For eco-friendly surfboard shapers, more kelp in the lineup


Surfing’s dirty secret is easy to find in the drab enclave of San Clemente known as the surf ghetto, where the ocean breeze is spiked with the sweet smell of chemicals and men wearing flip-flops and coated with white dust search for magic inside blocks of toxic foam.

Joey Santley is looking for something equally elusive: an environmentally friendly surfboard. Or at least one with a carbon footprint that’s less titanic.

“A ‘green surfboard’ is inherently an oxymoron at this point,” said Santley, 44, a frenetic surfboard shaper and entrepreneur. “Hopefully in the future it won’t be.”

Two years ago, Santley and a partner formed Green Foam Blanks, which makes rigid foam surfboard cores by fusing polyurethane with recycled polyurethane dust gathered from workshops that would otherwise discard it. That yields more boards per ounce of toxic polyurethane. The company recently signed a deal with a leading maker of traditional blanks to manufacture and distribute its product in North America, Japan, Europe and Costa Rica.

Still, this being a start-up, Santley is chief dust collector as well as part-owner.

He darts down a gangway between two nondescript buildings and bounds up the stairs of one of the neighborhood’s numerous surfboard factories. Under a whirring cutting machine, he hits gold: a pile of white polyurethane foam shavings as light as Rocky Mountain snow.

“This is like a perfect powder day,” Santley said, shoveling the stuff into a trash bag and holding it aloft. “Probably enough for about a dozen boards. And it won’t end up in the landfill.”

For the committed, surfing is a spiritual enterprise -- a connection with a divine energy unleashed by the interaction of wind, water and ocean-floor geography.

That the appliance surfers use to tap this energy is made from petroleum-based foam, polyester resins and chemically treated fiberglass has long been surfing’s quiet contradiction. A broken board tossed in a landfill will take generations to biodegrade; the plastic fins probably never will. Even the thin strip of wood that runs down the middle to provide strength comes at an environmental cost -- a minuscule yield from the raw material it’s milled from.

That this is the way most boards have been made for half a century is a reflection of Southern California’s home-grown surfboard industry. It’s a low-margin business bound by stubborn craft traditions and near-mystical customer expectations of how a surfboard should feel and perform.

In recent years, a wave of experimentation has sought to detoxify surfboards by utilizing materials that suggest the Whole Earth Catalog rather than the Periodic Table of Elements. Hemp, bamboo, kelp and silk instead of fiberglass. Foam made from soy and sugar. Adhesive resins made from linseed, pine and vegetable oils.

But changing the way surfboards are made has proved to be as difficult as riding the pumping winter swell at Pipeline.

“Changing the surfboard industry is like trying to turn an aircraft carrier,” said Ned McMahon, 54, a founder of Malama Composites, a San Diego company seeking a niche for its soy-based surfboard blanks. “Surfers are supposed to have this reputation for being free-thinking. . . . But they’re really just sheep following leaders.”

For most of the last 50 years, the primary sheep herder was Gordon “Grubby” Clark, who along with Hobie Alter pioneered the switch from wood to mass-produced, lightweight foam surfboards.

The irascible Clark perfected the cell structure of his polyurethane blanks, formed by the reaction of liquid chemicals poured by hand into one-of-a-kind molds Clark built himself. They were strong, light and easy to shape.

Clark’s take-no-prisoners business tactics -- shutting out competitors by threatening to withhold blanks from shapers who patronized them -- gave him a near-monopoly. Clark Foam became the industry standard.

But Clark’s Orange County factory eventually caught the attention of environmental and workplace regulators. At issue was one of the main ingredients in polyurethane foam: toluene diisocyanate, or TDI, a possible carcinogen that can be inhaled and absorbed through the skin. In 2005, Clark -- in his 70s and fearing legal liability -- abruptly closed his business.

“My full-time efforts will be to extract myself from the mess that I have created for myself,” he wrote to customers.

Entrepreneurs rushed in to fill the void. Some tried to replicate Clark’s formula. Others switched to blanks made from expanded polystyrene, a less toxic, recyclable material used in disposable coffee cups.

The few who have sought to go greener have confronted unanticipated chemistry, entrenched aesthetic preferences and a cool reception from shapers and professional surfers reluctant to fix what they don’t consider broken.

