Single Fin Surfing: A Question Of Balance

by Paul Gross on January 16, 2014 · 15 comments

In his treatise on the single fin and single fin surfing, Paul Gross, surfboard designer and former editor of Surfer, outlines the role of the surfboard fin in recent history – from Tom Blake to the Thruster and back again to ”…those who want to feel the speed and texture of the wave, rather than generate an endless string of choppy, butt-wiggling maneuvers.”

Surfers love to associate surfboard design with the cultural era it emanated from. It’s in our DNA. We may be isolationists at heart, but we still fancy ourselves as a reflection of the outside world!

So… it’s no stretch for us to view the “single fin era” (roughly 1950 through 1980) as an outgrowth of the “soul era” of Western pop culture. It’s not a bad bit of cross-referencing either, because if there was ever a surfboard design genre that could be characterized by the word “soul,” the single fin would be it.

Technology has a way of aiming for a logical, well intended goal… then overshooting the mark and screwing everything up. Look no further than the history of surfboard fins to find the ideal case study.

When solid redwood boards weighed over 100 pounds and sported no fin, round bottoms and round rails provided just enough lateral drag to keep those beasts going in a straight line. The first surfboard design to move away from the round bottom/round rail concept was the Tom Blake paddle board of the late 1930’s. The Blake board featured a hollow, boxed construction that yielded a semi-flat bottom and square rails…with a distinct edge that ran the length of the bottom. And guess what? Without a fin, the first prototypes were impossible to keep going in a straight line for more than a few seconds.

The myth that “flat bottoms and sharp edges hold in” is just that: a myth. Flat surfaces and sharp edges shear the water away from the rail, and the rider loses any chance of controlling the board. The nimble-minded Blake addressed that problem on his boxed rail paddle board, bolting a shallow, metal water ski keel on the tail to keep it check as he rode. It worked! The age of the surfboard fin had dawned! We were free to go anywhere we wanted on a wave!

Well…not so fast, Buckaroo.

It took a decade of hemming and hawing before the fin became a standard element of the design paradigm. Finally, in the 1950’s, leading edge builders like Simmons, Quigg, Velzy, Downing and Kivlin designed boards from the ground up with a fin, and surfing immediately leapt forward.

But there was an interesting detour to this journey. The 50’s fins were small, minimalist affairs, providing just enough lateral drag to focus the surfboard’s direction of travel. The rail line still played an important part of the “hold” equation, and the rider had to be sensitive to get it right. He or she had to utilize the ideal combination of rail and fin to wring the most out of the wave they were riding. It was a delicate balancing act, even for a skilled surfer.

Key word: Skilled.

When Gidget hit the big screen in 1958, untold thousands of newbies responded by hitting the water. To prevent these beginners from “spinning out,” board builders had no choice but to equip their boards with bigger and bigger fins. The classic D-Fin was born. The “D-Fin era” (roughly 1958 through 1966) desensitized surfing, but the big skegs also allowed for harder turning and easier nose riding. So, in the big picture, it was a fair dinkum trade-off.

The last couple years of classic longboard design, c 1966/1967, moved away from the massive D-fin. Narrower, flexible, more sophisticated fins inspired by George Greenough’s groundbreaking kneeboard designs became the norm. As a result, hard carving bottom turns and deeper pocket riding began to displace nose riding as the peak experience sought after by surfers.

When the shortboard revolution erupted in 1968, a major design reboot resulted from the carnage. But for all the hoopla over the “new era,” early shortboards continued to flourish as single fins. The relationship between the rider, the wave, the rail line, and the fin provided a mystical balance that resonated with surfers weaned on domestic beer, vinyl records, and the classic era of longboarding.

Several multi-fin boards had popped up during the longboard era: Simmons built a number of twin fins in the late 40’s/early 50’s. Velzy developed the twin-winged “butterfly fin” in the 50’s. Carl Ekstrom manufactured twin fin swallow tails during the mid-60’s. All three concepts worked in the water — and came from highly regarded builders — but single fins remained de rigueur on longboards and early shortboards.

1970–71 saw the first multi-fin short boards emerge (the Eaton twin fin, the Campbell Bonzer, the Lis Fish, and the Brewer tri-bite) but single fins continued to dominate mainstream thinking. Very few surfers considered paddling into a triple overhead peak at Sunset with anything more, or anything less, than one fin.

