Global surfboard giant Firewire, part-owned by King Kelly Slater, is one of the most eco-conscious board builders on earth. Every board they make is certified by the non-profit Sustainable Surf, a group that lays out a blueprint for environmentally friendlier surfboards. Firewire is at the forefront of using post-consumer foams in smart ways and replacing the most toxic parts of the surfboard with products made with the environment in mind.
Like their brand-new surfboard glassed not with fiberglass, but with wool.
We freak out about carbon emissions and fossil fuels, yet ride surfboards made with the nastiest of petrochemicals.
A ruined sweater started the whole thing. A New Zealand shaper named Paul Barron apparently spilled resin on his wool sweater one day and, though that sweater was no longer for this earth, it produced something that resembled polyester resin-coated fiberglass (the substance that acts as a hard shell for foam core surfboards). Lightbulb moment. Now, Barron is working with Firewire on a new line of surfboards made with wool, uh, fiberglass, called Woolight.
But will surfers go out of their way to buy a surfboard simply because it’s made in a more sustainable way than traditional boards? Companies like Firewire and Sustainable Surf have made inroads, no question. But the market and ocean are still flooded with surfboards practically dripping with DuPont’s chemical witch’s brews.
To be a surfer who is concerned about climate change and pollution in general but to surf with conventional equipment is to teeter on the edge of an abyss of hypocrisy. But many of us live on that razor’s edge. We wring our hands in worry about microplastics amassing in the sea, yet enter the ocean wearing plastic (whether in a wetsuit or trunks), and rely on things like urethane leashes and foam plastic traction pads. We freak out about carbon emissions and fossil fuels, yet ride surfboards made with the nastiest of petrochemicals. Some surfers build lives around reducing the carbon footprint of their surfing obsession. Most of us don’t.
I’ve written about this before, in many places. Here, read this bit I wrote in a piece on chemicals and surfboards in the Encyclopedia of Surfing:
I compost my trash. No matter how horrible it smells, unwanted food gets thrown into a foul green trash can in the garage. If a guest absentmindedly tosses a beer bottle into the regular trash instead of our recycling can, they get a firm scolding. I can’t honestly remember the last time I even sniffed processed, non-organic food. But a wooden surfboard? Pssshh. Don’t get me started. I’m as enviro-conscious as the next NorCal bleeding heart until you start talking surfboards. When it comes to surfing, give me the most noxious, toxic, DuPont-bred hell-chemical you got. I’ll even help stir the pot.
Ahhh, polymeric foams. You’re so light, so rigid, so easily shaved with planing tools. Are you made with skin-searing isocyanate catalysts? Sure. But I’m not doing the foam blowing, so, outta sight, outta mind, right? Does burning polyurethane foam (what most board blanks are made of) release hydrogen cyanide? A chemical as deadly poisonous as it sounds? You bet. So I’ve decided to never ever EVER burn my boards.
And it ain’t just my board that was forged in the chemical fires of Mordor (or, rather, had its foam blown in the US Blanks plant in beautiful Gardena, CA, before being coated with toxic polyester resin at the local glasser’s shop). My wetsuit too comes courtesy of the carcinogenic polymers that make neoprene, including my personal favorite, chlorobutadine. You know what smells great? Surf wax. You know what’s in it? Polyisobutylene Vistanex, a kind of rubbery compound brought to you by ExxonMobil.
The chief problem is two-fold. For one thing, many surfers, I firmly believe, think of waves as, essentially, moving skate ramps, the ocean a mere skate park. Not a natural wonder to be protected at all costs. But for those of us who do value the sea as the gorgeous and crucial ecosystem it is, there’s long been a massive performance-based hurdle before we adopt eco-friendly equipment: Conventional gear has always worked much, much better.
Traditional polyurethane foam boards glassed with toxic resins have, for the most part, greatly outperformed their eco-friendlier cousins. They’re lighter, livelier, more durable. They just feel right. I rode a few boards made with organic foams and resins when they first started appearing a decade ago and they were awful. And expensive. I didn’t know a single surfer in those days who was willing to drop $1,000 on a board they weren’t sure would work. Most of us get three, maybe five surfs in a week, and sacrificing precious board-buying money and surf time on questionable equipment is a huge ask. For the most part, the best surfers in the world haven’t gravitated toward ecoboards, or at least, haven’t made a production out of doing so, and many surfers want to ride what the world’s best are riding.
Which brings us back to Firewire. Slater himself rides Firewire in competition. High-performance icon turned dreadlocked soul ranger Rob Machado has his own line of boards made under Firewire’s label and sustainability standards. If any company has the goods and market share to knock polyurethane boards from their pedestal, it’s Firewire.
The Woolight boards are made with Merino wool, sheared then drenched with bioresin, a resin that’s made from plant materials, typically corn or soybeans.
I reached out to Mark Price, CEO of Firewire, to get the goods about the cost and complexity of the wool builds. The price for one of the Woolight boards is $840. A standard board in the Firewire range is $785, so there’s a bit of a price bump. That’s likely to come down, however, as Price says: “The wool is not much more expensive than traditional fiberglass, but the manufacturing process is more time consuming hence the increased cost to build and the resultant MSRP.”
I haven’t had a chance to ride one of these yet, but hope to soon.
So will surfers be tempted by the wool boards? Probably, I think. For one, they look cool. Board prices have hovered around $800 for years now, so the cost isn’t as much of a disincentive as it once was. Plus, most photos of the Woolight line show wider, flatter, easier-to-ride boards with a nuance-hiding amount of foam that will hide the subtle differences in feel of the wool glass in ways that a hyper-performance oriented board might accentuate.
That a major board company like Firewire is even moving in this direction shows that the most important barrier to ecoboard acceptance is close to finally being eroded. Sustainably-made boards can finally match the performance of the polyurethane-based construction that has been the gold standard in surfboard making for 60 years.
As a hardcore surf addict and nerd, giving up performance has been too much to ask. Soon enough, looks like that will be a thing of the past.