Best of the Rest
WORDS - Jim Gaunt
INTRO – Mark Shinn thought he was onto something pretty special when he came up with the Super Shinn – a high-performance twin-tip packed with an unusual level of user-friendliness. He invited Jim Gaunt to see what he was making such a fuss about ahead of the product launch in August
So, I was in Tenerife to check out what, at the time, was a top secret twin-tip project. Mark had sent me a little preview video before I tipped up there, but that really showed me nothing more than his rider, Luga, busting out a nice flat 3 and the board's rather 'broadway dressing room style' graphics on the bottom.
When I asked Mark what he was expecting from this feature he said, 'Only for you to say how incredible the board is and how it's the best board you've ever ridden.' But I'm thick with journalistic integrity (or just thick), doesn't he realise it'll take more than a few days kiting in the sunshine and sipping Doradas in the evening to sway my vote? Anyway, let's start at the top from when I arrived in Tenerife to crash at Casa Shinn.
|In the southeast of the island, El Medano is the windiest spot on Tenerife and is where Mark lives. His place is literally just a ten minute drive from the airport, so paying for a relatively long stay in the car park isn't something he's used to but found himself coughing up the extra euros after waiting and waiting for me to emerge through sliding doors of Tenerife South's baggage collection point. I had confidently sent Shinny a text know he lived just minutes away: 'Landed – just waiting for my bag.' Eventually all the England football shirts had jumped on the beer bus to Las Americas and the carousel had juddered to a halt. I had a feeling when being rushed through check-in as I was a little bit late at Gatwick that the clerk assuring me he'd check my bag in for me wasn't quite the ticket. Anyway, it was sunny, I had my camera, computer and passport, so it wasn't a total disaster.
Mark Shinn spends most of his time in Tenerife. And why wouldn't he? His kitchen looks out over El Cabezo, one of the Canary Islands' best and most consistent wave breaks. Territorially it's a windsurfers-only spot, but as Mark has lived on Tenerife and been riding there longer than most windsurfers, he tends to only get rare complaints from the odd rogue pole surfer there on holiday (before Mark's windsurfing cronies 'ave a word with the offending foreigner).
After parting ways with Nobile almost two years ago, Mark didn't waste much time in setting up Shinn, which he describes as a luxury board brand. Mark's partner in Shinn, Jan Stockman, lives in Belgium while the factory is in Poland. The Shinn brand is a thoroughly modern company, making full use of cutting edge European design influences and the convenience of the technical age, virtually living on Skype and transferring electronic design files backwards and forwards without the need to be sat next to each other five days a week.
Shinn have focussed on producing what they call 'The Big Four': The Super Shinn (which we will obviously come on to) and the Monk in the freestyle category and the Luigi and the Gintronic for freeriders. The Super Shinn and the Luigi being the higher performing specimens in each sector. However, as a specialist board company, Mark believes it's also important to make boards for everyone, which is why you'll find the ToyBoy for girls, the Master Jack for groms and the King George for light wind or bigger riders. (Shinn also make kite surfboards in the The Duke line). The Player was a popular freestyle board last year and remains in the line-up. Mark confesses, “We're going to let the public decide if they prefer the Super Shinn or the Player. The Player is a lot stiffer than the Super Shinn and there are still some people out there who still really want that really stiff, aggressive freestyle board.”
The Kiteworld test team rode the 2011 Monk back in February and found it to be a benchmark of impressive usability that hadn't really been felt before. Testing the board in Cape Town we were intrigued to let a number of other riders try the it in the tough, choppy and windy conditions we encountered. The Monk handles everything without breaking sweat, and doesn't only get better in flatter waters; it's good all of the time. Great for that charging around style of riding, the speed it manages and the control it has in everything from popping and landing hard to carving and trying to get a speeding ticket is quite remarkable. (You can read the review online now at: www.kiteworldmag.com/2011-board-tests/shinn-monk/) But Mark decided that there was room for another easy-to-use board positioned slightly higher in the freestyle line-up.
“After the Monk I was sure we could make a really high-performance freestyle board that is also easy to sail with massive amounts of grip and pop, but still comfortable to ride in chop and fun to use. The Monk is fantastic at high speed; no matter what you do you can't get out of control on it. I still haven't made a board that can do that style of sailing better. But freestyle isn't always like that. Sometimes you're riding slower and looking for more aggressive pop. The only time you're really going super fast is during the landings. And then it's more about control. When you land most tricks you're on the flat of the board, not the rail. Making a board that's easy to handle when it's flat becomes very important. And it's a matter of the rocker, the concave, the outline of the board and the fin positioning; it all can be tweaked to do that.”