So it went for the next 10 years. Multi-fin boards turned up here and there, but it wasn’t until Simon Anderson’s Thruster design crash landed into our psyche in 1981 that the single fin was finally knocked off its pedestal as the go-to design.

Thursters dominated surfing almost immediately. A lot of factors went into the popularity of the clustered, three fin design. Average-to-good surfers could jam turns anywhere on the wave, at will, and the dominant opinion setters of the day (magazine editors and contest judges) eagerly drank the Kool-Aid. In the face of that kind of support, the mellow, soulful, single fin approach to wave riding had little chance of surviving. The co-dependant arts of trimming and edge control seemed to be lost. Where once a surfer had to co-ordinate the rail and fin to carve a turn off the bottom, now brute strength and raw aggression was enough. Anyone with a smidgen of talent could mash the tail of a Thruster and get it to jump.

Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on your perspective, but the Thruster certainly didn’t deserve its exalted status in the mainstream surf media. A large segment of the surfing population — mostly over 30 — agreed, and felt a sense of displacement. Thrusters didn’t paddle well or draw long lines off the bottom. Both factors raised a red flag to the now-aging demographic of single fin aficionados.

Surfers being surfers, it didn’t take long for the single fin to re-assert itself, this time as an underground, non-contest vehicle… sought by those who wanted to feel the speed and texture of the wave, rather than generate an endless string of choppy, butt wiggling maneuvers. The mid-80’s renaissance of single fins (everything from 6 foot hulls to 10 foot longboards) meant there was no longer a clear cut board design — or fin set-up — that dominated surf design. Anything and everything was out in the water every swell, which is the way it should be.

What nobody saw coming back in the 80’s is that younger surfers would one day be drawn to single fin surfing. The same fire that lit the stoke in the souls of the cognoscenti as far back as the 50’s began to resonate with teens and 20-somethings. Single fin surfing, younger surfers realized, was about feeling. The wave is the melody. The board and the rider are content to harmonize. Where Thrusters are best surfed “in anger,” single fins are best surfed in a state of serenity.

Single fin surfing is special feeling reserved for special surfers, and special surfers come in all ages.


Marty Peach carving off the bottom at First Point Malibu on a single fin Liddle hull, summer of 1970. The interplay between the rail and fin is the essence of single fin surfing.  

The author of this story is Paul Gross, a surfboard designer and shaper, and former editor of Surfer Magazine. Top image of surfer JJ Wessels by Australia-based photographer Dane Peterson. Bottom photo of Marty Peach by Paul Gross. 

 


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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Barry Snyder January 13, 2014 at 8:13 pm

Good article Paul. As a 49 year old surfer, I started out on single. Followed the rest to Twins, Tri-fins, Quads, now riding singles again. Love em’. Been building singles of all sizes. For me, nothing draws a cleaner line than a single. Thanks for reminding me.

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marty peach January 14, 2014 at 8:19 am

hi paul, nice read.good to see that pic,driving, trying to get from 2nd thru to 1st. hope you are well. i am still riding a single fin. marty

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james camp January 14, 2014 at 10:39 am

couple of things, nice historical rundown on fins until the thruster imho. From my memories of this time twins ridden by surfers like Reno A. and Mark R. had made a major leap in performance in small waves (such as pictured at Malibu) the thruster bridged the gap between the looseness of the twin and the 1 dimensional surfing of the single. I was always a single fin person until Simon gave us his thruster. The ability to ride steep, hollow, powerful waves and not slide out was very important step for my surfing. Also the ability to ride the wave rather then the board allowed a very creative approach for the best surfers in the world at this time in the 80′s (TC/TC/Occy/etc)

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Scott Bryson January 14, 2014 at 12:43 pm

Not only were twins faster, they were more maneuverable, which if a crowded break like Malibu were used as an example, being able to get around and out-speed shoulder hoppers becomes a survival asset, like a good jet fighter. The one trade off is less stability which results in side-slipping, sometimes fun as a maneuver though.

