Simon Anderson surfing in Australia

Sports technology: surfboard design

The ever-evolving world of surfing has seen board design move on a long way since the days of balsa-wood longboards and the Beach Boys.

Like many British surfers, my first experience of riding waves was on a wooden bellyboard on the Cornish coast. The design of this plywood surf craft was as simple as it gets because it wasn't built to do anything other than be buoyant and go straight forward on a broken wave.

As a student in the late 1970s I graduated to 'real' surfboards: heavy, pointy-nosed, single-fin models, which were far removed from the lightweight, high-tech boards of the 21st century.

There have been huge changes in surfboard design since my early days of riding waves: improvements in plan shape and rail (edge) design, and the addition of channels on the underside (for more drive) through the late 1980s. Narrower boards, with increased rocker and concave bottoms, came in the 90s. More recently we have seen the introduction of quad (four-fin) boards, with manufacturers using different materials and resins and moving to computer-aided design (CAD).

But the most ubiquitous design innovation remains the three-fin Thruster introduced by the Australian competitive surfer Simon Anderson in 1981. Despite being over 30 years old, this design is still used on the vast majority of surfboards for the simple reason that it offers predictable drive and direction – in effect more 'thrust' – out of turns.

I interviewed Anderson recently, and he said the beauty of his design is that it allows the average surfer to have one board that works really well in surf from one or two feet up to six feet in size – the kind of waves the average surfer likes best.

But what of the future? Surely an exciting, vibrant sport such as this can't be so reliant on a design that's over 30 years old?

Well no, fortunately not. Chris 'Guts' Griffiths, a longboarder who was once ranked number five in the world, is now one of the UK's most renowned surfboard shapers running Guts Surfboards on the Gower Peninsula in South Wales. He says: 'The general trend at the moment is for boards to be a little shorter, fatter and wider, which makes them more manoeuvrable as well as giving them enough volume to float well; this makes boards easier to surf for all levels of surfer'.

He adds, though, that surfers tend to be rather conservative. "They only really accept change if they see the pros using a particular design; if Kelly Slater [11-times world champion] uses it, then your average surfer will probably adopt it eventually!"

This means that the long, slim, pointy-nose 'dart' shape of the 1990s is still very common. However, at the other end of the scale are shapes like Griffiths' own UFO model and US company Firewire's Cornice, neither of which looks much like a traditional surfboard.

According to Griffiths, a big change is going on in surfboard design just now, moving away from the established dart shape to something that resembles a wakeboard or snowboard. He describes his own UFO design as a hybrid. "By giving the board an extra wide nose and tail it maximises the planing area while keeping the overall length down. The upshot is that you have a shorter board that paddles more easily and catches waves better, but without losing performance. Because the design has straighter rail,s it also results in a super-fast, responsive board that surfs better than most regular shapes. In effect, you have a board that is easier to use and better to ride."

The Cornice, too, attempts to provide intermediate to expert surfers with this 'holy grail' of easier surfing and better performance. Interestingly, the design is influenced by that of wind turbine blades. It came about through collaboration between Firewire designer Dan Mann and Eduardo Cenzano, managing director and lead engineer at board sports specialist Trinity Technologies.Firewire says the Cornice's 'side cut' design allows water to flow more smoothly through the 'waist' of the board rather than buffeting against it. This reduces the water pressure from the wave, making the board's response more intuitive and enabling the surfer to pull off more radical manoeuvres.

Mann says the aim was to make the board behave predictably in waves from two to six feet (0.6–1.8m). "The design results in it requiring less force and time to tip the board onto its rail," he explains. However this meant using a 'step rail' design through what is an unusually wide tail to prevent it 'spinning out' of the wave face during vigorous manoeuvres, creating a blade-like profile in the tail rail, which acts like an additional fin in some respects.

It's not just surfboard shapes that are seeing major changes; construction materials are moving on. Early boards were made from wood, particularly balsa, then from the 1960s from 'blanks' of polyurethane or polystyrene foam with a glass-fibre outer layer, and of late from expanded polystyrene with epoxy resin.

Custom-shaped boards still tend to use the polyurethane/fibreglass combination because it's easier to work with, while 'off-the-peg' boards are more likely to be an expanded polystyrene/epoxy resin mix, which is lightweight and durable.

It's also becoming more common to employ carbon fibre on stress areas, especially in the tail and along the stringer, to alter the flex and increase the strength of the board.

As surfing grows in popularity, the larger manufacturers are using CAD to produce boards to standard designs.

But I'll give the last word to Griffiths: "Personally I love each and every process of shaping a surfboard, and I think my customers are appreciative of the time and effort that goes into crafting their new ride completely by hand."

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