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Whither The Thruster?

When alternative shapes become the norm

I recently sold the very last "regular shortboard" in my garage. I parted with the beautiful custom-made 6’3″ squashtail for a song, glad to trade it for the increased storage space. Hadn't picked up the board for over a year anyway. I've still got a roundpin step-up in the mix in order to kid myself that I'm charging far harder than I actually am, but my quiver transformation is now basically complete. It's morphed from 90 percent thrusters with a fish and a longboard for the down days to nothing but fish, mid-lengths, a log, a handplane, a couple soft-tops, and a gun. It was a strange feeling after I handed the board over, waved
goodbye to its new owner, then turned to face my surfboard collection, defanged to its least hi-fi level since I first started surfing some 20 years ago. It was like I'd time traveled, striking the entire thruster revolution from my garage's surfboard timeline save for a few bottom contours and rail designs that had survived the trip from the three-finned world.

After my Great Thruster Purging, two questions immediately leapt to mind. First, why the hell hadn't I done that sooner? And second, what if the thruster had never been, um, thrust upon us at all? At your average surf spot, maybe 20 percent of surfers (and
that's being very generous) riding thrusters are doing so with anything even approaching dignity. What if you could remove the frustration that comes from poor surfing on ill-suited equipment from our lineups? What if we could pry off the enormous weight that's pressed surfing into a mold of one particular kind of high-performance conformity for almost four decades?

As the thruster came to dominate surfing, laughter kind of left the equation. We all accepted that wave riding was serious business, requiring an equally serious tool with three fins and a pointy nose, and riding anything else was an inferior pursuit.

A world without the thruster isn't so far-fetched. Before Simon Anderson torched the field at the big Bells event in '81 on a thruster, and shapers started tripping over their planers trying to replicate that shape's balls-out speed and vertical drive, the thruster had drawn mostly snickers and jeers when Anderson showed the thing off. A third fin was just one novelty in a sea of far stranger ideas floating around in early '80s surfboard design. I mean, you've seen the insane things Cheyne Horan was riding, right?

The thruster brought much of that experimentation to a halt. Within five years of Anderson's Bells win, the thruster was considered the only legitimate choice not only for pros, but for all hardcore surfers. For the next few decades, new design ideas were limited mainly to a thruster's length, width, and thickness, and arcane things like bottom contour and rail shape. But damn if the thruster didn't do its best to sap the easy fun out of surfing. Unless you were skilled enough to properly use the thing, the thruster wasn't helping your surf experience any. Glide and trim took a backseat to puffing out your cheeks and trying to murder the lip. Thumb through a big stack of surf mags from the '70s, '80s, '90s, and '00s and as you move chronologically through the decades, the
performance level in the photos goes from "I could do that" to "I might be able to do that" to "I've seen people do that" to "Holy shit, people can do that?"

But we're finally, mercifully starting to evolve past the limitations of the thruster. And I don't mean the performance limitations; I mean the way we've limited our view of what constitutes good surfing, and what the whole point of surfing is. Dane Reynolds popularized the thick, squatty Dumpster Diver a few years back and it was like a revelation: a shortboard that's easier to ride? Sign us up. Suddenly the phrase "foam is your friend" was all the rage, but we never should have forgotten that, and it's strange that one of the world's best surfers was the one who reminded us. We're now told to order pretty much every new board model "a few inches shorter than our standard shortboard"—as if there's any such thing as a standard shortboard anymore—because just about every new shape is thicker, wider, and flatter than it would have been 10 years ago, all in the name of easing the surf
experience.

You know what else makes surfing easier? Fish. Mid-lengths. Longboards. We all knew this, but for whatever reason—peer pressure, conformism, who knows—it's like we traded in our perfectly good Corvettes for Formula One cars that we had no idea how to drive. Thank God it's no longer weird to show up at any beach with one of these alternative surfcraft under your arm—though the term "alternative" might not be best to describe boards like mid-lengths and keel-fin fish anymore. For a fast-growing segment
of the surf population, they're not alternative at all. They're just surfboards.

I'm not saying the thruster stripped all fun out of surfing. I'm saying that the thruster made it much harder for the majority of the surf population to have as much fun while surfing as they had in previous design eras. The thruster, after all, is only fun when you're ripping. Bogging turns, sinking in the flats, failing to catch waves—all hallmarks of the non-ripper on a thruster—ain't any fun at all. By comparison, it doesn't matter if you can't hang five on a log; you're still enjoying the ride and laughing to yourself as you try to figure it out. As the thruster came to dominate surfing, laughter kind of left the equation. We all accepted that wave riding was serious business, requiring an equally serious tool with three fins and a pointy nose, and riding anything else was an inferior pursuit. As ridiculous as that may sound, I'd be willing to bet that most people reading this either currently feel that way or once did. "Outta the way, guy on a single-fin egg: I'm doing the real surfing out here."

Now that we're finally wading tentatively into the post–"thruster and nothing but the thruster" age, the culture's wave-riding palate is becoming sophisticated enough to appreciate that surfing is surfing, whether you're riding a thruster, a single-fin, a
spaced-out twinnie, or a log. And I think—I hope—our return to easier-to-ride boards will bring the silly fun back to most surf breaks, and will help chip away at the crust of self-seriousness that's calcified over so many lineups. We've got a couple decades of unserious fun to catch up on, but if we're all getting more enjoyment from our surfcraft, and not flipping the bird at sections we failed to punt on, we'll get there.

Let the pros thrust away. I'll be out here having fun.

The alaia: from head-turning weirdness to viable addition to the well-stocked quivers of surfers like Asher Pacey (left) and Bryce Young (right) in less than a decade. It's only

The alaia: from head-turning weirdness to viable addition to the well-stocked quivers of surfers like Asher Pacey (left) and Bryce Young (right) in less than a decade. It's only "alternative" if you're still tethered to the thruster. Photo: Shield