It’s tough to get Fletcher Chouinard on the phone. It’s understandable—he’s got a newborn kid on his hands, boards to shape, a wave quota to fill and on top of all that, he’s addicted, much like many of us, to the endless possibilities of surfing with a kite. According to longtime FCD board rider Jason Slezak, “Fletcher is committed to meticulous design, the highest quality of materials and whether he knows it or not (Fletch humbly claims that he still just makes kitesurf boards for himself and his friends), he is one of the most talented kitesurf board shapers out there.” The interview that ensued revealed a craftsman of integrity and a fellow tradesman with a passion for all things kitesurfing.
As a lifelong surfer, how did you come into the sport of kitesurfing?
My first exposure to kitesurfing was back when my dad was really into expedition sea kayaking. He had a one line traction kite for crossings and I was thinking how awesome it would be to drag myself with that thing on a surfboard. I flailed for a while and really got nowhere. I started seeing a few things pop up with the guys in Maui, but it was probably Peter Trow and Corky Cullen that started it here in Ventura and Santa Barbara. I started flailing around with kites again through Corky and that was it.
As a person who knows a thing or two about surfboards, what did you choose as your first kitesurf board?
Well, [long pause followed by a sigh] my first kiteboard was a single fin ‘S’ deck 6’6” or 6’8” monster I shaped for kiting. My ultimate goal with kitesurfing was to not have to paddle—I hate paddling—I’m lazy and want to catch as many waves as possible with as little effort as possible. The few boards I shaped early on ended up being a nightmare. I was using an 8.5m Wipika Classic and Flexifoil Blades; this equipment was what eventually steered us away from surfboards to wakeboards. You couldn’t edge against those kites, so in some sense we gave up on surfing waves for a while. Once kites got better, we transitioned back to kitesurfing.
When did you circle back to surfboards?
There were a lot of equipment limitations for a long time in terms of efficiency. I can’t remember when we started effectively riding waves, but I know it was around 2006 when I made some surfboards for Liquid Force. I think I shaped a 6’0” and 5’10” —they produced them in PU and then came out with an EPS model the following season. I designed the original plugs but the translation from a Chinese factory didn’t come out like the originals. That was around the time we started riding surfboards again.
What are your favorite shapes you’ve produced for kitesurfing?
I’m pretty stoked with what we’ve got right now. The main boards we’re putting out are really refined and allow me to ride waves better than anything I’ve shaped before. I’ve had a couple of winners in the strapped boards I’ve shaped over the years, but like everyone else, we’ve moved well beyond kitesurfing with straps. These days our Shrike model and Blunt model are the shapes that cover just about anything I would want to surf.
As a shaper who kites, how do you choose which board to ride?
The Shrike is more of a conventional high performance shortboard shape with quite a bit of rocker and concave; it’s the conventional design for going straight up and down in the pocket with true surf style. I’ll take the Shrike to Namotu; it’s the board I’d ride at Cloudbreak when it’s sideoff and you can ride waves like they ought to be ridden. The Shrike’s my go to board and you can ride it thruster or quad [fin setup], depending on the conditions. When it comes to the Blunt, everyone has a cutoff nose ‘Tomo-esque’ shape and the Blunt is just my take on it. It goes really well in small waves and is a more playful shape in lousy conditions. With its shorter length and wider nose, it’s awesome for the ‘flippy tricks’ [Fletcher’s word for surfboard strapless freestyle]. When I’m watching pros like Reo and those other guys, I’m thinking to myself, “My god, how are you doing that?” Reo generally rides the Shrike, but this summer when we were in Hood River he took the Blunt through his regimen of flippy tricks and he was stoked on it.
Who do you look to for inspiration? In your opinion who is pushing kitesurfing forward?
There’s a few people pushing the sport but I’ve always been really impressed by Reo in heavy surf—he kills it. I’m constantly impressed by how he can get barreled and has this knack for finding barrels that aren’t even there. He’ll take a section I’m running from and stall out, sit inside and then come out of the barrel clean, so in terms of pure surf style in heavy reef breaks Reo is the one to watch. Guys like Patrick Rebstock and Ian Alldredge are on it too. They’re so fast in everything they do with just a lot of speed and power that makes them really amazing to watch. Those guys are going huge unstrapped, boosting just stupid air, but also leading in terms of true wave style; Keahi is probably the smoothest of anybody. For sure there’s a lot of good guys out there, but that’s the group I’ve had the most personal experience riding with—they are the ones that have really made an impression on me.
What impact does the crossover between surf and kitesurfing have on the art of shaping?
In a very real sense it’s all the same for me. If it’s flat here [in Ventura], which it is a lot in the summer, I’ll go out and kite my regular surfboards. I can put them in positions like I’m surfing but with a kite—I do a lot of prototyping that way. I’m not sure I can say I’ve learned much about general surfboard design through kiteboard design per se, except maybe I’ve discovered some things about fin placement and fin angles through kiting. I’ve learned a lot about kiteboard design from surfboard design. It’s hard to separate the two when I’m working on surf and kiteboards back to back and all at once. On occasion I’ve surfed a kiteboard, but only for novelty because they just don’t paddle very well due to their lower volume. Take the Shrike model with a ton of rocker; it’s not so low that a good surfer couldn’t surf it at a high level—but if you paddle a 27 liter shortboard, the same model for kiting might be 23-24 liters—and that would just be a pain to paddle.
