Ian Cairns Interview

Cairns on early tri-fins and big-ass Haleiwa

Trivia time: Name the heavyweight regularfoot power surfer who got everybody’s eyebrows up and waggling at the 1981 Rip Curl Bells with his weird new three-finned board.

Simon Anderson! Easiest question of the day! Next!

Except no, it wasn’t Simon. It was the other heavyweight regularfoot power surfer. Ian Cairns. Kanga surfed a tri-fin at Bells that year in both the trials and the main event. I found this out just a couple weeks ago. Not a world-shaking piece of news, agreed, but I do love how history slips and slides, even the parts you think are set in amber.

Good enough reason, anyway, to pick up the phone and gave Ian a call.

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Before we get into tri-fins, I was thinking, the way you surfed, you must have hated twin-fins.

That’s true, I didn't like twins. Mostly I think just because, the way everybody was making them, the fins were too small. For me, anyway. You had to ride 'em kind of flat, too, and that didn't suit me. Sliding--I never liked sliding. I just wanted to keep the board on edge, powering. But at some point there, near the end, just before Simon and the Thruster, I did get some good twins from Gary Linden. And the difference was, we just stuck some really big fins on there.

So at Bells in 1981, you had a tri-fin?

Two, actually. A 6’6″ and a 6’10”.

Shaped by who?

Nev Hyman.

Brand new boards, just for Bells?

No, I had them at Burleigh, a few weeks earlier. Rode the 6’6″ at the Stubbies contest.

Simon rode a Thruster at Burleigh, too. You and him both showing up at the Stubbies with three-fin boards, that was just a coincidence? 

Yeah, absolutely. But you know, I'd been into three fins, or the idea of three fins, for awhile. I rode Bonzers back in 1973. [Cairns in fact won the that year’s Smirnoff Pro on a bonzer.] Three fins had been around, one way or another, for a long time. The big difference, what Simon got right, was how to get it all to work without having the big center fin.

Did your Nev boards look like Thrusters?

No, mine had the bigger fin in the middle, and two stabilizer fins on the sides. Simon’s fins, of course, were pretty much equal size, all three.

Simon pulled the nose in and brought the wide point down, too. 

He did. He took that Lazar Zap idea, or rescued it, really, and made it work with the Thruster. Really innovative, that part of it.

You and Simon were both power surfers, but the two of you had really different styles. 

Yeah, and that came through in the boards. My boards were thicker, and had more edge on the rail, like broken glass almost, where Simon's original Thrusters were kind of soft and smooth. He was big and powerful, but he also had a lot of finesse, a lot of flow. Very fluid surfer, excellent with all the transitions between moves. Me, I'd just aim where I wanted to go, hit the gas, get there, and jam it. I never had that smooth, continuous power through the move, like Simon.

At Bells, you made the finals of the trials, but lost early in the main event to Mark Richards. 

Right. Then it got huge, and a few guys came around wanting to borrow the 6'10". All the guys who showed up with only twin-fins!

Who did you end up lending it to?

Nobody. The first and only time I ever lent a board was to Rabbit, at Sunset, at one of the Hang Ten contests. This magic board. Shaped by BK. And Rabbit snapped it. And I vowed, at that moment, to never again lend boards out.

You won the World Cup at Haleiwa, just before or just after the '81 Bells, I can’t remember. Was that on a tri-fin?

Just before; the winter before. No, that was on a six-channel single-fin.

Haleiwa was kind of your spot for a few years there.

I used to train really hard for contests, especially in Hawaii. And for that World Cup in 1980, Bobby Owens and I trained there every day, at Haleiwa, for a month. Two-foot to 20-foot. Rain or shine, glassy, blown-out, anything and everything. And the rule was, if the wave hadn't broke, no matter what, no matter how late, you had to spin and go. We took a lot of horrendous poundings, but we also got the place pretty well figured out. Now, the conventional thinking at Haleiwa was that you would always look for waves peaking up on the west side of the lineup. The pack, you know, because of the insane rip going through the lineup, was always paddling back toward Avalanche. But I'd seen waves breaking further outside, 50 or 75 yards further out, and coming all the way across to where everybody was sitting. Makable. But only when it's bigger. On smaller days, the same peak is there, but it closes out into the main break. On bigger days, it connects. Anyway, I'm just sort of congenitally built to where I have to go to the furthest-out takeoff point. I cannot sit on the shoulder. Without even thinking about, I just go to where the peak is. So that’s what I did at Haleiwa.

That ended up being called "Wally's Corner." [Ian's middled name is Walter; "Wally" of course became the hated nickname, although Ian himself I think would agree that "Wally's Corner" has a great ring.] Was it the case, in free-surfs as well as contests, that sometimes you'd be sitting out there all by yourself? 

That was always the case. Apart from Bobby, it wasn't until later that some of the younger Haleiwa guys, Kerry Terukina and few others, came out there and started surfing it too.

That 1980 World Cup, the surf was huge. 

In that final, I caught my first wave at Wally's Corner, a 12- or 15-foot wave, rode the thing all the way down to a three-footer through the Toilet Bowl section, kicked out and paddled past all the other guys in the heat with my hair dry. And I remember, everybody else, they'd see a set coming and as a group they'd put their heads down and paddle for the channel. And I'd be sitting way outside, picking off whatever wave I wanted, and a couple minutes later I'm paddling past 'em all again. Just sat out there by myself the whole heat. Rode set wave after set wave.

What about getting caught inside?

Well, that was the other amazing thing. Haleiwa at size is the worst hold-down on the North Shore. Just brutal. So much energy is focused in such a relatively small area, and if you get caught in the wrong place it just never let's you up. But from where I was sitting, way outside, if a huge set came through and I wasn't going to make it over, I just paddled further out, toward Puaena Point.

Toward the mouth of Haleiwa Harbor. 

Exactly. I'd head that way, and the wave would actually back off. Not completely, but it was soft, really soft, compared to how it was breaking in the middle section, where everybody else was. So I mean, look at the advantage I had. I'm getting bigger waves, longer rides, and I'm protected from getting hammered by the biggest sets. Yeah, I loved Haleiwa.

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Cairns and his cup. Photo: Divine.