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Origins of a Few of Surfing’s Most Important Boards

By Jake Howard

This week, the Rip Curl-sponsored WSL Finals are coming to Lower Trestles, and with a very promising swell forecast, we’re going to see the men’s and women’s world champions crowned right here in our own backyard.

Local shapers Matt Biolos and Timmy Patterson have been hard at work dialing in the equipment for a handful of the surfers, including Carissa Moore, who will be on Biolos-shaped boards, and Italo Ferreira, who will be on Patterson’s creations.

Of course, it’s taken the better part of a century of refinement and evolution for surfboards to get to the point they’re at today. So, before the show gets underway, here’s a quick rundown of five surfboards that absolutely changed the game and shaped the present:

John Kelly’s Hot Curl

In 1937, pioneer John Kelly was attempting to ride a large swell on the south shore of Oahu. The boards of the time didn’t have much rocker in them and lacked fins. After being pounded all morning courtesy of rudimentary equipment, a bedraggled Kelly, along with friend Fran Heath, went home determined to do something about it.

“I took this ax and set the board up on two sawhorses, and I said, ‘Hey! I’m goin’ to whack this board and however deep this ax goes, I’m going to cut that much off the side,’ ” Kelly noted in a 1989 interview.

Kelly, who died in 2007, added: “I took my drawknife and recontoured the board to the point where the ax had gone in.”

The “vee” shape that Kelly created allowed the board to hold an edge in the face of the wave and gave the surfer the control to make the drop.

Nat Young at the 1966 World Surfing Championships in San Diego, riding his famous Magic Sam model. Photo: Courtesy of Ron Stoner/SHACC

Nat Young’s Magic Sam

In 1966, Australian Nat Young showed up for the World Championships in San Diego with a secret weapon.

Armed with a 9-foot, 4-inch self-shaped board featuring a fin engineered by George Greenough, the board featured a narrower nose and wide point lower passed the center of the board. It also featured a rolled bottom and narrow, flat nose.

“It was incredibly thin and just sunk underneath you,” Young recalled in a Surfer magazine article. “They’re not great noseriders unless you’re real tight in the pocket.”

Mike Hynson’s Down-Rail

One of the effects of the Shortboard Revolution of the late ’60s and early ’70s—besides the obvious decline in the length of surfboards—was that surfers were better able to flirt with the barrel.

The Endless Summer star-turned-shaper Mike Hynson developed the down-rail design.

“I remember Herbie (Fletcher) was around, and someone else, too, and I gave it to them to take it out and their jaws dropped. It was that much of a change,” Hynson recalled in a Surfer magazine interview.

The design allowed the shortened, tucked-under rail to release more, providing the board with more maneuverability in critical sections of the wave.

Mark Richards’ Twin Fin

In 1976, Mark Richards was surfing in the Coke Surfabout at Narrabeen near Sydney.

Hawaii’s Reno Abellira was also surfing in the contest and had come equipped with a short, stub-nosed fish shape.

The board featured a twin-fin setup, and Richards seized on the potential.

Single-fins were still the dominant design of the era, but they had their limitations. The “Wounded Gull,” as Richards was known, wanted to fly.

“It was free and loose and easy to ride in small waves,” Richards recalls.

Simon Anderson’s Thruster

It’s kind of crazy to think that since Simon Anderson demonstrated to the world what a surfboard with three fins is capable of in 1981, the design has changed relatively little.

Anderson rode the board in the ’81 Bells Beach Classic and won it. He rode a similar design later in the year at Pipeline Master and won that contest, as well. The Thruster had arrived.

The board allowed for a tighter-turning radius, more maneuverability, more drive and more speed control. Nearly 40 years since Anderson debuted the Thruster, the three-fin setup is still the de facto fin configuration on surfboards around the world.

Jake Howard is local surfer and freelance writer who lives in San Clemente. A former editor at Surfer Magazine, The Surfer’s Journal and ESPN, today he writes for a number of publications, including Picket Fence Media, Surfline and the World Surf League. He also works with philanthropic organizations such as the Surfing Heritage and Culture Center and the Positive Vibe Warriors Foundation.

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