Master Craftsman: Jay Novak and the Art of Surfboard Shaping

From my Imperial Beach Patch column of July 13, 2011.

Jay Novak at work.

When I first started surfing in 1977, I immediately became aware of Jay Novak of Novak Surfboard Designs through his incredibly stylish and tube-savvy surfing and the fact that he along with Mike Richardson and Dave Craig was part of IB’s elite group of master surfboard shapers. Jay is still shaping and surfing in IB and around the world. I’m lucky to have him shape my surfboards, which are among the best I’ve ever surfed. Jay’s innovative and groundbreaking quad surfboard from 1980 is on display at the Imperial Beach Surfboard Museum at Dempsey Holder Surfboard Safety Center. Jay recently also had one of his surfboards featured on the cover of Surfer Magazine.

Patch: When did you start shaping?

Jay Novak surfing in Imperial Beach

Jay Novak: I started shaping in high school in the 1970’s. At that time surfboard design was going through a major period of change. In 1968 the first shortboards were used, all but replacing 9-foot and longer boards. But the issue with the new more sensitive and maneuverable boards was that no one had figured out exactly what design features made a board surf well. Therefore many different shapes and sizes of boards were used. Anything from 8-foot V bottoms ( they looked like cut off 9 footers) to 7 1/2 foot by 18″ Hawaiian influenced single fins to 5 1/2 foot  twin fins with wide tails.  And everything in between. It took years and many different ideas to reach a bit of a design standard.

Patch: What is the history of the quad you shaped that is on display at the Dempsey Holder Safety Center?

Novak quiver.

Novak: The quad board in the IB Surf Museum is my personal board from 1980. It was one of my favorite boards ever. This board was also the model for the Imperial Beach Outdoor Surfboard Museum – the red metal outline sculptures- at Seacoast and Palm. I was surfing pretty well at the time, at least surfing pretty often. Most of my customers wanted twin fins, although maybe 25 % of my orders were quads . The 3-fin Simon Anderson era was right around the corner. I thought the twins were a little too sensitive and harder to control backside.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Wallis.

Changing to 4-fins seemed to correct these issues. I was one of the last to switch to 3-fins as I thought they were slower and not as free to turn as the twins or quads. Remember the boards of this era were thick and had less rocker. It would be quite a few years until boards thinned out and performance took a leap forward. I also remember I could tell how many fins were on a board by the way it worked in the water.

Patch: What is your relationship with AKA Surfboards?

Novak: I have been shaping for AKA (based in Encinitas) for 6 years now. The company has shown quite a bit of growth to the point now where we send boards all over the world, have high profile team riders and are known throughout the world.

Peter Devries on the June 2011 cover of Surfer Magazine surfing a Jay Novak AKA surfboard

The June issue of Surfer Magazine featured Peter Devries one of the AKA crew on the cover. This is a big deal in the surf industry! I have been shaping for Peter for five years. He is Canada’s best known pro surfer (Serge’s note: I surfed with Peter in Canada-he shreds!). Working with surfers like Peter to get boards “just right” forces me to keep current, lose any complacency and the end result is a better board for all my customers.

Patch: How do you use computers in your shaping?

Novak:I shape about 75% of the AKA boards with computer assistance, versus maybe 50/50 of my total workload. The computer allows an exact duplicate of a board to be shaped. Besides saving time, we are increasingly asked to shape a particular “model” of board, moving away from a custom shape for an individual.

For example AKA has 18 models and I can change size and dimensions on all of these models up or down for each customer’s needs and get a perfect result. Although I really feel creative when I hand shape a board from start to finish there is a place for both and the end result should be the same. I have always kept detailed records of the boards I have shaped.

Patch: What is the state of surfing in Southern California today?

Me on my 6'6" Novak quad at Barra de la Cruz in Oaxaca. One of the best surfboards I've ever owned.

Novak: I think that surfing today in Southern California has progressed greatly in the past few years. I am nothing if not a surf observer. About 350 days a year I start my day by walking to the beach and looking at the waves, hoping it will be good enough to motivate me.

About 10 years ago I observed that surfers were using boards that were either too small or too big. The 9-foot longboards had become popular but these boards were not meant to be used everyday. Especially here in IB where the waves can on occasion break shallow and hard. Better to use them when the surf is head high or less. The short boards of the time were narrow and had low volume, making them suited for larger waves with more power.

Patch: What kind of surfboards work for IB?

Novak: Things to consider when surfing in IB. What kind of surf do we have in this area? Average size shoulder high? Not particularly good? Something inbetween the 2 extremes of long and short should work when surfing in IB.

