Today we catch up with the Norcal bodysurfing institution and veteran hand plane shaper that is Jason Hackforth aka Superbiscuit.
BWG: So Jason, what was it that first got you into bodysurfing? was it something you have always done or was there an epiphany moment?
Jason: Bodysurfing just kind of happened for me as an extension of being at the beach all the time. I grew up right across the street from New Brighton beach in Capitola, which is kind of in the southern part of Santa Cruz county. I was bodyboarding already, and just starting to take up surfing in my freshman year of High School, and I remember my cousin came to visit me from Sacramento in the summer of 1987. We were down at the beach every day for a week, trying to meet girls and fooling around in the water. We eventually discovered that you could fit your head inside the wave when it was breaking, and we immediately became hooked on that. It was fun hooting down the little barrels at each other, listening to how weird our voices sounded in there. My cousin of course, went back home, but I was still hooked.
Surfing kind of took over through the rest of High School, and bodysurfing didn't really come back to me until after graduation in 1990. My friends and I used to hang out at a beach in Capitola called Northsides, and a lot of times if we didn't have boards or gear or anything, we'd just bodysurf... just to cool off, most of the time. I remember one day, there was this weird little bowl that we had never really seen before at Northsides, an amazing little A-frame... we just flipped out. Total tube frenzy. It was only there for like an hour, when the tide shifted it was gone. That was it, though... things had suddenly changed. Our appetites had been whetted, and we started heading to other spots in search of better waves. That was really where it all started in earnest.
After progressing into better and more powerful setups, we started heading up north of town where it's a bit more raw and secluded. A friend of mine had come across a handplane, which was made of foam and looked like a rainbow flip-flop, with weird blue straps. I had really never even conceived of such a thing, but when I tried it at this one slabby spot up north I was immediately impressed with the difference in speed and lift it provided. And manoeuvres too- suddenly I was able come off the bottom, and do cutbacks and stuff like that. Shortly after, my friend had his handplane stolen by a departing housemate, and I started trying to figure out how I could make my own. This would have been around Fall/ Winter of 1995.
BWG: That then brought you into making your own hand planes - why the name Superbiscuit?
Jason: Hahaha... good question, I get that a lot!
It was probably around Winter of '96 when I found half of a broken surfboard in the garbage can at 26th Avenue beach. I took it home, stripped the glass off, cut it into blanks and shaped my first handplane. I was very much working from what I knew about surfboard bottom contours at the time, so something like aggressive single to double concave is what I ended up shaping into it. I had no idea how to fiberglass, I was laying strips of resin-soaked glass down paper mache style. Nor did I have any idea about how to deal with what I would later call The Strap Dilemma- I literally took two loops of Velcro and just laid strips of glass right over them to secure them to the plane. It looked terrible, but it worked.
A friend of mine later taught me some elementary glassing techniques, and I began to make more, experimenting with different shapes and bottom contours, and paint schemes. People started approaching me as I was getting out of the water, saying stuff like "What the hell is that?" and "Where did you get it?". I had a few people tell me "That's a cool little hand gun!" I had no idea at the time that there existed a mass produced, plastic handplane in the late 70's/ early 80's called the "HandGun" that was made by Body Glove (I think). I wasn't really a fan of that term though... I have nothing against firearms, but it didn't really seem like it applied to what I was making. Nowadays people call them "handplanes", but in the mid-90's that term was used for woodworking devices. I wasn't aware of any term that described the things that I was making, so I just started calling them "biscuits" for lack of a better term.
The 11th handplane I made was a drastically different style than the surfboard inspired shapes I had been making previously; I wanted to make something experimental and very 'fishy' with a broad, round nose and straight rails, and a wide swallow tail. As soon as I started testing it I knew right off the bat that it was better- much faster than the ones I had made before, and it kept a better line in hollow barrels. When I made it I had dubbed it the X-11 (painted camouflage with the X-11 in yellow stencil font, like an experimental military aircraft), but after a while I started calling it the "super biscuit". And thus, the name was born. That same shape became the template for what I now call The Standard.
BWG: With your early models all getting a design number and 20+years of history you must be up to like Mark LXII by now!?