What is the materials rocket science behind FCD board construction?
The materials we make surfboards out of is typically a version of polystyrene and epoxy, which can be pretty bouncy because it has a high timber to it; short chop and speed can be really hard on you. For all my kiteboards, I actually use a rubbery composite foam that absorbs some of that bounce. With a slower, more rubbery timber, they handle short chop and flex really well. I can get a slower flex return rate, kind of like how a swim fin flexes back and forth and flexes into the turn, feels smooth and is maneuverable. We only use that recipe for kitesurfing because the slower return rate isn’t necessarily great for super lightfooted high performance surfing, but it works really well for kiteboarding. Long story short, basically, we’re doing something similar to regular surf construction but with different cores. On the whole, it’s a little heavier than regular high performance surfboards but not much, and it holds up pretty darn well.
Traditionally, surfboards don’t come with warranties and for obvious reasons, yet kiteboarders coming from wakeboard construction type boards have some unrealistic expectations about durability. How do you handle this?
It’s a little scary [releasing kitesurf boards] because kiteboarders have in my opinion an unreasonable expectation of durability. I don’t want to make an indestructible board to satisfy a warranty because that means the performance isn’t there. I want to err on the side of performance, yet that isn’t to say that durability isn’t important. Guys that haven’t surfed before are now riding waves and doing 30- foot airs to flat landings with straps—and you just can’t do that to asurfboard because nothing will be able to hold up to that. It makes me a little bit nervous—I think the answer is to make our boards as environmentally and performance oriented as possible, and yet as durable as we can make them without sacrificing any of those objectives to a degree that it doesn’t makes sense. Straps add an extra risk from slamming in the same spot over and over, so if you want inserts for straps, we do that but it’s custom. I see some usefulness for straps in really big surf or overpowered conditions, but it’s not worth the extra work or cost for the boards we put on the racks. I just don’t see that many guys riding straps anymore.
Given your ties to Patagonia, a leader in alternative material sourcing, what are your thoughts on the green angle of surfboards?
I don’t know if there’s much story left to be told there. When everyone was still using PU (polyurethane foam) and polyester resin, we were pretty much way out there pushing food grade styro and epoxy resin—people thought we were out of our minds. Now it’s what everyone uses. Maybe I’ve become a little bit jaded when it comes to surfboards [environmentally]; until there’s some big technological breakthrough, I’m probably a cynic. I feel like the most environmental thing I can do as a shaper is make a board that will last as long as possible, and not just by making it durable. I need to make a board ride really well so you’ll want to surf it for a very long time. Everyone has a footprint. Even if I carve a natural deadfall tree into a surfboard, it’s still releasing CO2 out of the wood—we do our best to make a product that lasts a long time. Part of that is how we do everything here in Ventura with really detail-oriented people and the shaped blanks get walked a half block down the street to the glass shop. We’ve got really good people which keeps it local and allows me to manage the whole process at a 30,000 foot level.
What’s the best kitesurfing wave you’re willing to talk about with a magazine?
Locally, C-Street here in Ventura has some great kiting days, but I’d be hard pressed to find anywhere better for kitesurfing at a really high level other than Cloudbreak. I don’t know—I can have an amazing time on a clearing wind day at home doing a downwinder between point breaks, so honestly, the answer’s anywhere that’s got down the line wind with real waves is probably the best place ever.
The consensus on the state of kitesurfing competition from the surf side of our sport is mixed. What are your thoughts on sustaining a competitive surf tour?
I think kitesurfing suffers from a visual standpoint—it’s not a spectator sport—oftentimes it’s the feelings you get from it—the sensations, the rushes—these are so much greater than they look. People don’t want to stand around getting cold, so the spectator angle is hard. It’s a doer sport. I would never take anything away from the guys doing the flippy tricks, but nobody that doesn’t already do the sport says I’ve got to do that. Those stunts are physical, really difficult to do—yet it’s out of the realm of what the average guy can aspire to do. Kiting is a great sport, but it often doesn’t come off as awesome as it is—so it’s a tough one.
We all go through phases of obsession within this sport. Where is your attention at the moment?
Jason Slezak had been trying to get me to foilboard with a kite for years, but I just wasn’t interested in mowing the lawn. Then I started screwing around with a kite and a foil as a means to surf foiling. I got pretty turned on; it just clicked with a kite. But this is illustrative of the number one thing I love about kiteboarding; it can be used in so many different applications. The kite is just a method of power—you can surf, foil, wakeboard, snowboard or use it as a means of transportation to access remote areas—you could even use the kite for . . . [pause] snorkeling at speed—it’s endless. Getting better at foilboarding has been my latest obsession; I’ve always been trying to surf waves better and harder. It used to be that I was trying to kite waves as well as I can surf. Now I can kite waves much better than I can surf—I’m constantly trying to ratchet that all up and I guess that’s probably the obsession.