Editor’s Note: Welcome to “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 modern surfboard.
Generally accepted surf history tells us that the first shot in what came to be known as the “Shortboard Revolution” was fired by Australian Nat Young, and the 9’2”, relatively lightweight longboard he rode to victory at the 1966 world championships. Yet despite this early salvo in board size reduction, by 1969 not a single surfboard being ridden looked anything like Nat’s “Magic Sam,” its flexible, George Greenough-designed “high aspect” fin notwithstanding. On the other hand, another surfboard was taking shape in 1966 that would go on to influence the development of the boards we ride today in ways that few surfers – even those who nerd out on this sort of thing – fully appreciate. That board was the Bing “Pipeliner.”
“The Pipeliner was not only the zenith of longboard design in its era,” says legendary surfer/shaper Gerry Lopez, who knows a little something about both Pipeline and surfboard design, “but eventually led to the Brewer mini-gun in ‘67, the shape that almost all the boards that came after were based on.”
The Brewer that Lopez refers to is, of course, the late Dick Brewer, the hugely influential shaper/designer responsible not only for the progenitor of the modern shortboard in 1967, but for the development of the first tow-in surfboard a full quarter century later. In the mid-1960s, however, Brewer, living in Hawaii and shaping under a number of surfboard labels, was probably best known for his serious, scary “elephant guns,” intended primarily for riding the North Shore on the heaviest of heaviest days. But it was in 1966 that Brewer was recruited by far-sighted South Bay board manufacturer Bing Copeland, who, steering him away from heavy artillery, instead tasked Brewer with designing innovative, versatile new shapes for team riders like the great David Nuuhiwa. One of the first models to emerge from Brewer’s foam dust-filled laboratory was a sleek sled unlike anything the period’s other manufacturers had on offer. It was dubbed the “Pipeliner.”
“The template might’ve been close to the Phil Edwards Model by Hobie, but that’s where the similarity ended,” says Lopez, who as teenager was on hand to experience the Pipeliner’s genesis. “Longboards back then tended to be really flat, and really didn’t ride that great. But the Pipeliner was different. It was thin, foiled out, with more rocker than any other boards of that time, especially in the nose. It was probably the first really maneuverable longboard.”
Which is why, in Hawaii, at least, just every up-and-coming hot shot wanted one. So as Brewer refined his design he did so with direct feedback from the likes of Jeff Hakman, Jock Sutherland, Kiki Spangler, Roy Mesker, Jackie Eberle…and eventually a young Gerry Lopez.
“Back then I never owned one,” remembers Lopez. “But Jock had two, a 9’5” and a 9’4”, and that shorter one was such a bitchin’ board. When my friend Buddy Dumphy and I would go out to the North Shore, Jock would actually let us ride that thing, and, man, we’d dry and polish it up before bringing it back to his house at the end of the day. It was easily the best surfboard in the water at that time.”
Being lauded as the best-riding longboard of its era might have been enough to earn the Pipeliner icon status. But surfboard history had other plans.
“It was the winter of 1967, and I was riding Jock’s board out at V-land one day when Brewer paddled out,” recalls Lopez. “I said ‘hi’ and told him how much I liked the board. And he didn’t know who I was, but said, ‘I’ll make you one.’ I was stunned.”
Stunned, he may have been, but that didn’t stop Lopez, only 19 years old at the time, from eventually purchasing a surfboard blank and, along with fellow Island standout Reno Abellira, hopping over to Maui, where Brewer was shaping at the time, in hopes of getting a custom Pipeliner.
That same December, Australians Bob McTavish and Nat Young made the trip over to the Valley Isle, where they connected with a fabulous day of waves at Honolua Bay. Riding short, stringerless, dramatically vee-bottomed “Fantastic Plastic Machines” designed by McTavish, the talented pair’s radical, broken line surfing on the Bay’s flawless walls represented a significant performance breakthrough. Yet what most onlookers saw as a major turning point, Dick Brewer viewed as merely a starting point.
“I got to Maui soon after that session at the Bay with Nat and McTavish,” says Lopez. “And I’ve got my blank, expecting to get a 9’8” Pipeliner, just like Reno’s. So I’m in the shaping room with Brewer, and he draws out the template, looks at it, then without saying anything he takes a saw and chops off about the foot of the tail.”
With the Plastic Machine’s more obvious drawbacks fresh in his mind – the wide-backed vee-bottom had a tendency to spin out in hollow, powerful waves, while its parallel rail template was prone to catching an edge – Brewer envisioned a shorter, more maneuverable board that took advantage of the Pipeliner’s existing attributes. After unceremoniously lopping a foot off Lopez’s precious blank he tapered the Pipeliner’s graceful curves to a narrow point at the tail, spontaneously creating the template later known as the “mini-gun.” Here was a highly maneuverable board that with the Pipeliner’s combination of rocker and foil, offered with the new design’s “positive drive with control,” was a revelation in Hawaiian tubes. Quite literally within a few weeks the design’s length dropped from eight feet to seven, and just like that, the “Shortboard Revolution” began raging in earnest.
By the summer of 1968 Bing Copeland, ever progressive, had already begun marketing one of the first commercially produced mini-guns adapted to suit the rest of the world’s waves, a Brewer-inspired shape called the “Lotus.” And by that winter, the mini-gun had already begun to morph, again with Brewer leading the way, into the classic narrow, wide-point forward pintail shape that with only a few refinements remained the standard surfboard design well into the mid-1970s. Then came the modern twin-fin (product of a collaboration between Australian Mark Richards and, you guessed it, Dick Brewer), then came the Thruster, then came…well, it’s obvious you don’t have to pull on many threads to connect the Pipeliner to the eventual evolution of the modern surfboard.
“The mini-gun really was the child of the Pipeliner,” says Lopez. “But even as a longboard, nobody really improved on the Pipeliner until we started making high-performance longboards for the movie Big Wednesday in 1978. I really can’t say enough good things about it.”
Innovative surfboard manufacturing pioneer Bing Copeland will be honored as an “Icon of Foam” at the 2023 Boardroom International Surfboard Show, taking place on October 7-8, in Del Mar, California. Fine more info here.