Unsung Essentials
The Needle Nose

If you are like most surfers, you look at your state-of-the-art tri-fin surfboard and assume that the story of one of surfing’s greatest design innovations, Simon Anderson’s Thruster, is told solely in those three fins studding the tail. Well, isn’t it? Not exactly. There is hidden in each modern tri-fin, another design revolution, that few surfers are aware of: the Needle Nose.

 

Back in the late 1970s and up to the inception of the Thruster in 1981, most pro surfers were desperately seeking a board design to match Mark Richards and his unbeatable twin-fins. At roughly the same time Anderson was experimenting with making twin-fins (which he hated) feel more like his single-fins, fellow pro Cheyne Horan and his shaper/designer Geoff McCoy were working on “the Needle Nose” (sometimes called the “No-Nose”), a modern version of the old Velzy “Pig” board. This radically tail-centered planshape had a drastically pulled-in (for the time) nose, width and hips stuffed way in the back, and a wider tail that bestowed greater speed for Horan’s single-fins in smaller, slower surf and allowed the tight and snappy turns that were all-important to match MR’s twin-fin performance.

 

The timing was perfect for a surfboard-design quantum leap. Anderson adopted the new Needle Nose planshapes on some of his early Thrusters and found them to be a perfect match for the new tail-centric form of surfing. Although the triangular turning axis and torque of Anderson’s three fins are key to his design’s incredible success and staying power, it was that three-fin array’s marriage to the planshape of the Needle Nose that paved the way for the shortboards we know today.

The Down Rail

The single most important mutation in surfboard evolution was when they were turned upside down. Once, surfboards were round on the bottom (displacement hulls) and flat on the deck. The down-rail revolution flipped them over, producing flat bottoms (planing hulls) and round decks. With the new low, hard-edged rails and flat bottoms, both speed and control immediately transformed the nascent shortboard designs of the late 1960s from unwieldy slugs into crisp-handling javelins.

 

The down rail, and its late 1970s refinement, the tucked-under edge, was the true driver of the Shortboard Revolution. Without the down rail, and Dick Brewer’s application of them on his “pocket rockets” and “mini guns,” the shortboard would never have been anything but a truncated 1960s log. Contemporary surfboards have strayed somewhat from the classic 70/30 down rail to 50/50 broom-handle rails, but nevertheless, hidden in plain sight within every modern surfboard, the down rail was the vital lever that freed us to climb up the face of a wave.

Close-Tolerance Blanks

In the early 1990s something astonishing happened to surfboards—and I’m not referring to Slatermania and the nitro-burning, elf-shoe Al Merrick tri-fins that Slater employed to recast high-performance surfing. This breakthrough was centered in surfboard construction: an innovation that allowed surfboards to use lighter blanks and less fiberglass, yet still be lighter and stronger than previous constructions. Polystyrene foams and epoxy resins, you say? Ha! No, this largely unheralded breakthrough was the close-tolerance blank, pioneered by Clark Foam and master shaper Pat Rawson.

 

Taking advantage of Gordon “Grubby” Clark’s new mold-release system that produced smoother deck foam, Rawson designed a series of close-to-shape blanks that allowed the clever shaper to use lighter foam densities and glass schedules and dramatically reduced shape time, material wastage, and (drumroll!) cost. Now, because polyurethane blanks are strongest near the outer crust and over-shaping was eliminated, the judicious choice of the correct blank made for stronger and lighter surfboards, virtually eliminated the severe deck delaminations of the era, and forced shapers to order custom rockers; having bottom rockers glued in at the factory was much more accurate than shaping it in from board to board.

Rocker

Wave faces are curved; therefore, surfboards must be as well. From the instant they took to angling across breaking waves instead of sliding straight off in the soup, surfers relentlessly pushed to ride deeper in the wave, striving for what was once called “close involvement with the curl.” Planshapes and other rudimentary determinants of performance and control could go only so far. By the mid-1970s, it was apparent that a surfboard’s rocker was the key to successful design—but also the most mysterious.

 

One of the few undisputed axioms of surfboard design is that things that make them fast make them stiff; things that make them loose make them slow. In this dilemma, rocker lords over all the factors that shapers must balance to achieve a surfboard that successfully tiptoes over that razor’s edge of compromise. This is where surfboard designers ascend from mere craftsmen to Merlin-like wizards; the combinations of bottom curves are myriad and must be perfectly melded with planshape, foil, and volume.

 

Thousands of configurations are possible between even the narrowest tolerances—for example, between 4.5 to 5.5 inches of nose rocker. No two shapers can even agree on how or where to measure it. Rocker is the least understood but most critical aspect of surfboard design. It’s also the most likely element to bestow magic upon foam and fiberglass.

Dick Brewer

When quizzed about the origin of their modern surfboards, many surfers have a vague notion that Bob McTavish and the Australians were the midwives to the shortboard in the latter half of the 1960s. And while the genius and energy of McTavish and Nat Young and their visionary guru George Greenough loomed large in the Shortboard Revolution, if one closely examines the design features that make up the modern surfboard—the flat bottoms and streamlined, pulled-in planshapes; the breakaway edges and low, hard rails and subtle panel vees around the fin—well, that’s all Dick Brewer.

 

The only surfing design components remaining from the Shortboard Revolution—everything that makes the modern surfboard what it is today—stem from Dick Brewer’s “mini guns” and “pocket rockets,” which built on Brewer’s earlier (circa 1966) groundbreaking “Pipeliner” models, the granddaddy of all modern big-wave guns. Down rails, hard edges, and flat bottoms with light panel vee around the fin created what Brewer called a “clean exhaust.” The water flow, he reasoned, had to exit the bottom as fast as it entered if big-wave performance was to be advanced. None of these features were on the original McTavish vee bottoms. The Brewer mini gun, as Gerry Lopez stated in a 1972 SURFER design rap with Jeff Hakman scarcely five years after the Shortboard Revolution, “was the major breakthrough. As soon as they came out with that [the mini gun], surfing took on a new outlook. The emphasis was on maneuverability and speed.” Hakman concurred: “On all the older boards there was a constant speed maintained, whereas with the pintail that Brewer and [Gary] Chapman came out with you could get the ‘squirting’ effect—spurts of acceleration rather than water dragging around round rails all the time…you load up the flat bottoms and really squirt.”