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Craft: An Interview With Fletcher Chouinard

On October 16, 2018   |   By
Its tough to get Fletcher Chouinard on the phone. Its understandablehes got a newborn kid on his hands, boards to shape, a wave quota to fill and on top of all that, hes addicted, much like many of us, to the endless possibilities of surfing with a kite. According to longtime FCD board rider Jason Slezak, Fletcher is committed to meticulous design, the highest quality of materials and whether he knows it or not (Fletch humbly claims that he still just makes kitesurf boards for himself and his friends), he is one of the most talented kitesurf board shapers out there. The interview that ensued revealed a craftsman of integrity and a fellow tradesman with apassion for all things kitesurfing.

As a lifelong surfer, how did you come into the sport of kitesurfing?

My first exposure to kitesurfing was back when my dad was really into expedition sea kayaking. He had a one line traction kite for crossings and I was thinking how awesome it would be to drag myself with that thing on a surfboard. I flailed for a while and really got nowhere. I started seeing a few things pop up with the guys in Maui, but it was probably Peter Trow and Corky Cullen that started it here in Ventura and Santa Barbara. I started flailing around with kites again through Corky and that was it.

Fletch as hes known to his friends does his testing near his home in Ventura, California and at Cloudbreak in Fiji, his ideal destination for high performance kitesurfing. // Photo Murray Fraser

As a person who knows a thing or two about surfboards, what did you choose as your first kitesurf board?

Well, [long pause followed by a sigh] my first kiteboard was a single fin S deck 66 or 68 monster I shaped for kiting. My ultimate goal with kitesurfing was to not have to paddleI hate paddlingIm lazy and want to catch as many waves as possible with as little effort as possible. The few boards I shaped early on ended up being a nightmare. I was using an 8.5m Wipika Classic and Flexifoil Blades; this equipment was what eventually steered us away from surfboards to wakeboards. You couldnt edge against those kites, so in some sense we gave up on surfing waves for a while. Once kites got better, we transitioned back to kitesurfing.

When did you circle back to surfboards?

There were a lot of equipment limitations for a long time in terms of efficiency. I cant remember when we started effectively riding waves, but I know it was around 2006 when I made some surfboards for Liquid Force. I think I shaped a 60 and 510 they produced them in PU and then came out with an EPS model the following season. I designed the original plugs but the translation from a Chinese factory didnt come out like the originals. That was around the time we started riding surfboards again.

What are your favorite shapes youve produced for kitesurfing?

Left: Shrike / Right: Blunt

Im pretty stoked with what weve got right now. The main boards were putting out are really refined and allow me to ride waves better than anything Ive shaped before. Ive had a couple of winners in the strapped boards Ive shaped over the years, but like everyone else, weve moved well beyond kitesurfing with straps. These days our Shrike model and Blunt model are the shapes that cover just about anything I would want to surf.

As a shaper who kites, how do you choose which board to ride?

The Shrike is more of a conventional high performance shortboard shape with quite a bit of rocker and concave; its the conventional design for going straight up and down in the pocket with true surf style. Ill take the Shrike to Namotu; its the board Id ride at Cloudbreak when its sideoff and you can ride waves like they ought to be ridden. The Shrikes my go to board and you can ride it thruster or quad [fin setup], depending on the conditions. When it comes to the Blunt, everyone has a cutoff nose Tomo-esque shape and the Blunt is just my take on it. It goes really well in small waves and is a more playful shape in lousy conditions. With its shorter length and wider nose, its awesome for the flippy tricks [Fletchers word for surfboard strapless freestyle]. When Im watching pros like Reo and those other guys, Im thinking to myself, My god, how are you doing that? Reo generally rides the Shrike, but this summer when we were in Hood River he took the Blunt through his regimen of flippy tricks and he was stoked on it.

As a FCD team rider and longtime Patagonia ambassador, Reo Stevens puts the Shrike model through the ringer on the North Shore of Oahu. // Photo Steven Whitesell

Who do you look to for inspiration? In your opinion who is pushing kitesurfing forward?

Theres a few people pushing the sport but Ive always been really impressed by Reo in heavy surfhe kills it. Im constantly impressed by how he can get barreled and has this knack for finding barrels that arent even there. Hell take a section Im running from and stall out, sit inside and then come out of the barrel clean, so in terms of pure surf style in heavy reef breaks Reo is the one to watch. Guys like Patrick Rebstock and Ian Alldredge are on it too. Theyre so fast in everything they do with just a lot of speed and power that makes them really amazing to watch. Those guys are going huge unstrapped, boosting just stupid air, but also leading in terms of true wave style; Keahi is probably the smoothest of anybody. For sure theres a lot of good guys out there, but thats the group Ive had the most personal experience riding withthey are the ones that have really made an impression on me.

What impact does the crossover between surf and kitesurfing have on the art of shaping?

In a very real sense its all the same for me. If its flat here [in Ventura], which it is a lot in the summer, Ill go out and kite my regular surfboards. I can put them in positions like Im surfing but with a kiteI do a lot of prototyping that way. Im not sure I can say Ive learned much about general surfboard design through kiteboard design per se, except maybe Ive discovered some things about fin placement and fin angles through kiting. Ive learned a lot about kiteboard design from surfboard design. Its hard to separate the two when Im working on surf and kiteboards back to back and all at once. On occasion Ive surfed a kiteboard, but only for novelty because they just dont paddle very well due to their lower volume. Take the Shrike model with a ton of rocker; its not so low that a good surfer couldnt surf it at a high levelbut if you paddle a 27 liter shortboard, the same model for kiting might be 23-24 litersand that would just be a pain to paddle.

