Surfing Smart with SurfCo Hawaii

Surfing Smart with SurfCo Hawaii

Needless to say, SurfPulse was preaching to the choir when they asked me to review SurfCo Hawaii’s product line. If you haven’t yet been injured by your board, just give it time. Ever notice the hybrids and longboards flying around like Sikorsky rotor blades at your favorite spot? And even if you are a young gun, full of testosterone and attitude, pushing each session to the edge, you’re just as vulnerable. You are mortal…you just don’t know it yet. In NorCal, if you think you are protected by your wetsuit, think again. Modern, aqua-dynamically shaped fins can slice right through you while leaving the neoprene material intact. Two surfing icons who have sacrificed an eye to their beloved sport are Santa Cruz wetsuit tycoon Jack O’Neill and North Shore big wave legend Peter Cole.

Over the course of a 21-year surfing career, let’s just say that I have left some skin on the reef, both proverbial and actual. Relying mostly on a spartan medical kit of duct tape, Advil and iodine to patch myself up, regular visits to a physio and my chiropractor have also helped keep me in the water. Plagued by fin cuts, reef wounds, hamstring tears, broken toes, surfer’s elbow, a pinched meniscus, a scapula tear, a butt gouge and a cracked septum (twice)—no, it ain’t easy getting old.

This parade of injuries was not sustained from deep water heroics, far from it. Most of them simply occurred during the odd routine session of shallow water antics at average beach or reef breaks, or even just mistimed entries and exits from the water. In fact, my favorite stunt is simply to pop up after a close-out during a breezy offshore session only to find my board pin-wheeling straight toward me as I blindly struggle to blink the salt water from my eyes. Inevitably, some sharp extremity of the board will take a maniacal aim at my head, apparently seeking vengeance for the indignity of being my aquatic beast of burden, blocked only by a last-ditch sleight of hand.

 
Covered from nose to tail.
 

“Surf Smart” with SurfCo
SurfCo Hawaii was founded in 1986, established to market and distribute the company’s first product, the “Nose Guard.” Entrepreneur and CEO David Skedeleski of SurfCo co-invented the protective rubber device with renowned shaper Eric Arakawa, currently with Hawaiian Island Creations (HIC) Surfboards. After several well-publicized incidents, the two first distributed their new product on the North Shore free to surfers. David’s own son, Michael, was cut off early in his promising competitive surfing career at age 14 by a wicked slice to his leg from a fiberglass fin that took 125 stitches to repair. Traumatized, he has only just returned to surfing 16 years later at age 30 and was one of the prime inspirations behind SurfCo’s second major product, “Pro Teck” fins.

David recalls learning to surf in placid Waikiki, sharing a rental board with his sister as a child and knowing from that first ride that it was the sport of kings. His first board was a used Velzy that his dad carefully re-glassed for him. Later, tragically blown off the roof of their car after a session, the Velzy was run over by a drunk driver and had its fin unceremoniously lopped off. David remembers always tinkering with his boards, repairing and even shaping a few. He even taught Craig Sugihara to surf, who later became the CEO of Town & Country Surfboards.

David almost died in fast-rising surf at Haliewa in the pre-surf report days at age 16, when that beach break became one with the raging “Avalanches” next door—the very same thing that happened to me as youth. That formative event taught him to value life and respect the power of the ocean. Today, as SurfCo CEO, he’s a busy guy, but he still finds time to longboard 2–3 times a week at his favorite haunts, like Ewa Beach and Barber’s Point on the South Shore, and Mokule’ia and Chun’s Reef on the North Shore.

A Painful Education

SurfCo has won many fans over its 22-year history and continues to attract unsolicited testimonials from amateurs and pros alike. Considering that the company does not sponsor any surfers or pay to have them use their products, that’s quite a compliment. In fact, the company has a deliciously gory “testimonials” section on its website below. Just like the Driver’s Education movies of our teens, with footage of mangled drunks and their victims, this hall of surfing horrors makes for sobering viewing:

http://surfcohawaii.com/shop_content.php?coID=32

Even the pros get unlucky from time to time. Hawaii’s Pancho Sullivan, World Tour rookie in 2006 and #7 in 2007, recalls an incident during the Pipeline Masters at Ehukai Beach on the North Shore in which he was struck in his face with the tip of his board. “If I did not have a Diamond Tip on the nose, I would have been seriously injured! I think it’s foolish for a surfer not to use a Diamond Tip or Nose Guard on their board,” he said. Pancho, who favors red for all his accessories, is an easy sell for the entire product line.

