Three fins before the Thruster
"All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them."
That Simon Anderson invented the Thruster is a statement that should invite no argument. The Thruster has three fins of equal size placed in a triangle at the rear of a wide-tailed board. Simon conceived of the the idea, built it, and then chose the name. The Thruster discovery is his.
To Simon's credit he always deferred to those that assisted or inspired him. In his biography, Simon claimed there are five fathers of the Thruster: himself, Geoff McCoy, Mark Richards, Steve Zoeller, and Frank Williams who rode the first board Simon saw with three fins on it.
Yet the history of tri fins doesn't start with Simon Anderson or even Frank Williams. Simon may have hit upon the magical formula but many other shapers were swimming in the same waters. When singles or twins were the norm these shapers experimented with tri fins, some of them pre-empting the Thruster by over a decade.
The following is by no means a definitive list of shapers who experimented with three fins. It's also not strictly in order; a semblance of chronology is assumed but only for the sake of narrative.
Few photos exist of the earliest tri fins. Perhaps for this reason, the Campbell brothers with their widely documented Bonzer are often considered the pioneers. Bob McTavish, however, quietly contends that claim
"I added tri fins in 1965 at Hayden Surfboards in Alexandra Heads to increase acceleration and hold," confirmed Bob during a recent conversation with Swellnet. "I called them pectorals."
At the time, Bob was using a ten inch Greenough fin and he found the fin set up generated too much lift in the tail. He promptly abandoned the experiment.
"I smashed them off with a rock at First Point Noosa," recalls Bob.
No photos exist of McTavish's first foray with three fins - perhaps because it wasn't deemed a success. However, he returned to the idea on the other side of the Shortboard Revolution when fin size had reduced and tail width narrowed.
Accepted wisdom says that Malcolm and Duncan Campbell of Ventura, California, were the first surfers to put three fins on a board, though Dick Brewer and Reno Abellira may contest this - see next section. In 1970 the Campbell brothers created the first Bonzer, which was designed in response to the limitations of the newly popular shortboards. By adding two long-base keels just forward of the centre fin the Campbell's felt they could increase the projection of their existing boards. They dubbed their new invention the Bonzer.
In subsequent years the Campbell brothers reduced the tail width of their Bonzers, which also increased control, and they also introduced concaves for speed. Bonzers were the first double concave surfboards.
Malcolm and Duncan applied themselves to the Bonzer, developing and fine tuning the design. However, it could easily have remained a local curiousity, another quirky design from a surfing backwater, except for being noticed by Mike Eaton who helped give it first national and then international exposure.
In 1973 Eaton was head shaper at Bing Surfboards and he engineered a licensing deal with Malcolm and Duncan Campbell. That same year Bing Surfboards were bought out by Gordon & Smith, but rather than be pushed aside in the acquisition the G&S connection took the Bonzer to Australia.
But that was still a few years away...
The Campbell brothers weren't the only surfers to glass three fins onto a board at the turn of the 70s. In October 1970, Dick Brewer, having just launched Dick Brewer Surfboards, did the same. The boards were made for Reno Abellira, his test pilot at the time. Like the Campbell brothers, the two side fins on Reno's board bared little resemblance to traditional fins, rather they were half moon keels. Yet unlike the Campbell brothers they weren't placed forward of the centre fin but in line with it.
“The tri-fin,” said Reno in an April 1971 Surfer article penned by Drew Kampion, “has single-fin drive and twin-fin torque. It is a compromise of each with the elimination of hang-ups.”
Despite the praise, the pair halted their tri fin experiments. In 1999 Drew Kampion interviewed Dick Brewer for The Surfers Journal. Of his 1970 tri fins Brewer said: "I knew there was something there...but I suddenly realised I was already five or ten years ahead of the surfing world in development; so I put it aside till I had time and money to work on it."
However, the time and money never arrived. Dick Brewer went from in demand shaper of Hawaiian guns in the early-70s, to heroin addict, to surf industry drop out, and the tri fin design was subsequently left on the shelf.
Brewer may be counted as a tri fin pioneer but it was left for others to realise the design's potential.
Soon after Dick and Reno's three fin foray, a small number of shapers in Australia and Caifornia began experimenting with various versions of the tri fin. Six years after he smashed his 'pectorals' off at Noosa, Bob McTavish was back glassing them onto his boards. The side fins were placed either in line with the centre fin or immediately forward of it, and though they were small they had more of a classic fin shape than those used by the Campbell brothers or Brewer/Abellira.
