Surfing has come a long way since Hawaiian kings began riding 30-foot-long solid planks of wood thousands of years ago.
At its heart, the sport is a simple one, but surfing has come an incredibly long way from its ancient origins. A handful of important innovations have been made throughout surfing history to make the sport what it is today – a magnet for elite athletes and weekend warriors alike, in which there isn’t a wave on the planet beyond someone’s grasp. From wetsuits to polyurethane foam to fins, here are several inventions and innovations that have changed surfing history.
Polyurethane Foam Surfboards
The fellow who can be credited with first experimenting with materials other than the traditional wood is Bob Simmons. In 1949, he began messing around with polystyrene, a precursor to polyurethane, which was invented during World War II for use as airplane insulation. The adoption of this material in the late 1950s and early 60s, out of which most surfboards on the planet are now made, allowed boards to be cheaper, produced more easily and shaped to a wider variety of specifications. Better surfing through science!
Until the introduction of polyurethane, surfboards were made of wood. By covering the light foam with sheets of fiberglass and saturating them with epoxy, the boards were lighter and nearly as strong as wood for the first time in surfing history.
Anyone who surfs outside of the tropics owes a debt of gratitude to Jack O’Neill, inventor of the wetsuit. While working as a window salesman in San Francisco, the die-hard surfer had a fortuitous friendship with a worker in a pharmaceutical lab. The friend brought O’Neill samples of a new fabric being used in the lab: neoprene. O’Neill had the foresight to know what could become of this pliable rubber—and enough experience to understand the need for it. Until 1952, when O’Neill began crafting cumbersome but functional wetsuits, surfers either stayed clear of the water in cold months, gritted their teeth while trying to avoid going under or wore wool sweaters in the water. Today, innovations in neoprene have opened up colder waters for surfing and riders are venturing well into the arctic and Antarctic regions to find the ultimate wave, no matter how chilly.
This game-changer came about in 1986 when Herbie Fletcher, an early adopter of the jet ski, used the new watercraft to tow his buddies into the iconic waves of Pipeline. Surfers were already surfing the cobalt waves at Pipe but the tow-ins helped increase wave count at the difficult break and opened the some of the world’s biggest breaks for more surfers. Far from a fad, big-wave surfing became synonymous with elite surfers pushing the boundaries of big, scary rides. Ironically, today’s big-wave surfers have begun to eschew the motorized assistance and gravitate toward huge waves that can be paddled into unassisted. But more than any other modern innovation, towing-in has pushed the sport of surfing.
It sounds simple, but there was a time—as late the early 1930s—when surfboards had no fins. The long planks ridden until 1930, some stretching 30 feet, had no drive and were a bear to turn. Enter surfer Tom Blake, who, in the 1930s had the vision to mount a purloined boat rudder to the bottom of a surfboard. The ad hoc fin may have been crude, but it no doubt added drive, stability and turning power. For decades after, the single-fin ruled the surf world. In the 70s and 80s, double fins came into fashion, followed, a little later, by the ubiquitous triple-fin, or thruster, setup seen today. Every time you turn or fly like an arrow down the line, you can, and should, thank Blake.
Once upon a time, there was the longboard. The long, straight design was king of the beaches and had been since the dawn of time. They came in different lengths, but variation beyond the basic longboard template was next to nil. But San Diego surfer Steve Lis changed all that in the early 1970s when he invented what is today one of the most popular board styles: the fish. Fishes are shorter and fatter than longboards, typically in the mid-5-foot- and 20-inch-range, and they carry the defining split-tail design that gives the shape its name. He combined the split tail with a double fin setup. By integrating the the two existing designs into one surfboard he keept the best of both styles and jettisoned all unneeded bulk. Lis initially created the fish to double as a kneeboard. It may have been invented on a lark, but has stuck around for its usefulness in small waves and trick-ready agility, making it a staple of beaches the world over.