Len Barrow shows and talks about different surfing fin configurations: single fin, twin fin, quad, and thruster setups.
What’s Up with Fin Configurations?
Understanding Surfing and SUP fin configurations can be a daunting task. Everyone seems to be an expert and has a theory that they believe is infallible. The following article will sort out all the fin configurations and give you a basic yet delicate view of the pros and cons of various fin set ups. When reading this article it is important to understand that these ideas are only broad generalizations designed to give the reader a more open view of how fin set-ups can work. This article is not meant to be a definitive guide to fin configuration. It would take an encyclopedia to explain how fin set -up, rocker, tail block design, hip, etc. interact together. Yet to have a good general understanding of configuration will maximize the enjoyment of your surfing or SUPing experience.
The Single Fin
The single fin can have the reputation for being obsolete in some circles. I am especially surprised that SUP surfers rarely experiment with the single fin. I believe the single fin is a gem and greatly under-utilized. As the first modern fin setup, the single fin was designed as a keel to keep the boards tails from “sliding ass” in 60’s surf lingo. The fin simply holds the tail in the water and allows the board to be trimmed at an angle in the wave, either left or right. The early single fins were huge and very deep in length. They look obsolete but let us remember that the single fin opened up breaks like Pipeline and Waimea bay to surfing possibilities. As surfing evolved into the 70’s the single fin became shorter, narrower and more raked (refer to previous article on fins).
The modern single fin is great fun and I hope people experiment with them more in the SUP surfing community. My impression of the modern single fin is that it is fast. There is less fin area than that of a Quad, Tri-fin and even a Twin. When I first came off my three-fin to surf a single fin some time ago, I was a bit nervous. When I rode the single I was quite surprised. It was as if my tri-fin was like a bicycle with training wheels (the tri-fins outer fins being the training wheels). When I rode the single fin it was like I shed my side baby-training wheels. I was going faster, pivoting sharply, and generally having a great time. Yet on the flip side, like riding a two wheeled bike, it took some time to get used to.
Nose riding was a breeze as single fins are designed with greater height and therefore hold the tail down more efficiently when you stand on the nose. To this day single fins are still the state of the art for nose riding. Yet depending who you ask singles can be criticized for being a bit “tight” and the turning arc of a single fin is very unusual as it can be very sharp due to the lack of side fins of a thruster. The definite advantage of a single fin is that it rarely spins out and holds quite well in the barrel. Also when you set a line on the wave from point A to point B, a single will take you there. They are very “drivey” and hold a line even in barrelling waves. If you don’t believe this, take a look what Gerry Lopez was doing at Pipe in the 1970’s. Another great example of what a single can do is Shaun Thompson’s performance at Off the Wall in 1976. He was actually pumping and weaving in the barrel on a single. Only a handful of guys can do that today on their tri-fins! Open your mind and try a single, especially if you are a SUP surfer (as I rarely see this set up on a SUP). You might find yourself pleasantly surprised.
The Twin Fin
The twin fin is the next step in the evolution of fin set up and surfboard design. Mr Steve Liz is often credited for the earliest twin fin but many shapers including Ben Aipa played a dominant role in the development of the “Twinney”.
The twin fin essentially ”loosened” up the single fin. Instead of having a center fin it was deleted and replaced with two shorter side fins, which were set higher on the tail block. This had the effect of drastically changing the performance character of the surfboard. Twins had and have a lively “get up and go” character to them. They are very loose and can have a much tighter pivoting arc as compared to the single fin. The twin feeling is indeed unique and hard to describe. They feel slick and lively and are indeed quick.
The twin fin has a downside. When the waves get big and hollow the twin lacks the drive and hold of a single fin or tri-fin. They tend to slide out in the barrel and may lose traction in big waves when you bottom turn. Despite all of the above, technique can overcome all of the twin’s shortcoming and maximize all of its positive attributes. Mark Richards did gouging cutbacks and vertical off the lips at ten foot (twenty foot faces) Sunset beach on a twinney! If you have never surfed a twin set up you should definitely try it. It can turn a board that feels like a dog into a lively gem. My great buddy and longtime friend Tommy Chun Min (the hardest “core” surfer I have ever met!), Hawaii’s SUP surfing state champ, surfs twins exclusively and maximizes the flow, looseness and quickness this design is capable of. Again I see the twin as under-utilized by the SUP community and I do hope that people will experiment with it more.
History: In 1980, a man called Simon Anderson changed the surfing world. He was a muscular and tall Australian. Mr. Anderson found that twins fins were limited in their performance envelope. He would often overpower his twin fin in cutbacks and larger waves. As Mr. Anderson was a shaper he came to a wonderful solution. He kept the twin fin placement yet added a third fin in the rear. Voila….the Thruster or tri fin was born. If he had taken out a patent on this design he would be a millionaire or more as everyone rides tri-fins today. They work well on shortboards, longboards and SUP surfing boards.
Character performance pros: There is a reason why Simon Anderson named his new creation a Thruster. The fin configuration had the looseness and maneuverability of a twin yet held the characteristics of a single. The Tri fin could hold a line deep in the barrel and would rarely slide out in critical off the lips. The tri fin had an “x-factor” to its performance that is hard to describe in writing. Loose, yet directional, the tri fin is still the state of the art thirty years later.
Surfing performance took quantum leaps after Mr. Anderson created the tri fin. Many people criticized him, including the famous California shaper Al Merrick. Mr. Merrick famously stated that: “you can’t make a board better by putting more fins on it”. Simon Anderson quickly proved the tri-fins worth in a rapid array of stunning victories on the world tour. One victory was at heavy Bells Beach. The other victory was at Pipeline in the same year! Within six months of this everyone converted to the thruster. It remains this way to the present day. If you have never tried a thruster, even on your Sup, you should set one up today.
History: The Quad fin was a further evolution developed out of the tri-fin. Some surfers felt that the tri- fin was too tight and the still preferred the ultra- looseness of the twin fin. The question being asked was; “how could you keep the maneuverability of the twin fin but add a little bit of drive (directionality) to it”. Al Merrick and Ben Aipa among others developed a solution. They took the twin fin and added two smaller fins in back of them. The quad was developed!
Quads are amazing fins. One word to describe a quad is that they are fast. The extra two back fins allow you to pump the board down the line. This characteristic gives them tremendous speed. These boards are almost too fast. Quads also draw a different pivot arc in the critical section. With a thruster you are limited to a fairly tight arc in the critical section as the rear fin holds you in place. The quad allows you to “blow tail”. This means that a quad can maintain a critical arc but also allows a bit of flare in the lip. If a surfer or Sup rider is skilled enough, a four fin can be thrown in to an off the lip and the tail released in a “power slide” that is beautiful to watch. Just watch Kelly Slater’s amazing victory at the 2011 US open. This was all done on a quad. If you have not ridden a quad you should try one. It will definitely liven up your surfing.
It is most important to try every type of fin configuration. Never narrow your mind to ride only one design. Pay attention to what you ride. Quietly feel out every fin configuration while you surf. If you simply allow yourself to focus on the fins-set ups characteristics you will definitely be engaged in a type of meditation. It is a wonderful thing to do.
To myself, surfing is like a long road with many adventures. If you open yourself to the many possibilities that surfing allows, your mind will become more focused. This is one of the great features of our sport whether it be SUP or Surfing. Having the ability to become more focused will definitely enhance your happiness and enjoyment of life. Should I ride a single, twin, tri fin or quad? Ride them all!