 
Pancho likes his nose guards red.
Other surfers who have gravitated to the SurfCo products after close encounters with their equipment include Pipeline Master Gerry Lopez, who tried Pro Teck fins after an incident in Indo. Tow-in specialist and WCT commentator Mike Parsons has used them as well, along with Buzzy Kerbox. Hawaii’s big wave free surfer Shane Dorian has also tested the fins at the urging of his shaper, John “JC” Carper, who uses them on his own boards. Charger Jamie Sterling’s Maverick’s gun this year had a black nose guard, which came in especially handy when the board was tipped over on stage at the contest awards ceremony. Most have learned the hard way and sought SurfCo products after the fact.

 

Tube documentarian Brian “My Eyes Won’t Dry” Connelly falls neatly into that category, and should consider SurfCo’s product line after a horrific and deep gash in the back of his left calf, inflicted while filming in mainland Mexico. Towing and paddling into double overhead hurricane surf, Connelly’s group had been going deep and coming out clean. He got caught a little high after exiting a tube, was clipped and sucked over the falls with his board. He was “squirting blood” out of a 3-inch fin slice and knew when he came up this was unlike other incidental contacts with his board. Quick actions by his friends, who applied a tourniquet and rushed him to the local hospital, were followed with deep internal sutures to close the wound. Graphic footage can be seen at the end of the following video…not for those of weak constitution:

http://www.surfline.com/video/video_player/video_player.cfm?id=12138&mv=ncl

Another Brillo Production

The unofficial spokesmodel for the SurfCo line is Huntington-based Darrin Brilhart, who as the Director of Brillo Productions makes his livelihood organizing high-profile WQS surfing events like the Cold Water Classic in Santa Cruz. At the Maverick’s contest, when Surfer Editor Chris Mauro comically couldn’t find the results sheet at the awards ceremony, it was Darrin who handed him a back-up copy. While you may not have heard of him, in all likelihood you’ve seen a gruesome image of him in the major surf mags. Darrin impaled the nose of his board right into his face, tongue and roof of his mouth. Ironically, Darrin had been with Brian Connelly a year before his accident and had offered Nose Guards and Pro Teck fins to the film maker in Pasquales, Mexico, which he said would be well suited to “going down the line” in the barrel with a helmet cam.

As Darrin describes his own episode back in September 2003: “I pulled into a close-out barrel, as I was under the water my board shot through my jaw into my tongue and punctured the roof of my mouth. If I would have had a Nose Guard, I don’t think it would have done so much damage and if it punctured my throat or eye, I could have been done for good. I actually got very lucky!” Images of his jaw scar and his repaired tongue sticking out at the camera offer a cautionary tale horrific enough to send a chill down the spine of even the most hardened veteran.

 
Darrin takes one for the team.
Reflecting on that event today, Darrin says he healed pretty well and was lucky to miss the main nerves, but he still has no feeling on the right side of his face. Two months later he was again speared by his board, this time in the arm, but had learned his lesson well: a Nose Guard protected him from further insult and injury. With little prodding, he says that David (SurfCo CEO) “is an unreal guy with a great product.” As a result, he distributes the products gratis as an emissary for the SurfCo line to budding amateurs and professionals on the tour. While the pros can be a bit more finicky due to relations with their sponsors, he’s pleased to report that the groms have been more sensible and open to the devices.

