The soul of surfing is green
By Catharine Lo
Special to The Advertiser
By Catharine Lo
When you order a custom surfboard, you typically specify a design, a size and color preferences. Maybe a 6-foot-2-inch fish with a clear sand finish. Maybe a 9-foot-1 single-fin with a yellow deck and blue rails. Don't be surprised, however, if the next time you order, your shaper asks, "Would you like sugar or soy with that?"
Surfing, it seems, has developed a socially responsible soul — one that promotes saving the waves over shredding them, by using environmentally responsible manufacturing materials.
The sport has long been associated with simple living and an affinity with nature. And high-profile surfer-activists such as Jack Johnson and Dave Rastovich regularly remind surfers that it's cool to be green. But ironically, modern petroleum-based polyester boards are completely anti-eco.
That's what prompted North Shore shapers Jeff Bushman and Kyle Bernhardt to launch a new brand called Country Feeling Surfboards. The surfboard line is devoted to designs that incorporate environmentally friendly materials — foams made from sugar and soy; hemp, organic cotton, silk, and bamboo cloth; and plant-based and solar-cure resins.
"Most surfers know very little about the materials and the way that the board is built," Bushman says, referring to the foam-and-fiberglass construction that is the industry standard. "Now that there's an awareness in society about different products, it's easier to introduce these new materials and try and make some changes."
GREEN TO THE CORE
Board Construction 101: A surfboard comprises a shapable foam core surrounded by three layers of fiberglass — one on the bottom and two on top — all glued together by a bucket of resin. The foam for a standard polyurethane surfboard blank requires two parts, a diisocyanate and a polyol. Mix the two together with a catalyst, and voila!
For 44 years, Clark Foam made its blanks using toluene diisocyanate and polyester. Since Clark created some of the most desirable foam available — accounting for 80-plus percent of the world's surfboard blanks — no other foam supplier could compete. But his operation was also dastardly toxic. In December 2005, owner Gordon Clark shut down the Laguna, Calif., company, citing mounting pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency.
When Clark's doors closed, the door to alternative foams opened. HomeBlown Surf Blanks replaced the toluene diisocyanate — a known carcinogen — with the much less hazardous methylene diphenyl diisocyanate, or MDI, and incorporated a soya-based, rather than oil-based, polyol to produce "Biofoam."
Its manufacturers say Biofoam results in 36 percent less carbon emissions and a 61 percent reduction in nonrenewable energy use.
Another foam company, Ice-Nine, also began producing MDI foam they call "Cane," using a sugar beet-based polyol.
Changing the composition of the foam core may be considered a small step, but Ned McMahon, president of HomeBlown USA, considers it a first step. He says he receives at least one e-mail a day saying, "Thanks for doing this. I'm glad someone's trying to clean up the chemistry."
Country Feeling raises the board's green quotient two more notches by offering a layer of hemp in place of one of the fiberglass layers and applying a solar-activated resin that yields a 70 percent reduction in styrene emissions. Bushman and Bernhardt hope to encourage board builders to integrate more biodegradable materials and lessen their carbon footprint.
"The amount of pollution that comes from the surfboard industry is minor compared to the auto industry and other manufacturing," Bushman offers. "But we're the ones playing in the ocean, and it just seems like the right thing to pursue."
"We want to be inclusive, not exclusive," adds Bernhardt, saying they're happy to exchange ideas and information with other shapers. "It's not like suddenly surfboards are going to be the greenest product out there. We're more trying to make a statement that it's possible to use other materials. We can use natural fibers. We can reduce what we put out — at no consequence to the end product."
The burning question for surfers remains: How do these boards ride?
While online surfer forums debate the flex and feel of the plant-based foams, the manufacturers say their boards measure up to the performance level of polyester boards.
"The more people ride them, the more they understand the advantages," says Ice-Nine's Stillman. He backs his words by giving boards to surf shop team riders and guaranteeing, "If they don't like it, I'll buy it back." So far, he says, not one has been returned.
On the production side, Bernhardt says the natural fiber is a little less malleable than fiberglass, and quite a few extra steps are necessary to get the board cosmetically correct. This translates into more work and a slightly higher price tag.
In the end, the boards are a little heavier, but recreational surfers won't notice a difference, says Bushman, who for 30 years has been shaping for amateurs and pros, including Hawai'i world champion tour surfer Pancho Sullivan.
Country Feeling specializes in classical surfboard shapes — fishes, single fins, twin fins, eggs, funboards, longboards, and stand-up paddle boards that Bushman suggests are "more about people enjoying the feeling of going surfing than about winning a contest."
THE COUNTRY FEELING
With their new label, Bushman and Bernhardt find an intersection between those who want a plastic-free Hale'iwa and those who want to Keep the North Shore Country; between the legions of newbie standup paddlers and the solo dawn patroller who paddles out in the dark. It's a marriage of surfing's contemporary soul with the country one, bonded by the common desire to connect with nature.
"For me, Country Feeling represents a simpler path of life, one in which you can appreciate your natural surroundings — the fresh air, the trees, the flowers in the ground, your vegetable garden," says Bernhardt, who has held an unassuming place in North Shore lineups for the past decade.
"The idea for Country Feeling hails back to the magic of going surfing in pre-Internet days, pre-surf forecast days — when you had to explore to discover waves, when you would go someplace and it was pure and you were in awe of how special it was. A lot of that has been lost," Bushman says.