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The Evolution of the Surfboard

In Surfing Theory by Rich BrownLeave a Comment

✏️   Updated on 14th September 2020🕓   13 min read

Intro

Good day my surfing friends. In today’s post we’ll be diving into ‘The Evolution of the Surfboard’ from start to finish. It’s a fascinating story of how surfboards have evolved from the very beginning up until the modern day.

Let’s get started!

 

Who Invented The Surfboard?

So, let’s start the evolution of the surfboard journey with the most logical question – who invented the surfboard?

 

We Don’t Know

In short, we don’t know and will probably never know who created the first surfboard.

The main reason for this is that the answer itself actually predates recorded history. Surfing blossomed in ancient Polynesia over 1000 years before the first outsider sightings of surfing were even recorded. This makes getting the name of the first ‘wave slider’ and or whereabouts of the first surfboard pretty difficult.

Therefore, the best answer is probably a broad one – the first surfboards were crafted by ancient Polynesians as early as the 700’s.

 

But, We Do Know Other Stuff

We can however, give a much more detailed answer when it comes to who helped create the modern day surfboard.

It’s important to point out that the modern day surfboard recipe had many cooks, it wasn’t created by a single person. The evolution of the surfboard, from a plank of wood to what we know and love today also happened over many decades.

The easiest way to journey through it all is in chronological order – from the very beginning to now.

 

The Solid Surfboard (700-1900’s)

So, we know that the original surfboard originated from the ancient Polynesian islands. During this time there was only three accepted ways of making a surfboard. With no surfboard innovations during this period, a huge 700-1900’s chunk of our evolution of the surfboard timeline passed.

But, as we’re talking about these ancient Polynesian surfboards – let’s take a quick look…

 

Ancient Polynesian Surfboards

There were three key shapes of surfboard crafted by the ancient Polynesians.

  1. The Alaia made from Koa wood (Acacia Koa)
  2. The Kiko’o also made from Koa wood (Acacia Koa)
  3. The more distinctive Olo exclusively made for royalty from Wiliwili (Erythrina Sandwicensis)
    the-evolution-of-the-surfboard-duke

    Duke Kahanamoku with an Olo

Now, these ancient surfboards had none of the elements we’re used to today – the only similarity was that they could float. This meant that the ‘wave sliders’ who rode them were incredibly skilful. They were able to surf aggressive tropical breaks with nothing but their skill and a massive plank of wood, crazy.

These three ancient surfboard shapes remained unchanged for over 1000 years making them our first stop on the evolution of the surfboard journey.

 

The Hollow Surfboard (1920/1930’s)

So, what was the first change made to these ancient Polynesian surfboards?

 

Tom Blakes’ Cigar Board

During surfings rebirth in the early 1900’s, a young man called Tom Blake set out to improve the original surfboard design. The ancient surfboards weighed anywhere between 35kg/77lbs and 91kg/200lbs and Blake knew this was an issue he could fix.

His first attempt resulted in drilling hundreds of holes into a traditional 15ft Olo. This was then encased in veneer to keep it buoyant. The new design was somewhat successful. The reduction in weight meant it was able to create more speed across the water. A triumph for Blake and a big moment for the evolution of the surfboard.

Because of the surfboards looks however, it was jokingly named the ‘Cigar Board’ by the local Hawaiians. But, Tom Blake was not done yet…

 

The Worlds First Hollow Surfboard

With the success of the ‘Cigar Board’, Blake continued on his quest for surfboard weight reduction and his next design was a game changer.

Instead of starting with a solid surfboard and hollowing it out, Blake decided to build a hollow board. He utilised a ‘Skin and Frame’ technique used to construct aircraft wings and soon had his next big success. The new design was much lighter at 18-30kgs (depending on length) and much more buoyant.

the-evolution-of-the-surfboard-tom-blakes-hollow-board

Tom Blakes’ hollow board

This was the world’s first hollow surfboard.

Patented in 1931 it didn’t take long to take over the surfing market in the 1930’s. Blake continued to experiment and his most significant contribution to the evolution of the surfboard is yet to come.

 

The Introduction of Balsa Wood (1932)

With lighter surfboards outperforming weightier traditional surfboards, surfers began to experiment with different types of wood.

 

South American Import

In the early 1930’s, surfers started combining the traditional woods Redwood and Wiliwili with Balsa.