I solved this design problem at L.A. boutique surf shop Cosmos, run by Korean Bang Park who did glassing on the side for companies like Fineline. The trick was to make the fins curve like the length of a bird wing (not the cross-section), looking like a classic airplane wing foil from dead on, and throw the main curve at about 45 degrees from the leading point next to the board, so that the tips approach being parallel to each other, while the base and angle to the board are in the classic twin mode.

Next to the board you have the effect twins are known for, a bit of release and less drag, while close to the tip the fins are almost parallel to the stringer/centerline, and have less drag on bottom turns than the full splay of typical twins.

At the same time on down-the-line drives, the curve gives a bit more bite and less side slip, while the tail can be less buried reducing drag. You get the best of both worlds, the increased speed of a twin and more straight line and bowl stability. One other guy had a curved fin about the same time, 1980 or so, but I doubt he put the twist in it too, but all animal wings/fins both flex in curves and twist, simple observation of nature.

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Dave January 14, 2014 at 2:19 pm

Where’s Cosmos?

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Rob Farrow January 14, 2014 at 12:44 pm

That’s one of the beautiful things about surfing, we have as many opinions as we do styles in and out of the water. Great article, even though I’m a bit challenged on the down playing of the role of the “thruster” in surfing. If memory serves me right, some of the biggest advances in performance surfing, big wave surfing and competitive surfing were made during the 30 + year design reign of the thruster. We saw many of the sports contemporary icons get crowned during this period, Curren, Carroll, Occy, Slater, Andy, Sunny, Potter etc…We used the standardization of this design period as a stepping off point for experimentation into multi fin design, finless design, twin fins/fishes and as a chance to revisit the single fin. The greatest gift the thruster gave surfing was the courage to explore and find the not the next thing, but the right thing for surfers everywhere. I love that we are seeing a resurgence in everything from D fin logs to hand planes in the water ensuring that the core of surfings soul is comfortably intact and being embraced by the tribe.

Thanks for giving us an platform to engage our culture…

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Alan_M January 14, 2014 at 1:49 pm

The shortboard revolution, coupled eventually with the multi fin design gave surfers the single most important element that advanced surfing: CONTROL
Up until Simon Anderson introduced the thruster, the limitations of control still existed. Yes, we had progressed from hanging onto a plank to a lot more control, but nowhere near the control, especially in the larger and smaller wave realms, that was achieved with the evolution of the thruster.
In large waves, agility mixed with hold, in small waves, the ability to generate ones own speed and move beyond the trim line, which is very important for most small waves as most are not perfect lined up Malibu.
Each design has it’s own merits and detriments, and all can offer pleasure. There is no reason to ignore any of them.
Let me point out that the Mirandon Brothers/Surfboards La Jolla Twin Pin was also a design benchmark that should not be ignored.

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Adam January 14, 2014 at 1:56 pm

Did you miss 4 world titles by Mark Richards on twin fins late 70′s early 80′s?

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jb_oahu January 14, 2014 at 8:42 pm

I’ve been riding single fins on the North Shore for about 20 years. This article doesn’t add anything beyond groovy. The single fin advantage is speed down the face, quick rail-to-rail and controlled looseness at high speeds. The fin foil is key. Narrow entry speed foils and modern rails are happening. Worshiping old bolts is ridiculous.

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joao bracourt January 15, 2014 at 6:11 am

started riding a single about three months ago and i am stoke, only pure lines and no leash ok?

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Shawn Zappo January 17, 2014 at 5:06 pm

I started surfing in the mid 80′s at age 11 and the thruster was by far the board of choice…or force. When you said thrusters are best surfed in “anger”, I can’t think of a better expression of the approach the thruster lent itself to. Aggressive and forced surfing, not riding the wave, riding the board while trying to destroy the wave.

I began experimenting with a variety of shapes and fin set ups about 5 years back. Riding a single fin gave me a new approach and love for surfing that I otherwise may have never found on a thruster. I still have a thruster in my quiver and do enjoy the pivot point of such boards from time to time. That said, there is a simplistic beauty that can only be felt on a single fin.

Less is more. Peace.