Jason Slezak talks shop with Fletch in his Ventura-based surfboard foundry where the FCD team painstakingly cuts foam, glues stringers and lays all their own glass. // Photo Scott Soens

What is the materials rocket science behind FCD board construction?

The materials we make surfboards out of is typically a version of polystyrene and epoxy, which can be pretty bouncy because it has a high timber to it; short chop and speed can be really hard on you. For all my kiteboards, I actually use a rubbery composite foam that absorbs some of that bounce. With a slower, more rubbery timber, they handle short chop and flex really well. I can get a slower flex return rate, kind of like how a swim fin flexes back and forth and flexes into the turn, feels smooth and is maneuverable. We only use that recipe for kitesurfing because the slower return rate isnt necessarily great for super lightfooted high performance surfing, but it works really well for kiteboarding. Long story short, basically, were doing something similar to regular surf construction but with different cores. On the whole, its a little heavier than regular high performance surfboards but not much, and it holds up pretty darn well.

Traditionally, surfboards dont come with warranties and for obvious reasons, yet kiteboarders coming from wakeboard construction type boards have some unrealistic expectations about durability. How do you handle this?

Its a little scary [releasing kitesurf boards] because kiteboarders have in my opinion an unreasonable expectation of durability. I dont want to make an indestructible board to satisfy a warranty because that means the performance isnt there. I want to err on the side of performance, yet that isnt to say that durability isnt important. Guys that havent surfed before are now riding waves and doing 30- foot airs to flat landings with strapsand you just cant do that to asurfboard because nothing will be able to hold up to that. It makes me a little bit nervousI think the answer is to make our boards as environmentally and performance oriented as possible, and yet as durable as we can make them without sacrificing any of those objectives to a degree that it doesnt makes sense. Straps add an extra risk from slamming in the same spot over and over, so if you want inserts for straps, we do that but its custom. I see some usefulness for straps in really big surf or overpowered conditions, but its not worth the extra work or cost for the boards we put on the racks. I just dont see that many guys riding straps anymore.

The general consensus is that Californias Ian Alldredge is one of the Central Coast legends that brought a new standard to high performance kitesurfing with unmatchable power and style. // Photo Toby Bromwich

Given your ties to Patagonia, a leader in alternative material sourcing, what are your thoughts on the green angle of surfboards?

I dont know if theres much story left to be told there. When everyone was still using PU (polyurethane foam) and polyester resin, we were pretty much way out there pushing food grade styro and epoxy resinpeople thought we were out of our minds. Now its what everyone uses. Maybe Ive become a little bit jaded when it comes to surfboards [environmentally]; until theres some big technological breakthrough, Im probably a cynic. I feel like the most environmental thing I can do as a shaper is make a board that will last as long as possible, and not just by making it durable. I need to make a board ride really well so youll want to surf it for a very long time. Everyone has a footprint. Even if I carve a natural deadfall tree into a surfboard, its still releasing CO2 out of the woodwe do our best to make a product that lasts a long time. Part of that is how we do everything here in Ventura with really detail-oriented people and the shaped blanks get walked a half block down the street to the glass shop. Weve got really good people which keeps it local and allows me to manage the whole process at a 30,000 foot level.

Whats the best kitesurfing wave youre willing to talk about with a magazine?

Locally, C-Street here in Ventura has some great kiting days, but Id be hard pressed to find anywhere better for kitesurfing at a really high level other than Cloudbreak. I dont knowI can have an amazing time on a clearing windday at home doing a downwinder between point breaks, so honestly, the answers anywhere thats got down the line wind with real waves is probably the best place ever.

Fletcher aboard the Cabrinha Quest with Jason Slezak in search of world class kitesurfing conditions and adventure. // Photo Jody MacDonald

The consensus on the state of kitesurfing competition from the surf side of our sport is mixed. What are your thoughts on sustaining a competitive surf tour?

I think kitesurfing suffers from a visual standpointits not a spectator sportoftentimes its the feelings you get from itthe sensations, the rushesthese are so much greater than they look. People dont want to stand around getting cold, so the spectator angle is hard. Its a doer sport. I would never take anything away from the guys doing the flippy tricks, but nobody that doesnt already do the sport says Ive got to do that. Those stunts are physical, really difficult to doyet its out of the realm of what the average guy can aspire to do. Kiting is a great sport, but it often doesnt come off as awesome as it isso its a tough one.

We all go through phases of obsession within this sport. Where is your attention at the moment?

Jason Slezak had been trying to get me to foilboard with a kite for years, but I just wasnt interested in mowing the lawn. Then I started screwing around with a kite and a foil as a means to surf foiling. I got pretty turned on; it just clicked with a kite. But this is illustrative of the number one thing I love about kiteboarding; it can be used in so many different applications. The kite is just a method of poweryou can surf, foil, wakeboard, snowboard or use it as a means of transportation to access remote areasyou could even use the kite for . . . [pause] snorkeling at speedits endless. Getting better at foilboarding has been my latest obsession; Ive always been trying to surf waves better and harder. It used to be that I was trying to kite waves as well as I can surf. Now I can kite waves much better than I can surfIm constantly trying to ratchet that all up and I guess thats probably the obsession.

This article first appeared in Tkbs fall 2017 issue. Want more like this? Subscribe here:

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