The Rise and Dominance of Multi-Finned Surfboards:
with Regards to Competitive Surfing
and the Commercial Marketplace
By Seth Cannon
*While initially writing this article I hadn't yet conceived of it as part of a larger narrative but the deeper I got the more I realized that the story of the Quad was not a solitary one. It is inextricably linked to both the Twin and the Thruster. And, in turn, their stories intimately tied to the Quad. It became apparent that to do any justice to the winding history of any multi-finned surf design required the acknowledgement of the interconnected nature of their stories. To this end here is part 2 of what will be a three part history of multi-finned surfboards. For now, “A (very) Brief History of Two Fins” will stand in as part 1, with part 3 which will deal with (obviously) 3 finned surfboards, most notably the Thruster, to come next. With that said, I give you part 2...
The Plight of the Quad
2005 was a pivotal year for the surfboard. The closing of Clark Foam in December of ’05 created a void in the surf industrial complex both materially and somehow ideologically. The quad certainly benefited from the emerging pluralism in the surf world caused by this void but by this point it was already gaining traction. Earlier that year on a (big) Wednesday in March, Anthony Tashnick rode a William ‘Stretch’ Riedel shaped quad to victory in the ‘Men Who Ride Mountains’ contest at Mavericks. This wasn’t the first time a notable pro contest had been won on a quad nor was this the first time the world had seen a quad ridden at Mavericks; Jeff Clark had been doing so since the ’90s. This time, however, was different. The surf world took note and in January ’06 Surfer Magazine named Stretch shaper of the year noting both his fin theories and the big wave success of his boards.
Things had already been lining up for the quad to enter the mainstream surf consciousness as a viable option. With the refinement of removable fin systems in the mid-’90s surfers now had the freedom and opportunity to experiment with multiple fin setups and they could now safely take the “risk” of trying a quad. Additionally the ‘retro’ and ‘ride anything’ movements, which spawned the return of the fish and it’s genetic offspring, the quad fish, had helped to foster a niche in the market. In came the “alternative shortboard” (as ambiguously named as its musical counterpart) many of which happened to be quads.
But it’s not the how or why of the quad’s leap into mainstream relevance that’s confounding, it’s the conditions that conspired to keep 4 fins a fringe concept for over two decades that’s a bit perplexing. The quad and the thruster share a parallel origin story. Both were developed in the waning hours of the late 70s in Australia and both were a response to the frustration that almost everyone, other than Mark Richards, was having transitioning from single to twin fins. The quad, however, didn’t experience the breakout competitive success of Simon Anderson’s thruster. Unlike the thruster, which seemed dialed straight out of the gate, the quad seemed to need a bit more R&D. This did not bode well for four fins.
With the advent of the thruster, its proven competitive success and its ability to surf waves large and small in a radical high performance fashion, a single champion had arisen from the melee of the shortboard revolution and the industry pounced on it. The surf industry was moving further away from its cottage roots and well on its way to becoming the $10 billion industry that it is today. A singular vision of the surfboard and surfing was perfect for a growing industry finding its voice. It also fit surfing’s somewhat conservative and dogmatic cultural tendencies. Nectar Surfboards, the original distributor of the thruster, failed to grasp this vision of the future early on and when team rider Greg Mungall approached them about adding a tri fin to his lineup of models, they refused feeling it was Anderson’s thing. They suggested he try four.
The tri fin had captured the surfing world’s attention and the quad fin was sunk. Maybe it was simply misunderstood. Many regarded it as an offshoot of the twin fin and it was seen similarly as only suitable for small waves. Others saw a thruster with an extra fin, but why? The tri fin “worked.” In spite of the widespread rejection, quads still had supporters. Rusty Preisendorfer has been a quad enthusiast believing quads to be faster and looser than tri finned boards. Bruce McKee has proselytize the virtues of 4 fins for decades through his ‘Mission Quattro’, a project he has continually tried to share. Over the years he shaped boards for the likes of Tom Curren, Sunny Garcia and more recently Kelly Slater. Somehow the surf media failed to notice and few outside of shapers and serious board nerds have ever heard the name Bruce McKee.
Then there’s Glen Winton. Winton started riding quads on tour the same year the thruster made its debut. Claiming to have arrived at the fin arrangement after knocking two fins off a six finned board, he would go on to ride the design to multiple event wins on tour, climbing as high as a fifth place ranking in ’85. More significantly he also pioneered the tail-sliding, fin-drifting maneuvers that would become the basis for what the Momentum Generation would accomplish some ten years later. Still, even with the competitive success and innovation of four fins under the feet of Winton, the industry at large failed or outright refused, depending who you ask, to acknowledge any acceptable fin number other than three...