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Marc Andreini January 23, 2014 at 11:00 am

Some of the commenters that point out the success of the Thruster or Mark Richard’s twin fin, obviously didn’t read the article very closely. Paul Gross goes into great detail, the differences between the different fins and how they evolved, and the kind of surfing they promote. He never said once that single fins are better than Thrusters. The only thing he actually wrote is that it was a kind of a backwards move going to a D-Fin. This is interesting because I have always said the boards of the ‘50s were the finest surfboards until the early ‘70s. They were beautifully designed. The Joe Quigg influence of the Malibu Chip. His pintails and beautiful foiled rails and the very minimal fin were never equaled in performance and design until the late ‘60s. So really, the longboards from the ’60s went backwards from what boards had become in the ’50s. Very few people have written about that or even understand that. Paul touches on this fact in a beautiful way.

Modern surfboards came right back to the Kivlin/Quigg path. If we broke this down, the V-Bottom paralleled the work that Simmons had done. Greenough’s kneeboard paralleled the Simmons line of thinking, which was a full wide hydrofoil, with full, wide rails lifted up to the nose and the rocker straight down to a wide backed board. Both Simmons and Greenough followed that idea. Greenough added the shortness and the performance fin. McTavish had a performance fin and broke the bottom down to a vee but it’s basically a displacement hull. And the Mini Gun brings us right back to the Quigg pintails. George Downing with his Quigg-style pin tails with a fairly small fin on it. It’s a Mini-Gun with a Greenough influenced fin. The Pocket Rockets followed and that evolved into the low rail single fin – the Lopez-era. Those boards really were the continuation of the Quigg-Kivlin style boards of the ‘50s. It came right back to it with the pulled in tail, sleek foil, streamlined rocker, lift in the nose, rolled bottoms. And they have that beautiful style for down the line surfing which was what Quigg built those boards for – Rincon. Rincon was his motivation. And it is well documented that the pintails that he originally built were to try and make the wave from Second Point to The Cove – which is the fastest racetrack we have in California. That is the Holy Grail at Rincon if you can make that piece of the wave.

Back to the responses. The commenters will point out that all the greats like Ochuilupo, Slater, and Curren all won World Titles on Thrusters. And the earlier wins by Mark Richards on the Twin Fins. This is just proof in their minds that the single fin isn’t as good. Paul points out that single fin surfing is just a different kind of surfing and that each type of board has its place. What the Thruster does is that it gives you the ability to “go against the grain” of the wave and gives you the option to invent moves that might not otherwise be naturally possible. For example, punting airs is one of them. The original advantage of the Thruster was that you could turn it when you wanted. And I think the biggest breakthrough from Thruster surfing was The Floater, a Martin Potter move. Martin Potter could surf over the top of a section and come down the other side. The Thruster simply lets you break away from the natural speed line of the wave.

In the hands of a skilled surfer, you can do some things that you cannot otherwise do. Aerials, which are mostly acrobatic, takes a tremendous athlete to do that. If you have the skill level, that type of design (Thruster) allows you to do that. But all this comes with a sacrifice, as Paul describes, of a balanced connected feel with the wave – where you have to balance your rails with your fin – and you are riding the natural fall line. Single fin surfing is more of an experience or feeling than it is a board that can outdo another board.

Single fin surfing is a different approach to the wave. The great masters of single fin power surfing goes back to Joey Cabell, Barry Kanaiaupuni, Michael Peterson, Nat Young, Wayne Lynch, Reno Abellira, Terry Fitzgerald – those guys were some of the original, down-the-line, surfers on little stiletto single fin, straight bottom boards – that type of surfing is very difficult to do on a Thruster because you have to go from rail-to-rail and you have to keep it moving. Also you don’t have an upward trim, you have to keep turning. You have a more up and down style as opposed to across the wave. The single fin excels in that type of surfing. Paul points out that a lot of people that were over thirty lamented that that was overlooked at the time. It was the people who were over thirty are the ones who invented the Thruster in the first place. It was never meant to replace anything else, it was an evolution that brought the goal of total maneuverability to a natural conclusion. That doesn’t mean that it’s the ideal – that’s just a type of board that will give you that. And that is why we’ve come back around.

