It has been a while since I have done any product reviews, but I have a few new products that justify the time and space on the site. My most recent purchase is from a Custom Shaper out of Puerto Rico, called MHL.
I had been in the market for an unlimited board for over a year, after trying an older model Infinity tandem board in Dana Point. This particular board was pretty old and heavy by today’s standards, but that glide was unmistakable. It took more effort to get it up to speed, but once you did, you could really tell the difference.
With that knowledge, I started looking around at options on the unlimited front. Not too many of the shapers out there make unlimiteds, and none of the production companies do, to my knowledge. I looked at Bark, Ohana, talked to Thomas Maximus about Richmond boards, etc. One thing I noticed about each of the UL boards I had seen on the water, were that they all seemed to carry a fair amount of nose rocker. I would see people riding them and in many cases, a foot or more of the nose would be out of the water at any given time. When you are paddling in the ocean, that makes sense to me, as you have to deal with waves and swell and so forth. Given my need for a flat-water only board, I was hoping to get something with less rocker, to take full advantage of the increased water line.
A friend of mine got an unlimited built for him by MHL, which really looked like it was perfect for what I had been casually shopping for. Plus, it gave me a chance to try something new out, as all of my race boards to this point have been Bark’s. As many of you know, I have long been a big supporter of Joe’s boards. They are fast and stable, as well as works of art in many cases. That said, I have taken a fair bit of grief over the last year or so, that I don’t really give other boards/shapers a chance, since I stick with the same brand over and over again. Fair point, although its not like I don’t constantly try other brands, I just hadn’t found one I liked better. This time I figured I had finally found something that fit the bill as well or better, so I decided to give it a shot.
In addition to being more or less exactly what I was looking for, the MHL was a great value at just over $3000. Many of the unlimiteds out there run $3500 to $4200, depending on full carbon or half carbon, and what the brand was. With some you also have the option to add a rudder. This was not something I felt like I needed, since I was going with a 17’6” board, rather than a 20’+ board. I was pretty convinced I could turn and manage it without incurring the extra weight or cost. Plus in many races, they won’t let you use a rudder, so you end up taking the extra weight, without gaining any of the benefit (they end up putting the rudder in a fixed position).
What I did want to try was Larry Allison’s SUP Dagger concept. This is essentially a second fin box just a little forward of where you stand, and helps to add more tracking and stability to the board. Luckily Nick at MHL had experience with adding this on William’s board and was happy to oblige.
In addition to the SUP Dagger box/fin, I also decided I wanted to have some screw inserts put in the board for a water bottle cage, and a Surftech Bungee system. As with the dagger, Nick was happy to oblige.
Now that I have had the board for a month or so, I am really glad I had them make those additions. The tracking is insane with that SUP Dagger in. In fact, you don’t switch sides to course correct. You generally only switch sides because your arm feels like its ready to fall off. I am still working with Larry to dial in the right combo fin for the rear of the board, but I am using a Hybrid Gladiator fin for the time being.
As for the water bottle cage and bungee system, they have already proved to be invaluable. I have been doing some ~3hr rides on one of our local lakes out here lately, and having the ability to have a water bottle close and handy is great. Having the bungee system allows me to throw a dry pack back there, or use it for more water, or just to stow my flip flops during my paddle. I realize this adds weight and the board doesn’t look as attractive or sleek with these features, but I don’t care. Function over appearance for me.
As for the performance of the board, its incredible. It is by far the quietest board I have ever ridden through the water. There is so little water disruption from the nose or the tail, its unbelievable. Because I have never ridden any other MHL boards, I was unsure how much of this was do to the extra length of the board, which allows for a sleeker design and a pin tail, or if it had more to do with Nick’s nose design and/or overall shape. He spends a lot of time dialing in each board using a CAD program before production (he is a mechanical engineer by trade). After speaking to Nick, he said it was really a combination of both. His latest nose designs are really efficient, compared to other boards, or even some of his earlier designs. He also said having that extra length to work with allowed him to do some other things to help aid in this.
The specs of my board are 17’6 long, 27” wide, and just under 30lbs. The rails are a little harder than many race boards out there, which I believe is partly responsible for how stable the board is, even at only 27″ wide. This board is full carbon fiber, with a custom paint job on the deck and rails. The paint job itself is probably the best I have seen on a SUP period. The design ended up being a little different than what I asked for, but the quality of the work was very meticulous and looks amazing.
As for the differences I have seen between this and my custom 14’ Bark Dominator, it comes down to glide more than anything else. I know it is a faster board, but I haven’t been able to nail down an exact number for the difference yet. I am still getting used to the board, and don’t feel like I have the exact stroke, and standing position down just yet. The more I ride it, the more I learn about how to ride it. You stand farther back on this board than on my other boards, and it seems to prefer more of a Hawaiian stroke, to a Tahitian. In other words, longer, more powerful strokes, as opposed to shorter and faster strokes. Going back to the glide though, this is where I noticed the biggest difference. You give the board about 10 strokes to get it going and then pull the paddle out of the water, and it just keeps going. It is an awesome feeling. With smaller boards, you notice the board start to slow down as soon as you quit paddling. With this board, it seems to hold its speed and glide for a lot longer. Unfortunately, I don’t have a way to give you a measurement or a percentage on the difference, but it is definitely noticeable. In fact, I went back to paddling a 14’ board yesterday, and I could immediately tell the difference. Not as much in speed, but the difference in glide was very apparent.
So in a nutshell, I would definitely recommend adding MHL to your short list when looking for a custom board, especially an unlimited. This is hands down the best board I have ever had (15 and counting so far). Some of that is due to the length, sure, but I also mean in terms of quality of construction, design, etc. They just do a really nice job. As for the ordering process, it is just like dealing with most shapers, it’s a process you need to be ready for. If you buy a pop-out, you get exactly what you expect every time. It may not be exactly what you want, but it is generally what you expect. With a custom, it’s a little bit more of a crap shoot, especially if you are doing the ordering by phone. Trying to describe what you want when it comes to placement of add-ons, the deck pad, and the paint job can be tough. What you visualize and what they interpret may not be the same thing. Its well worth your time to actually send drawn up examples, so you take individual interpretation out of the equation.
Both William and I agree on one thing, the shipping process is probably the most stressful part of the equation. Anytime you have shipping people touching the board, you add risk. He and I have both had several boards damaged or in one case, destroyed in shipping. If you have the ability to do so, buy a board bag to have your board shipped to you in. It will cost you something extra, but its well worth it to protect your $3000+ investment, and to provide a little extra piece of mind.
To order an MHL board, dial 787-609-6198 and ask for Nick and tell him Casey sent you. They typically quote about 3-4 weeks for 12-14’ boards, and 4-5 weeks for the unlimiteds. Mine took more like 6 weeks, but I added a lot of customization to my order, so I assumed it would take a little longer and was OK with that.
In summary, I have no complaints. I love this board, and wouldn’t do anything different. Its perfect.