2010, all rights reserved
Expanding the Field:
In the connection sector with Skip Frye
Along one wall of Skip Frye’s shaping shop hangs a variety of visual delights for the cultured surfer. In a glance, images of the renowned surf stylist sliding with signature poise on manicured swells are revealed. There are pictured scenes of surf personalities from the inception of Skip’s surfing life, some fifty years ago, to the present day. Plaques and newspaper clippings, old magazine photos and advertisements fill the wall. Scattered elsewhere are various images of Skip’s logo and trademark- his wings- classic, dignified, emblematic of a surfer’s surfer and a shaper’s shaper.
The shaping room itself is filled with the sounds of a craftsman’s tools. Skip’s handsaw falls in syncopated overhand strokes- practiced, perfected, almost meditative. The whir of a trusted Skil 100 echoes through the space, hard at work tuning another perfectly sculpted craft to the delight of its creator. Soon a sleek, low-rockered surfboard begins to emerge from the foam. The curves blend in a prism of arcs each pleasing to the eye and intuitively correct. The shaping room’s black walls and side lighting reveal a craft born of a master’s touch and impeccably suited for its purpose.
In the shaping room Frye meticulously works the rails of an eleven-foot board. His eyes never leave the blank. His hands, practiced and worn, nimbly manipulate the sandpaper. The board has a beautifully tapered outline. Its wide point is just north of center stretching forward to an elegantly pointed nose. The opposite end of the craft echoes this phrasing with a pintail. The rails follow classic San Diego curves, classic Frye ellipses. The imagination fills with possible sensations offered by this magnificent surfcraft. Would the tail hold in the hollow section of that favorite reef? With the low rocker could the ride be extended all the way to the inside?
San Diego is a surf town with a rich legacy of niche design offshoots, tribal provincialism, and open-minded surfers. Boards hung from piers, Wolfe’s Wind an’ Sea wannabe-ism, Simmons’ machines, and Tudor’s longboard resurrection act come to mind. It is not surprising that for nearly two decades there has been a particular San Diego design undercurrent that has largely escaped notice by the greater surf world. These are designs built for local waves and local conditions. They cater to those inclined to think about waves as lateral canvases for long, fluid lines. These boards offer entrance to a realm of poised surfing and stylish but not ostentatious display. These boards are the pelican’s glide and the dolphin in submerged trim. These boards are the state of the art and the legacy of Skip Frye.
Strictly speaking these big boards, also commonly known as gliders and section connectors, tend to adhere to an honored set of design characteristics. They tend to be over ten feet long with the largest stretching upwards of twelve feet. They have a section of very low rocker covering much of the middle of the board with a bit of kick fore and aft. Though lengthy, the nose and tail widths remain moderate, with a pointed nose coupled with a bit of roll in the front bottom contour to facilitate ease of paddle and to cut through water turbulence. The tail usually appears as a pin or a large swallow, the first offering more hold in critical surf, the second providing added width for paddling and for robust wave harvesting. Fin setups vary from singles to two-plus-ones to trifins (Skip and his friend and protégé in shaping, Josh Hall, have dabbled in riding these boards with only two side fins). Bottom contours often feature a moderate single into double concave running out of the tail of the board, further adding to the recipe mixed for speed and glide.
Though Skip Frye is undeniably the fountain from which this design strand flows, he credits the work of his forefathers in the craft for leading him towards the creation of the glider genre. “The pintail came from (Joe) Quigg, who influenced (Phil) Edwards,” Frye says. “Edwards influenced me in the 60’s. His take was all about speed. He used to say he wanted to make boards like a javelin. Quigg made the pintail to get across and fit in the hollow sections at Rincon. I also learned about Bob Simmons’ boards. They’re all really straight- the straighter the faster. Then I saw where Quigg and (Matt) Kivlin diverged from Simmons. They wanted some maneuverability and Simmons exclusively wanted speed. Over the course of a couple of months I thought about it and put it together. I went to Simmons’ minimum tailblock rule of ten inches then added in elements of Quigg and others.”
The first of the big boards emerged from Frye’s shaping room in March of 1990 as the perpetually stoked Frye was dealing with a rare period of ambivalence about surfing. “It was the early nineties, I was tired of the same old shapes.” Lengths grew and the refinements were made. Before long the remarkable new design would catapult Frye into a freshness of spirit. “Nothing has ever held my attention and stoked me as much as those first three years in the early nineties with the big boards,” Skip remembers. “For three years that’s all I’d ride, eleven to twelve footers.”
