Surfing has come a long way from what Captain Cook documented in his journal in 1777 when he made landfall in Hawaii and became the first European to hang 10. When Captain Cook arrived, the islanders were using massive, solid wood boards that were up to 25 feet long and weighed upwards of 150 pounds. In fact, this is pretty much what surfing looked like for most of its 1,500-year history; however, by the 1940s, surfboards were beginning to look a lot more like what you’d see out on the waves today.
The Modernization of the Surfboard
It was Simmons’ rocker and Blake’s fin that initially made for a drastically improved surfing experience, and in the decades after their introduction, the surfboard underwent a number of subtle design improvements that allow today’s pros to shred in a way the Polynesian chieftains could have only dreamed of.
In 1946, fiberglass was first introduced to surfboards by Pete Peterson, who unwittingly changed the sport forever. Initially, the boards began with a core of the lightweight balsa wood, which would then be covered in a thin fiberglass coating. Nevertheless, boards generally remained pretty long, around 12 feet. It wasn’t until the 1960s that shortboards appeared on the scene, and brought a host of subtle, but massively important, design changes with them.
The first shortboards were developed by George Greenough (who also was responsible for the modern fin shape) and Bob McTavish, but they were popularized by Robert Young who rode one of their boards at the 1966 World Contest and blew away the competition. The shortboards also allowed for stylistic changes in surfing, and so Young might also be credited with modernizing surfing’s style.
Around the same time board shapers began experimenting with both the number and shape of board fins. The twin fin was pioneered by Mark Richards, who mastered comps around the world in the late 70s thanks to this innovation which allowed for more controlled carving. The thruster was introduced by Australian Simon Anderson in 1980. By placing a third fin by Richards’ two, Anderson allowed even greater control over carving and improved thrust from waves.
The next big deal in surf board history was the addition of the leash, which was added by Pat O’Neill, the son of the wetsuit inventor Jack O’Neill. It was an uphill battle for Pat to get people to accept the addition of the leash, which, in its first iteration, was just a surgical cord attached to the board with a suction cup. He was disqualified from a 1971 Malibu surfing competition for using it and there was also a pretty major technical flaw inherent in his innovation: the stretchiness of the surgical cord would cause the board to rocket back toward the surfer, an effect that would later claim one of his father’s eyes.
In 1958, the surfboard took perhaps its more recognizably modern turn when Hobie Alter and Gordon Clark perfected the art of the polyurethane foam boards, which are still used today. These boards were much lighter than their wooden alternatives and after much experimenting, Alter and Clark were able to mass produce the boards in a way that was less feasible when you relied on relatively rare components such as Balsa wood (the lack of which was a huge bane to the Aussie surfing community until the introduction of polyurethane boards in the 50s).
While the era of major innovations in surf shaping has long since passed, professional shapers and surfers alike are continually experimenting with ways to build a better board. This was a process given special impetus when the world’s largest producer of polyurethane foam blanks (the core of every surfboard today) closed up shop in 2006. This unexpected closure led to many shapers around the world to begin experimenting with new materials and designs, as much out of necessity as creativity. Where this explosion of inspiration will take us in the future remains to be seen, but if the history of surfboard shaping has taught us anything, it’s that there is no such thing as a perfect board, only a better board.