Photograph by Steve Gibbs for Circa 71 media
Ryan Burch’s surfboard experiments often take old-school designs to the extreme.
While the world seems geared toward breeding out individuality, surfing celebrates those who successfully break predetermined boundaries. Still, in a time not long ago, fog shrouded our tribe’s favorite activity, and we tumbled into what may someday be viewed as a dark age. In a snap, we had moved from being rugged individualists driving rusty, duct-taped ‘70s camper vans down unmapped dirt tracks to score virgin waves on garage-built surfboards, into the gaudy lights of Broadway display windows.
Photograph by Steve Gibbs for Circa 71 media
Commercialism led to mass-production and methods of wave riding that often resembled a highly entertaining, but increasingly predictable brand of aquatic karaoke. Consequently, identical surfboards were dumped on the masses like government cheese.
So it was like waking from an unpleasant dream when North County-born-and-bred Ryan Burch appeared on boards never to be featured in discount stores between the microwaveable popcorn and the trash bags. Burch and a small band of others had taken their lead from a humble, quiet surfer/shaper/designer/inventor named Carl Ekstrom, a man who grew up surfing Windansea on surfboards that, to this day, defy mass production.
Ekstrom and his few disciples will tell you that riding experimental equipment can prove a lonely minefield of ridicule and alienation. They know it can also lead to vindication and liberation and moments when you find yourself standing above the pack, moving freely through liquid space on something those paddling toward conformity can only wonder at.
Asymmetrical surfboard inventor Carl Ekstrom (left) mentors Australian board designer Shyama Buttonshaw (center) and Ryan Burch.
Photograph by Steve Gibbs for Circa 71 media
It had taken a while for 29-year-old Ryan Burch to shake off the shackles of the traditionalism that threatened to bind him before he emerged as one of surfing’s top innovators and riders. He no longer competes, but is paid to take exotic surf trips which lead to his appearing in various surf films, and, recently, a Surfer Magazine cover with a headline reading “Homemade,” a title that describes him as much as it does the asymmetrical, side cut, roughed out blank he is seen hoisting.
Burch fine-sanding a custom shape.
Photograph by Steve Gibbs for Circa 71 media
Burch recently won the “Masters of Foam” award at Del Mar’s Boardroom after shaping a blank in imitation of a board first made and ridden by surfing luminary and vertical pioneer Australian Wayne Lynch. While Burch is at the forefront of surfing’s most forward thinkers, he knows that the way up sometimes requires looking back. Warning: this is not a historical piece, and we’ll get back to the main subject of Ryan Burch in a few paragraphs. First, a little backstory.
Windansea, 1963: Carl Ekstrom is surfing on the big-wave gun he built for a friend. Ekstrom ranks among the top at a break featuring some of the world’s best surfers, an exclusive crew that includes Bobby Patterson, Pat Curren, and the original Mr. Pipeline, Butch Van Artsdalen.
While young Carl enjoys the flat out speed of the racy gun beneath his feet, the board lacks maneuverability. This becomes painfully apparent after the wave hits deeper water and slows down, and he attempts to swing into a cutback. The plan is to stall before entering the inside section, “Right Hooker.” Instead of the anticipated barrel, he catches a rail and runs down a friend who is paddling out in the channel. The collision leads Ekstrom back to the shaping room where he unknowingly carves out the future in the shape of the world’s first intentionally asymmetrical surfboard. While the design never hits the big time with surfboards, it will one day make a huge splash with sailboards and, eventually, snowboards.
Burch with a freshly shaped blank, awaiting glassing.
Photograph by Steve Gibbs for Circa 71 media
As for those early asymmetrical surfboards, they accomplished the goal of working equally well frontside and backside, solving Ekstrom’s speed/maneuverability dilemma by essentially making one board perform the duties of two. The new model was greeted enthusiastically, and those who tried it found it an improvement over conventional designs. Nonetheless, it suffered a slow death, and by the early 1970s, Ekstrom had all but retired from the surfboard business. His brilliant contributions had become little more than footnotes, quoted occasionally by surf historians.
Surfboard evolution, no doubt, began in prehistoric times with names now lost to us. From the last century, however, innovators Tom Blake, George Downing, Bob Simmons, Matt Kivlin, Joe Quigg and Dale Velzy worked mostly independently of each other for about a decade to put those who had been stuck flat lining on 100-pound redwood planks onto sophisticated and maneuverable 30-pound balsawood surf craft.
