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How the soft-top surfboard went from ‘kook’ to cool

How the soft-top surfboard went from ‘kook’ to cool

It wasn’t long ago that the soft-top surfboard was scoffed at, used only by novices. A surfer on a soft top was either a beginner just learning to navigate the whitewash or they were a “kook,” a clueless surfer not yet skilled enough for a real board.

Despite the soft top being created in the 1970s, it took decades for the foam-filled board to be accepted into surfing culture. But much has changed in the past 15 years or so, and while there are still plenty of naysayers, it seems the soft top has found its place in the crowded lineup.

At T-Street Beach in San Clemente, an event on Saturday, Aug. 12 hosted by Red Bull and Catch Surf, a local brand that has helped wipe out the soft top stigma in recent years, will showcase a less-serious side of surfing with a fun competition called Red Bull Foam Wreckers, a wacky, light-hearted event where the silliest ride on a soft top is celebrated.

And with the backing of pro surfing icons and Catch Surf team riders Jaime O’Brien, who will be in from Hawaii for the event, and San Clemente’s Kalani Robb, as well as other well-known surfers who have made their own soft-top models, the momentum for this buoyant board is riding a wave of popularity.

“Soft tops once frowned upon are now part of almost every surfer’s quiver. With the help of pro surfers landing signature models with credible board brands and their functional use in small waves, soft tops are cool and here to stay,” said Vipe Desai, executive director of the Surf Industry Members Association, or SIMA.

With the growth of surfing, they are a perfect board for newcomers because of their price point, the ease of learning and the durability, he said.

The soft top has a storied past; it was originally the love child of the traditional surfboard and the Boogie Board, created by Laguna Beach inventor Tom Morey.

Morey was a partner of board maker Mike Doyle in the ’70s, and the duo came up with the idea to use the foam from lightweight bodyboards for a longer surfboard version.

It was the Wavestorm sold out of big-box retailer Costco the past two decades that put masses of newbies on soft-top boards, which became a staple at the growing number of surf schools, and they flew off shelves in part because of the low cost of about $100.

But those easy-to-ride boards came with controversy: Traditional board shapers argued they couldn’t compete with the inexpensive boards churned out of a machine in China. And surfers who didn’t like their surf breaks becoming even more crowded saw them — and the surfers clutching them — as a threat.

Then, Catch Surf came along.

The brand was born in Laguna Beach in 2007 and set up its office and retail shop in San Clemente, the mecca of mainland surfing.

The Catch Surf store in San Clemente is stocked with soft-top surfboards. The brand, which launched in 2008 in Laguna Beach, helped change the negative soft-top stigma. (Photo by Laylan Connelly/SCNG) 

Morey was part of the original designs, helping the brand launch in 2008, his name scribed on the early “Beater” models.

Catch Surf sales and marketing manager Johnny Redmond said the idea came from the need for a high-performance soft board, an alternative to the cheap Costco board.

While they cost more than the Wavestorm, the Catch Surf versions were sturdier and more performance-driven, made with a fin box that allowed for bigger turns and speed down the line. Like traditional boards, they are made with wood stringers with a variety of sizes — everything from a 6-foot performance board to a 9-foot longboard.

Redmond, who grew up bodyboarding, saw the appeal, especially when his favorite spot T-Street was blackballed. The soft top was a workaround, a way to stay in the water when surfboards were banned during busy summer hours.

And they were fun to ride.

“With a soft board, it screams fun. There’s more volume, it ups your wave count,” said Redmond.  “You’re not taking yourself too seriously, you’re out there for fun and to catch waves.”

T-Street would become the company’s research lab, where they would film clips of team riders like Robb and O’Brien, who would do the unthinkable — take the soft tops out at bombing Wedge in Newport Beach or get barreled at Pipeline in Hawaii.

“They are not indestructible,” Redmond said. “But they definitely take a beating.”

Redmond remembers those early-day eye rolls as Catch Surf was just launching.

“I would surf my Beater and get people giving me funny looks or mumbling things,” he said. “I never let that bother me, I was always there for the fun of it. I think it kind of just took a few years to trump that negativity.”

Catch Surf isn’t the only brand to ride into the soft-top market, and no longer are soft boards just for novices.

“From what I can tell, it looks like traditional surfers have been more open to adding a soft top or two to their quivers than new entrants adding traditional surfboards into growing their lineup of boards,” Desai said. “I think that’s really the big opportunity, which is to help soft top surfers transition into a board made by real shapers.”

San Clemente brothers, Dane, left, Tanner, right, and Patrick Gudauskas, who all grew up in San Clemente, with their recyclable soft top surf boards from their nonprofit organization, Positive Vibe Warriors. The trio launched the soft top line in 2021. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG) 

World Champion Mick Fanning of Australia just launched a model with his name. San Clemente pro surfers Pat, Tanner and Dane Gudauskas in 2021 released a line of soft-tops, made with recyclable material, to benefit their nonprofit, Positive Vibe Warriors.

One of the most respected names in surfing, Gerry Lopez, has his own soft-top model, going toe-to-toe with Wavestorm in Costco.

Lopez, an early-era surfboard maker known for his Lightning Bolt label who still shapes traditional boards, teamed up with Vista-based California Board Company to create the soft-top touting his signature.

“Whether it’s your first time, or you just want to have one of those to fool around with, they work pretty good,” Lopez said.

He’s aware of the controversy surrounding the soft tops. Many surfers argue they put too many people in the water, he said. And surfboard shapers worry they will wipe out business.

But those new surfers, he argues, will eventually evolve to hard-top surfboard riders, helping to fuel the entire surfing industry.

“With that surfboard, their skill advances but only to a point,” Lopez said. “To go beyond that point, they need to get a better surfboard. That’s how it’s always been.”

Lopez personally designed the model, with Costco first testing sales in Santa Cruz three years ago. Two years ago, it hit mass markets.

He’s surprised at how it has taken off. “Kind of shocked, to be honest,” he said.

Lopez thinks of Hawaiian icon Duke Kahanamoku, who in the early 1900s wanted to spread the stoke of surfing, doing exhibitions in Australia and California to introduce wave riding to the masses.

“For me, a $99 surfboard is a great way to share surfing with people who don’t want to invest $1,000 or $1,500 to just try surfing,” he said. “It works pretty well. It catches every wave you paddle for.”

The Red Bull Foam Wreckers event, now the second year held in San Clemente, will show some surfers trying some wacky wave riding, showcasing just what these soft tops are meant to do — have fun on — and that’s the point.

The Catch Surf store in San Clemente is stocked with soft-top surfboards. The brand, which launched in 2008 in Laguna Beach, helped change the negative soft-top stigma. San Clemente surfers Isaiah and Samaira Lizzi, recently celebrating their 12th birthday, search for just the right board with little brother Maceo, 6, in tow.(Photo by Laylan Connelly/SCNG) 

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On a recent day, the Lizzi family walked into the Catch Surf store in San Clemente to check out the selection, looking for just the right board for daughter Samaira’s 12th birthday present. Samaira and twin brother Isaiah scoped out the different sizes, vibrant colors and bold graphics on offer.

Samaira eventually landing on a bright pink “Odysea,” covering it in colorful flower-design stamps and a “shaka” sign for a personal touch.

Marin Lizzi, also a surfer, joked that she’ll be borrowing her daughter’s new board in no time.

“They are all so fun,” said Marin Lizzi. “You just know you’re going to be stoked for a long time. It’s a durable, fun board.”