The author’s feet, five toes over the nose, the other five waiting for their moment. Frame from The Physics of Noseriding


Most of what we call ‘surfing’ really is just waiting. Or watching. Occasionally noticing.

Countless times I’ve watched from the inside corner of my local pointbreak – men, women, children – cross stepping toward the nose. Some stumble, some glide. Some flap their wings, others do the ‘90s longboard-dad-pose with hands tucked behind their lower back.

When I see the front quarter of a longboard hovering out of the water, lifting the weight of a whole precariously perched human, it always seems like a defiance of physics. I’ve been surfing for more than two decades, mostly longboarding, and mostly stalking that particular sensation of levitation that we access though noseriding.

Like tuberiding, as a peak surfing experience noseriding can magically move us outside of time and mind – in pure suspension between sea and sky. But I still had no real idea of how and why noseriding is possible.

So, The Physics of Noseriding began with interviews with shapers and physicists, to better understand the forces and factors at play.

The question of how led me to Tom Wegener, shaper and noseriding aficionado. He has probably spent as much time on the nose as anyone, anywhere. Around the time I first stood up on a surfboard, Tom penned an article grappling with the science of nasal exploration, summarised by the equation:

suction + tension
= hang ten

Tom, of Siestas & Olas fame, is generous with sharing his accumulated surf wisdom. He speaks in fast, enthusiastic paragraphs punctuated by open mouthed exhales of pure awe. So many precise historical references. He should be awarded an honorary doctorate in surf nerdery – but he already has a PhD.

I hung on by a thread in our deep dive into the infinitely varied relationship between board design and noseride-ability: rocker, weight, flex, PU vs EPS vs balsa, surface tension of the board’s textural finish, etc. Tom helped me understand the truly controversial nature of concave’s role in noseriding. “It’s for kooks,” he maintains, at which point I recoiled in shame, having always had concave in every longboard I’ve had.

His article, and the many follow-up questions I sent later via text and email (“whose outline would you use as the archetypal surfboard pre-pig?” etc) were a solid foundation for writing The Physics of Noseriding.

I had to follow up on Tom’s concave logic, so I interviewed Bing’s Matt Calvani, Eden Saul of Dead Kooks, and Ashley Lloyd, who has her own namesake board label. On the matter of the kookiness of concave, they mostly disagreed with Tom’s blanket statement.

What Tom ultimately meant, is that if you’re surfing really good waves, like he gets to in Noosa – peeling, point waves with a steep, but not too steep face, then concave is probably unnecessary, or even a hindrance. But if you’re surfing fat, flatter-faced waves, say in California or Florida or Italy, then concave can do a bit of manufacturing in the lift department, which can make noseriding feel easier.

All this is to say that the conversation about board design was more nuanced and subjective than a ten-minute film could possibly touch, so I mostly steered away from it.

To better understand the physical science, I spoke with astrophysicist Jon Swift, who you may remember from the early 2000s film Shelter. Jon traced the possibility of noseriding from celestial bodies, specifically the sun (which unevenly heats the planet and makes wind… wind makes waves), to the molecular (where surface tension begins, and makes The Coanda Effect possible, which makes noseriding possible). Being a schoolteacher, Jon had the precise skillset to speak to my elementary understanding of physics.

Video chatting over Zoom, Jon stood at a whiteboard, drawing out equations and speaking about surfers as “natural physicists” – because we’re always experimenting with our equipment and positioning. We’re always observing. “Physics,” Jon said, “is the language for articulating the patterns that we see in the physical world.”

He helped me to distil the science into a few key concepts that we could realistically film and explain succinctly over the course of a couple of months to get optimal surf conditions. In reality, COVID sick days for almost every single person in the crew, devastating floods in Northern NSW and a 2021 winter season of macking, un-longbaordable swell in Hawaii meant a couple of months turned into many patient months of piecing footage together.

The noseride is a simple surfing act, performed in the middle of some complex physical forces. Frame from The Physics of Noseriding

Twenty years ago Tom Wegener wrote that “you can’t force anything while hanging ten.” While he meant it performatively, it’s also true that there’s always been a stench to contrived surfing. So, we hovered over the swell charts awaiting those precious ‘goldilocks’ loggy waves: not too fast, not too small, not too slow, not too tall. But just right.

Having a grip on the how begged the question of why? Why do we walk to the nose? Who started it?

Trim is the obvious first answer – to keep the ride going – and the earliest European sketches of surfing in Polynesia suggest women and men in forward trim. The why also brings us back to board design, specifically the dramatic changes in surfboard outline that occurred in the 1950s that allowed for walking forward to happen more easily.

This required some historical context; I wanted to pay homage to some of the surfers who paved the way up the stringer – like Rabbit Kekai (who is considered amongst the first noseriders), Rell Sunn, David Nuuhiwa and Mimi Munro. They’re mostly quick visual allusions, but the past is present in The Physics of Noseriding.

To illustrate the science, I wanted to feature some of my favourite surfers to watch, those who noseride in the most critical sections: Leah Dawson, Lola Mignot, Belinda Baggs, Rosie Jaffurs, Ari Browne, Kelis Kaleopa’a, Matt Cuddihy among others. Noseriding is a subtle art; where the delicate shift of weight from one toe pad to another, or from blade to arch of foot, can make the difference between basic and excellent surfing. It’s one of the reasons that longboarding is often mistaken as patently easy; because the best surfers make it look effortless.

Belinda Baggs riding high down the line at The Pass. Frame from The Physics of Noseriding

Shaper Ashley Lloyd, who is also one of the most skilled switch-stance noseriders on the planet, nailed the point that others danced around: “I should probably come up with a more accurate ‘surfboard shaper's’ answer,” she wrote, “but I feel like noseriding is more of a magic than a science. There is a blend of taking the perfect opportunity with the wave, shape, mood, as a surfer. A lot of it really is seizing the moment.”

Science can illuminate the beautiful complexity of our world. Physics does an excellent job at describing the tangled nest of forces that lift us up and sometimes take us over the falls, the mostly predictable ecosystem of interactions between water, surfer and board. While the laws are science are stable, noseriding is anything but – each wave presents a totally unique set of circumstances that play out in mostly irreplicable ways. What seems predictable is actually only loosely so, chaos bubbles and swirls off the rail.

The Physics of Noseriding was never meant to be just about the physics; even scientifically it’s an interdisciplinary study of biology, fluid dynamics, geometry, seafloor geomorphology, Newtonian physics and more.

Parallel to the science is this ineffable heart-floating sensation that so many of us keep coming back for. As surfers, most of us are a bit guilty of talking up this thing we do, as if it were superior to other ways of moving through life (but are we wrong?). The high-speed highline, the tuberide, the locked-in hang ten, they can all feel a bit… magical. Ashley Lloyd wasn’t afraid to say it, and the others I interviewed couldn’t disagree.

Part of using science was to illuminate a seemingly ordinary aspect of our surfing lives – going to the nose or watching someone else navigate the nasal passage – with wonder. But also, to touch the edges of the limitations of the cerebral in surfing. There are many ways of knowing and understanding, and science is just one way we can think about the hows and whys of wave riding.

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The author’s feet, five toes over the nose, the other five waiting for their moment. Frame from The Physics of Noseriding