Balsa was a newly available, more buoyant wood being imported from South America. The new designs had the traditional hard wood along the edges (rails) combined with a new, more buoyant balsa core.

the-evolution-of-the-surfboard-balsa-surfboards

Range of balsa surfboards

A completed surfboard weighed in at a reasonable 20kg/45lbs and the design quickly became very popular.

However, there was a problem with Balsa – its availability. Because it was being imported it was very hard to get large quantities of it. This also made it very expensive. This was one of the reasons it was combined with the traditional hard woods to make a surfboard.

Despite these availability issues this combination became the standard surfboard template until the 1950’s, but more on that later.

 

The Hot Curl Board (1934)

Up until this point in the evolution of the surfboard, the shape had remained fairly simple. The surfboards were flat with a rounded nose at the top and a fairly square’ish looking tail at the bottom.

So, when did the shape of the surfboard start to change?

 

Straight from Honolulu

This is where the ‘Hot Curl’ board makes its appearance in the evolution of the surfboard timeline.

Designed by Honolulu surfer John Kelly in 1934, the ‘Hot Curl’ board was different to any other surfboard shaped before it. Like all surfboards at this time it was finless, but the ‘Hot Curl’ had an underside similar to that of a small boat.

the-evolution-of-the-surfboard-hot-curl

The hot curl board

The new shape came as a result of a frustrating day surfing where Kelly felt like he had no traction to turn on steep faces. Instead his traditional board would slide out from underneath him. That afternoon he took an axe to his board, slimmed the rails down and creating a subtle V shape on the underside.

The new shape gave the traction needed to ride within the curl of the wave, hence the name ‘Hot Curl’.

Unfortunately, the ‘Hot Curl’ never took off as Hawaii was still a very remote island at this point. With no mass market to target, the innovation was unknown to the rest of the world.

 

The Single Fin (1935)

Abandoned Boat Keel

Bringing things back to Tom Blake and his most significant contribution to the evolution of the surfboard – the single fin.

Now, this first surfboard fin was nothing like the ones we use today. In fact, Blakes’ first ever single fin came from the keel of an abandoned boat in Hawaii. This ‘fin’ measured 16 inches in length and was modified to fit his surfboard.

the-evolution-of-the-surfboard-first-single-fin

Tom Blakes’ single fin (1935)

The fin allowed Blake to ride at a tighter angle across the waves face. It also gave him better control of the direction he wanted his surfboard to go. The comments after his first wave say it all…“Never before had I experienced such control and stability”.

 

10 Year Market Penetration

As successful as Blakes’ single fin was during that first outing, it took over ten years for it to become a surfing norm. It was initially criticised for being too dangerous as it increased the chance of injury.

Blakes single fin was eventually improved by a man named George Greenough in the 1960’s. Greenough creating narrower, more flexible single fins modelled on the fins of the blue tuna.

Whether Blake knew it or not, his single fin contribution changed the evolution of the surfboard forever. Tom Blake is now considered one of the most important figures in surfing history today and it’s easy to see why.

 

Twin Fins and Simmons Spoon (1946 & 1949)

The Father of the Modern Surfboard

Now, we move onto another huge figure in the evolution of the surfboard, Bob Simmons.

Born in Pasadena, California – Simmons worked at the California Institute of Technology as a mathematician for Douglas Aircraft. He is often hailed ‘The Father of the Modern Surfboard’ and was effectively the bridge between the old surfboards and the new.

 

Simmons Impact

Throughout the 1940’s, Simmons used his extensive knowledge of hydrodynamics to create radical new surfboard shapes.

The first of which was his famous twin fin setup that was pioneered in 1946. This new design gave surfboards a new level of stability and speed along the face of a wave, but Bob didn’t stop there…

the-evolution-of-the-surfboard-first-twin-fin

Bob Simmons twin fin

After experimenting with fiberglass and Styrofoam to make ‘Sandwich Boards’ in 1949, Simmons developed his famous 10ft ‘Spoon’ balsa board. This board featured thin rails, a glassed wooden fin and the worlds first rocker (the gentle curve achieved on modern surfboards).

Simmons’ contributions to the evolution of the surfboard and surfing technology in general were groundbreaking. This period in surfing history is actually known as the ‘Simmons Era’ further cementing his title as ‘The Father of the Modern Surfboard’.

 

The Great Plastics Race (1950’s)

The Malibu Surfboard

By this point, balsa wood surfboards had reached their absolute peak in terms of surfboard design and performance. The legendary Malibu longboard was at the pinnacle of this success having been shaped by previous Simmons disciples; Joe Quigg and Matt Kivlin.

