Sharks' textured skin allows them to move faster through the water. Can the same concept be applied to surfboards?
In 2008, Russell Lewis, a lifelong surfer, shaper, and surf coach, sat on his couch watching the Summer Olympic Games unfold in Beijing. On the screen, world records were being shattered as swimmers wearing full-body, high-tech suits ushered in a new age in competitive swimming. The suits, known as FastSuits, incorporate a technology that mimics the gliding effects produced by a shark’s skin in the water. Of the 33 gold medals won in the pool at the games, swimmers wearing FastSuits won an astounding 28 of them. It was at that moment that Lewis had an epiphany: Why wouldn’t the same theory for the suits hold true for surfboards?
Fast-forward three years and Lewis, who shapes under the label Reverse Logic, is now confident he’s uncovered a basic concept that could potentially alter the way surfboards are constructed.
“The premise is pretty fascinating,” he says through a thick Australian accent that has refused to fade despite having lived in Hawaii for more than 20 years. “It’s all based on the idea of reducing drag in the water. Sharks are perfect examples. If you were to touch a shark’s skin, you would notice that it’s really smooth in one direction and very rough on the other. On the surface of their skin are these small divots that create an effect that allows them to cut through the water faster. Instead of the water simply sliding down their bodies, it bounces off of the divots in their skin, creating small vortexes that they’re able to glide on. I wanted to take this idea and relate it to surfboards.”
The scientific name for this is the turbulent boundary layer and it can be found both in nature and manmade objects. More than 100 years ago, Scottish golfers noticed that their old golf balls, riddled with dimples from use, seemed to travel further than their unblemished ones. Utilizing the same theory that pertains to shark skin, beginning in 1905, all balls were produced with dimples. It’s been estimated that a golf ball with dimples will travel twice as far as one without. In addition, as a means to improve efficiency and to cut down on fuel costs, some cargo ships have also begun applying a rough texture to their hulls in an effort to utilize the turbulent boundary layer.
“It’s like the difference between pushing a box over ball bearings instead of dragging it along the floor,” says Professor Amy Lang of the University of Alabama, who has conducted extensive research on mimicking the effects of shark skin. “Shark skin works as a generator for millions of tiny vortexes, stirring the water as it flows over the shark just enough to create the kind of turbulence very close to the surface that allows the shark to slip through the water easily, and, if it wants to, quicker.”
To achieve the effect, Lewis is utilizing an approach that’s raised more than a few eyebrows—he’s leaving the bottom of his boards unsanded. “I’ve definitely had a few glassers give me a double-take when I explained what I was trying to do,” he says. “But the boards work really well. They’re so much faster and lighter and seem to hold up against yellowing much better as well. The way the glass overlays over the board when it’s not sanded seems to create that ball-bearing effect. I was a little hesitant about the concept at first, but the boards go amazing.”
Evan Valiere, who was coached by Lewis while growing up on Kauai, has tested the boards and is optimistic about the design. “There’s a lot less resistance on the boards,” he says. “You can tell that right off the bat just from paddling it. The boards definitely ride differently than boards that have been sanded traditionally. They’re much lighter and I noticed that, in general, they seem to go much faster down the line. More specifically, I noticed that when I rebounded off of the whitewater on a cutback, I seem to come out of it with a lot more speed. I’m really stoked on how they feel and I can’t wait to test it out on some of my big-wave boards and in the foam ball in a tube. I think it’s a great concept that could really change things.”
Skeptics, however, question whether surfers are able to gather enough speed on a wave to achieve the effect, though none deny that the theory has potential. At this point, it’s difficult to quantify the exact effects of Lewis’ methods, but the positive feedback from the likes of Valiere and other Kauai locals makes a strong case for this unconventional glassing technique. As Lewis says, “The first time I rode one of these boards, I couldn’t help but think that maybe we’d been going about the process of sanding boards all wrong.”