‘Leaps and bounds’ is the clichéd phrase that describes the advances, both technological and conceptual, that surfing has undergone in the last hundred-odd years. We’re going to take a look at some of the more seminal moments.
Table of Contents
1. Wood From Trees
Europeans first witnessed surfing in 1778, when Capt. James Cook and the crew from HMS Discovery landed in Hawaii. They observed that the first surfboards were massive, and made of solid wood from the Wiliwili tree, native to Hawaii. These boards weighed up to 100 pounds, and were surfed straight to the beach. The best boards were reserved for royalty, and the plebeians were only allowed to ride the inferior craft, in the nude. It was a past time of enjoyment however, and going surfing was always about good times in the earlier Hawaiian culture.
2. Fins Forward
Leap ahead to 1935, and athlete and author Tom Blake decided that his surfboard needed a fin, and went ahead to craft one onto his go-to shooter. Surfing changed forever when it was discovered that a fin drastically improved the performance of the heavy, slip-sliding logs that were the norm. Realising that he was onto something real here, Tom went on to develop a hollow surfboard to go with the fin placement, and helped to drop the surfboard weight by at least half. These hollow surfboards with a single and large fin were the predecessors of the modern day performance surfboards.
3. Balsa Also
While working on making their surfboards lighter and thus more maneuverable, Blake and others stumbled upon balsa wood as a possible method of manufacturing light and buoyant surfboards. These boards were made with a balsa blank, hand-shaped to the desired dimensions, and then sealed with a thin fiberglass skin. These boards worked optimally, and were hugely popular for a period, as more and more people discovered surfing. Balsa had a fairly short lifespan when exposed to seawater however, and the search was on for better materials.
4. Foam Party
Molded polyurethane foam blanks were the next massive step in the evolution of the surfboard, and these blanks made the boards even lighter, more buoyant and more maneuverable. The polyurethane blanks were shaped and then sealed with fiberglass and resin, and huge surf factories started blowing such blanks, and in the process casually making some quite large carbon footprints. This all came to an abrupt end when Clark Foam, the biggest foam blank manufacturer in the world, shut down abruptly and without any Plan B, when federal agents actually arrived at the factory and mandated it shut down, mainly for that carbon footprint mentioned earlier.
5. Epoxy Next
Epoxy was most definitely a product that entered the surfboard industries in a ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ process. Without the easy access of Clark Foam and other, surfboard manufacturers had to look to alternate raw materials to make their boards, as the order books filled up. Epoxy surfboards comprise an expanded polystyrene (Styrofoam) foam core and coated with an epoxy resin, the only resin that can be used on EPS foam. This resin is 35% stronger than resin used on a fiberglass board and it can snap back into shape better than a standard (PU) board, which tends to crack under strain. Epoxy boards are way lighter, so they’re good for surfers who are focused on high performance surfing and/or aerial surfing. They are also more buoyant and lightweight surfers tend to enjoy them as the boards can quickly generate speed over flat sections by rail-to-rail movements. These types of boards are great for small-wave sleds, with the extra float helping to prevent bogging. Epoxy surfboards played a massive part in the evolution of the modern surfboard.
Fins Confused, Twins You Lose?
As mentioned, the single fin was placed on a board by Tom Blake back in 1935, but as the surfboards became looser, lighter and easier to turn, so the attention was put back on the fins. Professional surfing had begun, with the IPS and then the ASP, and professional surfers were on the hunt for that extra edge to beat their competitors. The single fin was the preferred surfboard for the start of competitive surfing.
6. Twin Time
Australian surfer Mark Richards aka The Wounded Gull was the surfer who decided that two fins are better than one, and being a shaper himself, developed the twin-fin concept. It changed the face of surfing as we know it, with the characteristics of a twin-fin being massively advantageous over the single-fin. The boards were fast, they were loose and they were highly maneuverable, resulting in Richards clocking up four world titles back-to-back with his newfangled equipment. It was mocked at first, before nearly every professional surfer in the world was riding one. South African professional surfer and 1977 World Champion Shaun Tomson was the one surfer who held out against the twinnie for as long as possible, preferring the drive of the single-fin, but when everyone started beating him, he relented and tried out the twin-fins to great results.