 

Local Knowledge

Hawk: Former Surfer Editor Steve Hawk has used Nose Guards and soft-edge fins for years—almost since they first came out. “I’m a puss about that stuff,” he said. Like others, he has not been immune to fin cuts or other board-related injuries, having been stitched up numerous times, but he’s been fortunate enough to not have suffered any catastrophic hits. In his time at Surfer, Hawk said he heard many scary stories about people losing eyes, getting deep facial scars or nearly bleeding to death as a result of fin wounds. He recalled one particularly disturbing letter from a reader who took a fin shot to the family jewels and, upon peeling down his wetsuit to take inventory, had to spool in a dangling testicle before shuffling to the emergency room.

Tjogas: Local charger Jim Tjogas of Montara suffered a kidney stab from a board fin at a state beach along the San Mateo coast a couple of years back. In hollow and dredgy head-high surf, he took off on a left and lost his footing after a characteristically hard vertical frontside snap on a suck out. He felt icy water rushing into his warm wetsuit after his board knifed him in the back. Built like a linebacker and with the balance of an alley cat, Tjogas knew something was wrong after the wound, and friends who examined him said he was very lucky with the near miss. His vital organ was badly bruised, but fortunately not destroyed. He recalls excruciating pain for a week, urinating blood for longer, and sleeping uncomfortably for over a month, though he still didn’t miss many sessions in the process. Jim admits that Pro Teck fins would have significantly reduced the damage.

Mark Alfaro has a near miss.Alfaro: Like it was yesterday, Mark Alfaro recalls the time he nearly lost his eye and his life in playful conditions at Ocean Beach in San Francisco several years back. He was taking full advantage of small, clean, shoulder-high surf when he still lived in the city. Going fast on a right, the wave closed out and shut him down. Mark ducked under the lip and made the exit out the back, but his board didn’t, snapping back up under his body underwater. It grazed his eyelid and hit the socket so hard that he nearly passed out. Ironically, at the tip of the board was a hard plastic early-model guard (not from SurfCo) and yet the board was still crushed some three inches back from the nose, stringer and all. Mark uses the softer rubber Diamond Tips on all his boards now.

No stranger to hard blows from martial arts competitions, he is convinced that even a slightly different trajectory could have driven the board through his eye and easily killed him. His surf buddies were over a hundred yards away and couldn’t hear his call for help, so he had to get to shore under his own power. Blinded by the blood, he inquired from a friend on land, “Is my eye okay?” His friend replied that his eyeball was intact, but he “looked like crap!” Emergency room nurses and doctors’ jaws dropped and eyes widened at the sight of Mark’s injury, all the more alarming given the trauma they were accustomed to in the E.R. on any given day.

In the end, he was patched up with several stitches on the side of his nose and was very lucky. Alfaro knows first hand that it’s easy to let your guard down in small, shallow conditions, and personally knows two guys who have lost an eye in tiny surf, including Mark Froke (below), who didn’t get a second chance. He has even used rubberized Pro Teck fins for the past nine years on his Maverick’s guns. After several fin impacts in various conditions, Mark has only received minor welts from Pro Tecks, rather than cuts or a potential loss of limb.

No second chance for Mark Froke.Marshall: Mike Marshall of Performance Surfing Products distributes the SurfCo product line along with other surf product lines to shops on the mainland from his Half Moon Bay office. An irrepressible surfer and businessman, Mike uses Nose Guards on all his boards, though he has a bad habit of jamming them nose-first in the sand while suiting up. A wealth of information, he notes dryly that about 30% of new boards are sold with Nose Guards, but somewhere between the surf shop register and the beach he sees far fewer than that in the line-up. He infers that buyers must be having second thoughts about the “coolness” factor somewhere along the line. With the tone of someone who has seen and heard it all, however, he chides, “It’s not when or if, but how bad you will be hurt.”

Of course, it’s not without some first hand experience that he makes that claim. While surfing, Mike has broken his leg, injured his wrist and elbow, lost teeth and had over 100 stitches at last count. He recalls one particularly harrowing incident at Sunset Beach on the North Shore when he managed to catch his thruster fin cluster in the crotch, somehow narrowly saved from that truly gruesome fate by the middle fin snaring him in one cheek, which stopped the other two from pursuing their primary objective. In another close call, he was stabbed in his facial cheek bone with a board protected by a Nose Guard, suffering only a bad bruise as a result.