Jason: I do number them all, that's something I've been doing the whole time. Most of the initial ones I just named after the paint scheme I had done on them- "Red Flame", or "The Taxi" et cetera. The Picklefork was so named after the speed boats of the same name, but the rest of my experimental planes I just call by their number, as I'm not terribly creative when it comes to making up names for things. Number 109 or Number 133 are good examples. In reality though, I'm a pretty low volume producer... with the current batch I'm working on, I'll be up to #148.
BWG: Still pretty high! Over this period of time, you would have also had front row seats to the progression of bodysurfing from an extreme niche to near mainstream. What's that been like? What's been the impact in Norcal?
Jason: Interestingly enough, Santa Cruz had a pretty robust bodysurfing scene in the 70's, hence the long-time existence of the Santa Cruz Body Surfing Association. Older guys that I talk to tell me that the high performance shortboard era of the 80's and 90's pretty much killed that. When I had gotten good enough to start pushing my limits in the sport, there really was almost no one else around, at least that I was aware of. Most of the places that I was frequenting were also prominent bodyboard spots, so those were the guys that I was competing for waves with. And with no Internet, I was completely oblivious to any sort of bodysurfing scene anywhere else. I mean, I was aware of the Wedge Crew from surf magazines, but that was pretty much it. I was doing it out of a sheer desire to get barreled, and wasn't really concerned with what anyone else was doing. It was probably that mindset that caused me to shun the SCBSA, although looking back I wish I had gotten involved with those folks much sooner. So I wouldn't really say that I had 'front row seats' to anything, since there wasn't really any sort of scene to have front row seats to. I saw something on Instagram recently about Portugese bodysurfers titled "We Thought We Were Alone", that pretty well describes how bodysurfing was for me here in Santa Cruz in the 90's
It wasn't until I really got serious about marketing my handpanes that I discovered Instagram, through which I discovered that there is, in fact a global bodysurfing scene. Going to the Handplane Hoedowns in San Clemente has put me more in touch with folks in SoCal, and made me realize that while the NorCal scene has come a long way, it's still nowhere near as robust as what's happening in SoCal, not to mention Hawaii, Australia, Brazil etc. The development of things like the Bay Area Bodysurfing crew up in San Francisco has certainly helped build more of a scene here in NorCal though, and I hope to see stuff like that grow and progress.
BWG: I think the advent of social media has really joined together a lot of the isolated "pockets" globally. Which in turn has created this community or movement if you will that is now growing the sport. That also becomes a bit of a double edged sword in a way - with popularity there is greater opportunity but also more competition for manufacturers. So having a point of difference is key - how would you describe yours?
Jason: I think that the main thing that I try to get across is the length of time that I've been doing this. Part of the reason that I do so many weird experimentals is that I've already worked through pretty much all the "normal" shapes- teardrops, pintails, shapes and bottom contours patterned after surfboard theory... and I know why they don't necessarily work as handplane templates. My main shape, which I call the "Standard" is the product of somewhere around a decade of R&D, which has primarily been the process of elimination of what doesn't really work well in handplane design. It also enables me to look at my competition and see what they haven't quite figured out yet- I see a lot of straps in the wrong place, too much or not enough rocker, or rocker in the wrong places... concave in the wrong places, and templates that won't really hold their line well in the hollow stuff.
Another point of difference is the stringer that I always keep in my handplanes- a foam handplane with no stringer is more prone to breaking, especially if strap plugs are being set into it. I've spoken with people who have broken planes like these, and they always break in the same place, at or near the strap plugs.
Lastly, I think my straps set me apart from a lot of the other planes out there. I see a lot of folks using technology borrowed from surfboard manufacturing- the use of a surfboard leash plug as a strap plug. I get it, The Strap Dilemma is a tough one to overcome, and it's tempting to take the path of least resistance. It took me years to overcome The Strap Dilemma... obviously leash plugs for surfboards existed in the 90's, but using them as strap plugs never even occurred to me (I ended up developing my own proprietary design). The problem with using surfboard leash plugs as an attachment mechanism for a handplane strap is that it limits you in terms of the width of the strap you can use. I've used plenty of planes that have the 1" straps, and invariably your hand becomes fatigued faster due to the increased pressure placed upon it from a thinner strap. A wider strap spreads this pressure out more evenly, making for a much more comfortable strap.