So how do you start building a twin-tip, then? Apparently it depends whether you're starting a new one from scratch – as was the case with the Super Shinn – or modifying a current model.
“A board like the Luigi has had different names in the past, but is the result of many years of tweaking and improving on a concept. When you start to design a new board however, it's like opening a new file on the computer, removing all the parameters and starting again. Firstly we identify what the board is going to be. We don't just build a board because we have a nice graphic or a good name. We might need a new board to fill a certain part of the market or, as in the case of the Super Shinn, because we think there is something new we could do that no one else had done. In the last two years I discovered a few things that really made the boards a lot easier to use. To be honest a lot of it came from just sitting down and looking back over previous board designs and summing up years of feedback.”
I was imagining a huge feedback chart on a big wall in Poland and Mark on tip toes filling in the boxes with a marker pen...
“It's more like a very big spreadsheet, but now it's so big I can't make head nor tail of it. But you can see the trends, which is really interesting and is in fact where I started with the Monk. I noticed that every board that had 'X' feature had this sort of feedback. It's not immediately apparent in any one board because the relationship between rockers, outlines and flex is complicated. But once you start to look over a number of years you start to see some very definite trends.”
You could never call Mark Shinn a geek, but he has a charmingly nerdy side. A kitesurfing icon and a natural born competitor, refreshingly, I don't think he's ever seen himself as too cool for school. Get him onto the topic of boutique bike brands, off-road inclines, the chemical properties of his favourite beer or tooling in the factory, he sits up his chair, his eyes light up, his voice rises a couple of semi-tones and his speech quickens in pace.
|“Then it's a question of going through all the parameters of the board and selecting which ones to use. I have 'X' number of rockers that we have tables for in the factory, so maybe I could have used one of those? If not, we'd need to build a new rocker table. Then we do the same with the moulds; looking at whether one of our current deck moulds will fit or not. It's a case of going through every parameter. We don't go through points one to ten though; the rocker, mould, flex and core must all come together at the same time to make the board that we want. There's an infinite number of possibilities.”
Adding a little more work in to the mix, Mark has no twin-tip prototyping facilities in Tenerife, so brings boards back from his seven or eight trips to Poland each year.
“We do everything in Poland because one of the biggest problems in serial production is converting a custom prototype into a production unit. It's very difficult when you work with a custom facility and have a perfect product, to then recreate that in a factory. We prototype every board off the production line. It's time consuming and expensive, but it means when I approve a prototype it's already been made in the factory. All they need to do is pull up the files from that board and they're ready to start production.”
When Mark first handed me one of the two Super Shinn models he had out in Tenerife for me to try, the first thing I noticed was the bling bottom graphic (I'm really not very technical and like shiny objects), the second thing was the unusual inserted section in the tips, and the third was the constant curve in the rocker.
I put the board on the table and bent down to inspect it tip-to-tip as Mark introduced me to some of the more subtle aspects of the design. “That rocker looks pretty constant.” I said, trying to add something constructive and hopefully half-intelligent to the conversation, rather than the 'hmms' and 'yes's I'd muttered so far.
“It should be!” he chuffed. “I always had in my mind that I wanted to use a constant curve rocker than a two or three step. I really like the way constant rockers ride because no matter where you stand on the board, you always have the same contact area on the water. It's part of a circle – it doesn't matter which bit is in contact. That's why the Monk and the Luigi and the Gintronic this year all have this constant rocker; why they all have this feeling of real security.”
Tenerife being Tenerife, it had got windy. Ordinarily having lost luggage would be problematic for getting on the water, but with a harness borrowed from Mark's surfboard shaper, D'Jo at D'Light, a pair of boardies from Mark that were about two sizes too big (Mark is a machine, I'm more of a grass snake), we headed down to launch at Cabezo. As a kiter you shouldn't launch at Cabezo, especially looking like a rookie on a twin-tip and in danger of losing your shorts in a wipeout. It doesn't go down well and could result in some pole bending of your own. But I seemingly had a free pass turning up with Shinn and swaggered as I rolled out my lines. (The correct place for kiters to launch is down in El Medano bay, where there are loads of people to help launch and land your kite and no nasty rocks waiting to catch you out!)
