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Surfline: Inside the Soft-Top Revolution
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Walk into any of nearly 800 worldwide Costco superstores today, and alongside the bulk toilet paper and five-dollar rotisserie chickens, you’ll find the world’s most popular surfboard: the blue-and-white-striped Wavestorm longboard. Well, every Costco location except for the one in Iceland; you can’t buy a Wavestorm in Reykjavik – at least, not yet. “Within a couple of days of putting those boards on the market,” recalls Matt Zilinskas, who co-created the Wavestorm back in 2004, “I got a call from the Costco buyer saying: ‘We’re going to need a lot more of these.’ I won’t get into specific numbers but what I can tell you with absolute confidence is that the Wavestorm eight-foot surfboard is by far the best-selling surfboard of all time. And the brand is the best-selling brand of all time in terms of the number of units. Nothing is even close.”

But the everyman joy of soft-top surfing wasn’t always so popular, so readily available to consumers. There was a time when cookie-cutter foam surfboards were a rare sight in the lineup; a time when the now-ubiquitous market of soft boards was scarce and kept afloat by only amateur wannabes; a time before Wavestorm and Costco conspired to sell the sport of surfing to the masses for a measly hundred bucks (much to the dismay of conventional surfboard shapers trying to make a living – more on that later).

“You never saw one in the lineup,” recalls resident surf historian Matt Warshaw about the early days of soft-top surfboards. “[They were] just in the whitewater now and then. I worked in a surf shop, and mothers occasionally bought them for their kids who were just getting started.”

Before the Second Coming of the Soft-Top, as seen today, the first foam boards arrived on the scene back in 1974, when the forefather of the modern boogieboard, Tom Morey, teamed up with eccentric Leucadia surfer and entrepreneur Mike Doyle. And needless to say, the subgenre of surfboard manufacturing got off to a rocky start.

“The Morey-Doyle was just a big-ass boogie, but with a stiffening centerpiece down the middle, a stringer,” remembers Warshaw. And compared to today’s sleek foam material, they were: “Awful. Spongier, more flexible, and didn’t glide. If the waves were bad, my friends and I liked to either go longboarding, or bodyboarding, and it was a blast either way, but those original Morey-Doyle boards just weren’t fun to ride. Great for first-time surfers, and that’s about it.”

And yet today, soft surfboards from a handful of brands – Wavestorm, Catch Surf, INT, Mick Fanning’s MF Softboards, and others – are being enjoyed by everyone from the very best surfers to the very worst, on nearly every surfable coastline across the globe, and in every quality of waves. The same models Jamie O’Brien is using to knife his way into hellish peaks at Pipeline are being used by surf instructors to push beginners into ankle-high ripples.

Yes, like it or not, we are currently living in the so-called “Soft-Top Revolution.”

So, what the hell happened? How did the soft-top go from obscure novelty to universally accepted surf craft? How did a crude knockoff of the real thing, chiefly rejected by the diehard surfing public, become resurrected as a viable component of any surfer’s quiver?

For one, the quality of the boards improved. “We’re essentially a foam fabricator,” explains Zilinskas, now the VP of Sales for Agit Global, which is the parent company behind many leading soft-top brands. “We make sporting goods and exercise products out of foam. Wavestorm is one of them, and it’s the most well-known. It’s our crown jewel for sure, but there are a lot of other products that come out of our factory. We make snowsleds, snowboards, paddleboards, bodyboards, handboards, you name it. And pretty much every soft board out there is made by us.”

Brands like Wavestorm and Catch Surf, among others, are produced in Agit Global’s 75,000 square-foot Taiwan factory. And as opposed to China or South Korea, Zilinskas says, “we’re very proud to be manufacturing in Taiwan. A lot of high-end sporting goods equipment is made there. The labor force is very skilled. The labor conditions are akin to America. We have an amazingly efficient factory.”

Another aspect bolstering the soft-top revolution is a fresh emphasis on fun across the sport of surfing. Sure, there are those who see progression and success in the singlet as the driving forces in their surfing lives. But a new crop of carefree waveriders, specifically when it comes to their choice of craft, is emerging. Take a look at any popular and pedestrian surf spot on a busy Saturday – chances are, there’s twin-fins, experimental shapes, longboards, and lots of soft-tops bobbing out in the lineup along with the traditional foam-and-fiberglass thruster crowd. The laws have become looser; the leg rope a little less snug.

