The art of riding waves has always been an evolutionary process. Whether you were an Inca in Peru riding the reed craft known as Caballitos de Totora, or an ancient Hawaiian on a 15-foot, koa wood olo, since surfing began people have been on the constant search for a better ride. That holds true today, too. As lineups around the world grow increasingly more crowded and the surfing done in said lineups grows increasingly more technical, there’s a movement to get back to basics. Enter the time-honored tradition of body surfing, where it’s always overhead and never crowded.
Helping facilitate this new-old form of wave-riding is the simple yet effective hand-plane. A small device that covers the palm of the hand, it gives the surfer glide and drive as they slide down the face of a wave and through the tube. In the ‘70s they were made out of stolen lunch trays, today they’re highly stylized works of art. Leading the resurgence is master craftsman Gary “Brownfish” Murphy. Based in Dana Point, California, he calls whittling the small, 12-inch hulls his “obsession.” Made out of the beautifully rare Paulownia wood, Brownfish’s work has caught on with a whole crew of the world’s best most notable watermen. From Kelly Slater to Kolohe Andino, it seems like everyone has one in their quiver these days.
“I never realized how much a hand plane makes a difference,” tells Murphy, who hand mills and shapes all his Brownfish planes. “It’s a completely different feeling than surfing. I started putting my limited surfboard building knowledge to work, and also pestering every decent woodworker I met. Lots of trials with wood types, finishes, coloring, and straps, and these boards are the fruit of that labor.”
Red Bull Surfing spent a day kicking around Dana Point to get an insider’s look at living the hand-plane life. Needless to say, now we’re hooked.