The history of hydrodynamics in surfing starts before humans even knew what hydrodynamics were or even called the activity surfing at all!
The first documented contact the western world had with surfing was when Captain James Cook visited the islands of Hawaii for the first time in 1779.
Surfing was originally part of Hawaiian culture and religion with massive importance set on the size of boards and on the ability to ride big waves.
At this time the boards were very primitive, basically, wood planks made out of a handful of types of wood from around the islands. They did, however, have various sizes of boards with the largest boards being reserved for their community and religious leaders.
The most common board template was the Alaia, a long flat piece of wood in varying lengths with a round nose, square tail, and no fin.
The First Fin
Boards didn’t change much over the next 150 years. They remained similar in shape and were still made of wood. It wasn’t until legendary, Tom Blake moved to Hawaii and adopted the “Aloha Lifestyle.”
Tom Blake developed many different innovations to surfboards including hollow boards, chambered boards, sailboards using an umbrella.
In 1926, he developed the first skag for a surfboard which is now known as the “fin.”
The fin totally changed the world of surfing forever, giving the surfer greater agility and ability to make bottom turns.
Introduction of the Round Tail
Different shaped tails existed but the overwhelming majority of boards were still square tail. That was until the round tail became popular in the early 1960’s.
With the combination of a fin and a round tail, surfers could now turn with greater ease. The round tail also helped maintain speed both when turning and in the flats.
This gave surfers the ability to ride bigger waves because they could make bottom turns and clear sections that were previously impossible.
California Twin Fins
The first twin fin was recorded to be built by Bob Simmons in California in 1948. These were two fins set at the very back of the board with a square tail.
Several decades later Bear Marandin, surfboard shaper in La Jolla, coupled the Twin Fins with a split tail design in 1967. This went on to become the “Twin Fin” or “Fish” shape that is still widely used.
Explosion of Innovation in the 1970’s
The 1950’s and 60’s were the pioneer days of surfing and responsible for introducing surfing to the western world. But it was the 1970’s that truly lead to surfing being excelled as a sport going from recreational, to commercial, to professional.
In the 1970’s, hydrodynamics really became part of the engineering of new shapes and shaping techniques. Polyurethane fiberglass around carved foam planks became the standard for surfboards. This gave shapers greater freedom to precisely change the hydrodynamics of surfboards.
The major breakthrough came with the introduction of a V bottom. The bottom of the surfboard was convex, with the stringer being the deepest part of the board and trimmed towards the rail. Having a convex bottom allowed for better transition from rail to rail which resulted in tighter turns and “rail surfing”.
V bottoms naturally drove shapers to shape smaller boards with smaller fins. Being able to turn tighter and with more responsiveness gave way to a whole new type of surfing and was the origin of the shortboard era.
It was Michael Hinson that made the Tri-fin set up popular; giving surfer the ability to have greater stability in turns without losing speed or having to slow down before carving.
Age of the Thruster
In the 1980’s, the boards were getting smaller, utilizing the tri-fin setup and convex shaping techniques.
Just like that, the “thruster” was born.
The thruster fin set up is a three fin setup that can be adapted to fit virtually any tail shape, board length, and riding style.
When it was coupled with a shorter board with less volume and a V-bottom, it led to a whole new style of surfing. Now surfers were not just carving and making sections, they were starting surf waves top to bottom and “snapping” off the lip.
This style of surfing really optimized what a surfer could do with any wave above waist high and score more points in competitive surfing with the ability to do turns and stay in the critical section of the wave.
1990’s - Hydrodynamics going from theory to Practice
In the height of the thruster era, shapers starting to experiment with different bottom shapes and straying away from the V-bottom as the standard.
Because three fins cause a lot of drag, shapers were looking for ways to reduce drag in other parts of the board. Naturally, the concave (as opposed to convex) technique became popular because of its ability to reduce drag and create lift.
This is when the “drag coefficient” was introduced. This is a measurement used to measure the amount of drag and lift a board creates. This would become the method to develop new boards; with fins creating drag and concave bottoms creating lift to equal something that was both turnable and fast.
Modern Methods of Hydrodynamics
Today the world of surfboard shapes and techniques is as calculated as it is diverse. There are shapers that are pushing the limits with new styles and techniques and others that are finding ways to perfect older techniques.
The newest, and debatably the most effective technique to get the perfect drag coefficient is called “Hydro Rails.” This technique is widely used but shapers like Tim Bessell are really putting it into practical use.
The Hydro Rail design utilizes various techniques together to optimize both lift and drag. It consists of using two different types of concave (single to double concave) and continuing the concave all the way to the nose. This single to double approach allows for optimized performance at every stage of turn and pressure point. Continuing the concave all the way to the nose reduces drag that is created with boards with more rocker in the nose and decreased rocker towards the center.
Trying to get the best lift/drag coefficient is like marrying a football with a 2x4 plank of wood. Hydro rail design gives you drag and lift in all of the right places
- Tim Bessell
Check out Bessell Surfboards the “Barracuda” which utilizes the Hydro rail technique!
“The Barracuda is not your average fish. Fast, cunning, and aggressive is its nature, which is exactly what this board is. Full volume in the chest foiled through the nose makes paddling a breeze. Both the nose and tail are pulled in to give more performance than any fish you’ve ever seen.”