As example of the advantages of surfing giant waves with your trucks loose, look no further than the boards strapped to the feet of Kai Lenny, Laird’s one-time mentee and successor as the world’s most progressive big wave surfer. Key word “progressive”, especially in terms of surfboard construction. Built primarily by Maui shaper/designer Keith Teboul, Lenny’s mega-wave quiver features models of various lengths, all crafted from advanced carbon fiber, with lead bullets (yes, bullets) laminated along the centerline to balance weight distribution. Depending on the conditions in which they’re deployed, the iconic metallic blue-and-red spears can weigh between 22 and 12 pounds — plenty heavy for a sub-six foot surfboard. Quad fin setup, with cant almost vertical and fins foiled sharp for pure speed. The efficacy of this sort of design sophistication was affirmed on a wave Lenny rode at Nazarè in 2020, where after center-punching a six-story monster peak, he pulled off a smooth bottom-turn-cutback combo almost as casually as if he was at home surfing Ho’okipa.
Of course, a personalized GoPro/Red Bull carbon fiber quiver isn’t necessarily required when attempting to apply small wave brush strokes to a much, much bigger canvas.
“My first tow board was a hand-me-down, 5’8″ Pyzel swallowtail I was given by Mark Healey, three or four years ago,” says Half Moon Bay’s Luca Padua, at age 20 one of the younger performers who, along with conventional prone big wave surfing, is deeply committed to tow-in. “And why I can’t say if it’s a magic board or not, I have had some of the best rides of my life on it.”
Padua is currently updating his tow quiver by spending plenty of time in the San Diego shaping room of Stu Kenson, his primary board builder.
“Stu has made me some amazing Maverick’s guns,” Padua says. “So it’s really great to be working with him on this season’s tow boards. In terms of outlines, it’s like Laird says — everything is derived from the Brewer shape. But Stu and I have been playing with the nuances, like shorter lengths, lighter weight for maneuverability and fin placement. And strap insert placement. Getting that right is a big one for me, because I tend to have a gorilla stance.”
You can hear the excitement in Luca’s voice when discussing tow-board R&D, a tone he shares with just about any surfer talking about getting a new board. The difference, however, is in his board’s application in surf conditions where “trial and error” is a serious business.
“I’m a real advocate of productivity, which makes my board’s performance that much more important,” explains Padua. “For example, my focus this winter is on the Maverick’s left. Last year I towed into a one from behind the peak and got blown out the other end, which just made me think of what might be possible on a serious set wave. But that pursuit also means thinking about how bad it can, and probably will, get if everything doesn’t go perfectly. In waves like that, high performance takes on a whole new meaning.”