The looseness of the twinnie however, didn’t really work for the well-built Australian surfer Simon Anderson, who found them too lose and lacking in drive. In a bid to combine the drive of the single fin with the looseness of the twin-fin, he went on to develop the first Thruster, a surfboard with three equal-sized fins on it. He too went on a winning spree with his new equipment, winning the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach, the Coca Cola Surfabout at Narrabeen and the Pipe Masters in Hawaii the same year, 1981. The board was a game-changer, and the Simon Anderson Thruster became the most popular board in the world. Anderson didn’t bother to seek a patent on his concept, so it became the most copied board in the world and Anderson made nothing out of the invention.
8. Four Fins Forward
Australian goofy-footer Glen Winton from the Gold Coast, also known as Mr X in his heyday on the Association of Surfing Professionals, went one step further and put a fourth fin on his surfboard. The original four fin surfboards were modified twins, with the two smaller rear fins providing a little bit more stability, but still allowing for the speed and squirt of the original Mark Richards twin-fin design. Mr X went on to moderate competitive success with his designs, but not as much as MR or Simon.
9. Five Is Alive
The five-fin Bonzer surfboard, developed by the Campbell Brothers, was an anomaly in the fin set-up process. It was a very technical theory that was developed to control water flow and reduce drag across the bottom of the board’s surface. The fins on a Bonzer are small, and there is very little resistance, but the Bonzer design only picked up a very few die-hard fans and stalwarts in comparison to the standard board designs and fin set-ups previously discussed. There are still a few people who ride them, but they have been mostly ignored as technology continues to leap forward.
10. The Steg
Glen Winton came back into the scene a few years ago with a six-finned board called a Steg. It too garnered minimal interest, although the few people, including Glen himself, swore by them, especially when the waves were bigger and clean.
11. Four On The Floor
On the way back down, quad fins came back into the scene, and in particularly via William “Stretch” Riedel who introduced the quad-fin set-up into the big wave arena. As opposed to the four-finned version that Mr X used to ride, the big wave quad is based more on the three-fin model, with the two back fins basically an expansion of the thruster’s standard third fin, but with the fins placed further up the tail. The quad set-up proved extremely popular among the big-wave riders the world over at places like Jaws, Nazaré and Mavericks.
12. Log It
The retro movement has seen the re-introduction of the logging movement, with these logs having strict design guidelines. The boards have to be of a set length, a minimum weight, no leash is allowed and the board can only have a solitary large single fin. Logging is a popular sub-genre, with girls and moms partaking in logging contests and surfing within the retro criteria.
13. Free Friction
The end of the line however, goes to Australian surfer and writer Derek Hynd, who opted for a theory called Free Friction or to be precise, Far Field Free Friction (FFFF). His board has no fins whatsoever, they are heavy and solid, and he turns them off their rails. Hynd hasn’t surfed with a fin on a board in over eleven years now, and has become exceptionally adept at the sport. At six-foot days at Supertubes in Jeffreys Bay, South Africa, it appears that he is the one surfer out there consistently having the most fun with his spinning, lip slides, and 360 moves on the face. That, according to Phil Edwards, is the best surfer out there – the one having the most fun. The fins free movement is not that popular, mostly because it is extremely difficult to do successfully and most people give up early on in the learning process.
14. Fin Control
The thing about all these fins and fin configurations is that thy needed to be put in and out of the surfboard, as easily and conveniently as possible. Fin Control Systems (FCS) was invented in Elanora, Gold Coast by Brian Whitty and patented on November of 1995. FCS is a system where one can interchange fins between different setups, allowing for two, three four and five-fin setups on a single board (no Steg set-ups). FCS experienced a number of competitor systems that copied their idea and followed into the market, but FCS were first to the party, and still occupy the lion’s share, working with people like Gabriel Medina, Julian Wilson and Filipe Toledo, to name a few, as well as brands like Channels Islands Surfboards.
