Singling Out Singles

The following is a sidebar written to accompany an essay on single fin surfboards written for The Surfer's Journal (Vol. 25.1) but ended up being published only on that magazine's online version.


Much like dinosaurs, the extinction of the single fin as the dominant surfboard design resulted from a supernatural explosion and subsequent die-off for life forms that couldn’t adapt. For the single fin extermination came not in the form of a wayward asteroid but rather an equally earthshaking 6’4” twin fin shaped and designed in 1977 by 4-time World Champion Mark Richards. At the time MR’s revolutionary twin fin struck the planet professional surfing was on the march, already into its second year with the International Professional Surfers (IPS) circuit, a now-cohesive grand prix style collection of formerly disparate surfing tournaments around the world. However, in the mid-to-late 1970s the north shore of Oahu was still the only legitimate kingmaker, IPS World Title notwithstanding, and it was typical of the top surfers to stay in Hawaii from October through March. The primacy of the north shore was soon to be besieged by overlapping forces, though. First, MR’s twin fin had fundamentally changed surfing forever. Exciting high-performance surfing could now be accomplished in ordinary waves outside of Hawaii. Second, over the next 5 or 6 years leading up to the inaugural Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) world tour in 1983, more and more events were held away from Hawaiian surf, and even though the conditions were frequently marginal, these surfing contests were largely viewed as entirely legitimate due to the massive enthusiasm with Richard’s performance and his exciting new surfboard designs. Perhaps most importantly — at least when considering the extinction of the single fin — is that on this burgeoning small-wave world circuit MR was considerable practically unbeatable, and a fierce arms race ensued. All the other professional surfers on the tour serious about a title race or making a living from winnings desperately sought a way to contain Mark Richards as if he was a rogue nation who’d gained a nuclear advantage over his neighbors.

Most of the top contenders got their own twin fins and tried to match MR with equal weaponry. But a number of surfers, namely Simon Anderson and Cheyne Horan, could not or would not smoke the peace pipe with the twin fin. Both were single fin surfers whose surfing simply could not translate to the twin. Both set about the problem of matching MR’s performance by embarking on seemingly divergent paths, but these would soon converge to create the most successful surfboard design of all time.

Cheyne in particular at the time was one of the most brilliant surfers in the world, blazing away on his single fin McCoy double-wing swallows inventing new lines and maneuvers that as quantum leaps were at least equal to those of Wayne Lynch when his carves-heard-round-the-world astonished hep surfers of the latter 1960s. In the early 1980s Cheyne was touted in a feature article on him in SURFING Magazine as being the messiah of a “New Surfing.” The fact that this article was written by Michael Tomson, the owner of Gotcha, Cheyne’s sponsor, created a political furor amidst the Dana Point glossies, but in my mind never lessened the fact that it was true — Cheyne was inventing a new kind of surfing. Positional, yet not tied to the curl — Cheyne was that rarest of surfers, someone who could flit from each of the three main types of surfers (power surfer, speed surfer, positional surfer) at will. And he was coming up with new maneuvers (like the floater)and new places on the wave to perform them. 

Meanwhile, Simon Anderson was tinkering with twin fins and trying to get them to feel a bit more like his singles. At about the same time Cheyne and his shaper/designer Geoff McCoy came up with a fresh wrinkle on the original  Velzy “Pig" board, which they called the “Needle Nose.” This was a radically tail-centered planshape (the predecessor to the much more extreme Lazor Zap) with a wider tail and a pinched in ‘needle’ nose. The idea was to match the performance of MR’s twin fins by giving the tail more small-wave speed while at the same time shortening the turning radius of the board by drastically pulling in the nose. A drive-y, hooked-rake single fin rounded out the ensemble, and likely this new surfboard design would have had an enormous impact but at the exact same moment Simon had glassed a third stabilizing fin on one of his twin fin shapes, liked how it felt, and in subsequent iterations employed the new Needle Nose template as the fuselage for his new concoction, which as we all know became the Three-Fin Thruster.

Much of this has been overlooked in what passes for the historical record in surfing. The Thruster was actually an attempt to return to single fin surfing by one of the sports most formidable power surfers and extraordinary shaper/designers. When I rode my first Thruster in 1981, my initial reaction was that it was not so much a twin fin with a stabilizer, but rather a single fin with booster rockets affixed to each rail. Furthermore, (and little remembered today) it was also clear at the time that the new Needle Nose planshapes were vital in making the design work. The Thruster was a tail centered design, lessening the importance of the front foot and trim, and would increasingly evolve that way over the next 30+ years of refining the design. If you closely watch that legendary footage of Simon at Bell’s or Pipeline in 1981 you can see just how important that hips-back/reduced-nose outline was to the initial success of the design. 

As for Cheyne Horan, his single fin surfboards grew ever more stubbornly bizarre and impractical in a tri-fin-centric world circuit, until eventually he no longer qualified as a Top 32 seed, and left the tour. However, it may be time to reexamine his single fin surfing in those late-1970s/early-1980s years, as it was overshadowed by MR’s twin fin pyrotechnics and Simon’s ensuing Thruster revolution.