Product Reviews

Making the Switch

Well, I finally did it. It was a long time in coming, but I threw caution to the wind and made the switch. I bit the proverbial bullet, as they say.

What I’m talking about is switching from a polyurethane and polyester surfboard to one composed of polystyrene foam and epoxy. As of this date, I’m happy to announce that I am now a proud owner of a custom-built Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) surfboard – a shiny new stick hand shaped by a Santa Cruz shaper.

No doubt some of you who have owned EPS boards for years are probably asking, “Jeez, what took so long? Why the wait?” Truth is, I’d been thinking of making a switch for a few years now, but simply hadn’t gotten my act together. I suppose it took me so long because, well, I guess I’m a bit of a traditionalist. I’ve always liked the way polyurethane boards feel under my feet; I’ve always liked the way they flex and give with the wave. And there’s the fact that when I started surfing in the early 1980s, all surfboards – at least the boards that 99.99% of the surfworld used – were made of polyurethane and fiberglass. There simply weren’t any other types of boards on the market. And I’ve generally been of the mindset that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Polyurethane boards had always worked well for me so I was in no hurry to change the situation.

But when a friend who knew I was in the market for a new board recently suggested that I might want to consider an EPS model, I surprised myself by saying, “sure, why not?”

For the uninitiated, EPS stands for expanded polystyrene, which, if I understand correctly, is simply a form of Styrofoam. In fact, I read somewhere that it is the same foam used in the manufacture of those disposable Styrofoam coolers available at grocery stores. Apparently, EPS technology has been around for quite a while, but only since 2005 – the year polyurethane giant Clark Foam forever closed its doors – has its production been ratcheted up as a material for the manufacture of surfboard blanks. EPS foam differs from the more traditional polyurethane foam in several important respects, chief among them lighter weight. EPS foam is a lot less dense than polyurethane foam; consequently, EPS boards are said to be approximately between 20 and 30 percent lighter than polyurethane boards. The other difference is epoxy resin instead of polyester is used to sandwich the foam core. Epoxy resin is stronger and more ding resistant than polyester resin. Together, these two materials make for a lighter, more durable, more buoyant, and stronger board. Or so I had been told.

The other big selling point, especially for those surfers who are concerned with environmental issues, is the claim that EPS surfboard materials are much more environmentally friendly than traditional materials, such as polyurethane foam and polyester. One of the main claims is that epoxy resin emits fewer VOCs (volatile organic compounds) than polyester resin. It is asserted, in fact, that epoxy emits up to 75 percent fewer VOCs.

Of course, there’s no such thing as the perfect surfboard technology. Despite their many positive attributes, EPS boards do have their drawbacks. Many surfers, for example, have complained that EPS boards feel “stiffer” in the water, meaning they have less flex and thus are less responsive to wave dynamics. This criticism is apparently subjective, though, as many EPS board owners are quite happy with their boards’ performance. The second criticism, however, is more concrete. Because EPS foam is composed of small, rounded beads, it has proven much more difficult, though not impossible, to shape. Polyurethane foam, by contrast, has long been considered much easier to work with. Hobie Alter, one of the pioneers of polyurethane foam surfboard technology, once quipped that working with the compound was like “shaping a stick of butter.” Advances in foam technology over the last several years, however, have made EPS boards much easier to shape.

After picking my new board up from the shaper, the first thing I noticed was its weight; it was definitely lighter than my polyurethane board. At the same time, its lightness didn’t translate into fragility. Indeed, there was a sturdiness – a solid compactness – that seemed to belie its lighter weight. As I handled it, the board definitely felt like it had the ability to take some abuse and bounce back (not that I had any intention of testing its ruggedness).

Of course, the ultimate test is how the board performs in the water. That is the big question the majority of surfers want to know. In short, does EPS/epoxy make for a better surfboard? That was the question that motivated me as I hoofed it down the trail to one of the surf breaks north of town. I was eager to try out my new board; I was eager to assess its performance and see for myself whether it was “stiffer” than a traditional board.

I paddled out at one of my usual haunts north of town. Conditions were all right, though not great. A three-to-four-foot WNW swell was running and there was a slight onshore wind, which added some texture to the water. The board glided smoothly and quickly over the surface, though it did indeed feel more buoyant than the traditional polyurethane boards to which I was accustomed. This wasn’t bad necessarily; it was just different, and something that with time I would probably consider a non-issue.

An incoming wave gave me the opportunity to test the board’s ability to duck dive. Pushing the board’s nose under the water, I slipped quickly and easily under the foam and popped up with no problem.

I sat for a while in the lineup, waiting for a decent wave. When one finally humped up on the horizon, I paddled into position. I paddled hard, caught it, and immediately hopped to my feet, dropping down the wave’s face. I swept into a fast bottom turn that got me around the first section and onto the shoulder. My top turn was a little shaky and none-too-crisp (but this had less to do with the board and more to do with the fact that I’d been suffering from plantar fasciitis recently). Recovering, I pumped down the line to generate speed and finally pulled out the back. I caught a few more waves before finally paddling to shore, generally satisfied with my session.