The lengthy, graceful aesthetic of these boards is echoed in their offered surf experience. Lines are drawn in composed swoops across multiple sections of a wave. Bottom turns are extended through arcs that accelerate the surfer into fast, beautiful trim. “Trim is the essence of the surfing experience,” reflects Skip. “It’s where I feel the speed and flow of the wave- it’s just the sensation and the glide and the speed of it.”
The focus on trim demanded by the big boards requires a unique approach from the surfer. “You’ve got to have a controlled, casual style to function with these boards.” Frye says. Free-thinking surfer, writer, and stylist, Derek Hynd allowed a glimpse of the composed grace required by the boards in Andrew Kidman’s tremendous surf films, “Litmus” and “Glass Love”. In the films, Hynd paints a perfect glider canvas on South Africa’s famed right-point, Jeffrey’s Bay. The boards he rides in the clips, a 9’9” Brewer circa 1986 and Rich Pavel’s 11’4” iteration of Frye’s Fish-Simmons design, showcase Hynd’s inspired surfing. Positioning, poise, trim, and section-connecting glides mark the clip, giving a visual touchpoint for understanding the ride of a Frye-style big board. Glider surfing teaches that waves have length and must be watched carefully, anticipated and then engaged with careful positioning. “I think I ride tighter on a big board,” Frye posits. “On a little board you can outmaneuver yourself. You’re so into up and down, back and forth that you lose the flow of the wave. With a big board positioning is important, as is the way you set up the wave.”
Beyond the ride itself, gliders offer expanded access to surfing arenas. The ease of paddling and the ability to glide for maximum distance on a wave allows the surfer to view the whole of a surfing area as fair game. “Surfing the big boards expands your whole realm,” Skip reflects. “The first time I took one out I had two breaks in my command at all times. I was going all the way to the beach and completing my rides. Now if I see a set coming down from one break to the next I’ll run over to the next break and grab a wave then catch another wave of the set at the other break.” These multiple surf spot sessions have grown into a new way of thinking about time in the water for Skip. “I do a lot of cross-country sessions. Six breaks is a normal venture for me. I’ve done up to fourteen breaks. It has helped me to get to know more breaks and lets me really appreciate being in the water.”
Gliders also provide an escape hatch from often overcrowded surf zones. Artist and filmmaker Thomas Campbell, who has featured Skip Frye’s big boards in his surf films and boasts a well-surfed quiver of Frye longships states, “The boards have amazing paddling range. I can get to places where not too many people are surfing and enjoy myself.” In crowd-impacted zones the boards open doors to waves that would otherwise be distasteful. “I can access flat and fast waves that are unsurfable on other equipment. They give you a propulsion and facility that no other boards can.”
There are those who would offer criticism of the big boards’ performance and general applicability in daily surf life. The howl is that the boards are too limited in scope, too focused on lateral surfing elements. San Diego veteran shaper Larry “Larmo” Mabile has crafted many Frye-style gliders and readily admits, “The length of the rail is an asset and a detriment. It’s sometimes difficult to break trim. It will force you to think ahead. It slows you down to think about positioning. Even where you take off changes and becomes a thoughtful exercise.” Chris Christenson, whose big board model dubbed “The Glider” pushed the term into common use, has compared surfing a Frye to using a low-tolerance golf club; If you get it just right it feels amazing, if you’re off by just a bit things go wrong quickly.
Perhaps these criticisms have merit, but they also summon a central question in surfboard design thought: must a design be versatile and accessible, or can designs be validated by being excellently suited to a specific type of surfing and in their potential to evoke unique surfing sensations? Hynd shares the following thoughts when asked this question as it applies to criticisms of section connectors, "Ridden the way Skip appreciates it there are no shortcomings in the design… Skip builds subtle curves and wings depending on a surfer's needs and the predominant wave in mind. I was at Malibu last summer in the crowd. I thought one surfer stood out. She wasn't a notably skilled surfer in going up and down, indeed, to some she would have looked like a kook, but the way she held crouched poise from go to whoa, even in the pull out, seemed ideal treatment for the board she was riding. She wasn't on a Skip but the concept was similar. The way she offered less right there was perfect.” Simply, gliders are boards made as specific tools for a specific purpose and when ridden accordingly the experience can be quite rewarding. Josh Hall summarizes nicely, “They fit the quiver like any board, and do so in a beautiful way.”
