Surfing has come a long way, from the beach boy days in Waikiki to present day, but how did it become so advanced? This sport has grown from a sleepy subculture to a billion dollar industry and it wouldn't have reached this success without proper technology. This technology ranges from boards, fins, and wet suits which have allowed surfers to surf once unsurfable places (think Alaska), as well as perform death defying stunts. This post will discuss the evolution of surf technology, primarily emphasizing the different types of surfboards.
Just a century ago, Surfboards were little more than smooth, finished logs. The first modern surfer was Duke Kahanamoku, known as the father of modern surfing. Besides being a legendary surfer, Mr. Kahanamoku was an Olympic swimmer and he introduced surfing to the mainland US. Mr. Kahanamoku rode redwood surfboards that were 12 ft. long and could weigh up to 100 lbs.
Luckily, early surfers discovered that balsa wood was much lighter than redwood. Therefore, balsa wood boards weighed 30-40 lbs instead of 100 lbs, which allow surfing to progress. With Balsa wood boards, it became easier to maneuver the boards and surfing became less intimidating for weaker athletes. However, balsa wood was still relatively scarce, so many boards were created with a mixture of red wood and balsa. The red wood would cover the balsa wood, making the boards lighter and more durable.
After World War II, traditional longboards began to appear on the scene. During this time, surfers discovered that fiberglass would make even lighter boards that were easier to turn and noseride. Soon after, they began to use fins also known as skegs, attached to the bottom of the board to steer. Fiberglass along with large single fins, finalized the traditional longboard seen in such films like the Endless Summer. The Endless Summer is a pivotal surf movie and made longboard tricks like spinners, cutbacks and hanging 10 mainstream. This film also featured world class surfers, like Miki Dora taking on large waves at Waimea bay along with smooth turns.
The Rise of Shortboarding
The Endless Summer inspired many to pick up surfing, try radical moves and different types of surfboards. This film also motivated thrill seeking surfers to ride shorter boards in order to perform sharper turns. The Endless Summer was filmed in 1966, just before the shortboard revolution, which lasted from 1967-1970, After the revolution, boards only weighed 13 lbs and were roughly 6-7 ft. long, instead of the standard 9-10 ft.
Endless Summer, A true classic!
While shortboards have many advantages, they have disadvantages like slower paddling speed and are easier to lose. Thus, California Pat O'Neill, created a makeshift surf leash consisting of a surgical cord and suction cup. Prior to this, surfers would have to swim to shore to retrieve their lost boards. Also, Pat O'Neill is the son of legendary surf designer Jack O'Neill, who created the O'Neill brand, showing talent runs in the family.
The Shortboarding revolution not only created higher performance boards, but also led to inventions like the surf leash and fin set ups. As mentioned earlier, fins are crucial for turning the board and completing radical tricks. In the early days, many boards were fin less and 1960's longboards only had one large single fin. Single Fin boards are harder to turn, but are easier to noseride. There is a traditionalist longboard subculture that uses classic longboards to pay homage to the 1960's. An example of this is the Joel Tudor Duct Tape Invitational Longboard Contest held annually at the US Open. Competitors use boards that are at least 9 ft. long, weigh 12 lbs, and can't use leashes nor leash plugs.
These classic longboards might be good for traditionalists, but what about those who want more modern boards? Fortunately, twin fins came about in the 1970's. The typical 1970's shortboard was a twin fin, with a small single fin on the left and right side of the board. The lack of a large center fin, allowed surfers to gain more speed, leading to stronger cutbacks and more time in the barrel. The Barrel is the part of the wave that crashes over the surfer, making it seem if the surfer was in a "tube." The tube is another term for Barrel, and twin fins allowed surfers to explore tougher waves like G land. G land, is a long left point break, that breaks in shallow water. This spot is much harder to ride than the soft rollers at Waikiki. Surfing Legend Gerry Lopez along with a few Australian surfers made G-Land famous in 1972 and they wouldn't have been able to do this without improved technology.
Many Fin holes for multiple combinations
Shortboards also evolved to thruster (3 fin) and quad (4 fin) models. These fin set ups allowed surfers to try different types of surfboards and tricks. Some surfboards even have 5 fins, but those are quite rare. Generally, thrusters are easier to turn, while quads are great for gaining speed.
Different Types of Surfboards in the 21st century
The 21st century has given society many different types of surfboards, including big wave boards. A Gun is a special type of surfboard that ranges from 6'6-10 ft in length and are thicker than the average shortboard. The extra length enables the rider to catch larger surf easier and thicker boards have more stability. Even though these guns are wider boards, their noses and tails are thinner which makes it easier to manuever.
Gun Surf boards
While there were big wave riders in the 1960's, modern day technology has made it easier and safer to practice big wave surfing. For example, big wave riders didn't have tow in assistance via jet skis. Some daring surfers have been towed into large waves like Teauphoo. These monster waves are very dangerous, but having jet ski assistance makes it easier to ride them.
Another 21st century that has changed surfboards is the hydrofoil. Hydrofoils make boards rise out of the water, which removes water friction. Without this friction, speed is enhanced and Hydrofoil boards are used in big wave surfing, kite boarding and wake boarding. These hydrofoils consist of a large pole with a wing like structure at the bottom. This wing like structure has a similar design of an airplane wing, which elevates the rider and board out of the water.
Surfing has greatly evolved from a nascent sport practiced by a few Hawaiians on the shores of Waikiki, to modern day surfing. Surfers were confined to a few tricks and spots that were only feasible with the available technology. Luckily, surfboards, fin setups, wet suits and hydrofoils have allowed surfers to push the sport to its limits. We can only imagine the opportunities and different types of surfboards the next century will bring us!
How else has surfing evolved? Please tell us below!