I am glad that it has again become fashionable to ride short boards that have added width and thickness. This has certainly helped the average surfer to get more rides with better results. I personally enjoy egg shapes in the 6 1/2 to 8 foot size and small 4-fin fish shapes. Of course I will ride my 9-footer often and my short board when the conditions are better.

In the last three weeks I have surfed a different board each time I went in the water, hoping to choose the right one for each different day. The surfboards of today are better than ever. It is easier to learn as well as quicker to become an accomplished rider. Perhaps that is why there are so many good surfers now.

Cold Water Blues in Canada

My Imperial Beach Patch Southwest Surf Column for April 13, 2010:

The water temperature and the weather weren’t that bad. Really. The ocean temp was in the high 40s and the air was in the mid-to-high 40s. Springtime conditions.

Even with the warmer weather, I wasn’t sure what to expect as I hit the water at Chesterman Beach, one of the most popular surfing beaches on Vancouver Island.

But as I waded through the whitewater, I realized that it wasn’t going to be that bad.

Of course I was covered from head to toe in rubber—hood, gloves, booties and my 4-3-2 Matuse Tumo suit. So I was toasty.

As I paddled through the whitewater to catch some of the fun 3- to 4-foot sideshore peaks, I realized that the lineup was virtually empty with the exception of a tight group of five local surfers, who were all shredding.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. It was Pete Devries, Canada’s hottest surfer (who appears on the cover of the latest issue of Surfer magazine, and who happens to ride boards shaped by Jay Novak), and his band of local shredders.

Devries, who is sponsored by Hurley, pulled big snaps, airs and slashing roundhouse cutbacks in the small but rippable waves.

I joined the crew, who were at the northern end of Chesterman, and was greeted with smiles and friendly waves. I was even given a wave or two.

After about an hour, I returned to the beach to find Emily, my wife, who had gone for a walk while I was in the water. The long beach was filled with beginner surfers who didn’t seem to mind the cold conditions.

Emily and I had traveled to Vancouver Island to attend the 25th Annual Pacific Rim Whale Festival so I could give a couple of talks on coastal conservation in Baja and promote my new book, Wild Sea.

Between my surf sessions, we took walks among the desolate dunes and forests of Pacific Rim National Park and wandered the streets of Tofino, a former fishing and logging town that was named “the best surf town in North America,” according to Outside magazine.

I couldn’t imagine a more perfect place to spend quality time with Emily, who in the past suffered through surf safaris that involved spending more time hunkering down out of the wind in Baja (we lived there for three years) than enjoying the beach.

At the Wildside Grill, hands down the world’s best and coolest surf eatery, Emily and I scarfed down amazing fish tacos, fresh seafood chowder, and the best salmon burgers I have ever eaten. Wildside is owned by commercial fisherman Jeff Mikus and longtime surfer and chef Jesse Blake. While waiting for my order, I traded mainland Mexico stories with Jesse, who is familiar with the rivermouth waves of Guerrero and Michoacan.

Wildside chef and surfer Jesse Blake.

The following day, after I surfed empty offshore 3- to 5-foot right reforms at Wickaninnish Beach in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, Emily and I ate fresh salmon at the more rustic and surf-themed Shelter in Tofino. The food and views of snowy peaks from the restaurant behind the island-studded Tofino Inlet were priceless.

That afternoon after giving a talk, the surf came up. I paddled out at Wickaninnish expecting mellow overhead waves. Instead I realized that I had underestimated the size and power of the new swell. The sets were 6- to 8-foot and were breaking with a lot of power. Pete and his merry men were ripping the well overhead peaks.

I was trying to figure out the lineup that reminded me of being caught in the middle of the Sloughs. While I caught a few peaks, the cold water found an entryway between the sleeves of my wetsuit and my gloves. By my third wave, I was really cold and my body was shutting down. I caught a set wave in and was humbled by the ability of local surfers and their dedication to surfing in a region where surfing isn’t that easy.

The next day, Emily and I headed back over the snowy mountain pass to take the ferry to Vancouver. We agreed that Tofino and Vancouver Island were definitely worth returning to.

Thanks to the beautiful Water’s Edge Resort for their hospitality and the Pacific Rim Whale Festival for their invitation to speak at the festival. Another excellent local restaurant that is fisherman owned and supplied is the Offshore Seafood Restaurant in Ucluelet. A big mahalo to the local surfers who keep the true spirit of surfing alive in the cold waters of the North Pacific. We flew Alaska Airlines to Vancouver from San Diego and I was charged $60 roundtrip for board fees—not too bad.

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