Gnarly, Radical & Tubuluar: Surf Industry Innovation

Guest Author: Nicole Kravec

After watching Garret McNamara set the world record for riding a 90 (NINETY!) foot wave (aka 27.4 meters) in Praia do Norte, Portugal, I can’t help but wonder where he’ll go next – and what his ride implies for the surf tourism industry – an industry with between 25-50 million participants around the world with yearly growth around 15%, that can unfortunately oftentimes have unsustainable impacts.

McNamara, along with other Big (an understatement) Wave Surfers like Laird Hamilton and Mike Parsons, use a technique called “Tow-In Surfing.”  The process uses artificial assistance to literally tow a surfer into a breaking wave by a partner driving a personal watercraft like a Jet Ski or a helicopter with a tow-line attached.  Tow-In Surfing is what helped get McNamara his wave, as it is used when the wave is uber large and/or where positioning within the wave is critical.  There is some controversy associated with Tow-In Surfing, as it creates a lot of noise and exhaust that can certainly harm the local ecosystems.

That’s part of the biggest irony in the surf industry:  As surfers we are known for our nature-loving, free-spirited ways. But the processes and boards we use to catch our ultimate rides on around the world are often wreaking havoc on Mama Earth.  As we surfers want lighter and faster boards for competition, and continue to seek the ground-pounding waves that give us that swell of endorphins, the more likely our boards are to break and release all the resins and foam into the ecosystems we love.  It’s not uncommon for a professional surfer to use a fiberglass board for less than a week before discarding it.  In other words, the organic art we engage in unfortunately often uses far from organic practices and materials.

Despite the toxic realities, there’s certainly hope to move from ego to eco.

The other day I had the good fortune of visiting Eco Boardworks, the world’s first full-scale eco surfboard facility.  Based in Los Angeles, Eco Boardworks’ goal is to create the least toxic and most environmentally responsible surfboards on the market.  The folks there explained that the traditional surfboard is one of the most toxic pieces of sporting goods equipment on the planet, and what they’re doing about it, starting with using recycled foam blanks. Todd, Ry and Chano, I definitely know where to go when it’s time for a new board.

Other good news: Polyurethane from old boards can also serve as one heck of a sponge. Southern California start-up Monarch Green is using toxic surfboard shaper dust to create a substance that can quickly absorb harmful chemical waste, like the results of an oil spill.

Another innovative (and fun pun) board producer is Fiber-grass (aka bamboo boards).

With the advent of technologies and new innovations such as these, along with good practices like recycling old boards, the surf community can help preserve the stoke, and the beauty where they find it,  for generations to come.

About the author: Perpetually curious about the nexus between genuine environmental conservation, community wellbeing and tourism, Nicole has worked with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural (UNESCO) World Heritage Centre’s Sustainable Tourism Programme, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Harvard Business School and the Campi ya Kanzi community eco-lodge in Kenya. She has lived in/visited 6 continents and attended Cornell University and The Fletcher School of International Affairs.

4 thoughts on “Gnarly, Radical & Tubuluar: Surf Industry Innovation

  1. Pingback: Urban Surf « Raxa Collective

  2. Without a doubt, surfers are a group of people that enjoy the presents of Mother Nature and the natural beauty that surrounds our earth more then the average Joe. Growing up in Hawaii and attending college in New York, I have seen our earth in its raw and untouched beauty. I have also seen our earth torn apart, polluted, congested, trampled and abused by almost every person alive. As this article points out, surfers are no exception. The harmful waste that is produced by shaping surfboards, the gas and resources surfers use in there search for the next best wave, the number of people who travel to remote and untouched lands (because of surfing) like Tahiti, Fiji, Hawaii and many other places most people have never heard of all contribute to the environmental decline of our world. Not to mention that surfing has become a billion dollar industry and that every T-shirt, hat, surf contest that was used in building this industry has also taken an environmental toll on what surfers love most. I ask myself how can we change this? What can all surfers do to help curb the environmental massacre that seems inevitable? I like looking at the company Patagonia because they do a good job on producing products that combat the environmental crisis, but their products come at a higher cost. In my eyes, this higher cost means that to afford Patagonia equipment you must make more money and to make more money most people will have to exploit the environment even more then they do. For example, an eco friendly wetsuit may coast an extra $100, where does that money come from? How much of an effect on the environment will I have in order to make that extra $100 to purchase the wetsuit? Almost every profession or hobby I can think of has an impact on the environment be it gas for travel, manufacturing of products, land for development etc… It seems to me that humans have become so dependent on natural resources that most attempts at going green only translate to a depletion of another resources outside that persons grasp. I am looking for ideas that help to dig me out of this pessimistic viewpoint I have, how can the surf industry be more environmentally friendly?

  3. Hey Ethan, thanks for sharing your thoughts. You raise some great points that go beyond surfing and into supply chain ethics, transferred environmental costs and societal realities. Interesting point though saying that humans have “become” so dependent on natural resources – haven’t we always been, in one form or another? It’s a great irony of surfing that part of our craft/career/hobby/passion necessitates a love for the ocean – but there are a myriad of ways we harm Mama Nature in expressing this love through surfing. I see the folks at Eco Boardworks as an example of ways to leave less of a watermark (ehh…footprint in the water?) and I hope they’re able to continue to do their good work. So supporting them or companies/orgs like them is one step. Another related read:
    http://www.outsideonline.com/blog/outdoor-adventure/events/sustainable-surf-industry.html

    Ultimately it comes down to individual choices – which places we decide to visit and how frequently, where we purchase from, how we can share these more environmentally-conscious decisions with others. Our individual choices shape collective supply/demand, though not overnight. Regarding where we buy from, I still think Patagonia’s a ripper example. Their prices are steep but they also outlast cheaper alternatives that would need replacing much more frequently, and using more materials in the process.

    Thanks again for your comment – I’ll continue to post ideas here, hope others do the same!

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