5 Surfboards That Changed the Way We Surf

From the 1937 Hot Curl to the modern-day Thruster ... not all surfboards were created equal.

Whether you’re paddling out on a Wave Storm for the first time or consider yourself a surfboard connoisseur, as surfers we largely owe our fun in the ocean to some very key developments and designers that have changed the course of the sport of surfing with their creative contributions.

The last century saw major milestones in surfboard design that helped advance the pursuit of riding waves forward, as well as make it more accessible to many more people around the world. However, not all surfboards were created equal.

Here are five surfboards that changed the way we all ride waves today.

John Kelly’s Hot Curl: 1937

As surfboard design and the modern era goes, it had to start somewhere. There had to be a point where the old, flat planks that Hawaiians had been riding for centuries evolved to fit more modern sensibilities.

That moment came in 1937 when pioneer John Kelly was attempting to ride a large swell on the south shore of Oahu. The old-style boards didn’t have much rocker in them, the rails were straight and the boards were finless. This resulted in a lot of wipeouts and “sliding ass” once the swell picked up.

After being pounded all morning courtesy of their rudimentary equipment, a bedraggled Kelly, along with friend Fran Heath, went home determined to do something about it.

“We came home at about 11:30 in the morning, and I took this ax and set the board up on two sawhorses, and I said hey! I’m goin’ to whack this board and however deep this ax goes, I’m going to cut that much off the side," resounded Kelly in an interview with Gary Lynch in 1989 (he passed away in 2007). “I took my drawknife and recontoured the board to the point where the ax had gone in. We then sanded it down and varnished it and took it out into the surf about two [o’clock], and the varnish was still sticky.”

The vee shape that Kelly had created allowed the board to hold an edge in the face of the wave and gave the surfer the control to make the drop.

“We wanted to make changes, just the way any generation wants to make changes,” continued Kelly. “We wanted more speed. We wanted to go across the face of the wave and stay clear of the break, instead of just dropping down and getting pushed in by the whitewater.”

Kelly’s board quickly caught on and ushered in 80 years of big-wave and performance surfing. “Wally Froiseth shouted out, ‘Hey it gets you into the hot curl,’ and the name stuck,” explained Kelly.

Nat Young’s Magic Sam: 1966

In 1966, Australian Nat Young showed up for the World Championships in San Diego with a secret weapon. Armed with a 9-foot 4-inch self-shaped board featuring a fin engineered by George Greenough, the board was built around the “pig” outline, which featured a narrower nose and wide point lower passed the center of the board. It also featured a rolled bottom and narrow, flat nose.

“It was incredibly thin and just sunk underneath you,” Young recalled in a SURFER Magazine article. “I must have spent 60 hours on that glass job, sanding it down, trying to get the flex I wanted from it. They’re not great noseriders unless you’re real tight in the pocket. It wasn’t meant to noseride on the flats.”

The design barely had time to catch on. Within 18 months the “Shortboard Revolution” would take hold and boards would quickly go from 9-foot logs to 6-foot stilettos.

Mike Hynson’s Down-Rail: Early 1970s

One of the effects of the “Shortboard Revolution,” besides the obvious decline in the length of surfboards, was that surfers were better able to flirt with the barrel. The big advancement came in the early ’70s when star of “The Endless Summer” Mike Hynson had become a shaper and developed the down-rail design.

Hanging on Maui with Herbie Fletcher and friends, Hynson was inspired to try something new and tuck the edges of the rails of a board under.

“I remember Herbie was around, and someone else too, and I gave it to them to take it out and their jaws dropped. It was that much of a change. It was just so fun and I thought to myself, ‘this thing has a really happening feeling,'” Hynson explained in an interview with SURFER Magazine. “I just got into it you know. Every board I made I started adding a down rail, and at the time, I was just transitioning into the quiver concept, which was a new concept then too, so I made every shape you could with a down rail. I was even doing it to a point where I was including it on guns and they all seemed to work out fine.”

Gerry Lopez (aka Mr. Pipeline) credits Hyson’s down-rail design as the reason he was able to become such a brilliant tube rider. What the design does is allows the shortened, tucked under rail to release more, providing the board with more maneuverability in critical sections of the wave. Also, a flatter rocker combined with a down-rail can make a board exceptionally fast even in mediocre conditions.

Mark Richards’ Twin Fin: 1977

In 1976, Mark Richards was surfing in the Coke Surfabout at Narrabeen near Sydney. Hawaii’s Reno Abellira was also surfing in the contest and had come equipped with a short, stub-nosed fish shape. The board featured a twin-fin setup and Richards seized on the potential. Single-fins were still the dominant design of the era, but they had their limitations. The “Wounded Gull,” as Richards was known, wanted to fly.

In the winter of ’77 he spent time on the North Shore shaping and designing with Dick Brewer. By the ’78 contest season Richards had refined his design. He won the world title later that year and went on to win the next three in a row, establishing himself as the ultimate surfer/shaper.

Simon Anderson’s Thruster: 1981

It’s kind of crazy to think that since Simon Anderson demonstrated to the world what a surfboard with three fins is capable of in 1981. since then, the design has changed relatively little.

In an attempt to one-up Mark Richards and his twin-fin (which was winning everything at the time), in 1980 Anderson hunkered down in his shaping factory outside of Sydney and began to conceptualize what a board with three fins might look like.

And he kind of nailed it on the first try. After a few small adjustments, Anderson rode the board in the ’81 Bells Beach Classic, and won the event. He rode a similar design later in the year at the Pipeline Masters and won that contest, as well. The Thruster had arrived.

The board allowed for a tighter turning radius, more maneuverability, more drive and more speed control. Nearly 40 years since Anderson debuted the Thruster, the three-fin set-up is still the defacto fin configuration on surfboards around the world.

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