Travis Grant: ‘That’s Not a Board, THIS Is a Board!’ (aka the Fun of the Unlimited)

 
Travis Grant

Travis Grant on his unlimited NSP race board surfing to victory at last year’s Molokai 2 Oahu race (photo: Dana Edmunds/NSP)

I’ve always loved paddling unlimited boards. There’s a special feeling you get from gliding through the ocean on a 17 or 18 foot board that just can’t be matched on a 12’6 or 14. Unlimiteds are slightly challenging at first but I reckon that’s half the fun. Once you get the hang of it you never want to paddle anything else!

Unlimited race boards are pretty common over here in Hawaii but almost non-existent everywhere else. When it comes to unlimiteds: Not many brands make them, not many paddlers ride them, and not many events focus on them. Maybe it’s time to change that. Why not?!

I get it that flat water racing is probably always going to be dominated by the standard 14 footer, and that it probably wouldn’t be practical to have an unlimited arms race on the lakes, but out in the open ocean it’s a whole nother story. The major ocean races – Molokai 2 Oahu, Maui 2 Molokai, OluKai – already have unlimited boards as the main board class, so let’s focus on these kind of events a bit more.

I think unlimited stand up paddle boards could genuinely help drive the sport forward. These 16, 17, 18, even 19 foot boards are a great avenue for design and experimentation — not only is there no length restriction but there’s way more freedom to play around with the width, weight, thickness, rocker, steering and so on.

I feel like we’re about to hit a peak with the 14′ race board. The speed you can generate on a 14′ is only so much before you start pushing your own bow wave — all 14′ boards will eventually perform more or less the same. But we’ve hardly even scratched the surface with unlimiteds…

Ok yeah, they cost more and they’re harder to transport, but paddling an unlimited is actually safer and easier than a 14′ most of the time. That’s definitely true when conditions get rough in the the ocean — a rudder can be a lifesaver in a cross wind.

Oh and it’s also a lot more fun, did I mention that?!

With an unlimited board you essentially have a steering wheel. Not quite as conventional as a car steering wheel, but you can still tell the board where you want it to go with just a nudge of your foot.

Travis Grant

Travis Grant on Maui’s world famous Maliko downwind run (photo: 808photo.me)

So how do we grow the unlimited board class, even if it’s just in the ocean paddling world? I reckon we kinda need a perfect storm of brands/athletes/events working together.

We need more brands (or even just custom shapers) making them, obviously, but to get that to happen we first need more paddlers wanting to ride them and more events focusing on them. We already have the events and the athletes in Hawaii, but outside of a small handful of designers the brands don’t pay unlimiteds much attention.

Why?

Is it in the too hard basket? Too expensive maybe? No return on investment?

Perhaps all of the above, but like I was saying: Paddling an unlimited is surely the most fun you can have on a SUP, and isn’t that why we all got into this sport to begin with?!

I know that unlimiteds aren’t a big seller and won’t add much to a company’s profits, well not yet anyway, but just look at ocean skis – they are 21ft long and super expensive but are pretty much everywhere now. That’s not even the point though. The point is simply that unlimiteds could push the limits of board design and grow the appeal of the sport in general.

Ferrari doesn’t sell their F1 cars, but they do use them to innovate with engineering and promote their ‘regular’ sports cars in general. In a similar way, I reckon innovation in unlimiteds would have a bit of a trickle down effect to the 14 footers. And plus if we have a bigger emphasis on the major ocean events then I’m sure it would help grow the sport – ocean racing and downwinding hold a lot of aspirational appeal for the average paddler.

Sonni Honscheid

Molokai 2 Oahu and OluKai champion Sonni Honscheid on the Maliko run (photo: 808photo.me)

And as for the athletes, I don’t want this to come out the wrong way but I think maybe some paddlers are ‘scared’ of the unlimited board class. Not scared as in frightened, but just a little unsure about the great unknown. Everyone feels comfortable on a 12’6 or 14, but racing an unlimited with a rudder is a whole different deal. Almost like a different sport the first time you try it. However if you spend more than a few sessions on one you get used to it pretty quick and fall in love with just how much freedom they offer.

(This isn’t just about racing though: Paddling an unlimited board on a big open ocean downwind run is awesome fun whether you’re seriously competing or simply cruising.)

As for events: We all know that 14′ is the main board class these days and probably always will be (with a few 12’6 races here and there), but I still think there’s way more room for unlimited races (and unlimited boards in general) than we’ve currently got. This sport is so young, we should keep experimenting while we’re still developing and not get stuck in our ways too soon.

For example the big ocean races in West Oz could be an unreal playground for 17 and 18 foot machines. Your next Maui downwind holiday awaits, only it’ll be in Western Australia.

I’m talking about events like The Doctor and King of the Cut, which are already established as Australia’s premiere ocean races but are mainly focused on the 14′ class. There was some chatter last year about maybe having a bigger focus on the unlimited division in the future. That’s something I’m all for. Not for my benefit, but for the sport and for its participants. A lot of people haven’t even seen an unlimited SUP before, let alone been on one.

Never paddled an unlimited? You don’t know what you’re missing out on!

Unlimiteds are faster, often more stable, way easier to control (once in the ocean), though I guess maybe a little tricky getting them off the car roof and down to the water’s edge on a windy day haha.

Anyway hopefully we can encourage more guys and girls to rock up with 17 and 18 footers in the future. Outside of Hawaii, the unlimited class might be small in the beginning, but I reckon it’s time for us to take a leap and experiment a little. It’s not going to take away from sales of other boards or from the events that focus on them.

Unlimited will always be a tiny percentage of the SUP racing world (we’ll still have 14′ as standard at most races around the world). But I think it could/should be a lot bigger than it is now, at least with the big open ocean races.

I really believe the next “frontier” in board design is unlimited ocean boards. Maybe I’m a little biased because I had a pretty awesome, race-winning unlimited board designed for me last year, but I’d love to see more brands making them, more athletes racing on them and more events focusing on them. Let’s push the limits of board design and see how fast and how far we can go.

It would also kind of open up a new ‘race’ on the design side of things. We are nowhere near the fastest unlimited board yet, however the 14′ I think is very close to plateauing in terms of speed. I reckon unlimited is where the challenge is at now, both for paddlers and designers.

Unlimited race boards are faster, they give us more freedom, they’re generally easier to control and they’re actually safer a lot of the time. But above all, like Dave Kalama says, unlimited boards are just more fun. And who wouldn’t want to promote that?!