Making a performance surfboard -- one that flexes and maneuvers correctly -- is a black art. Shapers work quickly. Their tools and techniques have been refined by years of working with Clark Foam. Straying from the proven material is to risk becoming a voodoo doctor juggling pin cushions.

“The green guys are good guys, but I don’t buy it,” said Brad Basham, who owns a veritable lumberyard for shapers in San Clemente’s surf ghetto -- blanks stacked to the ceiling like rows of shark teeth. “Some of this stuff -- we could work with it, but there were weaknesses. . . . Not great results. . . . Production time goes up. . . . This is a much better deal for the marketing people than for a surfboard maker.”

None of this surprises Clark, who decamped to an Oregon ranch where his steel surfboard racks are now used as fencing and chemical tanks hold water for livestock.

“The durability of the product and whether it works well or not” are the most important factors, he said. “You can make an extremely environmentally friendly surfboard, but if no one wants to ride it, it won’t sell.

“If you go too far on this green thing, everybody is going to be bodysurfing naked,” he added. “That’s the ultimate green surfing.”

The surfboard business has long been run by surfers who act as if they’re chemists or engineers. Most learned their craft in the backyard.

Stu Krupoff and his three partners came to the blanks business from backgrounds in making plastic components for aerospace and medical devices.

“We enjoy water and water sports, but none of us were surfers,” said Krupoff, 52. “We’re mechanical engineers, and we thought there’s got to be a better way to do this.”

Not long after Clark Foam closed, Ice-Nine Foam Works opened in Orange. The name is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fictional material in the Kurt Vonnegut novel “Cat’s Cradle” that freezes water at room temperature and, once released, encapsulates the Earth in ice.

The partners spent a year picking the brains of shapers and developing equipment and a foam formula based on sugar-refinery waste. Ice-Nine’s “cane blanks” were well-received.

Then summer came and brought Vonnegutian misfortune.

“It just went all sideways on us,” Krupoff said.

Ice-Nine’s formula didn’t respond well to heat. Reports of finished surfboards super-sizing in the hot sun rolled in. What’s more, the company’s snow-white blanks turned yellow quickly, making new boards look like Dad’s hand-me-downs.

A stab at making a more traditional blank came too late. “If you want to play in that game, you have to prove yourself right away,” Krupoff said. “We ran out of time and money.” Ice-Nine closed last September.

McMahon of Malama Composites traveled the world as a shaper for pro surfers and estimates he has crafted more than 30,000 boards. He saw that most shaping bays are inhabited by men who take a lax approach to workplace safety.

McMahon typically wore a mask while kicking up clouds of dust with his sander. “But I’d be in Brazil and it was hotter than hell and you’d take it off,” he said. “Unless you were wearing a space suit, you were being exposed to carcinogens on a deadly level every day.”

After experimenting with castor oil, sugar and corn, McMahon’s company found that blanks made with soybean oil were as strong and light as conventional foam.

The problem is that soy blanks, like ones made from sugar, turn yellow. And if it’s finished with bamboo instead of fiberglass, the coating isn’t clear but looks like burlap.

“A huge part of surfing is fashion,” McMahon said.

This drives McMahon batty. Nearly as frustrating is the fact that pro surfers, who drive consumer demand, can ride a board once, proclaim it didn’t feel right -- and it’s back to the drawing board.

“Surfers talk about finding the ‘magic board.’ But there’s no measurable thing in surfing that makes one board better than another. It’s an intangible thing, a personal feeling,” McMahon said. “I know how to make surfboards and I’m telling you, with alternative materials I can make as good or better a surfboard than we made during the Clark Foam era.”

Malama Composites has made about 10,000 blanks over the last three years -- a drop in the ocean considering that 740,000 surfboards a year are sold in the U.S. The vast majority of its blanks have gone to “backyard guys” who make boards on demand and are eager to sell the eco-friendly cred. The big manufacturers remain skeptical.

To survive, Malama shifted its focus to marketing its foam for industrial uses, including wind turbine blades, airline cargo containers and construction.

It’s not as sexy as making surfboards. But there’s no such thing as a magic cargo container.