Sightlines - September 2015
The Big Wave
Designing boats to run badly.
Growing up back in the 1960s we had several old 10-foot Hobie and Webber surfboards that were used by our summer camp as paddleboards. We would take wooden oars and stand up and paddle around on the old surfboards looking pretty goofy. Never did we imagine that someday Laird Hamilton, the coolest big-wave surfer of them all, would popularize it as the new sport of Stand Up Paddleboarding.
Occasionally we would wax up those same big boards and take them out to ride behind our small ski boat with its 35-horsepower Evinrude outboard motor. I remember my brothers trying to catch the wake off the transom and ride it without holding onto the ski line. It didn’t work very well, and it was pretty dangerous riding right up behind the propeller, but it was a blast anyway. I don’t think they ever really caught a good ride. I just figured they weren’t any good at it.
So it was quite a surprise when the sport of wakesurfing began to catch on a few years ago. What seemed pretty lame back when we were kids has now become the fastest-growing sector in the boat business. Entire boat companies are dedicated to building wakesurf boats. It turns out that my brothers may actually have been good enough surfers to ride the wave, if they only had a short board and a big, smooth wake to ride.
My office has been asked to design wakesurf boats on a couple of occasions. Although I usually love a challenge, I have turned these requests down flatly. Our common goal in every project we undertake is to develop a better boat. We constantly struggle to reduce weight, increase speed, and improve seakeeping and fuel efficiency. A wakesurf boat appreciates none of these attributes and is in fact the antithesis of good naval architecture. The goal here is to create and shape the largest stern wave possible and suppress planing. A bad boat makes a good boat to surf behind, and that’s not my game.
In the quest to create the perfect wave, some very serious effort has been expended attempting to make the perfect bad boat. It turns out that the simplest way to make a big wave is to dig a big hole in the water with a boat weighed down so much that it can barely plane. Most modern wakesurf boats employ an array of ballast tanks or bladders in an effort to increase displacement and move weight around to maximize the wake on the side of the surfer. The perfect surfing speed behind these boats is between 8 and 10 miles per hour, so there is no requirement to run fast in this ballasted condition.
Although my office is sitting out the development of these boats, some of our industry’s best naval architects have jumped in and are utilizing advanced methods like Computational Fluid Dynamics to predict wave shape induced by modifications to hulls that employ steps, hooked bottoms, and interceptor plates. With a combination of trial and error, Bondo shaping, and computer analysis, naval architects are working alongside builders in an effort to sculpt the perfect wake. Wake shaping is becoming a science of its own.
As the sport has grown hotter, big dollars are at stake and the race for the perfect wave is also a race for market share. The biggest companies building these boats, like MasterCraft, Malibu, and Ski Nautique, have spent a great deal of money and time developing these boats. They take the proprietary development of these boats very seriously and have armed themselves with several patents. Lawsuits are being lobbed back and forth between these builders at a rate I have never seen in the boat industry. I am glad to be sitting on the sidelines as we watch these guys cannibalize each other.
When my brothers and I played around with some castoff old surfboards on an island with no surf, we were just having fun. We never gave a thought about our six-pack abs as we paddled around and we didn’t think much about the size of the wake behind our little boat. It is amazing to see what can become of the simple pleasures of youth when technology is applied and enough money is at stake. So now you can ride the wave a little longer, but I don’t really know if it is any more fun than we had as kids.
This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.