BWG: I really like the design of the “Picklefork” model as it introduces a longer rail without the volume and reminds me of an offshore power racing boat! Tell us a bit more on what you were thinking when you designed it.
Jason: The Picklefork actually was kind of an accident... I was originally searching for artistic inspiration in vehicles from the 60's and 70's for my paint schemes, looking at semi trucks, vans from the 70's, speed boats, vintage race cars, racing planes and the like. I kept seeing this "picklefork" style of racing boat, and it dawned on me that it could be an interesting template design to experiment with. It wasn't until I began testing it, and looking at the footage (I always take a GoPro out with me, for every session) that I realized that I had in fact increased the usable rail length of the handplane. When using a standard handplane, the rail begins to engage behind the tips of the fingers generally, depending on the shape of the plane. With what I've come to call "rail forward" designs like the Picklefork, you can see in the video footage that the rail begins to engage with the wave face well ahead of the fingertips. This has the effect of giving you much more rail length in contact with the face, which increases the "bite" of the plane into the face, making the plane able to more efficiently hold a higher, more stable line and further minimize the incidence of sliding out. My rail forward designs are really the most advanced handplanes that I make. With the possible exception of Number 109... the jury is still out on that one.
BWG: We are seeing more and more variety of size (Nazare & Todos) and shape of waves being ridden. Do you see this, like surfing becoming a specialty pursuit with specialty equipment like big wave “guns” for bodysurfing?
Jason: It does seem to challenge the standard dynamic, for sure. And please keep in mind that not having ventured into this realm myself, I don't have the first hand experience that I do in other aspects of handplane design... In general the rule of thumb seems to be a larger plane for flatter, mushier or smaller waves, a smaller plane for the bigger or hollower stuff. Some of the guys I talk to in Hawaii that charge Sandy's and Waimea won't go out with the bigger planes because they become a liability. With that much water moving around so violently, that last thing you want is a big flotation device strapped to your hand. With that being said, I think once you get into the realm of Nazare and Todos and stuff like that, a larger plane would help you cut through the larger chop sections in the face and improve your ability go to faster. I had a guy contact me on IG telling me he was going to charge some big swell at Todos a little while ago, and was asking about the possibility of buying a plane and having it overnighted to him on short notice. I had a couple handy- a Standard, and what I call the Ultra which is the larger of my two main models. Larger in terms of length, not in width so it's still fairly narrow... it kind of resembles one of the old Aipa Stingers, if anyone remembers those. I asked him which he would prefer, and he chose the Ultra. Unfortunately, the US Post Office blew it and didn't uphold their end of the bargain on "guaranteed overnight shipping", so my plane ended up not being part of that session. I'm still pretty pissed about that.
BWG: I'm not surprised! So what's next? where do you see (your) hand plane design heading as people seek more performance across a broader type of waves?
Jason: I feel like we, as a subset of the surfing industry, are in a lot of ways where standard surfboard shapers were back in the 70's and 80's- still really trying to figure out what works, and what doesn't through sheer trial and error. Granted, with a handplane being such a smaller platform than a surfboard, we're probably never going to see the nuances of technique that have developed in surfboard shaping, but I think we still have a lot to learn. I myself am trending my shapes a little smaller, and a little thinner, with slightly more concave. I still think balance is important though- I see some planes out there with what I believe to be too much concave. Obviously a purely flat bottomed handplane is going to have the least amount of drag on a flat wave surface, but we're not dealing with flat wave surfaces, are we? Concave is what holds a plane in as the steepness of the wave increases, finding the balance in terms of the amount of concave to preserve both speed and grip is the ultimate goal, in my opinion. I feel like I'm n a pretty good place with that, but there is always room for improvement.
BWG: Having surfed Norcal, I have a huge amount of respect for anyone that bodysurfs there. The water is cold and absolutely teeming with life. Have you had any “interesting” experiences over the years?
