Single Fin Surfing: A Question of Balance

JJ Wessels, Photo by Dane Peterson.

JJ Wessels, Photo by Dane Peterson.

By Paul Gross

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.

 

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. Caption: 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.