The History Of Surfboard Fins

While there have been improvements in surfboard design ever since the Hawaiians first began riding waves on their flat wooden boards hundreds of years ago, it’s the size, shape, and surfboard fin placement that ushered in an era of super control and maneuverability.

From a single narrow surf fin to the tri-fin “thruster” to the 5-fin “Bonzer,” the history of surfboard fins is the story of a place where personal passion for the sport of surfing meets innovative technology and entrepreneurial spirit.

Before surfboard fins, surfers had little ability to steer the direction of their surfboard besides hanging their toes over the back of the board.

It wasn’t until the early 1930s that, the American surfer Tom Blake, who had already made several contributions to the sport, realized that adding a fin to the bottom of the surfboard would allow the surfer to control the board’s movement much better, just like a submerged keel or skeg helps to stabilize a boat.

His early surfboard fin design was a short shallow surf fin, about 4 inches wide and a foot long, that revolutionized the sport by making surfboards easier to steer. As the design of surfboards improved, getting lighter and smaller, the surfboard fin became even more effective.

Then, in the 1940s, the American surfing pioneer Bob Simmons introduced the first multiple fin style when he devised the twin-fin design. Around the same time, George Greenough altered the shape of the fin from its more bulky profile to the now familiar “fishtail” or dolphin-fin design, first used with kneeboards but later used on longboards as well.

Single fins continued to be common until competitive surfer Australian Mark Richards rode twin-fins to the top of the sport in the late 1970s and early 1980s, popularizing the twin-fin system.

In the history of surfboard fins, which surfboard fin to use was based on a surfer’s very personal preferences and a feel for the waves. In general, as surfboards became shorter, surfers often gave up some of the elegance and beauty of the “glide” of the longboard for the greater control that a shortboard gave them.

Then, in the 1970s, The Campbell brothers of Oxnard, California, came up with the first “tri-fin” design, which they called the Bonzer, that allowed a surfer to maintain greater control while riding bigger waves in powerful surf, by adding a third shorter fin between the standard two fins.

But it wasn’t until the late 1970’s that competitive surfer Australian Simon Anderson modified the two-fin concept by creating a design for three equal size surf fins, called the “thruster.” The thruster’s ability to allow the surfer greater control while executing powerful surfing maneuvers has led to its continuing popularity to this day.

In the early 1980s, the Campbell brothers created a new 5-fin Bonzer design, which eventually became popular with some professionals surfers.

Until recently, surfboard fins were permanently attached, or "glassed on" to the surface of the surfboard. Then, in the early 1990s, with the introduction of removable fins like the FCS surfboard fins (Fin Control System), surfers were able to adjust their surfboard fin setups more closely to the condition of the waves.

This has lead to such high-tech adaptations such as bullet fins, tunnel fins, and camber fins meant to decrease drag.

Throughout the history of surfboard fins, surf pros and amateur surfers, technical designers and shapers have adapted these basic fin styles in many ways that take into account the surfer’s weight, ease of control, and the ability to make longer, more powerful maneuvers.

New technologies and ever adventurous surfers in search of the perfect wave will no doubt continue to influence the shape of the surfboard fin in the years to come.

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