By the late ‘60s-early ‘70s, a new crew had emerged including Boogie Board inventor Tom Morey, shortboard revolutionary George Greenough, and Ekstrom. Basically working solo, the trio provided a roadmap for further evolutionary development with the Mirandon brother’s Twin Pin, the Lis Fish, and, finally, Simon Anderson’s enduring and trusty three-finned Thruster. The Thruster, while a brilliant solution to speed and maneuverability, was not, as some think, the last word in surf innovation, but instead brings to mind a quote by 1899 Commissioner of U.S. Patent Office, Charles H. Duell, who is famously quoted saying, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”
Look back to to move forward
By 1990, Santa Barbara’s Tom Curren had won three world surfing titles on Thrusters, and, still in his prime, quit competitive surfing for good. Curren then traveled the world in search of waves, and starred in a Rip Curl video series appropriately titled The Search.
Enter Australian Derek Hynd. Hynd was visiting Southern California in the ‘90s when he stopped by Skip Frye’s Pacific Beach surf shop and spotted a surfboard unlike any he had ever seen. Like the asymmetrical before it, this promising little board had been discarded years prior for reasons unapparent. Told by surfer/shaper Hank Warner who was on hand at the time of the unveiling, “Derek was glancing at Skip’s 11-foot gliders with no great interest in riding them when he noticed a much shorter board in a bag. He unzipped the bag and pulled out one of Frye’s Fish. Derek was so intrigued by the board that he asked Frye to shape him one but modifying the tail dimensions somewhat to fit his personal surfing needs. It was shaped and glassed in such a hurry that Hynd left for the airport, next stop South Africa, with his new Fish still drying in a plastic bag.”
The story continues in South Africa at the famed right point Jeffrey’s Bay. It was there Curren met up with Hynd and borrowed his new board. Less than six feet in length, boards of this length were previously considered too small to handle the power train of J-Bay at full throttle. Just as Ekstrom had before him and Burch would do afterward, original lines were laid down, and the long-dead Fish was reborn while putting other forgotten designs like the Wingers and Bonzers onto the examination table. From then until now, owning a vintage Fish, Bonzer, or Fitzgerald Hot Buttered Drifta —the last a wide tailed Winger that helped lead to Cheyne Horan’s Lazor Zap — means possessing the holiest icons in the surfing world.
A renaissance seemed imminent until greed hijacked the joystick and the surfing world was pressed into marching-band rigid formation as new designs were passed over in favor of frumpy generic pop outs. All of this future drama unfolded to the sound of 100-dollar department store foamies being freed from their shrink-wrap while non-surfers in distant lands popped surfboards from molds. The days of homegrown backyard experimentation that had led to such breakthroughs as the “Shortboard Revolution,” the Boogie Board. and the fin box were being suffocated by the fumes of mega factories making surfboard shaped sponges that, while basically accomplishing the job of riding waves, left surfing’s collective soul dying in a toxic heap. A large percentage of custom surfboard factories disappeared seemingly overnight, and it seemed that nobody was left to take the reigns of the next revolution. The few notable exceptions included the Del Mar-raised Alexander brothers with their “Gemini Project,” and Solana Beach’s Willis brothers with their dimple bottomed “Phazer.”
The family garage that had previously doubled as a workshop was now a dumping ground for ancient TVs, phone machines, and busted VCRs. There were as few places to build boards as there were people with the skill and inclination to make them. Moreover, why try? You could buy the latest and greatest fully assembled surfboard for a little more money and a lot less hassle and mess than it took to build one yourself. Skiers had been riding molded look-alike equipment for decades; what made surfing special?
Just when it appeared that custom surfboards were no longer desired by anyone, the sounds of hope again rang out in the form of Skil 100 planers. Gradually, faint rumblings were heard that a few teenagers were learning the art of surfboard shaping, and, in some cases, even glassing.
