"That's some of the best surfing I've seen her do in a while," shaper Jon Pyzel said of Sally Fitzgibbons (AUS) at the Fiji Women's Pro. "She was incredible. After she surfed in the third round with her eardrum blown out, I was like, 'She's going to freakin' win this thing.'"
And win she did. Fitzgibbons burst her eardrum in the dying minutes of her Round 2 heat, it was fair to question whether she could go on. Not only did she surf through the pain, but she went on to win every heat that followed, including the Final, to earn victory in Fiji for the second consecutive year.
Fitzgibbons' laser-sharp attack was rewarded in her scores: In every heat from Round 3 on, she had at least one excellent-range performance (scored 8.0 or higher). The vertical approach employed by the young Australian was a clear indication not only of her skill, but also the functionality of the board beneath her feet. After her win, Pyzel discussed some of the specific elements that took Fitzgibbons to triumph.
She's really fit, a strong paddler and can ride a really refined board.
World Surf League: When shaping a step-up board how do you determine how much length and width to add for Sally?
Jon Pyzel: It comes down to fitting the board to the person. For example, I'm sure Bianca [Buitendag] (ZAF) who is 6'1, wasn't riding a narrow board. It's huge a difference. When I'm working with Sally, she's really small, so I'm almost making kid-size boards for her. She's really fit, a strong paddler and can ride a really refined board. So basically we're working off her shortboard, not the same design, but the same dimensions and working that into a bigger board.
At a wave like Cloudbreak, a lot of times you think of it as barreling wave, which it is, but mostly it's a high-performance wave. What I try to do with step-up boards is have a board that is built for a tube, but when you come out -- or you don't get to surf in a tube at all -- you can surf a board that still feels like a shortboard, but has solid handling [in heavier waves]. And yet a board that can catch waves too. So it has enough volume and paddle power built into it, but the high-performance feel when you're riding a wave.
WSL: Can you explain more about the difference between adding or subtracting width?
Pyzel: The narrower a board is the quicker it transfers from rail to rail. It makes for quicker response times. You can envision that if you took a giant person on an 24-inch-wide board, how the transition would be slower from one side to the other. Those little measurements make a huge difference in high-performance surfing, for Sally's stature she can't ride too wide of a board.
When I go up in size for step-ups, depending on the person, I usually don't go too much wider than their standard shortboards until I get into really big waves. The whole week she was riding the same design, it's called the Next Step, and it's the same board that she won on last year, but with refinements throughout the last year.
I'm always doing little changes to stuff, but it's essentially the same basic design and the same board that John John Florence (HAW) is riding at Pipeline.
WSL: Most shapers lately have tended to go wider and shorter overall. Is your school of thought to go narrower and longer for heavier conditions like Fiji?
Pyzel: No. For example, John John is riding 6'4s in monster surf where guys used to be riding seven-foot plus. They're definitely riding shorter boards. I'm not going way wider on those boards, I'm going thicker in the nose and the chest.
I try to...keep her feeling like she's riding a shortboard
Essentially with Sally what I try to do is keep her feeling like she's riding a shortboard, but also help her catch waves. I add thickness through the whole board and especially through the nose, compared to one of her standard shortboards, to increase the paddle power. At the same time I also bring the rail way down and keep the tail really refined, so they're not feeling sluggish.
Sometimes when you see someone riding too thick of a rail and a thicker tail, the boards have too much speed. When they go to do a bottom turn the board wants to keep going straight. The tail doesn't want to bite and tip [up the face of the wave]. I'm making sure for Sally's weight and size she can fit that board on rail really easy and that it responds. It has a lot of rocker in it, and if you watch her surfing out there she was going off the bottom and straight up into the lip.
Even though she was on a board that is relatively huge for her -- she rides a 5'7 to 5'8 for her standard shortboard and so she was a solid eight inches longer -- those boards are still meant to ride like a shortboard. That way you don't transition and go 'Oh s--t, I'm on a stiff plank!'
WSL: Can you tell us more about the change in volume from her 5'7 to her 6'4?
Her go-to step-up board was a 6'4 x 17.7 x 2.25, 24.9L volume. Her normal shortboards are 1/16 narrower, but a lot thinner.
I add quite a bit of volume to her step-ups, but the important part is where the volume is added. The volume gets shifted forward and I think a lot of the shapers are doing the same. We've allowed surfers to ride smaller boards because we're packing more [foam into them]. But like I said, the rail needs to be really refined.
On smaller wave boards you can have a thick rail and it's fine because you're riding slow, weak waves. That doesn't translate when you're dropping in on a big wall of water and you're trying to control speed. When the rails are thinned out and the tails are more pulled in it gives you the confidence to push your board as hard as you want and know it's not going to pop out of a wave. You can push as hard as you can and go straight up. That's the goal.
I don't really ride giant waves anymore, but when I did and you have a 9'0 on a giant wave you can feel the rail dragging when you do a bottom turn. You can feel the friction slow you down as the board turns.
WSL: In terms of the volume, 24.9 liters is a surprisingly low amount for such a long board.
Pyzel: You have to keep her size in mind; her normal shortboards are 22L, even 21.9L. So she's jumping up 3 liters above what she normally rides. Imagine a 1.5L water bottle. It's 2 of those worth of foam added to the board. It's a lot when you think about it.
WSL: Can you tell us how big a factor the Firewire technology plays into the surfing, versus Polyurethane?
Pyzel: It's definitely a different feel. The team riders that I work with mainly are Sally and Michel Bourez (PYF). Almost every board that their team riders are getting these days are from me. I like the feel of them when I ride them, but it's definitely not the same as a PU board.
[Firewire Tech] is their normal. That's what surfboards feel like to them.
For Sally and Michel, that's all they ride. So [Firewire Tech] is their normal. That's what surfboards feel like to them. I'm not trying to compensate or change anything in terms of the material versus the design. They float a little more and have a different sort of flex. You can adjust the weight of them really well, which is helpful. But to them it purely comes down to the design, it's not the construction or material.
Firewire does a good job. We have a team of people to make sure that Sally is getting the right boards and she's really good about getting back to me with which boards have been working. I'm designing one off individual boards for her based on my notes and then sometimes it turns into a model that Firewire sells. The board that she was on, we're going to do that as a model for Firewire now so people can buy this board, which is cool.
WSL: Where do you think the future of surfboard design is headed?
Pyzel: We're trying to feed the masses. I think surfboard design is actually getting simpler. I'm trying to make overall fun boards for the average guy buying a surfboard. That doesn't drive innovation too much. The guys that want some crazy innovation are such a small market, so it's hard to invest time into that. And really -- I like the direction of keeping things fun so people can just go surfing. That's rewarding.
The biggest thing I know about in surfboards is the guys at Arctic foam, one of the leading providers in blanks. They've been working with these scientists at UCSD [University of California, San Diego] and are backed by the US Department of Energy to make blanks that from algae oil. It's a sustainable, fully renewable material. They've actually shaped blanks and glassed them with bio resin, so they made these super eco-friendly boards. They look and feel like normal blanks and if we can start using that stuff, I'm going to feel way better about every board I make. We make such a toxic product, everyone's like, 'Oh save the ocean. And I have a 10-board quiver of toxic materials that never go away.'
I'm sure Firewire will reach out, that [sustainable technology] kind of stuff is one of the main reasons Kelly got involved with them.