My other argument to those comments that Thrusters / Twin Fins are superior because of the modern surfers who ride them – I say go back and watch Free Ride and watch Michael Ho, Dane Kealoha, Shaun Tomson, Rabbit, Mark Richards – watch them mostly on single fins barrel-riding Off The Wall. It will show you the progression of barrel riding really comes primarily from Shaun Tomson riding a tiny little single fin and S-turning in the barrel and riding on the foam ball. And there hasn’t been much tube riding that has been done much better than that – that was all done on a single fin. The Thruster is better at it, but it really has so much more to do with it of the skill level of the surfer. Because the boards will do it. Watch Dan Malloy in The Present – one of the longest barrels ever filmed – and he’s on an Alaia with no fins! Derek Hynd doesn’t use fins and there are not very many better barrel riders than him.

It isn’t necessarily the design that has made it better. It has a lot to do with the increased skill level of today’s surfer. The Thruster design helped move surfing forward to do some of those maneuvers and were certainly made easier. Now surfers are so good that they could do it on a beer cooler lid! Look at Ryan Burch – those guys are unbelievable! They can do the same kind of surfing, that used to require a Thruster, on an ice chest lid!

The other thing that is fun for me – you know, Tommy Curren grew up with all of us surfing together at Hammonds. Some of the most beautiful surfing I ever saw was Tommy Curren surfing Rincon on a tiny single fin. Some of the most soulful, beautiful, speed and power – that you’d ever seen. A total thing of beauty. Tommy can ride a single fin about the same as he rides a Thruster. It takes a little more skill maybe, but there isn’t a gigantic difference at the end of the day.

And there is Tom Carroll, another world champion. Look at all the barrel riding in Jack McCoy’s films. There is a bunch of footage of him riding Bali on his singles. And at Pipeline, that guy was a hell of a barrel rider. Doing snap backs under the lip and all that. That’s all on single fins.

I like single fins because I like the flow and the glide of surfing. And it is surfing the natural fall line to the wave and I prefer that even when I rode short boards. I just love that feeling of driving along with a bottom turn with the whole rail engaged. The flow and across the wave just seems so much more natural. I mean, it feels good to pop the lip once in a while, but it’s almost like an insult to nature to manhandle and dominate the wave and to go against the grain. It just seems unharmonious. I just love the flow and the grace of down-the-line surfing. For me, that’s why that type of board is important. And a board that is well integrated to the wave is important. That’s what matters to me. It’s not for everybody. And I would never say that is how it should be. It’s just a personal thing. And surfing is just personal.

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T.V. January 27, 2014 at 1:42 pm

Thankyou Marc. That response was every bit well written as the original P.G. article.
We all seem to be enjoying the” anything goes” equipment wise surfing these day’s.
Like you said, the ability and skill level of today’s modern surfer is incredible. Maybe the ability has evolved due to all the different styles and choices of boards over the years.
I have heard stories of kids getting air on paipo’s ,standing and landing at the wall,Waikiki early seventies.They were just having fun,trying to out-do their friends. Not a single logo in sight.
Still, no matter what: There is a perfect vehicle for the wave of choice. All depends on skill and what the rider is seeking.

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james amp January 29, 2014 at 3:28 pm

wow, maybe you should have written the article. I agree that single fins promote a different kind of surfing. I thought the article was about surfboard evolution, so hence my prior comments, which I stand by. I concur regarding winning contest may not be the mark of so called high performance or whatever bench mark is being used. However in good surf the surfers I named were indeed ripping. Not to be a nitpicker but Wayne Lynch was one the first to ride thrusters, even though he is now shaping and promoting his refined singles. Bottom line ride what you like, everybody has an opinion and can make their own choice.

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Smukes January 24, 2014 at 6:59 am

Thoughtful response. Surfing turned uglier and acrobatic when the thruster hit big. Nobody looks good with their feet so damned far apart and that’s a fact. The maneuver was everything. Evocative approaches to riding waves were summarily dismissed as hippy posing around 1980, and we all focused on what lay beyond vert and whatever trick was the most punk rock. It was a 3 decade run.These same cats that wince over Paul’s article no doubt still log in to surfline and keep up with their favorite touring pros and that’s cool. It’s just a different sport altogether. Style is back and the front footed, narrowed stance of bottom turn oriented single fin surfing is an “old bolt” that’s well worth worshiping. Surfing as self expression.

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