"In 1971 I made about twenty at Barry Bennett's factory in Sydney," said Bob about his second wave of experimentation with tris. Although this design was conceived around the same time as the Bonzer, Bob views them seperately. "I only rode a Bonzer once, in 1973, shaped by John Blanch," says Bob. "It ripped, but I was into Lennox guns at the time so I admired it as a sideshow."
"Later, around 1976, I made hundreds of twin fins with a centre fin box for a small stabiliser. A lot of them were for Victor Ford at his Bondi Surf Shop. They were very good boards."
Vic remembers those 2 + 1 boards. "We had a lot of them come through, and they sold well, but they just stopped and I can't even remember why. Perhaps the times weren't right."
Bob's experiments with tri fins were indicative of what was to come: the boards were either single fins with stabilisers to the side, or twin fins with a central stabiliser. Rather than representing something new, they were hybrids that referenced existing designs.
Though Dick Brewer and Reno Abellira didn't pursue their tri fin designs, another Hawaiian was paying close attention. Ben Aipa, invented of the Stinger and shaper to South Shore hot doggers Buttons, Bertleman, and Mark Liddell, joined the three fin mix.
Swellnet: What was the thinking behind those early-70 tri fins?
Ben Aipa: It’s kinda simple in a way ‘cos I got into the twin fin at a time when surfing was undergoing a lot of change. But the twin fin wasn't accepted in Hawaii. So what I did was drop the side fins down in size, then I put one in the middle to give the board direction - just like a keel on boats. I don't know anything about boats! (laughs)...but I just looked at it and that centre fin gave my twin fin some direction.
Also, having a centre fin meant it was better accepted by the Hawaiians.
Because it looked like a single fin?
Yes. From that point on guys were accepting it. Surfing was changing but not everything was accepted. Like I said, in Hawaii twins never really took off. People had very negative thoughts about them. With the third fin it was even more negative, until they went and tried it themselves. Then it took off. Those boards were more popular than twins in Hawaii at that point.
And roughly what year was this?
Oh man….early 70s?
A mate of mine has one of your Hawaiian guns from the 70s. It has three fin boxes in a Thruster configuration yet it was never meant to be ridden with three fins, just a single fin or a twin. Can you recall this design?
Ben Aipa: I do. Like I say, surfing was changing. Guys were trying to surf their boards, not just ride them. These new young guys were coming out of nowhere in Hawaii and older guys were saying, “No, you don’t ride multi fins. You ride single fins.”
But these guys, they were so different. They’d try anything.
So you could have ridden it as a twin fin?
Yes. That was the idea cause it gives you an option. But you mention the word option and the Hawaiians go “what?” (laughs). They don't really understand the word, you know. I wasn’t pushing twins in big waves but I thought it was possible. Surfing was changing, we were trying out new things and we didnt know what was coming next. May as well try two fins, eh?
Well the board had three fin boxes in a Thruster arrangement. Would you have tried three fins in it?
It didn’t really cross my mind to set up that board with three fins. No.
In 1973 Peter Townend was getting some of his Hawaiian boards shaped by Californian Mike Eaton. As mentioned earlier, Eaton was working at Bing and had become enamoured with the Campbell brothers Bonzer. In June he wrote a letter to Peter Townend speaking highly of the design and provided rough schematics.
PT promptly shaped his own Bonzer under the Goodtime label, though he used the alternative spelling 'Bonza'. He then travelled to Newcastle where he won the Newcastle Open contest, arguably the first significant contest win on three fins, at least in Australia.
The early success turned PT into a convert, he shaped many Bonzers for both himself and stock boards for Goodtime and G&S. He also shared the design with Ian 'Kanga' Cairns who would mirror PT's success; in December 1973 Cairns won the Smirnoff Pro in Hawaii riding a Bonzer - arguably the first international contest win on three fins.
In 1974 PT took a trip to California where he visited Gordon & Smith in San Diego. While there Mike Eaton introduced him to Skip Frye. At the time Frye was aborbing the designs of Steve Lis, a kneeboarder from San Diego who'd invented the Fish in 1967. With small changes, stand up surfers had begun riding Fish designs and Skip Frye was among the earliest proponents.
Townend himself had seen first hand what the Fish was capable of. In 1972 he placed third at the ISA World Contest behind Jimmy Blears and David Nuuhiwa, both of whom rode twin fin Fish. Yet PT never liked the twin fins. "I loved the feel of single fin drive, especially off your bottom turn. That's probably why I never got into twin fins." Controlling their speed on the wave face was also a problem.
Yet he had to concede that the Fish design contained something special. So for his next board he took the best elements of the Fish: the low rocker, straight rails, and wide tail. However, to stabilise the tail he set it up with a single fin and two smaller side fins.
