The evolution of the surfboard is an interesting thing to think about – especially when you start experimenting with different boards and building your own equipment.
Riding boards from different eras of surfing or designing boards in the spirit of something old feels a little bit like time travel.
Especially on a wave – if you’re only used to riding modern surfboards, you really get a sense for the importance that equipment and materials has had on surfing’s progression. There are just simply things you cannot do certain types of surfboards.
This page looks not only to stand as a timeline of dates, names, and events in the surfboard’s history, but also to examine the evolution of the surfboard at a high level.
The Evolution of the Surfboard
I think surfboard evolution can be summed up pretty simply if approached from a high level:
Surfboards began as long, heavy, and sustainable and evolved into something short, light, and less sustainable only to enter a new phase of evolution that combines elements from the past with materials from the future.
Much of the surfboard’s evolution and progression in surfing comes down to the materials available to make boards.
In the beginning, solid wood and hand tools were the only option. And that works, it still does today if you’ve got the strength to move it and the patience to whittle.
Boards began getting shorter and lighter as surfing spread. You had more minds thinking about what was possible on a wave and ways in which they could use their equipment to achieve whatever it was they were thinking.
The next logical steps were to hack off parts of the giant wood boards to make them smaller – easier to carry around and easier to maneuver in the water. Drilling some holes is also a good way to cut weight.
When you start cutting feet and 10s of pounds off a board, it’ll start to perform a lot differently. It would make you think what else was possible.
Boards got shorter, people started experimenting with bottom contours, rail shapes, and fins.
You were able to catch waves and maneuver in ways that had never been possible before. The shortboard revolution was upon us.
At the same time, the materials required to make these boards were toxic and won’t break down for thousands or millions of years. It feels like a really weird dichotomy between being so connected to the ocean while riding something that’s not that great for the environment.
Today, you can walk into a surf shop and find boards from almost every era of surfing and a mix of something new.
It seems like we’ve reentered a phase where shapers and surfers are more willing to experiment – in both shapes and materials. That seems like a good thing.
I think the perfect surfboard exists in something that’s fun in the waves at hand and is made from sustainable materials – ones that aren’t toxic and will have a long useful-life.
Experimentation is key and remaining curious as to what will work and how it will perform is a trait that has been and will continue to be super important to the evolution of the surfboard.
A Time-Line of the History of the Surfboard
While picking up a light-weight foam board wrapped in carbon fiber with removable fins to drive down to surf your local break, it can be easy to forget surfing’s simple, and sacred roots.
This section will look at some of the major events in surfing’s history that have brought us to where we are today.
Surfing originated long before Europeans ever reached the Hawaiian islands.
For ancient Polynesians, surfing was an important aspect of life. It was not only a pastime, but an art form, a means of fishing, and a symbol of status within a community.
Chiefs and nobles of higher status typically surfed bigger boards and had first pick of the best waves. They were also typically the most skilled surfers in the community.
Ancient Polynesians crafted surfboards from trees. The result was long (up to 25 feet) and heavy (up to 200 pounds) surfboards that were often ridden straight towards shore. The Hawaiians has 3 main types of surfboards:
- The Olo – the large 15ft+ solid wood boards.
- The Alaia – shorter and thinner solid wood board, but still quite heavy.
- The Paipo – much shorter solid wood board similar to a body board.
In 1778, during James Cook’s voyage to the Tahitian and Hawaiian islands on the HMS Discovery, Europeans witnessed surfing for the first time.
In the late 19th century and early 20th century, as more tourists became to travel to Hawaii and Waikiki, interest in surfing began to spread to the mainland USA.
In 1885, 3 Hawaiian princes who were attending school in San Mateo took a trip to Santa Cruz to surf the San Lorenzo Rivermouth on solid redwood boards.
In 1907, on a visit to Hawaii, Jack London tried surfing and wrote about in an an article titled, “A Royal Sport.”
