In the beginning, surfing was pretty straightforward. Accounts of exactly who was onto it first vary, but the generic image most people have is of a big guy wearing nothing but boardshorts slicing through the water on some sort of sculpted log. Over time, of course, that developed, and now it’s all a little more complicated. There’s all manner of new materials and knowledge being applied to surfing equipment, be that the boards themselves, the fins or the wetsuits, so let’s check out how these areas have evolved over time.
Surfboards have been becoming increasingly sophisticated for centuries, but in recent years that sophistication has begun to develop at an exponential rate. A conversation which once centred around what kind of wood to use has progressed to include some slightly more complex materials, while our understanding of how subtle variations in shape impact the way a board moves through the water has had a major effect on design.
Individuals looking for a new board nowadays are faced with a choice between three general types of boards – soft, epoxy and fibreglass – but the reality is more complicated still. There are all sorts of different combination materials which are used to form the various layers of a board, many of which would have been beyond the realms of comprehension just a few decades ago, and the shaping industry isn’t exactly resting on its laurels.
Innovative new potential designs pop up constantly. Firewire is one high-profile brand that have been pioneering new ways to manufacture boards, but there are plenty of others out there. A former rocket engineer who previously worked with Elon Musk for a company whose ultimate objective is to colonise Mars was one of the brains behind Varial Surfboards, who have used a foam derived from aluminium honeycomb to make boards simultaneously both more lightweight and more sturdy. Another group, Trinity Board Sport, transitioned a few years ago from designing wind turbine blades to designing surfboards, with their modus operandi to push more volume towards the nose of a board to increase functionality.
Unsurprisingly given the quality of some of the minds working on these things, surfboard design has become pretty complicated. It’s a far cry from the wooden logs of a bygone era, but the development of innovative new ways to design surfboards will only speed up in the years to come.
In the early days of surfing, fins weren’t even a consideration. It wasn’t until 1935 that Tom Blake attached the keel of an old speed boat to his board in Waikiki, and thus the concept of a fin was born. In the 1940s this progressed to two fins, and it wasn’t until the 1980s that Australian shaper Simon Anderson popularised the three-fin thruster model that we’re so familiar with today.
But it’s not just where the fins go that has changed. Tom Blake would be incredulous if he could see how much detail goes into the development of fins in the modern day – it’s a long way from sticking an old keel on the bottom of your board.
Our understanding of how fins impact performance has led to an array of new terminology like rake, cant, splay and flex, to name just a few. These words would mean nothing in relation to a fin to the layperson, but each of them has a pivotal role to play in creating a fin.
Rake refers to how far a fin curves relative to its base, cant is the angle of the fin in relation to the board, splay is the angle of the outer fins relative to the middle one in a thruster set up, while flex is how flexible the fin is (which can vary across different sections of the same fin). This is some pretty in-detail stuff for a little old fin, and when you add in the standard features like the length of the base and the height of the fin and suddenly something which once seemed pretty simple is extremely complicated.
The wetsuit might not impact surfing performance quite as much as fins and your board, but it certainly has a massive effect on comfort, and technology has a huge part to play in just how much. Of course, in the early days of surfing you couldn’t exactly go down to the local store for a Rip Curl Flashbomb, but that’s probably why most early adopters of surfing lived reasonably close to the equator where the water is warm – it’s hard to imagine anyone in Scandinavia thinking it would be a good idea to head out into the ocean and try to glide around on the waves without a wetsuit.
First conceived in the 1950s by a physicist from California named Hugh Bradner, the wetsuit has come a long way over the past few decades. The early incarnations of the suit were made from neoprene, a synthetic rubber which most still use today. But while neoprene is great at keeping you warm, it lacks flexibility, making it sub-optimal for surfing – at least on its own.
Fortunately we have some very clever people on the job, putting together composites of neoprene and other materials to create wetsuits which still maintain their ability to keep you warm, but don’t restrict your movement too much. These materials are constantly evolving, and wetsuit manufacturers have also learnt how to distribute them to ensure that the parts of your body which need to be kept warm are kept warm, and the parts which need to move can move.
Today, the result of these advancements is that there are wetsuits of all shapes and sizes which ensure surfers can enjoy the ocean all year round. Combine that with the developments we’ve seen in relation to boards themselves, and the evolution of surfing equipment is plain to see. Where it will be in ten years is anybody’s guess.