So, I can honestly say that the board performed well. I liked the feel of it and wasn’t in agreement with the claim that epoxy boards ride stiffer than traditional boards. However, it was definitely more buoyant and much lighter than the boards I typically surf, which took some getting used to, but overall I was very pleased with the way it handled. In fact, it was quite speedy and maneuverable and was able to get me around sections quickly.

But did it outperform the traditional polyurethane board? That’s a difficult question to answer. It requires, surely, more than a single surf session. On the whole, though, I liked the board very much, and was pleased with how it handled, and eager to use it again.

Before signing off, I think it is advisable to say a few parting words about the claim that EPS surfboard technology is “greener” than traditional polyurethane surfboards. Specifically, does the fact that I own an epoxy board make me “greener-than-thou”? Can I rightly claim the mantle of fearless eco-warrior battling the foes of a cleaner environment? Frankly, the “greener” claim seems pretty flimsy. Despite the fact that epoxy emits fewer VOCs, most of the raw materials that go into EPS surfboard technology are hardly what one would consider eco-friendly. Many of these materials are, in fact, just as toxic and harmful to the environment as the materials that go into polyurethane board construction. What many EPS enthusiasts fail to mention, for example, is that polystyrene foam contains two known carcinogens, styrene and benzene. And though one wouldn’t know it from reading the literature, fiberglass is in fact used in the construction of most (though not all) EPS boards. Although the carcinogenic properties of fiberglass dust have been endlessly debated, it can at least be said that the material is a skin and lung irritant – certainly nothing that anyone would consider benign. In short, the “carbon footprint” involved in the production of surfboards, whether polyurethane or polystyrene, is still large.

Of course, advocates of EPS boards have made the argument that because of the boards’ greater strength and durability – and hence longevity – EPS boards are in fact better for the environment because they typically last longer than traditional boards. The manufacture of fewer boards in any given year, for example, means less use of materials, both organic and synthetic (and ultimately a smaller carbon footprint). It’s a point with a certain amount of merit, though one that many shapers – especially those who derive a living from selling boards – might find a bit distressing. It might also be negated by the fact that as the surfer population continues to grow year after year, more boards may in fact be manufactured than the year before.

The bottom line is this: No matter how you slice it, there’s no such thing as a completely “green” surfboard. In fact, those two words, green and surfboard, should probably not be used in the same sentence. Nearly all of the raw materials that go into surfboard manufacture, whether the end product is a polyurethane or polystyrene board, are a witches’ brew of chemicals that to some degree are either toxic to humans or harmful to the environment, or both. Although many surfers like to think of themselves as ecologically-oriented nature lovers (and many of us undoubtedly are), the reality is that surfers owe a greater debt to the petrochemical industry than to Mother Nature. Nearly all of the gear that makes surfing possible – from surfboards to wetsuits to wax – is derived from petroleum-based products. So it might be a bit premature to pat us epoxy board owners of the back. We may be polluting the environment to a lesser degree, but we’re still polluting the environment. It’s a sad but true fact.

One of my favorite authors once wrote that much in life is a trade-off. So many of our choices, he noted, have cost/benefit ratios attached. Surfing is no exception. If you are someone who believes humans should have absolutely no impact on the environment (an impossibility to begin with), then you probably shouldn’t surf, or surf naked using a sustainably harvested plywood board (for something along these lines you might want to check out this: http://www.korduroy.tv/stoked-and-broke-synopsis-trailer-reviews). In short, as things currently stand, to enjoy our sport we have to accept a certain degree of environmental impact, whether we’re driving to our local breaks, flying to exotic surf locations, and surfing our toxic boards.

On the bright side, the last several years have witnessed a veritable explosion in new and innovative surfboard technologies. Shapers have been experimenting with a whole host of different materials in the quest to make boards not only more sustainable and safer for the environment, but also stronger and more durable. While most of these have unfortunately proven less-than-satisfactory, a few have at least pointed the way toward a new realm of possibilities.

No doubt the coming years will witness further experimentation in surfboard materials. And that’s a good thing. The quest to make surfboards more environmental friendly and simply better wave-riding tools will be in the forefront of surfboard design for years to come. The urge to innovate and experiment seems hard-wired in our genes – whether we’re shapers or engineers. In the meantime, the rank-and-file surfer will, ultimately, ride the board that feels good and performs best under his or her feet.

Thomas S. Garlinghouse

Tom Garlinghouse is a free-lance writer who lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains with his girlfriend, Lauren, two dogs, three cats, and a rabbit. He is an avid surfer who can frequently be found haunting the numerous reef breaks north of Santa Cruz.

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