In the specificity of their application lingers a clue as to why big boards’ geographical range in the surf world is relatively small. Though recent years have seen an uptake of the design in places as far as Japan and as near as Santa Cruz, San Diego County is the homeland of the design and it remains a rarity to find a proper glider in waters outside of its borders. In an era when another of Skip Frye’s most recognizable models, the keel-fin fish ala Stevie Lis, has found wide global acceptance, it seems strange that his elegant gliders have largely remained anchored in their homeport. Perhaps this is a model case of specific boards being made for specific waves. Larry Mabile confirms, “San Diego County is unique in southern California. The waves break farther out and they’re more walls with length, but softer.” Skip echoes this sentiment, “All of the spots I surf are so expanded, with long paddles and long rides.”
Perhaps the geographical inertia of the design can be attributed to other causes. Mabile states. “Any area where you go and ride them people will catch on, especially if they share (San Diego’s) kind of waves. Really it comes down to what the mafia of surfing wants to be groovy and happening. There are certain entities that want to keep certain trends in vogue. If you look around, though, the reality of surfing is happening on lots of different types of boards.”
Whether there is a concerted agenda among surf media or business to marginalize niche designs such as gliders is debatable. However, It is certainly difficult to compellingly capture the drama of the design in photography, perhaps limiting its appeal as communicated via surf media. Jon Pabalan, a stylish San Diego big board pilot reflects, “I have yet to see an adequate and artistic representation of the act of ‘gliding’, one that captures the swooping movement of the bottom turn, for example, or one that is not cropped in such a way that the wave recedes into the background in favor of the surfer. To be sure, it's a delicate and tricky aesthetic to properly capture.”
Without media exposure, the manner in which glider surfing is disseminated differs from that of other designs. Surfers approach Frye-style section connectors because of direct experience with the boards or influence from surfers already in the know. “Watching Skip surf is what caught my eye and started me on the gliders.” Christenson states.
Enthusiasm about the design begins with Skip Frye and is carried forward as has been done since the inception of surfboard building. “I don’t especially spread the big boards to other shapers intentionally,” Frye states. “Josh (Hall) and others showed an interest and I was happy to share. You know, we’re all reflections of one another. I’m a reflection of Brewer and Hynson and Lopez and Edwards and Carson and Farrelly. It just goes on and on.”
Glider building is demanding work and the design enjoys limited market appeal, making it a labor of love for the shapers who create them. Thus, there are few shapers who have taken up the challenge of blending the long, elegant lines required in the creation of big boards. “It’s pretty niche in terms of guys who are making these boards,” Larry Mabile shares. “Proportions are kind of hard because you’re working with a really long outline.” Still, the enthusiasm for the design among these shapers is evident. “I love them at Scorpion Bay, second point. It’s the dream board for that wave.” Mabile gushes.
Notably, San Diegans Josh Hall, Larry “Larmo” Mabile, and Chris Christenson have found successful application of their craft in the design. Shapers have used the model set by Skip and added their own interpretive touches to the boards. “Josh is about as close as anyone has come to replicating the design, while still putting his own spin on it.” Skip confides.
Today, Skip’s enthusiasm for building and riding section connectors remains strong. In early 2010 he undertook to create his twelve-hundredth board in his current workspace. Fittingly he chose to sculpt a twelve-foot, three stringer beauty from a blank that had been specially made by Jim “The Genius” Phillips. On any fair surfing day Frye can be found covering expanses of water on his remarkable big boards. His experimentation with the design continues. The relaxed rockers are beginning to tighten a touch and fin play is a daily diversion.
Frye’s body of work stretches on through over a half-century of consistent surfing and handcrafting of exquisite surfboards. Where others have parlayed past surfing prestige into marketable lines of boards and clothing, largely forsaking surfing as a personal pursuit, Frye has maintained his focus on surfing and building boards. “He never turned his back on his style of shaping and surfing,” Mabile asserts. “All of his contemporaries truly quit for a long time…but he never quit. Even to this day never has he had someone else shape a board for him. Every Frye you get he actually shaped. It’s super rare nowadays.” Frye’s longstanding commitment to his craft and to his own surfing lend importance to the fact that he has spent so much time developing his big boards. The design is imbued with the knowledge of years spent working in a dedicated manner on a unique design strand.
After nearly two decades of obscurity, the big boards remain an underground phenomenon intended for specific types of waves and a specific style of surfing. They are difficult boards to surf well and garner almost no media attention. For the shaper they carry little promise of financial gain. Still, they continue to find a home under the feet of enthusiastic men and women. Still, they grace waves of length with elegance. Now, after so many years following a life of surfing and shaping predicated on speed, glide, and flow, Frye continues to turn his attention towards this, his most niche design. He offers a simple reason for this choice, “For me personally, the big boards are where I get the most pleasure.”