In response to that surf craft fluidity, a soft-top-specific Instagram account has emerged to rejoice in that freedom. “Making fun or frowning down on something is pervasive throughout surfing culture,” says Nate Rohner, a San Diego native and co-founder of @TeamWavestorm. “This is partially what drove us to start the account. Why should anyone be able to tell us how or what to surf? Leave us alone, and we’ll leave you alone. The account is definitely a celebration of Wavestorms. Personally, I think they’ve been great for surfing as a whole.”

But for all the proponents of soft surfboards, there are also detractors — most notably, traditional shapers. Because when it comes down to it, the foam surfboard industry is stealing their business. It’s akin to buying a cold and lifeless readymade dinner table from Ikea, versus purchasing a mahogany table crafted from a skilled woodworker’s bare hands, and imbued with blood, sweat, and years of tradition. So, in that sense, some might argue that the rise of foam surfboards is a primary actor in the death of surfing’s soulful, anti-corporate days of yore. RIP small surf shops, boutique surf brands, and grubby local shapers; hello big-box retailers, uninspired corpo brands, and mass-produced vanilla surfboards.

One shaper who has felt the sting of the soft-top “invasion” (his words) is Rusty Preisendorfer. “They’ve hurt everyone’s business,” says Rusty. “Wavestorm especially. It’s the best-selling sponge in a lot of shops. I think calling a sponge a board is an oxymoron and an insult. I know many surf shops that buy them from Costco for $100 and resell them all day long for $150. Why not? Much better margin than on a locally built, handcrafted piece of art.”

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“Raw cost on a clear sanded finish shortboard is approximately $350,” continues Rusty. “That’s without any overhead, which can run 25 to 35 percent…even higher depending on the number of boards being built. But then again, who pays all of the things that go under ‘overhead.’ Rent? For a lot of board builders, that’s it. Profit? 20 percent? There are some builders that actually get decent money for their work. I tell people that when I started shaping gas was 20 cents, 20 cents a gallon. New boards in shops were $200. Now, gas here in SoCal is $4+ a gallon. That’s a multiple of 20+. Handcrafted surfboards are $800 at the top end? That’s a multiple of four. What if surfboards had gone up by a factor of 20? $4,000!”

And beyond shapers losing business over Wavestorms, there’s growing animosity towards the boards from surfers themselves. The driving force for the consternation is the fact that people who ride Wavestorms are typically inexperienced and thus breach established surfing etiquette when in the water – in other words, they become human speedbumps for more experienced surfers who simply want to catch an obstacle-free wave. And in fact, there are entire online message boards specifically about this widespread feud between the two surfing factions, some of which act as soft-top support groups.

“Seriously, [forget] those guys,” says one soft-top surfer about the foam-and-fiberglass haters. “The best board is the one you enjoy riding,” says another.

As for Matt Zilinskas and Agit Global’s ever-expanding fleet of soft-tops – which includes various brands, board sizes, and even soft SUPs – they’re riding the profits of a product enjoyed by “beginners, pros, male, female, young, old, hardcore, and non-hardcore surfers like myself.”

And essentially, this versatility factor is what sets soft-tops apart from any other surfboard on the market. In fact, it makes them the black sheep of the industry. Because most surfboards are specifically tailored to the size and skill level of the surfer riding them, and thus — they’re special, customized. But soft-tops are factory-produced and anti-custom, they’re utilitarian, they’re the everyman surfboard. And in an ironic way, that’s perhaps the genius behind them; Zilinskas seems to think so: “A lot of people in this industry have a very narrow vision of what surfing is. But I believe that soft surfboards have helped opened up peoples’ eyes to what surfing is and what it could be. I love the fact that they’ve broken down a lot of barriers in the surf world. Because when it comes down to it, the eight-foot Wavestorm is just a product that anyone can use, and it’s a product that anyone can go out there and have fun on.”

Dashel Pierson. “Inside the Soft-Top Revolution.” Surfline, 30 Apr. 2019, https://www.surfline.com/surf-news/inside-soft-top-revolution/48547. Reprinted with permission.

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