PT dubbed the resulting experiment 'The Purple Flyer'.
"The Bonzer was the inspiration to put the outside half-moon fins on the Purple Flyer," says PT. Like Brewer and McTavish's earlier boards, the three-finned Purple Flyer was a hybrid. However, rather than referencing a single fin or twin fin, it took it's design cues from both the Campbell brothers and from Steve Lis.
PT rode the Purple Flyer the next two years. In fact, he still has it now.
The design, however, didn't catch on and during the late-70s Bonzers played a diminishing part in PT's quiver.
While PT and Cairns were testing their early tri fins in the cut and thrust of the fledgling pro tour, Mitchell Rae was moving in the other direction. Originally from Dee Why in Sydney, Mitchell escaped to Nana Glen in the Coffs Harbour hinterland in the mid-70s. Under the Outer Island label he began exploring obscure corners of the design world: deep concaves, flex tails, and also tri fin setups.
Though the board below left appears to reference Bonzers, Mitchell is adamant that wasn't the case. "I hadn't really been exposed to them at that point."
The board was shaped in 1978. That Mitchell was oblivious to the Bonzer is testament to the fragmentary media of the day and also his retreat from city life. As much as any idea can appear out of a vacuum, Mitchell's '78 tri fin did. "I had no reference points when I shaped it," explains Mitchell. "I wasn't building upon someone elses ideas. It really was a lightbulb moment."
Built for doing "tighter arcs in smaller surf" Mitchell said the side fins provided a "forward pivot point similar to a flyer". And much like earlier tris, they were placed just forward of the centre fin. Mitchell made the fins by laying up fibreglass over a pipe to create the curve. They were then positioned with extreme splay so the curve of the fins merged with the deep concave.
"It was almost seamless," says Mitchell of the design.
Though the memory illicits a keen response, Mitchell didn't continue with the design.
Peter Townend and Ian Cairns stuck with tri fins longer than most. Each of them had early competitive success on tris - PT won the Newcastle Open in March '73 and Cairns the Smirnoff Pro in Hawaii in December of the same year - yet PT's interest waned later in the decade.
Cairns, however, persisted with the design. "I have a ton of power in my bottom turn so I'm always seeking the leverage that a high area fin-set provides," Cairns recently told Swellnet.
In the late-70s Ian Cairns tried larger side fins on his tris which allowed for a smaller centre fin - again the different sized fins - however he didn't persist with that arrangement because he needed the larger centre fin. "Spinning out was not fun at waves like Margaret River," explains Cairns.
Around the beginning of the new decade Cairns hooked up with Nev Hyman, another West Australian who'd recently shifted operations to the Gold Coast.
"There was a point in time when people were considering three fins on a board in a creative way," says Nev Hyman recalling those 1970s tri fins. "We were playing around with all these boards. Just trying to stabilise a wide tailed board." In the late-70s twin fins were again popular, this time on the back of Mark Richard's success.
"In late 1979, early 1980, I made a lot of twinnies with a stabiliser – a stabilising back fin," says Nev. "They had two large side fins and one small back fin."
"I wasn’t the only one doing it, but we were playing with that theory," says Nev.
Then towards the end of 1980 Nev reversed the theory, he increased the size of the centre fin while reducing the side fins. He made one of these boards for John Nielsen and another for Ian Cairns who by happenstance took it to the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach in 1981. And of course Cairns wasn't the only person there with a three-finned board.
"As soon as I saw what Simon had done it was a no brainer," says Nev. "What Simon excelled at was to approach the whole thing from the ground up."
"Simon wasn't simply tweaking what we already knew," says Nev, still marvelling at the apparent simplicity of Simon's discovery. "He used three fins, all the same size, with these wider tail boards."
Ironically considering how the event is now viewed, Simon's Thruster breakthrough wasn't contingent on the number of fins on the board. It works because the fins are of equal size and placed on a wide tail board. As Nev Hyman says, "Simon didn't play around with the fins, he played around with the planshape."
The result is that even though he was using the same basic parts as other shapers, Simon managed to create something wholly new. His was an achievement in proportionality.
Clearly Simon wasn't the first person to put three fins on a board, yet it took the Thruster to realise the potential of three fins. In an interview that appeared in a 1981 issue of Surfing World, Simon put his accomplishment in context with earlier experiments: "I think if something comes into your head and you create it, although someone else has done it before, if you perfect it then it can be considered your achievement."
Special thanks to Gavin Scott, Nev Hyman, and Peter Townend.