However, balsa wood supplies were dwindling and shapers were forced to experiment with new materials.

 

Polyurethane Blanks Takeover

This is where surfboard production changed forever – the introduction of polyurethane blanks.

With polyurethane replacing balsa, surfboards went from weighing 15kg/30lbs to just 5kg/10lbs. They were much lighter, much cheaper to produce and much easier to shape. This reduction in production costs made surfing cheaper and therefore more accessible to a growing population of surfers.

the-evolution-of-the-surfboard-polyurethane-blanks

Hobie Alter

The days of shaping a single piece of wood and combining it with hard wood rails were gone. The new process involved gluing two halves of polyurethane together lengthways with a wooden stringer in between. The stringer gave the blank its rigidity and the polyurethane gave the blank its buoyancy. The shapers would then shape the surfboard and apply a fiberglass finish to waterproof it.

This process is still used to create 99% of the surfboards today. It’s fair to say that polyurethane blanks have certainly left their mark in the evolution of the surfboard.

With surfboard technology starting a new beginning it was now time for surfboard accessories to take centre stage…

 

The Leash (1971)

The Start of Surfing Accessories

Now, believe it or not – all the way up until this point surfboards were not attached in anyway to a surfer. If you wiped out you had to quickly grab it or swim all the way back to shore to get it. Old school surfers had the mentality that swimming back to shore to get your surfboard was reasonable punishment for falling off your board.

However, this attitude was challenged by none other than the son of O’Neill wetsuits himself…

 

Early Leash Designs

The world’s first surfboard leash was designed in 1971 by Pat O’Neill. It was given its initial outing at the 1971 Malibu International surfing competition. Unfortunately, the leash actually got him disqualified from the competition as it was not allowed. But, it was a big deal.

The early design was nothing like the surfboard leashes we have today. It was attached to the wrist and was made with a surgical cord and suction cup.

the-evolution-of-the-surfboard-first-leash

Early leash prototype

As you can imagine there were some teething problems in the beginning. The main issue was that the surfboard would fly back towards the surfer after a wipeout because the leash was too short and had too much recoil.

In fact, an early edition of Pat’s leash actually took out his dad’s eye – Jack O’Neill, father of the O’Neill wetsuit brand. “Sorry, Dad” probs didn’t cut it.

 

Patent Accepted

Despite these problems for the surfboard leash in the beginning, David Hattrick patented the urethane leash design in 1972.

Over the years the leash has evolved to include velcro, key-pockets, rail-savers, single-swivel and double-swivel attachments to name a few. The surfboard leash come from humble beginners but has certainly left its mark on the evolution of the surfboard journey.

 

The Traction Pad (1976)

The next accessory that made its way onto the surfing market was the traction pad, also known as the tail pad or grip pad.

Pro Surfer Endorsement

Designed by Herbie Fletcher in 1976, the traction pad added a new accessory to every surfers quiver.

Fletcher bought out Astrodeck a year earlier and decided to distribute it to every top surfer in the 1970’s and 80’s. With this level of exposure, Astrodeck grew in popularity within the surfing community and Fletcher was soon distributing worldwide.

Astrodeck traction pad

 

Difficult Beginnings

However, it was not all fun and games in the early days of Astrodeck.

The first traction pad design actually covered the entire surfboard, not just the back foot area. Although it offered great grip all the way up the board, it was incredibly uncomfortable whilst paddling due to all the excess friction. The pad was then shortened to just the back foot area and given a new ‘punk like’ design and its popularity blew up.

These days weekend surfers mix it up between wax and traction pads. However in the professional surfing world, the traction pad is a common accessory. This is because it’s able to provide that extra grip needed for insane aerials and aggressive turns.

The traction pad certainly deserves its place in the evolution of the surfboard.

 

3-Fin Thruster (1980)

Now we move into the 1980’s. A period where surfboards were getting shorter and lighter whilst rendering traditional fin setups ineffective. This is where the ‘3-fin thruster’ marks its point in the evolution of the surfboard timeline.

 

Simon Andersons’ Contribution

Developed by Simon Anderson in 1980, the ‘3-fin thruster’ came about after a frustrating session for Anderson in powerful surf. Anderson realised neither his single fin nor twin fin setups performed well in big swells.