Jason: Sure, not so much with sharks (though I have seen a few), but you're right... there are a lot of critters here. I was bodysurfing a reef not far from where I grew up, when an adolescent sea lion popped up and was kind of circling me and eyeballing me. I see sea lions a lot so I wasn't super concerned, but he was a little closer than I would have liked. After a little while he suddenly became more agitated, and started barking and at me and circling me pretty closely, maybe about 10 or 12 feet away. It was really distracting. I figured I would try to wait it out but he persisted and I figured I should catch a wave in. I'd never seen a sea lion acting like that before, I sat on the shore for a while and watched him, eventually he went away. By that point I was really cold though, so I decided to head back to the car.
Another time, I was bodysurfing a rare sandbar near the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor that is normally super packed whenever it breaks, it was miraculously empty on this occasion though... just me and a couple of kids with bodyboards. They weren't very good and were focusing on the rights, so I contented myself with the lefts and was enjoying getting numerous in and outs. I'm not really sure where it came from, but pretty quickly a big sea otter had appeared, and was really loudly harassing the sponger kids. I didn't know that sea otters could make noises like that, kind of a shrill screeching noise. It was getting really close to these groms, who began using their boards to hit the water and splash in the direction of the otter. After a few minutes it went away, but the kids seemed kind of rattled and got out. We were pretty close to a jetty, maybe the otter had some pups hiding in there or something.
More recently, I was out at a beachbreak south of town around sunset, getting a few after work. It was really weird- everything was normal, when suddenly I felt a short but sustained pressure in the small of my back, like someone had given me a little push. Naturally I whipped around, and may have uttered a lot of expletives. All I saw was the shadow of a small seal darting away, my GoPro was running at the time and I stuck it in the water, but only got the vaguest image of it. I stood there for a minute, trying to process what had happened- it was almost felt like a dog who wanted to play nudging me with it's nose... I wasn't really spooked, just kind of dumbfounded. I caught a couple more and got out.
BWG: Yep, thats exactly what Im talking about! Favourite spots to bodysurf and why?
I prefer sand as opposed to reef, and side bowl-type waves over straight walls. Unless I'm out of town at some kind of event, I usually won't go out unless it's barreling. I'll usually take a smaller wave with good shape rather than a bigger wave with poor shape. I'm a quality over quantity kind of guy. I probably shouldn't get too specific with breaks here in my home town... I really like bodysurfing Ocean Beach in San Francisco, it's very challenging and dynamic. I've gotten some great waves there, and some profound beatings. Plus, it's just weird to be bodysurfing in San Francisco, to me anyway. I love Sandspit; I bodysurfed that place one time in my boxers (that's a different story) when it was 2 feet and no one out, and it was amazing. I'd love to catch it working properly, but it seems to get crazy crowded when it's on and I'd probably get my head taken off out there. I want to spend more time at The Wedge too... I've only caught it working once, and I made the mistake of not watching it for long enough. Definitely a humbling experience!
BWG: So no love for The Hook, Pleasure Point or the iconic Steamers?
Jason: I've bodysurfed peripheral parts of those spots, but they're pretty much too crowded almost any time they're breaking. That's one of the reasons I stopped surfing and focused strictly on bodysurfing... I would paddle around on a board for an hour or two and come in more frustrated than when I paddled out, a lot of times. The spots I bodysurf tend to not be mainstream surfing spots, so a lot of times I have it to myself, or close to it. I was just having way more fun bodysurfing, so I cut out the frustrating part. All I really want to do is get barrelled, anyway
BWG: Amen to that! Lastly, if someone reading this is keen to start bodysurfing in Norcal - how would you recommend they start out?
Jason: I'd say start simple, no handplane, no fins. Find a spot where you can just stand there on the sand and pull into barrels without all the distractions of gear. Get used to the feeling of the ocean, and of riding the wave. Getting your timing down is really important. Just have fun with it. Once you've developed some technique, get some fins and get a little more adventurous. When you eventually do move up to a handplane (if you want to), you'll notice the difference compared to going freehand. And invest in a good 4/3 wetsuit!
BWG: Thank for the time, stoke and insights!
You can check out more about Jason and his Superbiscuit designs at www.superbiscuit.com
Has spent over 30 years of his middle aged life trying to spend more time in the ocean. Likes to surf, bodysurf, free dive and pretend he enjoys chasing big waves.