4th Gear Flyer passed a milestone of sorts over Easter Weekend…we sold our 4000th mat since 1984. (Gloria’s a fastidious record keeper.) Add to that the 800+ prototypes and personal mats I’ve made since 1983, and we’re approaching the 5000 mark!
In spite of the fact that mats are made up of curved tubes when inflated, the “build parts” are all straight, square, and thus easily calibrated. And while it’s virtually impossible to handshape two identical surfboards, it’s relatively easy to build two identical mats. All the parts can be marked out in the style of a draftsman, then assembled and welded with great consistency. This means that it’s easy to replicate a good mat over and over again. Having the capacity to make surfing vehicles accurately was, and is, a great boon to mat design progress.
Of course, the down side of having complete control over the construction of a mat is that “happy mistakes” generally don’t happen. With hand shaped, hand glassed surfboards, there are so many natural variations from board to board that magic boards often appear without intention...and something new is learned from them. But when building a mat? That just doesn’t happen. You have to deliberately make changes from mat-to-mat to create variations. That’s why a methodical approach is natural.
When I was working out the final details of the Tracker Roundtail in the summer of 2010, I had the general design in place after about a dozen prototypes…but the height of the two small I-Beams hadn’t been fully sorted. So I built six more prototypes with an I-Beam height variation of 1/8” from mat to mat…starting with what I thought would be too tall to what I thought would be too small. After sitting in dry dock for a week or so, the surf came up and I rode all 6 prototypes on the same afternoon…making mental notes after every few waves. One I-Beam height emerged as being distinctly better. I ran the same test with those 6 mats early the next morning, and drew the same conclusion. Since the best I-Beam height for the Tracker was in the middle of the range I tested, I knew I’d found the right one.
Maybe the oddest thing about design is that a "magic mat" invariably comes from a tedious process of tinkering. There’s no artistic inspiration -- as there often is with board shaping -- since mats tend to look the same even when they perform differently. So it comes down to taking the time (and spending the money) to build and test all the options to figure out what it takes to birth a magic mat. Not fun. Not pretty. But a good result.
With so many mats under the 4th Gear Flyer belt, I thought this might be a good time to go through some of the specific design variations that have been tested over the years. I'll post something on the subject once or twice a week for the next month or so!