The Origin of Surfboard Fins

The act of standing on a surfboard to catch a wave was first described by an Englishman on a boat in the year 1769, although most surf experts estimate the activity is between two and three thousand years old! Standing on a surfboard to catch a wave has Polynesian origin and as such they have been surfing longer than anybody else. Today, surfing has broadened into a huge sport with championships occurring every year. Live television coverage, high speed action, and huge plumes of sea spray are things the original surfers would never have been able to imagine. Welcome to the new era, bros! Surf is dominated by Hawaiians and Australians now (with Australia having the highest number of pro surfer residents) and they are sure to defend their crown for years to come.

Early Surfboard Fins

surfboard fin on beachEarly surfboards looked and felt very different from what they look like today. Early boards were made out of solid pieces of wood and they were so heavy that they had to be incredibly long to be able to catch a wave. Many boards were fashioned out of wood that was local to Hawaii, but occasionally, wood that was imported for use in construction, such as great redwood, was fashioned into large surfboards. Redwood is a very strong type of wood but it also was very heavy. The dimensions of these early boards was astonishing at twenty feet in length and close to 200lbs. With very little knowledge about hydrodynamics, there was no way to steer these enormous boards and most of the surfing was actually riding waves straight into the shore.

Enter Tom Blake, Man With A Vision

Tom Blake, an American living in Santa Monica in the 1920s, was integral to the origin of surfboard fins. He effectively created a way for surfers to steer the boards while riding rather than sticking a foot or paddle in the water. The story of Tom’s first fin involves struggling on top of the board and trying to find a solution to help him steer. He spoke to the owner of a speedboat about how he managed to control the vehicle at such high speeds. The skipper told him the boat had a long fin mounted in the center of the back of the boat that kept the back end from spinning during high speed turns. This gave Tom some good ideas for how to integrate the fin system with a surfboard. One day when he was out surfing, he noticed a boat left on the beach, apparently abandoned. He approached it and looked for a similar keel to the one found on the speedboat. He modified it to be the right size for a surfboard which ended up being about 4” deep and a foot long and mounted it to the surfboard. The sensation was very different from before, he commented, but eventually it became much easier to ride waves. Tom said it took ten years before other people started to use fins on their surfboards but once they did it became a permanent piece of equipment for anyone interested in the sport.

bennett surfboardsBob Simmons is another important figure in the origin of surfboard fins. He took Tom’s design and further modified it, creating a unique design that increased the effectiveness of the fins. His designed used two fins side by side which gave the rider even more control of the board in the water. This design is the earliest ancestor of modern multi-fin setups. In the 1980s another rider from Australia named Simon Anderson, after seeing another surfboard shaper, Frank Williams experiementing with a stablising centre fin towards the tail of the surfboard to help give more direction to a twin fin, modified the design further and created the most effective fin setup the surfing world has ever experienced. He utilized the twin fin setup and added a third one mounted in the center slightly behind the twin fins. He called it a Thruster, which is still used in modern day surfing! The control offered by the three fin setup was unreal; riders could throw spray and carve up and down the face of the waves like never before.

Modern Day Thruster Thanks To Simon Anderson

Slightly before Anderson came out with his design, the Campbell brothers had come out with their three fin design, but because they were not pro surfers, they didn’t get any recognition for the design. After Anderson became popular, the brothers aimed to design a new and more effective fin system. They eventually produced a five fin system and named it the Bonzer. This included the fin system as well as a concave hull which was a new feature at the time. Modern day thrusters still use this concave hull design.simon anderson thruster

Up until this time, fins had been permanently affixed to the board which gave them incredible strength but made it easy to break and costly to repair, since many boards had the fins coated in fiberglass with the rest of the board. This costly designed was redone by Brian Whitty from Australia and allowed the rider to choose between a three, four, or five fin setup. The fins have tabs on them which allow them to fit securely in the underside of the board and are tightened down with screws tightened via a fin or hex key. This design was revolutionary because it allowed riders to choose their fins and modify placement to accommodate different kinds of riding which previously required a collection of different boards.

Some fins have incredible amounts of technology packed into them despite their small size. Adaptive Dynamic Adapt and Camber fins, or ADAC for short, are variable throughout the wave to accommodate different needs of a surfer. For example, the attack angle will change to allow the surfer more control, or the degree of camber will change to increase or decrease lateral stability. This allows for a unique and reactive surfing experience, something the ancient Polynesians could never have dreamed of.

