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|Everybody's gone surfin', surfin' U.S.A.|
For fifty years, the music of the
Beach Boys has encapsulated the essence of the nascent California
surfing culture of the 1960s. Obviously surfing turned out to be
more than a fad since
it lives on today with almost as much devotion as it did when the
Beach Boys started singing about it. Ironically, with the exception
of Dennis Wilson, none of the Beach Boys were actually surfers.
My family and I recently watched "Soul Surfer" on Netflix, an inspiring movie about Bethany Hamilton who lost her arm in a shark attack but went on become a competitive surfer despite her handicap.
This brought back memories of my surfing days. Okay, to be honest it was only one day. You see, while I grew up in New Jersey and while there are some good surfing spots on the Jersey shore, I never graduated from the boogie board. In fact, I didn't actually go surfing for the first time until a few years ago when my daughter Rebekah and I ended up in Hawaii for a few days. We visited Pearl Harbor, the Polynesian Cultural Center, and of course we had to hit the waves at Waikiki Beach. My advice: when you rent your board, pay the extra $20 to include the body suit. After a day in the sun and falling off the board a thousand times, my body felt like a burnt potato chip that had tumbled around in the dryer a few too many cycles. It was a painful week of recovery which helps explain why that was both my first and last time surfing.
Despite my personal challenges, I respect the talent and enthusiasm that others have for riding the waves. When you watch the pros, you often see them waxing their boards before going in the water. As a neophyte and surface science nerd, my assumption was that they were waxing the bottoms of the boards to improve performance. Silly me. It turns out they are waxing the decks in order to increase the friction between the board and their feet - so they don't slip off. Apparently, there is a real science in choosing the correct wax based on hardness, water temperature, and how greasy your feet are.1
Our concern today is not with the top if the surfboard - but with the bottom. You see, it's the bottom that interfaces with the water and can make a big difference between success and failure. Surfboard physics is no small matter.2 While there are many principles at play, it's the hydrodynamic forces that affect how waves interact with the surfboard. In a word, hydrodynamics deals with the way that water moves around an object. Even small modifications to a board design can make big changes in the way it behaves on the water.
Let's start with the board's shape. The board's shape and its fins affect the way water is directed. Computational fluid dynamics software can be used to optimize board geometry.3 This new way to design boards is beginning to replace shapers, the old school guys that use trial and error to come up with great board designs. The goal - no matter how you get there - is to reduce drag to increase speed.
But there is more to a great board than shape alone. The materials used in board construction must have the right balance of buoyancy, strength, flexibility, durability, weight, and yes, hydrophobicity. It's that last quality that is most overlooked by board designers.
Board tweakers have tried applying Neverwet and other hydrophobic coatings to the underside of surfboards in an effort to reduce drag and improve speed. Results are mixed. Durability is the biggest minus - the stuff wears off too quick. It can also create some unwanted turbulence. Despite that, there are some hardcore surfers who swear by it. The extra speed is "insane" says one surfhead.
NanoTune4 is a small company that is dedicated to exploiting nanotechnology. Their NanoTune surfboard coating promises to lower the surface energy of the board in order to maximize speed and maneuverability. Another entrepreneur sells a Surf Nano product. It appears to be similar to NeverWet in terms of application and results. The jury seems to be out on both of these products. There are a few who seem to swear by them and others who swear at them. Most surfing dudes don't seem to be sold on them...yet. If I could stay on a board for more than a minute, I'd make this a good excuse to take my boys to the Jersey shore for a little product evaluation afternoon. I'm just not sure if it would make much difference on my boogie board.
If you are a surfboard craftsman or tweaker, we officially extend an invitation to you to send us a few samples of your topcoat treatments. We'll take some complimentary contact angle measurements for you and then you can let us know if increased hydrophobicity and reduced surface energy translates to greater speed and performance. It's an exciting time to be a surfboard maker. With carbon fiber, 3D printing, and exciting new nanotechnologies, epoxies, materials, and hydrophobic surface treatments, the toolbox is overflowing. All you need is some creative innovation to take surfing to the next level.
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