In Search of a Surfer’s Soulmate: The Perfect Surfboard

Though summer is drawing to a close and the temperatures are turning cool, graduate student Benjamin Thompson is still venturing into the now-chilly waters, all in the name of science.

Thompson is hitting the waves to find out what makes certain surfboards work better than others. Thousands of surfers worldwide have tried to determine the elements of the perfect surfboard, with varied claims as to whether a stiff or flexible board is superior.

“A lot of veteran surfboard designers and craftsmen have theories [about what makes a superior board], but no way to test them objectively,” Thompson said. “So I volunteered to do it. Now it has taken over my life.”

Thompson, a structural engineering student, is interested in optimal flexibility, or the ideal amount of bend in a surfboard. Although there are two main types of surfboards, Thompson chose to focus only on the short boards. His definition of the perfect board is one that reacts to an individual’s body.

“My hypothesis is that there is an optimum flex, and the optimum flex will be different for every rider, and for every rider it will be different for each wave type,” Thompson said.

To measure a surfboard’s optimal flexibility, Thompson and his team will solicit volunteer surfers of the same height, weight and foot size. Since the body type will remain the same for this stage of research, the surfboard is the only changing variable. Therefore, when the researchers film the surfers, they can see which surfboards perform better. In addition, Thompson will also install a voice recorder on each board to let surfers comment. These two performance measures will be correlated with the velocities and accelerations of the board, which will be determined by about 50 flow sensors and mechanisms, which includes accelerometers and gyroscopes, attached to the board.

These fingernail-sized sensors, developed engineering undergraduates last quarter, measure how quickly the board moves over the water.

After the surfer has completed his run, he will be interviewed about the test and data from the sensor will be matched up with specific points, like how polygraph administrators match up lies told with spikes in a chart.

If there are consistent correlations between the interviews and data, the team can create performance markers and classify the boards that achieve those states as more superior. Thompson’s research will be the first time scientists have gathered data on the physics of surfboards.

If the data allows the team to calculate an optimal flexibility, Thompson will investigate if the optimum is close to what manufacturers are producing now, then investigate the optimum flex for different types of riders based on variables such as body size. Thompson, who began his research in January, will have results coming out on a monthly basis until he completes his PhD.

Thompson is also working on another method of matching surfers with a site called BoardFormula, which aggregates data sets about surfers and their surfboards. Using this data as a reference point, skill and a number of other factors, the website matches surfers with their perfect surfboard.

“It’s like the of surfboards,” Thompson said. “And believe me, a lot of surfers are more interested in finding their soul surfboard than their soul mate.”