15. Leash It
The surf leash was another game changer that forever altered the way surfers and surfboards worked together. Santa Cruz’s Pat O’Neill, son of wetsuit innovator Jack O’Neill, is credited with the popularization of the surf leash. Pat attached a surgical cord to his board with a suction cup, and introduced the leashes at the 1971 Malibu Invitational. Pat offered them to his fellow competitors, but they were less than impressed, and Pat was disqualified from the event for wearing his kook cord. In a few months time, the leash would become an accepted tool for surfing around the world. Ironically, it was the surf leash that cost Pat’s father Jack O’Neill his left eye due to the fact that the first leashes had too much recoil and were prone to flick surfers’ boards back at them, aimed at their faces.
16. Tighten It
With the rise of shark incidences around the world, there are now tourniquet leashes made for surfers to ensure that should something happen they have an effective tourniquet to use with them. An American Surfer with experience in armed conflict zones invented the Omna Legrope Tourniquets a few years ago. When he found himself surfing near crocodile infested waters, he decided to find a way to make sure he always had a tourniquet with him in the surf. After about five years of intensive product development and testing, he revealed the quality controlled and highly reliable legrope tourniquet. A simple ratchet on the leash solved the problem of polyurethane slippage, and while a grim subject that is not that easy to talk about, the legrope tourniquet is fast becoming an essential addition to any traveling surfer’s kitbag.
One of the biggest developments in surf technology was the invention of the shaping machine. Michel Barland built the first shaping machine down in Hossegor in 1981, and kick-started the industrial revolution of surfing. The machines started replacing shapers around the world. Shapers still remained relevant however, as they still operated the machines and fed them with dims and directions, but they used less tools and more technology to produce the beauties that they do. It was only when Miki Langenbach developed his APS3000 machine in the early 2000’s that the machines started taking over. It was the advances in design software, coupled with ease of availability that was key to the widespread adoption of shaping machines worldwide.
18. Firewire It
South African born surfer Mark Price is the man behind Firewire and all the alternative technology that goes into each and every one of their boards. The technology behind Firewire is largely trade secret, but the company has utilized bamboo in the past, is currently working on their eco-board range, as well as recycled and upcycled materials in all of their products. Their approach to recycling was enough to entice Kelly Slater across, and he is now a major shareholder in the company. They are leading the way in eco-friendly surf equipment and are aiming for zero landfill by 2020. They currently have waste of 0,02 cubic meters of waste per board, down by 95% from their original waste per board. They also utilize 100% bio-resin in all of their board manufacturing processes. The boards are light, responsive, buoyant and so much fun to ride.
19. Electric Avenue
In 2018 Swedish company Awake recently unveiled the. Rävik — a high-powered electric surfboard meant to disrupt the watercraft industry. It goes for $25k and can travel up to 55kph. It comes across as nothing more than a novelty for rich ‘surfers’, who rush across flat water, powered by the engine inside. It has a brushless 11-kilowatt motor that provides heavy torque and carries riders up to the speeds mentioned. It’s not the future of surfing as we know it, but it does look like a load of fun on totally flat days.
20. Foiled Again
Introduced by Laird Hamilton back in 2010, foil surfing is rapidly becoming more and more popular, with more foil boards popping up at beaches over the world. Kai Lenny and Grant Baker are two big wave surfers who enjoy riding their foils, with more normal surfers trying out this unique school. A foil board is a surfboard with an attached hydrofoil – or a fin with wings – that extends below the water. The design causes the board to lift out of the water so that rider stands a few feet in the air as it moves through the water. The wings on the foil deflect water pressure downward and the upward motion pushes the board and rider into the air. The process can occur at speed of just 5kph. With the surfboard out of the water there is none of the usual friction, creating a floating feeling that is different to surfing. Once purely experimental and made for a very few elite athletes, the foil board has become increasingly popular.