6 November 2020
The Sea Lettuce Surfboard and other Tales of Unconventional Wisdom
[5-10 minute read]
The winner was announced last week of the annual Creators and Innovators Upcycle Contest, a joint initiative by Vissla and Surfrider, featuring a host of mind-bending creations where participants typically transform junk (or in this case, sea lettuce) into rideable surf craft. Charlie Cadin, 18 years old and from Jersey in the Channel Islands UK, came up with the idea of using locally sourced, sun-dried sea lettuce (a type of abundant algae) to replace the usual foam core ‘blank’ found in most surfboards.
About a year ago, Wave Changer (known as Green Core at the time) ventured on a similar journey by entering a green business ideas competition. We finished a respectable third in the regional comp with an idea for a biodegradable and modular surfboard. Needless to say, we were very excited when news filtered through about Charlie’s winning entry. Wave Changer’s exclusive Q&A with Charlie is at the end of this article.
It’s worth mentioning the other comp entries, including a surfboard made from old surgical face masks (good job Ryan Harris – one of our Ambassadors), discarded wine corks, an old surf magazine, EPS foam from an old freezer door, an air mattress turned into a bodyboard, and even a surfboard made of toilet rolls.
What this contest is great at, and something we’re actively researching and encouraging here at Wave Changer, is to think of new ways of working with materials in an effort to continually reduce the environmental impact of surfing. It also reminds us that we need to make sustainability the number one focus if we, as surfers, want to truly say we care about the natural environment. Surely the first lesson for designers of the future should be about sustainability, but more precisely – how a product’s end-of-life will play out.
The sea lettuce surfboard can now join a growing list of experimental projects with a plant-based core (and in some cases, coated in a resin with plant content too) in the race to create a truly sustainable surfboard. Potato peelings and other starch waste were mentioned back in 2005, in a bid to create a surfboard blank that would’ve been music to the ears of any surfing mass producer of french fries. A farmer from Queensland came up with a lemongrass prototype for a surfboard a few years ago, capitalising on the plant’s convenient vascular structure that makes it a buoyant and rigid material. There was a lot of noise over in San Diego, at the time, about the potential of algae blanks back in 2015, as championed by Professor Stephen Mayfield and surf legend Rob Machado, but that project has gone strangely quiet in recent times. Then there’s mycelium – the fibrous root system of mushrooms – and a worthy contender for the material that ticks the most boxes.
It only takes a look at other industries to see the type of things that are possible with non-petroleum materials. Planet Protector Packaging, based in New Zealand and Australia, takes waste wool and uses it as biodegradable packaging. BioPak has a range of compostable bin liners made with plant-starch. Vollebak makes biodegradable clothing that looks fantastic. British innovators Biohm are making sturdy building materials from mycelium as part of an exciting shift that’s happening in the construction industry – a movement that includes alternatives for roof insulation such as hemp, sheep’s wool, seaweed, cork, cereal straw, mushrooms and wood. Loop is an organisation making coffins from mycelium – which makes sense from an environmental viewpoint – when compared to traditional caskets that are usually made with intricate parts including metals and plastics.
Back to Charlie Cadin, here’s an 18 year old who’s fearlessly thinking outside of the box and coming up with solutions that’s ahead of our time. This brings to light our current dependency on harmful materials and outdated production methods that are standing-by to be reassessed. Shapers, manufacturers, designers, experts in materials and backyard tinkerers: get your thinking hats on and go wild, because put simply – creative exploration is how new and superior things occur. Well done Vissla and Surfrider, for building a competitive platform that allows creativity to flourish and shines a light on fantastic ideas like Charlie’s sea lettuce creation. Let’s hope there are more exciting ideas coming soon that continue to put sustainability at the forefront of the design process.
We were lucky to grab a quick interview with Charlie last week; just days after his winning surfboard design came out victorious in the comp.
Why did you choose to use sea lettuce, and have you used it before in any other products or ideas?
The south coast of Jersey in the Channel Islands UK has a huge problem with sea lettuce, an invasive algae-like species that cloaks the eco system. When it dries it produces a gas which has led to deaths on beaches across France. It literally covers the entire beach for miles, with it being hard to find sand sometimes. Having seen the huge problem in the bay with the sea lettuce and the way it is being tacked at the moment, I wanted to see if it was possible to make something constructive and positive out of it. I have seen that people are currently researching ways to try and convert it into a bio-fuel as an alternative to petrol; however that is a long complex process. Through shaping boards from polystyrene I have seen how much waste is produced, almost the same amount of material as that which goes into the board. Instead of taking a large block of material and carving and shaping down, the aim was to build up from scratch, only using the minimum amount of materials required.
Do you envisage this type of plant-based surfboard to be made on a bigger scale and rolled out to the masses?
I heard it once said that good art isn’t how it looks but how it makes you feel. To create something that feels good as well as functions, whilst fulfilling a visualisation is something special in my books. This is by no means a solution to an industry-wide problem, but sparks the idea of laying a stepping stone in the right direction. I don’t feel it is economically viable on a large scale to produce boards this way, and it definitely wouldn’t dent the sea lettuce problem, but hopefully it can inspire a new line of thinking to ideas that will have an effect on a larger scale.
What is your ultimate dream eco-surfboard?
Good question! So polyurethane foam is essentially made from two liquids that when mixed together expand to create a rigid foam blank, from which the board can be shaped. If there was a way to make a liquid from either a by-product from another industrial process, or from a natural source (such as seaweed) with the exact same chemical composition that expands into a foam – that would be crazy. To finish I would use hemp flax cloth together with a bio-resin.
What cool ideas get you excited about the future?
Seeing shapers like Danny Hess create beautiful wood boards that compete against PU and EPS boards, especially in larger waves with his guns, is insane. Also the recent acceptance of alternative boards as being normal is super cool, such as asymmetrics, mid lengths and fun shapes. I feel the next big major change we will see in surfboard design will be with the asyms, as unless you stand on your board with both feet together facing forwards there is no reason for boards to be symmetrical! All the inequalities in power from your toes to your heels and distances from the centreline, I feel all it will take is for one surfer in the WSL to adopt one – then a huge change will occur.
Follow Charlie on Instagram to see how his inspirational story unfolds.