While Ryan Burch now holds the unofficial rank of Aquaman first class, there was a time when he turned away from the ocean in favor of the landlocked joys of GI Joes and Big Wheels. Ryan’s father Jerry, who passed away seven years ago, was an excellent surfer and a good, if, perhaps, overzealous teacher. “My dad pushed me into a wave when I was three years old, and it scared me so much that I didn’t try surfing again for another four years. When I tried again, it was on his boards. It wasn’t until I began having my own boards made that I realized there was a big difference in how various boards rode.”
By 2006, at age 13, Burch’s memory of infant baptism had faded sufficiently to put him back in the water full time. That’s around the time I became aware of him, and quickly noticed he was unlike most other young teens in that his youthful, athletic frame seemed to house a far older soul. He and his best friend Eric Snortum had just come in from surfing Swami’s. They dropped their boards in the sand and ran back into the water to ride prone on literal blocks of wood in the shorebreak. Both surfers were local rising stars in the then-dimming North County surf universe, but there was no hint at the time that Burch would lift a smoldering torch to become one of the new leaders of an ongoing (thank God for that) revolution.
Even with his own surfboards, he would at first imitate those who came before him. His most significant influence was, of course, North County’s favorite super surf star Rob Machado. According to Ryan, “As a teenager, I surfed in a lot of Scholastic Surfing Association contests, where the criteria sort of demanded that you ride the same types of boards. Once I got out of high school, I had a lot of free time. I wasn’t yet able to travel a lot, because I didn’t have the resources. Where I live (San Diego’s North County) is ideal for longboarding, but at first, I would get laughed at when I rode longboards. I soon realized that the small waves that had once been boring to me were like paradise on other equipment.
“I thought I’d ride my longboards for fun, and ride my shortboards in competition, because I was still dreaming of becoming a professional surfer. Eventually, creativity crept in, and I started experimenting with different aspects of surfing and surfboards.”
About a decade ago, Windansea’s perennial frontrunner Richard Kenvin began seeking something new and requested Ekstrom build him an asymmetrical surfboard. Ekstrom, who had not been in the shaping room for over two decades, dug up some old templates, manipulated them with new lines and, for the second time in his life, unwittingly shook up the surfing world. For the first time in years, one of surfing’s leading lights lit up the water on an asymmetrical surfboard, and the design was reborn. Riding in Kenvin’s powerful wake on those maiden voyages was then18-year-old Ryan Burch.
While Burch had placed highly in amateur contests, it was his free surfing that established his reputation as an up-and-comer. Curren, Gerlach, and Australia’s Dave Rastovich had proved that contest surfing was not the only way for a world-class wave rider to pay the bills. Adding to Burch’s discomfort with bullhorns and colored jerseys was his emerging love affair with Ekstrom’s lopsided surfboards.
Ekstrom, who had long since traded in surfing to become a full-time designer of items including cars and furniture, is credited with significant accomplishments in and out of the water world. Standing out in his phonebook-sized resume is the modeling and design of the first Flowrider, a mechanical standing wave. He also designed and built the boards for that wave, something that eventually led to his working with one of surfing’s most elite fleets. The boards he made for surfers such as Kenvin and Burch were paid for in welcome feedback. Burch proved a quick study and rapidly moved from apprentice to master and helped introduce asymmetry to modern audiences. By his late teens, he had become a decent surfboard builder, made himself a few asymmetrical surfboards, and exaggerated their features to the point of cartoon reality. These experiments have left him with a deeper understanding than anyone (with the possible exception of the inventor himself) of a concept that is currently celebrated worldwide.
Some of those early Windansea expression sessions by Kenvin and Burch opened doors of wonder for them and others about what other healthy babies may have been discarded along with the proverbial bathwater. The ancestral search took them back further than expected, a few hundred years further in fact, to an ancient Hawaiian surf craft known as the Alaia. The Alaia had recently been resurrected by California-to-Australia transplant Tom Wegener after years of that board suffering the indignity of being merely a museum curiosity.