I made my way out, careful not to ding the bottom of the board on the exposed rocks littering my navigation on the way out and eventually got out into open water. It was hardly perfect freestyle twin-tip testing conditions; lumpy, bumpy with lots of deep water troughs and peaks and was a bit light on a 12 metre, but this is probably why Mark swears by developing boards out here. You can find every type of conditions within a few short tacks. As it was a still bit light, we saved the journey downwind into the bay for the following day. I'm more used to riding a surfboard in these conditions, which soak up all the water's imperfections, planing confidently over the top and smoothing out the choppy edges, the fact that I was riding a twin-tip barely crossed my mind, though. If you've ever ridden one of Mark's twin-tips, you'll know what I mean when I say he understands how to make a board work in the sea. The positivity on the back foot, the lack of spray, the get up and go and the planing through the lulls are all brilliant qualities to have in your twin-tip work horse. There is absolutely none of that wishy-washy back foot feeling you sometimes get on a spray tray. Getting back up to the tricky landing spot between the rocks in just about powered 12 metre weather was much easier than I expected.
Day one, pride still in tact, Shinny hadn't been shouted at for letting a twin-tipper out at his local break and I was still in command of a pair of shorts. Job done.
Next morning Mark had something different in store. He has an obsessive side to his nature – you don't become a world champion in anything without a dollop of that in your character – and, as well as wanting to design the most usable twin-tips in the market, Shinny also enjoys the challenges that cycling offers. I can think of one or two people that I know who own more than one bike. Mark has a quiver, all easily valued in four figure multiples. Regularly an entrant in gruelling long distance races and triathlons, Mark has also been known to cycle the 80 miles to see his girlfriend in Poland after a long day in the factory before making the return journey the next morning to clock in again. I have a mountain bike, which I ride to work on and occasionally enjoy the odd foray into the forest for a bit of muddy foxing with my girlfriend, but that's about it. Back on with the borrowed shorts and a fetching race vest, we set off on the bikes into some of Tenerife's finest off-road tracks (which I later dishearteningly discovered was actually only the 'girls route').
During the rest periods in between uphill sections when I'd catch Mark up again for a brief time, I'd try and throw a few questions his way. In his column in issue 52 he wrote about how he tried to measure the speed of different twin-tips that he'd found stacked up in his shed from over the years. The interesting thing he noted was that his measurements revealed that, although they all felt very different in terms of speed and handling, there was virtually no difference in recorded top speed. The Super Shinn doesn't bog at all, but also doesn't feel like a rocket – why?
“Generally, stiffer boards feel faster because they rattle along on top of the water and you feel like you're going really fast. The feeling of control is the main difference, especially in chop. On a flatter rocker you have the increased risk of catching a fin and more spray in your face to start with. What's interesting with the constant curve is that when people say a board feels stiff or soft, it's not always related to how stiff or soft the board is. The rocker itself can change how the board feels. All the boards I've made on a constant curve rocker have felt softer than the numbers would suggest. When we make a board we have a system to measure the flex, and constant curve rockers always feel softer than the flex measurements indicate they are. If you put those same numbers on a flatter rocker board, they feel much stiffer. So it's not quite as simple as saying it's stiff or it's not stiff.”
What about flex? Does that play a part?
“Yes, but it's not just about how much it bends; it's about how fast it comes back from bending. In general, a faster response to flex means the board feels more lively. As an example, a polyurethane foam core has just about the worst return from flex ratio of most foams. It bends and returns so slowly that the board always feels like it needs a good kick up the arse to get going. We use more or less the same materials in all boards because they've proved to be reliable, only the laminate is tweaked for different boards. There are many ways to get stiffness into a board - you can use the core, you can use the laminate, you can use the shaping in the base of the board, the mould in the deck of the board... but in terms of core, the majority of the board has to be wood in my opinion. It's reliable in terms of flex, it doesn't change much over time and you almost never see complete failure with wood.”
Meaning you'll almost never see a twin-tip made of wood that has snapped in half and been thrown in the bin, as you might have seen at some busy spots!
By now we'd been cycling a couple of hours in weather that wasn't exactly on the cold side. We finished the ride off with a 'fun' downhill section that was way more technical than I imagined. There's just no traction in that scree! By the time we got back my one pair of undies were rinsed with sweat (sorry) and had already been turned inside out (sorry, again) and I nearly bent down and kissed the floor when I saw my bag had arrived and was waiting on Mark's porch for me. No one likes a smelly journo.
We hit the water again for two more sessions that afternoon, this time over in the bay where the flatter sections in between the waves meant I could really see what the Super Shinn could do. As I sit here now writing all this down, there are two things that spring to mind. The first is that in terms of high-performance twin-tips, it's extremely easy to just ride around on, popping a few hooked-in as well as unhooked tricks and minding your own business. Apart from the bottom of the board, there's nothing show-offy about it and because you're always in control, you don't feel like you're 'that guy' on the beach making a big show and dance. You're just quietly, calmly and confidently getting on with your business of improving your riding and landing your tricks. The second thing I want to say – and this may be because the board has such an understated riding quality that it catches you out – is that it has an incredible trampoline-like pop! You don't even have to be that precise about loading the board up; put some pressure on your edge, release and the Super Shinn absolutely pings.