Modern fins have been made out of newer and higher quality material as well. Old style fins were made out of wood or metal which got fiberglassed into the board. Modern fins use modern technology: fins are made from lightweight fiberglass composite or strong types of plastic. Fiber fins are very performance oriented and can be made with different types of materials such as bamboo, or be reinforced with carbon fiber. They also have special cores designed to decrease weight and increase the flotation of the board. Companies continue to design and test new fins as rider performance continues to increase. There will always be a hunt for the perfect fin that gives the rider a combination of speed and control and thus people will continue to modify and produce new and technologically advanced fin systems.

Surfing And It’s Original Roots

mochica surferIt is not known exactly for how many years riding a wave with a board has been practiced, but it is the case that the Mochica people of Peru were doing it some 2,000 years ago. They used vessels called Caballitos de Tortora for fishing and these are still used by local fishermen today. It is not known whether the Mochica used to surf for sport, but it is thought likely that they did.

However, the Mochica also used a paddle or stick to propel themselves through the water, so this is probably closed to today’s paddle boarding than surfing.

Lieutenant James King

Surfing per se was first described by Lieutenant James King who was made First Lieutenant of the Discovery after the death of Captain James Cook in 1779. Cook had anchored his ships at Kealakekua Bay on the Kona coast of Hawaii and was killed by the Hawaiians while trying to capture the local chief in order to recover a boat which had been stolen.

King wrote two full pages in the ship’s log describing how the Hawaiians rode the waves on wooden planks about the same length and width as themselves, lying on them and guiding them with their arms and hands. Other men would stand upon their planks and ride the surf into the shore, in some cases coming close to some dangerous rocks. At this point the men would dive off the planks and swim under water to avoid the swell.

However, the Hawaiians didn’t regard their he’e nalu, or wave sliding as it translates, as an extreme sport or game. Rather, they embraced it as a part of their culture. The upper classes such as the chief (ali’i) allocated the best beaches for themselves along with the best boards. The commoners were not allowed on these beaches, but they could ingratiate themselves with the upper classes by becoming better surfers.

Surf boards were made from one of three different types of tree. When a tree had been selected, the surfer would dig it up and place fish in the hole to placate the gods. The tree would then be cut and crafted into a surf board by a skilled craftsman who would also stain it. Three main types of board were made: The kiko’o and the alaia were between 12 and 18 feet long, and nine feet long respectively, while the olo was thick in the middle of the board, getting thinner towards the edges. Some olo boards ridden by the ali’i were apparently as long as 24 feet.

Before entering the sea, the Hawaiians prayed to the gods for strength, and if the sea was calm they would call for the priest (kahuna) to pray for surf.

Respect For Surfers

The most skilled surfers were the chief, and other members of the ruling classes who would be treated with respect for their ability to ride the waves and this became known by the Hawaiians as surfing. At the time of Cook’s visit to Hawaii, visitors to Samoa also recorded in writing seeing Samoans riding on boards and single canoes, and stories have been handed down of surfers in Tonga where the then king, Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, was regarded as the best surfer.

However, surfing in Hawaii was at its’ peak at around the time of Cook’s visit. Hawaii and its’ surfing culture began to decline after this, since European contact started to have an effect. Missionaries, pirates, thieves, and general opportunists began to visit Hawaii in ever greater numbers, bringing with them diseases, vices, and different religions, which began to take their toll on the ancient Hawaiian culture.

Men eating alongside women was never permitted in Hawaii, but in 1819 – only 40 years after Cook’s visit – the then chief, Liholiho, sat down with his mother and other “chiefesses” in public and ate a meal. The old rules rapidly began to give way, and suddenly it was permissible for a commoner to surf on the ali’i’s beach without fearing for his life. Within ten years the missionaries had begun to convert the natives to Christianity, taught them to wear clothes, learn to read and write, work harder, and surf less.

Hawaiians In Decline

The Hawaiians themselves were in decline, having succumbed to diseases, alcohol, and other effects of western influence. From a population of somewhere between 400,000 and 800,000 at the time of Cook’s arrival, it had shrunk to just 40,000 in 1895.

