Surf Science: 30 And Counting

Simon Anderson’s revolutionary three-fin design celebrates its 30th anniversary.

Sacred Craft Surfboard Expo will be honoring Simon Anderson’s thruster this weekend in San Diego. If you’re in the area check it out. Head here for more info on Sacred Craft.

Simon Anderson did more than invent the thruster, he put it through some of the most rigorous testing in the early stages. Photo: Divine

Simon Anderson did more than invent the thruster, he put it through some of the most rigorous testing in the early stages. Photo: Divine

It’s amazing that the most important invention in modern surfing—the three-fin thruster design—happened 30 years ago, and is still found on the vast majority of surfboards today. What’s more amazing is that it happened thanks largely to a chance pass by on the beach.

In October of 1980, Australian pro surfer and shaper Simon Anderson was walking up the beach at Narrabeen, when he bumped into fellow shaper Frank Williams. At the time the twin fin was the dominant design, though it was much more maneuverable than the single fin, many felt it was too squirrely. To address the stability issues, Williams had attached a small half-moon shaped fin on the tail of his twinny.

Anderson had been doing well on the world tour, especially when the surf was bigger, riding his single fin. And when it was two foot and below he’d worked out a good twin fin design. But there was this problem zone of two-to-four-foot surf where neither design excelled. When he saw Williams’ fin tweak, the light bulb went off. picture-1

He went back to the shop and made the first thruster. People had put three fins on boards before (notably the Campbell brothers, Dick Brewer, and others), but this was the first time someone had put three equal sized fins on, and right away Simon knew he was on to something monumental. “From the very first wave the board went great,” he remembers. “It connected through turns like nothing I’d ever surfed before.”

He immediately knew it was a quantum leap, but it didn’t catch on right away. To silence skepticism, Anderson went on to win back-to-back victories the next year in Australia, one of them at the infamous Bells Beach Classic of 1981, held in fifteen-foot-plus surf. For good measure, he also won the Pipe Masters that winter in Hawaii, and by then, the Thruster revolution was in full swing.

The Thruster fin setup has been fine-tuned over the years, but the central elements of the design have stayed the same. It seems as though just about everything else about the surfboard has changed since then, but Anderson’s idea has outlasted almost all other design innovations.

However, Simon isn’t overly nostalgic about the thruster. In fact, he’s ready for someone to one up his contribution. “I’ve been hoping that something else just as revolutionary would come along,” he says. “If there’s another breakthrough in design, then everyone benefits, not just the guys at the top end of the sport. Older guys, beginners, are all benefitted by design advances. So I say, bring on the new thing! I’ve been looking forward to it because it’ll help my surfing.”

Over the years Anderson has been understated about his contribution, and missing the opportunity to make millions off it by patenting his invention. “If I didn’t come up with it right then, there were a lot of other people at the time that were working toward that same end goal,” he says. “I’m just fortunate, and happy to contribute. I’m not owed anything by anyone, but you can give me a wave out in the surf if you want to.”—Casey Koteen