Later that evening we get onto the subject of the not-so-secret ingredient in the Super Shinn; the 'Hyrdro-flow' system in the tips. I wanted to know more about what was going on underath the Super Shinn, so quizzed Mark over pizza and too many beers (Mark drinks fast and also often takes a beer to bed with him I've discovered. Fortunately I had a voice recorder... for the restaurant...):
We talked yesterday when on the bikes about how water actually flows in all different directions on a twin-tip. I had no idea – can you explain how it works?
I didn't know either until I started looking into it! The idea came from a gentleman I met in Poland who was interested in the way water travels. I don't want to say exactly how we looked at it because everyone can figure it out for themselves, but that whole investigation showed us that the water changes direction so much. It's hard to make any kind of channel or feature that's going to work all of the time, especially through the middle of the board because water is going everywhere. Some areas of the board, like just behind your back foot on the heel-side corner, the direction doesn't change very much; it's quite constant. But the water's doing some radical things elsewhere. You'd have to find a hydrodynamics guy to fully explain it, but it's a fact that sometimes if you look between your toes when you're riding, some of the water coming off the rail is actually going forwards; not just out and backwards. If you've got water coming forwards off the toe-side edge of your board, then it's turned through 100 degrees or something to do that.
So, surely it's better to try and work with the flow rather than against it?
Exactly, a subtle bit of re-directing is what's needed. There's a lot of fashion right now in channelling – some of which I believe probably starts on the graphic designer's computer rather than the shaper's table - and it's no good putting something at 90 degrees in the path of the water hoping to force it to change direction. I believe whatever you do has to be very, very smooth. You don't want to cause the water to change direction too fast. It's already doing what nature is intending it to do.
(Mark's pitch rose again and his chair squeaked as he shuffled excitedly in closer to the table.) He continued:
“But there are actually things you can do to channel water effectively. It's hard to see, but there's a feature in the base of the board that channels the water towards the fin rather than letting it spread over the tail of the board - you can see when you ride the board and look down that the wake of the board is very very smooth. (It's true, there's almost no turbulence off the tail of the SS and the water looks to be just travelling straight as it leaves the board). I wanted to use smaller fins, but I didn't want less grip. Smaller fins have less drag and, if you land hot, a smaller fin means less chance of falling over it. So I could achieve this by flattening the rocker, which I didn't want to do, or I had to find another way. The tail conduits channel more water over the fin which means that the smaller fin is providing the grip of a bigger fin. The faster you go the better your fin is working. The sides of the Hydro-flow tail channel the water over the fin, increasing the levels of grip.”
Shinny has written over 25 columns for Kiteworld, and must be second only to me in word count contributions to this rag. However, we don't really hear too much about his boards. Although, back with the confidence of a world champion and being the chief marketing man for his brand, he tends to let his products do much of the talking.
I always knew Mark was switched on, but I never realised just how much he analyses things. He says he shapes through numbers rather than having the artistic feel of traditional shapers you might find in the surfboard realm. We talked about a lot more besides the Super Shinn, for instance while watching the PKRA (which happened to be in town at the same time I was) Mark kept commenting on the lack of varied powered moves in competition. “Where are all the mobes?” he'd exclaim while watching a heat that was supposed to demonstrate a balanced mix of new school and old school moves. Obviously dismayed at the slip in standards of board-offs and big air prowess since his days on the tour, he also couldn't believe the predictability of their 'powered' modern moves.
“When Aaron really started to win the wake-style competition, he used to go out and his first run used to be back mobe and front mobe, and then he'd turn around come back and do a slim chance and KGB so, in the first 30 seconds of his heat, he'd nailed the four mobes, and then he used to go on. What I notice now is you see a few back mobes and a lot of flat spins, like a blind judge or 313. But how many mobes? Hardly any. Kevin did a few and Youri did one or two. For me I always thought that any rider that does a freestyle heat should do the four mobes before they start.”
Mark will always be processing, analysing and will never be afraid to throw his comments out there. It's why we're lucky to have him as a columnist with a wealth of experience, and his rounded view for what the sport of kiteboarding should be is why he's making such phenomenal, accessible twin-tips for real world riders like you and me.
Find more on the Super Shinn at: www.supershinn.com
The KiteShow Episode 4
You can see this feature in issue #53