In the US, in July of that same year, three young Hawaiian princes who were at boarding school in San Mateo took a summer holiday at Santa Cruz where they went surfing on the San Lorenzo River where it runs into the sea. Twelve years later, Henry Huntington brought George Freeth from Hawaii to California to demonstrate surfing as a publicity stunt for the opening of his railroad.

Surfing In The 20th Century

On the East Coast, surfing was introduced in 1909 on Wrightsville Beach in North Carolina by Burke Haywood Bridgers and a team of surfers. After that time, surfing also began in Florida.

duke kahanamokuIn Australia in 1910, surfer Tommy Walker visited Hawaii, returning to Manly Beach in Sydney with a 10 foot surf board he had bought for two dollars on Waikiki Beach. He soon became an expert and a couple of years later was providing exhibitions. In the summer of 1914/1915 Duke Kahanamoku, a Hawaiian surfer and Olympic sprint champion, gave several exhibitions on Sydney beaches. His board is today on display at the Freshwater Surf Life Saving Club in Sydney, not far from the Brookvale Surfblanks factory where the modern day thruster surfboard fins were first created by Greg Gillespie for Simon Anderson of Energy Surfboards in October of 1980.

Surfboard Fins

Surfboard fins are relatively new addition to the design features of a modern surfboard. Prior to 1935, surfboards were navigated by dragging your toes or heel in the water off the edge of the board in order to do a turn on the wave. In was in 1935 that an American surfer, Tom Blake began to experiment with fin design, by placing a keel from an old speedboat to the bottom of the board. Surfboard fins later were designed to emulate dolphin fins and have evolved to a high degree of similarity to what we find on sea creatures in the oceans today.

During the 20th century the sport developed in three main centres, Hawaii, California, and Australia. In the early 20th century surfing was revived in Hawaii, largely as a result of an attempt to increase tourism, and real estate development.

Surfing increased rapidly throughout the century because of widening public awareness and better design of boards. Author Jack London tried surfing in Hawaii and wrote about it afterwards, and in 1959 a film about the life of surfer Kathy Kohner-Zuckerman, Gidget, was released to international acclaim.

Three years later, the Beach Boys released their first album on the Capitol label, Surfin’ Safari. Professional competitions first started in 1975.

Olympic Sport

Just a few weeks ago, on August 3rd 2016, surfing has now officially become an Olympic Sport, the IOC having voted to add it to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. This will be shortboard only, and take place in the sea, not in a wave pool. Countries from around the world will be represented.

Bernard “Midget” Farrelly Dead At 71

The surfing world is mourning one of its pioneers of the professional side of their sport, Bernard “Midget” Farrelly, who has died at the age of 71 from a long illness due to cancer.

Photo courtesy of

Midget Farrelly was the world’s first crowned World Champion in 1962 at Makaha beach on the island of Oahu, Hawaii USA. This was an unofficial title, as the world championship title was won by Midget on the beach at Manly in Australia, two years later in 1964.

As a pioneer of class, style and finesse, Midget was a forerunner to the professional surfing scene that provides not only a spectacle for millions of people around the world who watch the WSL professional surfing titles both online and on cable, he helped pave the way for surfers to actually make their living by surfing some of the worlds best waves. Places like, Teaupoo in Tahiti, Pipeline in Hawaii, Cloudbreak in Fiji, Snapper Rocks in Queenland, Supertubos in Portugal, Trestles in California and many other locations sprinkled around this surfing world.

Surfers like three times world champion Mick Fanning, owe a lot to the Midget, not only in looks (see photo above) but to the amazing lifestyle afforded by talented surfers such as he is.

I first met Midget in late 1979 where he worked in Brookvale at the Surfblanks factory. I was 18 and fresh out of high school, looking for a job in the surfboard industry. There just happened to be an opening for a junior fin maker, to help keep up with the production for the flourishing surfboard industry. It was in this time that countries like Japan, had discovered the surfing lifestyle and many of the fins and surfboard blank materials were shipped offshore in those days.

I worked with mostly surfers at Surfblanks and would listen to Midget gripe on many occasions about his troubles with Nat Young, a dynamic ground breaking surfer who would come after Midget and steal his thunder. Midget was a very articulate orator and held many an opinion about the surfing industry, board design and his love of all things in the ocean. Not only did he excel at surfing he was very active as a hang glider, kite surfer and stand up paddle surfer.

Our condolences go out to his loved ones and family.