If you had told eight-year-old me that I’d one day be paid to test the world’s best surfboards, I would have been like yeah, duh, I’m the next Kelly Slater.
Fifteen-year-old me, who had seen more of the world and the surfing talent within it, would have been less easily convinced.
But, a few lucky breaks later, and here we are.
Please know, I do not take this good fortune lightly. It’s a privilege to be in my position, and I take the responsibility to my fellow surfers quite seriously. Especially when it comes to the performance capacity of surfboards. I would never want to lead somebody into a once- or twice-a-year purchase they will soon regret.
Over the past year, I’ve tested close to a dozen new models from the world’s premier surfboard manufacturers. While all of the boards had positive things to be said about them, some worked better than others.
Below, I’ll list my five favorite boards from 2019, which I personally recommend you try in 2020. Two are high-performance shortboards, two are small(er) wave performance boards, and one is a twin fin.
And remember, you don’t always have to buy a board to try it. Most of these brands offer demo days throughout the year and some local surf shops will let you rent these models and take them for a spin.
Awayco, too, is a great option to sample crafts before your purchase.
Anyway, without further ado, and in no particular order…
The Eye Symmetry Lucid Eye
A high-performance shortboard.
Eye Symmetry is a niche Australian brand formed by artist/artisan Max Stewart. Max has been criticized in the past for being more interested in the aesthetics of his crafts rather than their functionality, but I can say that while the Lucid Eye is beautiful (with its signature paint job and serrated “Octo-rail” design), it certainly does not lack in the performance category.
Specifically, the Lucid Eye is great board for great waves. It thrives in powerful, overhead conditions and is particularly adept on the rail. It’s slightly heavier and more full-bodied than most “major” brands’ HP shortboards, which makes it a bit more difficult to whip around, but the Lucid Eye makes up for this with some of the smoothest and most engaged carves I’ve felt.
The Slater Designs Cymatic
A smaller(er) wave performance board—unless you’re Kelly Slater.
Technically, I tested this board at the end of 2018, but it’s too damn good not to include on this list.
Simply put, the Slater Designs Cymatic is the best small(er) wave performance board I’ve ever ridden. It’s quick, ridiculously responsive, and shockingly good on rail. How a board can comprise all three of these traits is incomprehensible to me but nonetheless true.
When Slater designed this model with Daniel Thomson, the idea was to fit as much surfboard as possible into a tiny package, as Kelly believes that the traditional, triangular surfboard nose is pointless (sorry, pun). I believe they succeeded in this goal, with Kelly’s performances on the Cymatic at sizable Haleiwa as proof.
I’ve never ridden the Cymatic in waves of that size and probably never will. But when it’s waist-to-head high and rippable, there’s no board I’d rather be on.
The JS Black Baron
A high-performance twin.
As noted in the Black Baron Joyride, I’ve never really “understood” twin fins. That’s because my idea of an enjoyable surf is singular: I want to rip as hard as I possibly can on every single wave.
Losing the center skeg always seemed like an affront to that pursuit.
After opening my mind and swapping my fins (for the Futures Machado Twin), the Black Baron was able to convince me otherwise. I was going faster, maintaining speed through turns, and getting more release than my typical thruster. Even though it lacked control at times and kind of sucked backside, the Baron felt like the best board I could ride in slopey, pointbreak surf.
It’s the ideal blend of frivolity and performance.
The Channel Islands Happy
A high-performance shortboard.
If I ever magically got a call-up to surf in a CT event, the Channel Islands Happy is the surfboard I would ride.
It’s sharp, maneuverable, and for its genre, extremely user-friendly. As far as ripping the absolute tits out of quality waves goes, this board is the best I’ve tested.
It should also be noted that the Happy is a surfboard you keep on ice for those special days. Depending on where you live, you might ride it five times a year or 50. But every time the buoys are up and the wind is down, you’ll be ecstatic to pull this board off the shelf and get it in the water. A blade of the highest order.
The Rusty Blade
A small(er) wave performance board.
In fairness, I did not have an instant connection with the Rusty Blade.
For the first two weeks, I couldn’t wrap my head around its flat deck, boxy rails, and overall ’80s aesthetic. I appreciated its speed and skatey approach on the wave, but couldn’t totally click with its movements.
So I decided to study old Occy footage and mirrored his approach. A 50/50 stance and quiet lower body made all the difference. By the time we filmed this Joyride, the Blade had become one of my favorite boards of the year in small-to-mid-sized surf, primarily for its ability to fit anywhere on the wave and exit with speed. The channels also gave it extra hold.
This is the closest thing I’ve found to riding a skateboard on water.