Fin Land: Greg Trotter and SOAR Fin
As the Princes Highway winds down the NSW south coast it regularly veers inland. There are numerous side roads leading to bypassed sections of the coast. Half way down one of them, on an acreage in amongst patches of regrowth forest, is an unlikley location for a surfing business that mixes the latest technology with traditional skills and a blend of maths and science. But that’s where Greg Trotter has chosen to locate SOAR Fin. The decision was inspired by a desire to return to his childhood home in the Ulladulla area and the necessity to be a long way from the neighbours due to the noise.
There are probably not many who have as wide an experience of the surfing industry as Greg. He started with a few backyard efforts to help pay for a ding he had put in his father’s car as a sixteen-year old unlicensed driver. He had taken it to pick up his disabled brother and had a bit of trouble getting it back into the garage. From there, it was a steady progression, working with Graham King in Kirrawee first, then on to start Summer Session at Budgewoi on the Central Coast. It was all very 1970s, living in a log cabin one street back from the beach and surfing the breaks from Norah Head through to Swansea with surfers like the Harris, Spong, and Winton brothers.
Greg and his CNC cutter (Laurie McGinness)
After moving back to Sydney, Greg worked for Graham King again briefly before being offered a job by Peter and Roger Casey at KC Surfboards on the northern beaches. After a year, they decided to get out of the business and offered it to Greg. He still owns the business today. The name KC Surfboards might not be as familiar now as it once was, but there was a time when he was shaping for half the Newport Plus team, surfers like Stuart Cadden, Gary Green, and Roger Casey, who was a talented surfer in his own right, as well as others such as Bryce Ellis.
Owning and running a surfboard business though meant he was tied down and could not travel. His solution was to put the business on hold and travel the world as one of the first itinerant shapers. He worked in Hawaii, Western Australia, and was one of the first international shapers to work in Japan. Ironically, he met his Japanese wife Izumi shortly after returning to Australia. Being married, he needed a more reliable source of income, so he started making fins.
By the late-80s the fins had become so popular there just wasn’t enough time for shaping. This was before FCS, so the demand for his fins, just in the Australian market, was up to 6,000 a month. When FCS came along he thought they wouldn’t last because glass ons were better ……something he still believes. But it became a matter of convenience, manufacture, and storage, so pretty soon nearly all boards had removable fins.
At the time the perception was that FCS had a patent on their fin design but Greg believes the patent only ever applied to the plugs. To get into the expanding market for removables, he developed moulding techniques that enabled him to produce fibreglass fins and began to sell large numbers. At the time FCS only had plastic fins, so they approached him to produce prototype fibreglass fins for them which, foolishly as he sees it now, he did. The outcome was that FCS took the fins to China and had them produced there.
Greg also worked with Dave Byrne and Tony Reiter to produce Power Base Fins which he regards as an excellent design. They had a rovings base and sat on the board like a glass on fin. Owen Wright used them in three finals in a row against Kelly Slater in his first year on tour, and beat him in the New York event. Unfortunately while they were very succesful in terms of performance, marketing them proved difficult.
Following the Power Base project Greg invested in CNC machinery. The logic was to increase the range of designs. Moulded fins require a separate mould for each design while CNC machines can produce an infinite range simply by varying the input from the software. So now the fins are designed on computer and cut from the laminated panels, produced on site, using the CNC machine. They are then hand finished. The resulting fins are super accurate.
Cut, branded, and ready to fly - Dahlberg two tab fins at left, and single fin slots for Surf Empire at right, all made by SOAR
More recently FCS renewed their patent with the FCS2 system and there have been regular announcements on IP Australia about the application. Greg’s view after reading one a few weeks ago, was that they had knocked the fin out of the patent altogether. Since then FCS have reintroduced the application with different wording. As it stands there is still no resolution of the patent which was first applied for in 2013. SOAR Fin now produce a fin called the FCS1.5 which utilises the front hook with the standard tab and a screw for the back plug.
Greg’s business model is a bit different to FCS and Futures. SOAR Fin do not supply shops, but work with shapers like Webber, Dahlberg, and many others. This means there is a constant flow of new ideas. Some people want more flex, some people want more drive, deeper fins, shallower fins, keels, twin fins, single fins, the list goes on. Once a shaper has delivered the outline it has to be foiled to give the flex they want. This is a black art involving accurate measurement of the thicknesses, and balancing them against the area of the fin.
It’s a skill set that attracts not only Australian customers, but shapers from Hawaii, New York, Ireland, England, France, New Zealand and Japan. There are also many individual customers who are looking for a particular design that they cannot get anywhere else, including surfers like Tom Carroll who contacted Greg recently to produce some fins for his Rawson guns and designers like Harley Ingleby who wanted the tabs adjusted for his twin fins. Agility is a key attribute of the business. Someone can come in with a design and within a week or so they can be testing it in their board. The bigger comnpanies can’t do that if their fins are being produced in China!
// LAURIE MCGINNESS