Nose Guards

The range of Nose Guards runs from the “Diamond Tip” for the short board to larger nose and tail guards for longer equipment. There are even categories for sailboards and snowboards, as well as a “Paddle Guard Kit” for those who stand-up paddle. I have used these guards for years on most of my boards, though I have admittedly been less conscientious of late. It’s kind of like Russian roulette: you’re probably fine most of the time, but you never know when your number is up.

As documented, gouges from the nose of a board to any part of the body can inflict serious injury, and a surprising number of talented surfers have made contact this way with dire consequences, especially after misadventures in the barrel. Other than ego or the bravado factor, there is little justification for not placing one of these gems on the tip of your board; there is no drag or other impediment from the guard. I was a little more skeptical about the “Tail Guards,” which seemed likely to alter performance by redirecting water flow off the back, but in order to give the product a fair shake I modified one to fit the pointy tips of the swallow tail on my 6′-4″ Fish. To my surprise, if anything, it gave the board a tad more projection and lift, like a small bump wing or step in the rail.

 
A selection of Pro Teck fins.Pro Teck Fins 

These fins have a rubber compound that surrounds the perimeter of a flexible, hard plastic or stiff carbon core fin. Skedeleski says he found his inspiration for these from Dolphin fins, which are flexible on their outer edges, as well, much like the Tuna fin that provided the template for the flexible skeg invented by pioneering kneeboarder George Greenough. Two-time world champ Tom Carroll once infamously impaled his trailing thruster fin “where the sun don’t shine” during a competition in small shorebreak in Japan, requiring stitches to repair an unnaturally large hole that mother nature never intended.

According to Matt Warshaw’s The Encyclopedia of Surfing, a Surfing Medical Association (SMA) study found that 60% of injuries were board-related. 55% of these injuries are from being struck by one’s own board, and 40% of these are lacerations from fins. Most injuries sustained from other surfers come from the nose of a loose board. Another study found that 70% of surf-related injuries take place in waves under head high. So the eye or thigh you save may not just be your own.

SurfCo offers a variety of highly engineered fin set-ups, for thrusters and longboards alike. The orange “Super Flex” fins are designed with the beginner in mind and have the greatest flex range for more forgiving and fluid turns. Both the core fin and rubber compound on the perimeter offer the most pliability for the greatest safety. From a liability and ethical standpoint there is no reason that any surf school worth their salt water wouldn’t have these fins as mandatory on all equipment. The same goes for any shops renting Soft Top boards to novices.

One well-known big wave warrior started up a surf school and bought a handful of Soft Top boards for that purpose. David Skedeleski was the distributor for those boards in the Islands and recommended the instructor install Pro Teck fins on all the boards, but the guy said he couldn’t afford to at the time. His very first clients were a husband and wife who paddled out single file into the surf. The husband lost control of the board in the shore-break, and it squirted straight back into his wife’s face, gashing her in the forehead with its stock plastic fins. After a trip to the emergency room at the school’s expense, fortunate to not be sued out of existence, the chastened proprietor retrofitted the rubberized fins on all his boards.

The next step up is the “Power Flex” series, offering a clear core fin with colored outside edges and a medium flex characteristic, designed more for intermediate surfers or those who wish to loosen up their board with a more springy snap-back acceleration out of the turns. SurfCo’s “Performance” fin series has a stiffer core flex that creates more drive from bottom turns and off-the-top cutbacks, but still combined with a soft outer edge for safety and fluidity. Another innovation at this level is the option of a regular (75A) and stiff (85A) flex for the edges of the fin, with the former providing a looser feel and tighter turning arc over the latter which creates more drive and projection. “Performance” fins are designed with the intermediate to professional surfer in mind. The ones I tested were cleanly finished and all fit tolerances with other manufacturers’ fin boxes were appropriately snug.

 
Carbon-X fin system 

At the apex of the SurfCo fin pyramid are its “Carbon-X” fins, created for expert to professional surfers, with an “extra rigid” core, maximum lightness and the stiffer 85A outer edge for the greatest combination of speed, drive, projection and fluidity. These fins have a carbon-grey core and black trailing edge. I tested out a pair of Carbon-X fins on two very familiar boards and found them to be a respectably responsive alternative to the Vector II and Scimitar Futures fins that I tend to favor.

