Every surfer has their own style of surfing. The way a person moves their body to give power to the board, whether they’re regular or “goofy-footed”… these are just some of the small differences that change how both the surfer and their board move through the water. As a lifelong surfer, Rob Renn wanted to turn those little idiosyncrasies that make up a person’s surfing style into data that could then be used to create a custom surfboard optimized for its surfer. Renn decided to tackle this project for his senior thesis at CCA where he was studying industrial design.

surfing. gathering data

Renn had been making his own boards and working in a surf shop for a few years so he thought that — besides being an interesting problem to explore for his classwork — using data to design boards might help with some issues that come up when making or selling a surfboard. Renn explains, “Even after being involved in surfing for as long as I have you can only really guess how a certain surfboard is going work, and that’s only how it will feel to you.” He thought this would also be a way to elevate surfboards that were shaped by CNC machines. “A lot of surfers and shapers believe, myself included, that a CNCed surfboard lacks a certain type of energy and life,” says Renn, “It’s just something in the craftsman’s hand that makes a hand shaped board superior. I really tried to do something similar to that with this project, put a little bit more life into the machine and generate something that is as unique as whoever rides it.”

The idea that it would even be possible to collect this kind of data came from Renn’s own boards. His surfboards would always become dinged in the same exact spot. While the decompressed area gave him a good spot to find his footing, it also caused the wood stringer to rise making it uncomfortable to paddle (“like lying on a sideways Popsicle stick”). The goal was to create a surfboard optimized for his personal toe/heel weight distribution with an exaggerated, asymmetrical shape.

2. surfing gathering data

First, Renn needed to collect the data. He created a sensor pad using an Arduino Mini with a data logging shield. “The pad is essentially a waterproof bag that protects the network of sensors while allowing you to access the arduino and sd card after you surf.” says Renn. It was made from pond liner sealed with pvc glue, then taped to the surface of a surfboard. He only used it to gather data on two different days before it became too beat up and he worried about losing the pad and the data in it.


The results were more consistent than expected. “I was surprised that I did get really consistent data from each wave that I caught on it, I expected radically different values. Everything added up really nicely… So I guess I was most surprised that the system worked,” says Renn. After collecting the data, he used Grasshopper and Rhinocerous to generate a shape. The final, data optimized surfboard was then milled from styrofoam blocks, and finished by Renn.


I asked Renn what surfing on the data generated surfboard was like. This was his answer:

Its interesting… to say it nicely. I think there is something there, though it is very much so a first attempt. I haven’t surfed it many times and from the handful of waves I’ve caught on, it’s not the “perfect surfboard” I made it out to be. Like everything else in the project it has been a great learning experience and I know what changes need to be done to the next iteration. When I made the first board I made the data move more of the shape without really acknowledging basic board shaping principles. The holy grail is going to be blending the two in the most elegant way possible.

Renn says he is going to begin work on a second data generated board soon.