Andersons’ thruster setup

After noticing his friend Frank Williams using a trailing centre fin alongside his twin fin setup, Anderson had an idea. He decided to create a three-finned board using three full-sized fins. From that moment the ‘3-fin Thruster’ was born. It proved to be an instant success and Anderson won his first three competitions using the design in 1981; Bell’s Beach Classic, Coke Surfabout and Pipeline Masters.

Andersons’ ‘3-fin Thruster’ took over the surfboard market and is still the most popular fin setup used today, 40 years on.

 

Quad Setup (1980’s)

Obviously, the next logical step from Andersons’ popular ‘3-fin Thruster’ was to progress to a stable four fin setup – so did it happen?

 

Orphaned Setup

Created at a similar time but overshadowed by Andersons’ ‘3-fin Thruster’ the quad setup stayed out of the limelight for most of its early years. It’s also disputed as to who actually pioneered the first quad setup. Some attribute its creation to Glenn ‘Mr X’ Winton whilst others hand it to kneeboarding legend Pete ‘The Friar’ Ware.

Quad setup

This makes it hard to pinpoint the actual date the quad setup was created but its sometime in the early 1980’s. Early advocates of the setup included Rusty Preisendorfer and Bruce Mckee, both master shapers in their own rights.

 

Bonzer 5 Fin (1983)

The final fin setup in the evolution of the surfboard journey is the ‘Bonzer 5’.

 

The Original 2+1 Setup

Developed by the Campbell brothers in 1983, the ‘Bonzer 5’ actually started off as a 2+1 fin design in the early 1970’s.

According to the brothers their version of the 2+1 setup never got the publicity it needed to take off. Their variation of the thruster used rail fins rather than full sized fins, but they never really got the recognition they deserved for their involvement.

 

New ‘Bonzer 5’ Fin Strategy

With their first fin setup failure still fresh, the Campbell brothers decided to develop their ‘Bonzer 5’ fin in secret until the time was right. They began drip feeding the ‘Bonzer 5’ to a handful of pro surfers in the 1990’s and slowly it began to grow in popularity.

Over-time high profile surfers such as Mitch Thorsen and Davey Miller used the ‘Bonzer 5’ during competitions and it featured in surfing films including Sprout (2005), Shelter (2007) and Thread (2007).

Bonzer 5 fin setup

The ‘Bonzer 5’ has certainly made an impact, the majority of new surfboards now come with five fin boxes allowing for the ‘Bonzer 5’ setup.

 

Removable Fin Systems (1995)

The final point to discuss in the evolution of the surfboard journey is the inclusion of removable fin systems.

 

Early attempts

Now, before 1995 there were a handful of predecessors that deserve a mention.

George Downing was the first person to have been recorded experimenting with fin boxes in 1951. Unfortunately, his system was only installed on a handful of surfboards for personal use so it never took off.

A man called Tom Morey then developed his ‘TRAF System’ in the 1960’s. This was then improved by his own ‘Wonder Bolt’ system in 1966, but again never took off.

Finally, Bill Bahne started ‘Fins Unlimited’ in 1964. This system used a fin box that could accept any fiberglass fin design. This feature made it far superior to competitors making it the market leader in the 70’s and 80’s.

Bill Bahne, Fins Unlimited

From the 70’s and 80’s onwards however, surfboards were becoming much thinner and fin boxes were becoming more and more outdated.

 

The Birth of FCS

It was during this time in 1995 that Brian Whitty developed his breakthrough fin removal system – ‘FCS’ (Fin Control System). This new system used plugs and screws to help secure and remove the fins from the surfboards.

The ‘FCS’ gave surfers maximum flexibility allowing them to setup their fins the way they wanted. The brand took off and has since been endorsed by a long list of high profile surfers.

Kelly Slater FCS ad

 

The FCS II

Almost 20 years after the first ‘FCS’ was introduced, ‘FCS II’ was brought onto market in late 2013.

The new designed boasted a game changing feature – tools and screws were no longer needed to secure the fins. As well as this, the old ‘FCS’ fins remained compatible with new ‘FCS II’ fin boxes. With the majority of shorter boards now coming with five fin boxes, surfers can switch from a twin setup to a thruster setup in a single session.

Removable fin systems have been adopted by the vast majority of surfers today and so certainly deserve a mention in the evolution of the surfboard.

 

Summary

So, that my friends is that.

Well done on reaching the end of the post, I hope you enjoyed it and maybe even learnt a few things. I certainly have a new found respect and understanding of my own surfboard and maybe you will too.

Feel free to leave a comment below to let me know what you think!

 

Next read: ‘The Wetsuit Story’

 

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