The Carbon-X fins surf very similar to the FCS G-5s and generally offer comparable control to their counterparts, with little sacrifice of speed or projection. One area that SurfCo is looking into is the foiled side fins, similar to Futures, which offer extra traction and lift in top and bottom turns. The popularity of quad (4-fin) clusters also suggest another avenue for SurfCo down the road, along with new materials choices and other innovations pending that would nicely round out the high end of their product line.

I have often imagined that in the event of a shark attack I’d jam the tail and sharp fins of my board in the gaping mouth of the animal to teach him a lesson and buy some time as I bolted to the beach. Of course, with rubberized Pro Teck fins that would be more like flossing his teeth squeaky-clean if he hasn’t already done so with the leash. But the very real statistical truth is that you are infinitely more likely to be chewed up by your own board than any grumpy cartilaginous creature.

Don’t hide the new paint job!Hot Grip Traction Pads

These are brand spanking new clear and tinted one-piece traction tail pads, first of their kind on the market. In a slight departure for the SurfCo product line, they take aim at performance and esthetics, rather than safety per se. Beautifully designed with integral air pockets and channels that direct water flow out the back, these pads also have structural ribbing that gives them more positive feel. Rider feedback during early tests has revealed that under the increased G-forces of turns in larger surf, the more rigid design and air cushions really spring to life underfoot, increasing grip at speed.

My colorful Fish got a transparent Hot Grip deck pad and the integrated traction device responded willingly to my spurs and seemed pretty lively under foot. In 51º water temperature and with booties on, however, it was less cushy than I expected when installed, but still very positive and solid—like upgrading to a Nike Air or Reebok Pump training shoe and going for a jog at high altitude. I would imagine in more tropical climes, where the Hot Grip was developed, the ride would be more noticeably dynamic.

The company also claims that the more rubbery compound reduces chafing on the legs when surfing in board shorts. Considering I’ve had other top-of-the-line tail pads pull up and come apart with regular use, the single piece of the Hot Grip pad with the same primer-adhesive system as bullet-proof Nose Guards would seem a distinct advantage. Not having to wait 24 hours before entering the water until after the adhesive has bonded, like some other traction pads, is also a bonus—who’s really going to want to do that with a new board anyway? One disadvantage is the pad’s weight, which is a tad heavier than the competition’s. In addition, the ribs could possibly use some detuning for cold water action.

Quick Fix Repair Kits

SurfCo also offers a full product range of ding repair kits suited to just about every board material and repair possible, including UV cure, putty and rubberized solutions for both poly and epoxy boards. The company also distributes ergonomic wax scrapers, board-mounted key holders, sunblock, adhesive leash plugs, and leashes. I have used the economical repair kits successfully over the years, but would highly recommend seeking professional help for anything other than small dings. EPS board cores, for example, soak up water like a sponge even from small leaks and need to be thoroughly dried and sealed, or else they will become quickly waterlogged and ultimately drown.

Paranoia Sets In

Researching this piece and documenting the injuries of other surfers has given me renewed appreciation for being more proactive about my equipment, if not a little paranoid. A good board can be your best friend or your worst enemy, if it catches you unawares. Recently, even as I was putting the finishing touches on this article, I took off too deep, went over the falls and hit the deck hard at a shallow and turbulent local reef break. While the Nose Guard and Pro Teck fins I was testing didn’t save my ass or ego from a deep purple bruising, the incident sure could have been much worse…

While balancing safety against performance is a very personal matter, especially for fins, there’s the hard way and then there’s the SurfCo way.

For more information on SurfCo Hawaii’s product line, visit www.surfcohawaii.com.

Mike Wallace has surfed for over two decades on the East and West coasts, Hawaii, Europe and NorCal. Currently a resident of Moss Beach with his family of four, he can often be found haunting the beaches south of Devil’s Slide in search of the perfect sandbar with his one-eyed dog, Moose. Comments? Mike(at)surfpulse.com


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