Burch enlisted young Windansea gremmie Lucas Dirkse into the ranks. Without intending to, the “Yard possums,” as their unofficial company was known, had flushed over a century of accumulated design wisdom by paddling out on something that had no more design flow than a giant soda cracker. Adding insult to this apparent insanity, the duo rode a section of beach ignored by everyone but a few bodysurfers, a closed out shorebreak looming within feet of Windansea’s central peak. The weapons of their iconoclasm were nothing but unglassed, unfinned sections of a surfboard blank, but they rode them so well it was hard to imagine a better choice. Getting barreled, doing 360s and generally having a blast, anyone observing them live or in clips from Kenvin’s highly anticipated but as yet unreleased film Hydrodynamica was left wondering if the generic three-finned Thruster that had dominated the past 30 years was really the best solution to wave riding after all. Around that time, former touring pro surfer Derek Hynd discovered yet another way to skin a blank by becoming one of the world’s leading riders of finless craft, something he continues to experiment with to this day.
A surfer’s guide to experimentation
Like most from his generation, Ryan had fallen in and reported for duty by joining the army of normal infantry in his early teens. Suddenly, rebellion surged in his veins as it often does in usually unhealthy ways and he broke rank. “I was told to train and practice for contests as a kid, but I loved bodysurfing and just playing in the ocean. Eric Snortum and I used to make miniature bellyboards, and those were our first experiences in shaping. We had a lot of fun doing that, and then someone told me they had seen Rob Machado standing up on a piece of wood.” The wood turned out to be an early Jon (Tom’s younger brother) Wegener Alaia. “I remember thinking, ‘You can stand up on something like that?’ Prior to that time, both Eric and I had been on the same track, trying to be competitive pro surfers, but without enough money to travel we were left in Southern California with a lot of time on our hands. This is one of the birthplaces of playful, inquisitive side of surfing, and we kind of went with that. We were getting so much joy trying to ride something funky and being out of control. We didn’t fit the mold, in that sense.
“When I met Carl Ekstrom and began riding his asymmetricals (about ten years ago) it all clicked. From the first time I tried asymmetry, it seemed natural to me. Without Carl, I never would have even thought to make such an extreme surfboard by taking two different designs and combining the frontside and backside.”
When asked if he thought the top professionals of the day could benefit from more experimentation, Ryan immediately replied, “They are so talented, but I think the surf industry keeps them on boards that are consistent with a formula. Plus, the pros have so many contests that they don’t have time to experiment with new equipment. Their sponsors require that they sell a certain model.”
Visiting Burch and hanging out in his shaping bay is a young Australian surfer/board designer named Shyama Buttonshaw. Buttonshaw, who is more conservative than Burch in his board building approach, nonetheless does things his way. According to Ryan, “I like what Shyama is doing with his design concepts, and he can tell you there are a million different styles that have not yet been tried.”
Reflecting on his roots, Burch says, “The playful times of youth are some of the most important to innovation. There’s a local kid around here, Zach Flores, that epitomizes that more than anyone I know. I look at his shapes and think, ‘Only he can ride that.’ He’s pushing it to the next level by making boards so thin they resemble skimboards. He surfs them stylishly and with more speed than anyone has ever surfed those sorts of boards before. I asked him to help me shape a board recently because now my boards are starting to seem like they have a formula, like I’m beginning to make the same thing over and over.
“Zach’s at that time in his life (17) where he’s got a lot of freedom, a time when you first get your driver’s license and can go anywhere on the coast and surf. The consistency of fun little waves here makes it a perfect testing ground. I see Zack going through the same sorts of things I did as a kid, and he has such a different style and a different approach. It’s awesome to see. There’s a whole line of kids even younger than him who look up to his surfing.”
“Where I used to get laughed at for showing up with a longboard at my home breaks, it’s common now for a kid growing up in Encinitas to show up at the beach with a shortboard and a longboard. When you’re in your teens, and your idols are making fun of you, you can go home crying at the end of the day,” Burch laughs. “It’s cool that those old doors are being busted down now. I think surfing’s in a great state where everything goes, and people who love the ocean and surfing are dabbling in everything.”
“My surfboards are different from most others, but I still build them as they did in the ‘50s when polyurethane foam came out. I’m still in that caveman lamination mode; back there with a squeegee and a bucket moving resin around the same way the Bear did in Big Wednesday.”
When asked about a computerized board made of futuristic materials that could do things like sprout fins from the rails or flatten out rocker when necessary, in the way a literal fish does, Burch laughs and replies. “Tesla has the technology to make a board like that. I can imagine some millionaire kook buying one of those boards and riding it better than the top pros. If a car can drive itself better than a human, they could make a surfboard that could make anyone perform better than even the best surfers.”