Sling Blades

Question: What do Tom Blake, Nat Young, Mark Richards and Simon Anderson all have in common? They’re all great surfers, sure, but each of them also made a significant contribution to surfing progression through surfboard design. Each, during his own particular era, sparked an entire design revolution. But can you guess the single common denominator that earned them their star on surfing’s timeline?

That’s right. Fins.

Tom Blake was the first guy to put a fin on a surfboard. Ask any of the old Waikiki beach boys how much that little rudder improved their rides and they’ll still start welling up with joy.

Nat Young gets credit for helping spark the shortboard revolution by chopping almost a foot off the nose of his board during the 1966 World Contest, but it was the high-aspect, tuna-inspired George Greenough fin that really put that snap in his turns.

Then came Mark Richards. Now M.R. certainly wasn’t the first guy to stick two fins on a board but he did perfect the flat-foiled, toed-in design that spelled an end to the single-fin era, and then proved its worthiness with four world titles.

And Simon? Well, there is that little thing called the Thruster.

Truth is, the crucial design element involved in the four biggest breakthroughs in surfboard performance in the past 60 years had nothing to do with the size or shape of the board, or its materials. It was all about fins. With this in mind, it could be said that fins are the most important aspects of the surfboard’s performance.

Need proof? Try paddling out on your beloved $600, designer-shaped board and see how it goes, but without the fins. It seems hard to believe but those little blades cutting through the water are 10 times more important than your board’s rocker, rail foil, outline or materials.

Yet since the advent of the Thruster over 20 years ago, our shaping gurus have spent most of their efforts dissecting merely the hull of the board, searching up, down and sideways for a key to the next breakthrough. In the meantime, fins have been merely an afterthought. The proliferation of removable fin systems in the 1990s was leveraged more on convenience, not performance.

“We understand everything there is to know about the hull of the surfboard now,” says Rusty Preisendorfer. “But fins remain a mystery. That’s why they’re my biggest passion right now.”

He’s not alone.