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The History of the Surfboard

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Reflecting upon the history of the surfboard, it seems that there have been many incremental progressions in its development, but only a few fundamental changes since the days of the 100 pound wooden behemoths ridden by surfers in the “golden age” of the sport. The big changes fall under the following categories: material, weight, size, and fins. In a discussion with Fred Hemmings, he referred to transitions in surfboard shape and surface (i.e. wings and channels) as “seasonal changes” which come and go depending upon the surfing public’s whimsy. But going from 12 foot, finless, wooden planks to 5 foot, 5 fin, epoxy blades weighing a mere few pounds is a monumental shift into an entirely new paradigm.

The First Surfboards

Although there has been some debate as to the true birthplace of the surfboard as there is documentation in surfboard history of Peruvian fishermen riding waves on primitive boats as far back as 3000BC, the surfboard concept as we know it was developed in Hawaii. As early as 1777, explorer Capt. James Cook recorded in his journals the sight of native Hawaiians streaming across waves on giant wooden boards. As “civilization” settled in the islands, surfboards didn’t change much. The first Alaia and Olo surfboards were made of solid wood, which made them extremely heavy. They were flat with a square tail. Surfboards were constructed using the native wood of the area. The heavy weight made boards unwieldy for anyone but the strongest and most athletic riders.

Tom Blake and the Hollow Surfboard

This general approach to surfboard construction was the norm up to 1926 when the solid construction was replaced by hollow construction which freed up crucial weight and helped increase performance to a degree. This first big step was made by Tom Blake, an innovator and waterman, who designed the first hollow surfboards using waterproof glue and plywood frame construction (called a “cigar box”). This was a quantum leap in surfboard history and development, ushering in a new era in surfing, cutting weight by as much as 20 pounds. Fred Hemmings refers to Blake as one of THE great names in surfing history while Matt Warshaw takes it a step further in his Encyclopedia of Surfing:

“While Tom Blake can’t be placed ahead of Duke Kahanomoku as the world’s most influential surfer, his contributions to the sport – in terms of board design, wave-riding technique, competition, surf photography, and literature – are in many ways more tangible.”

Besides initiating the great shift to hollow surfboards, Blake also affixed the first fin to a surfboard, which enabled greater stability and maneuverability. A direct line can be traced from the surfboards of today to these early boards created by Tom Blake. By the mid-30’s Blake’s hollow, finned boards were still heavy and sluggish by today’s standards but the momentum had begun. General board construction didn’t change again until Bob Simmons gave some curvature to the bottom of the surfboard called rocker which like a boat enabled the surfboard to flow over the surface of the ocean without catching its edges and dipping under the water. Simmons’ spoon design was the first to really utilize this concept and it soon became standard in the industry. Surfboards at this point in history were still made of balsa wood.

Foam Surfboards

As the 40’s came to a close so did the era of the wooden surfboard. By the mid-fifties, shapers were using fiberglass to seal surfboards and soon replaced wood cores with polyurethane foam. In terms of performance, this was the greatest progression since the addition of the fin. Surfers could now move their boards in ways that were not possible with the heavy wooden construction. Surfing was now open to everyone, which led to the 60’s surfing craze.

The Shortboard Revolution

Surfers were still riding boards around 10 feet long. The zenith of surfing performance was for sure the noseride. But by the late sixties, Californian kneeboarder and exotic tinkerer George Greenough was seen shredding Australian pointbreaks on a tiny board with a strange thin and flexible fin. Aussie champ Nat Young with shaper Bob McTavish collaborated with Greenough on boards with less thickness in the rail, a Vee-bottom, and with a new, thinner and a more flexible, low profile fin. The culminating surfboard “Magic Sam” is seen as a missing link between the longboard and the shortboard. Nat Young traveled to the 1966 World Championships in San Diego with Sam in hand and with his new “involvement” approach to surfing put to pasture the magical noseriding of David Nuuhiwa. His win set in motion a shift towards narrower, flexible fins and shorter, thinner boards. Boards would move closer and closer to the ridiculous (more like Greenough’s kneeboard) with surfers struggling on 4-5 foot boards until length tempered in the 70’s to an average 6-7 feet. The shortboard revolution was now the established order. Surfboards weighed around 15 pounds and with low profile rails, they could be maneuvered in tighter turns on the wave face.

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