He races below the lip, gathering speed. A quick backside turn. A vertical ascent. Jordy Smith goes airborne. He crouches and grabs both rails, fins to the sky. A complete rotation finds him back on the lip, right at home, though facing the wrong direction. An easy 180-degree spin and he’s back in. Smith’s rodeo flip, the rodeo flip, caused quite a ruckus. Befuddled surfers the world-over watched that clip, and thought, I want what he’s having. In terms of wax, of course. Didn’t they? Well, they should have, because the maneuver wouldn’t have been possible without wax.
At 10 million bars a year, surfboard wax may be the sport’s most underappreciated essential. Though often lauded for its olfactory magnificence, wax is rarely the topic of enlivened conversation — or any conversation at all, for that matter.
The first thing you need to know if you’re going to talk about wax is that the sticky stuff has everything to do with chemistry. Its evolution has been heavy on experimentation, boasting only a few true breakthroughs. It’s future, like the future of everything else, looks to be in sustainability. Wax is one small piece of the surf industry, but with the sport’s recent entrée into the realm of “impossible,” it is more relevant than ever, and it’s drifting toward “green.”
The eco-conversion is largely due to the fact that wax has traditionally been made with some form of paraffin. Paraffin is a product of crude oil — something, obviously, of which we are running short.
Surfers originally used household paraffin wax for board traction. Parowax, the stuff great candles are made of, could be found at grocery stores and gas stations. Everything began to change in 1964, when a mysterious product called “Surf Wax” surfaced in Redondo Beach, Calif.
Shortly after, a new accessories company called Surf Research recruited Steve Knorr, a candle maker, to help develop more effective waxes. Surf Research eventually became Wax Research, which was run by John Dahl and Hilton Murphy, a chemist. Today, we know Dahl’s company as Sticky Bumps.
Around the same time, Frederick Herzog (aka Mr. Zog) and Nate Skinner developed a high-performance wax of their own. They gave it a catchy, rebellious name: Sex Wax. It stuck.
In 1992, Dahl and co. accidentally dropped in on a brand new formula, with the best traction yet. Sticky Bumps wax was born. Zog came up with a similar product called Quick Humps. The idea behind both is noticeably increased grip.
These two wax whizzes remain at the top of the industry. Bear in mind, this is an industry built on science, so the big Kahunas are well aware of the environmental implications of their business. The Surfrider Foundation says it actually has no information regarding the effects of wax on the marine environment. This is probably because paraffin, though a petroleum product, is a natural hydrocarbon. It is soluble — especially in salt water. In other words, it’s biodegradable.
“Anyone [who] has taken their wax off at the beach can see that it just dissolves and disappears into the sand with virtually no trace,” says Britt Galland, Co-Founder of Bubble Gum Wax. “It’s not like an oil or gas spill. It’s certainly more organic than Resin, wetsuit material, [and] the tires of the car (or bike, for that matter) that takes surfers to the beach.”
Zog agrees that wax is just the crest of the wave when it comes to oil use — even within the surf industry. “Does it seem odd that some people will think nothing of driving or flying long distances to go surfing on a regular basis, while at the same time assuaging their environmental conscience by focusing on a relatively trivial aspect of the problem?” he asks. “I guess we all need to feel good about ourselves.”
The amount of petroleum in surf wax is minimal, explains Dahl. Nonetheless, Sticky Bumps is constantly searching for alternatives. “I think the whole world should be,” says Dahl.
The two problems Dahl has encountered with natural waxes are cost and effectiveness. “So far, I haven’t seen anything that works better than paraffin-derived surf waxes,” he says. “There are great waxes that would cost probably $5 a bar, and there’s no real market for it.”
Right now, Sticky Bumps’ alterna-wax is made from soy. Dahl is quick to point out that soy is not an ideal solution to the crude oil dilemma: “The footprint of soy is a problem,” he says. Soy hogs land where food could potentially be grown, and is sometimes doused in toxic pesticides and fertilizers. After that, it must be transported, refined, hydrogenated, distilled… it’s a lengthy process. “Just because a wax comes from a plant doesn’t mean it’s completely friendly to our planet,” says Dahl.
Rob Machado’s Organik Blend wax from Bubble Gum and Famous’s Green Label wax are earth-friendly in another interesting way: financially. A percentage of their sales go to the Rob Machado Foundation and Surfrider Foundation, respectively. Both are also made from “organic” ingredients and packaged with recycled materials.
“Green” may mean different things to different people, but the intention is always the same: to protect the planet (and with it, our beloved waves) from further harm. We may not have the perfect answer just yet, but you can bet your quiver that these traction aficionados won’t quit paddling until they’ve found one.