That same year, Hawaiian George Freeth came to California to put on a surfing demonstration as part of a promotion for the opening of the Los Angeles-Redondo-Huntington railroad. Freeth traveled the Southern California coast and word of surfing spread.
Back in Hawaii, beach clubs at Waikiki and other popular tourist destinations formed and locals started giving surf lessons and photographing tourists.
In 1910, Tommy Walker returned to Australia from a trip to Hawaii with a 10 foot surfboard he bought there.
In 1914, Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku visited Australia and further spread the surfing there.
Surfboards at this time were still heavy, solid wood boards in the 8 foot to 16 foot range.
In 1926, Tom Blake drilled a number of holes in a 15-foot long redwood board and closed it up with two thinner layers of wood on each side to reduce weight. His inventions went on to become the first mass-produced surfboard.
The “Cigar Box” hollow surfboard was significantly lighter than its solid counterparts and became the popular choice for some time. However, this design was still difficult to maneuver in any way close to what we think of as surfing today.
By 1932, balsa wood was being used to shape surfboard and reduce the weight even more.
Throughout the late 20s and early 30s, there was also more experimentation with altering tail and rail designs to make the boards more maneuverable.
In 1935, Tom Blake added a keel from a boat to the tail of his board to see if it would give him more control. This ushered in the age of the surf fin.
Greater availability and advances in fiberglass and polyurethane technologies after Word War II in the late 40s and early 50s gave way to even greater advancements in board design.
PU foam cores replaced balsa leading to even lighter boards and more flexibility with shape.
Longboards in the 9-foot range were still the most popular shape at this time, however shapers and backyard board-builders were beginning to experiment with all sorts of things – including shorter boards.
During this time, Bob Simmons was experimenting with applying hydrodynamic theories of boat design to surfboards. Simmons is often credited with introducing rocker to surfboard design.
In the late 1950s, Jack O’Neill becgan producing and selling wetsuits for surfing in Santa Cruz, California. This opened up the sport to a lot more places and brought it out of being restricted to summer-weather only for many surfers.
By the 60s, surfboards were getting much shorter than they had been. Surfers were starting to realize that the shorter boards would allow them to get into more critical waves and do quicker maneuvers.
In the late 60s, George Greenough’s fin designs further aided with better control of the board. His fins were much thinner and raked out than the single fins at the time, and still remain a common fin choice today.
By the 70s, twin fins were becoming popular – allowing for more speed that the single.
The 70s also saw the introduction of the first removable fin box, which was developed by Bill Bahne who started Fins Unlimited in Encinitas, CA.
In 1971, Pat O’Neill (Jack O’Neil’s son) developed the surf leash – eliminating the need to swim after your board every time you fell – this made pushing your limits and trying new maneuvers much easier.
In 1980, Australian Simon Anderson introduced the thruster set up. Despite an underwhelming debut, the design took off in 1981 when Anderson won a competition at Bells with his new fin setup.
The classic shortboard with a narrow profile, pointed nose, and decent rocker was the popular design at the time. It wouldn’t really be until the late 90s and early 2000s that hybrid, retro, and alternative designs would come back into the mainstream.
In 1995, FCS developed their removable fin system, and Futures followed shortly after.
While the shortboard revolution of the 60s that influenced board design well into the 90s was driven by innovation and performance, the turn of the century seems to have brought up back to a place of experimentation.
In 2005, when Clark Foam, the biggest provider of surfboard blanks, shut down, many shapers and surfboard manufacturers were forced to rethink board materials.
This event, in addition to a greater focus and awareness on the environmental impacts of surfing, has led to greater innovation in surfboard materials to create boards that are more durable and eco-friendly.
In 2015, Kelly Slater unveiled his artificial wave at his Surf Ranch in Lemoore, California.
While other wave pools have existed for quite some time, Slater’s was one of the best to date. A handful of other wave pool companies have followed suit – continuing to push the design and quality of the artificial wave which is sure to have a huge impact on the progression of the sport.