Nick Carroll: Don Brink and the World of Asymmetric Design

23 Mar 2019 6 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

Photo: YouTube

Photo: YouTube


"I look at them as beautiful"

You won’t have to wander around in the Shaper Shack area of the Vissla Sydney Surf Pro for too long before you’ll bump into Donald Brink.

Actually, what am I saying? You won’t bump into Donald Brink. Don is far too polite to bump into anyone.

He’s a slightly built, serious, intelligent and very precise surfer and boardmaker, originally from South Africa but now a resident in California, who in the past few years has helped drive a quietly remarkable trend in board design.

Asymmetrics – boards made to ride differently off either rail – have really taken off among some US west coast surfers. Not pro-level crew, generally, but competent surfers who are finding new life in their performances, on craft that look like they’re kind of a risk for the customer.

Don is here as part of the Vissla Creators and Innovators program, assisting with the event’s five day on-beach shaper-fest (and glass-off – shaped bards are being laminated next door in a small bay with epoxy bio-resins). I went wandering after him because I wanted to know a couple of things about this trend. First: how did he get started down this most complex design road? What’s the advantage? And second: if it’s getting to be a deal for Californians, why haven’t Australians gone there yet?

According to Don, the answer to number one is kinda geographic. When he moved to California, two things confronted him: the amazing availability of history in the shape of classic older boards, and the surf. One was a thrill: “It was like walking into a museum, and they were handing me boards to ride.” The other was a little harder. Waves in southern California are fun and consistent, but softer and mushier than South African surf. “The variety was what I missed,” he said. “I found riding those wide-tailed fishes was really refreshing, but they limited your ability in beachbreak surf.”

What that did was cause him to think about curves. “Now I understood the straighter and longer the curve, the faster it’ll go and the harder it’ll be to turn. Once you understand that, I can help you go faster, but how do I also help you turn? I can (add curve and) make you turn really well, but then I can never give you enough drive. Once you break those ideas down and see them as the bookends of design, well how about I make a couple of adjustments?”

Don’s asymmetrics are designed around stance, not around wave direction. They’re made for natural-foot or goofy-foot, not rights or lefts, trying to balance the design against the human body’s own asymmetry. He sees the toe rail as the drive rail, and the heel rail as the difficult one, the side needing a little extra help in releasing turns. The heel is a blunt instrument; pressuring the heel rail on and off to modify a turn escapes many an otherwise OK surfer.

“Most of the changes I make are to improve the backhand bottom turn, to stop it sticking, and allow you to go straight to the backhand high line,” he told me. “People want to not blow waves … If you build to make boards more forgiving of mistakes in one place but that don’t get in the way in others, that’s going to help anyone’s surfing.

It’s super tricky stuff because, as Don says, while the board’s rail lines and rockers are different on either side, the board still has to work as one. “People have said to me, well we’re only ever on one rail at a time, but the board still has to move from that rail to the other rail. No part is really separate from the whole. You still have to look at the whole board and bring the elements together.”

Don is very aware of the risk in producing something unusual in the surfboard market. “If you can’t please someone within two surfs, you’ve probably built a dog,” he says bluntly. “That’s a challenge to every surfboard brand.”

Yet Californian surfers have really embraced this surprising note of forgiveness, and Don is far from the only practitioner of modern asymmetry on those shores. Ryan Burch, and San Clemente’s Album label, spring to mind. There’s been plenty of asymmetric boards in Australia’s design past, so I ask him: why haven’t modern Aussies gone there yet?

Don is hesitant to sum up a surf culture he’s only briefly swum in but wonders if it’s just a matter of time. A designer has to work on the tricky nature of asymmetry for years, which doesn’t fit a big boardmaker’s program, and in any case, when it comes to general stoke and thus board sales, Australian surfing is thriving. “Why add cans of worms to a busy industry? But I honestly think everyone is going to have a crack at it over time and that excites me.”

At the same time, Don doesn’t come across as a proselytiser for his ideas. He feels he’s on to something but doesn’t feel that makes everyone else wrong. One reason for that, he says, is any board might find the right home with someone – who is anyone else to judge?

Another is that he just loves surfboards, full stop. “I look at them as beautiful. I don’t care if it’s symmetrical. I’m always trying to learn how to make boards better. If we advocate for design and good surfboards that work well and last, that’s a more important task.”

LISTEN: Nick Carroll on the Surf Splendour Podcast with Don Brink

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