To mark the 30th anniversary of Simon Anderson’s game-changing contribution to surfboard—the thruster—we caught up with him to talk story about the origins of his revolutionary invention. And by the way, you can catch him at Sacred Craft this weekend in San Diego, where he’s being honored with a tribute to the masters shape off.—Casey Koteen
What was the actual day you put a third fin on a board?
I don’t know, but I think it was sometime in the second week of October of 1980.
What was that light bulb moment like?
Well leading up to it I’d been on tour, and getting my ass kicked in small waves for years. The tour was expanding and going to more small wave events and was very scheduled, and the surf was a secondary concern. So I was riding a twin fin, Mark Richards was setting the standard, and other people had adopted it like Shaun Tomson, Dane Keoloha, and some others. So I was mucking around with twin fins, trying to make a good one, and I’d come up with one that was pretty good in two-foot surf. But I’d struggle with it when the waves got bigger. So I’d go from my twinnie to the single fin when the waves were bigger, and I’d be perfectly happy, but there was the problem situation in two to four foot surf where the single fin was a bit stiff and slow, and the twin fin was a bit fast and loose.
We had a break in October and I saw Frank Williams with his twin fin and little thing on the back, and asked him what it did. He said it was a trigger point, it made the twin fin more stable. That’s when I figured, okay, that’s my big problem. I’ll make the twin fin real stable and put a whole fin back there, and that was the light bulb moment. I went that afternoon or the next day, and made that first board.
Did it go great right away?
Yeah, it was a very good board. I was looking to make a board for two-to-four- foot surf, and the first surf I had on it at good Narrabeen was a bit bigger than the target surf. I thought it would be pretty loose, but it turned out not to be the case. From the very first wave the board went great and connected through turns like nothing I’d ever surfed before.
So it felt like a quantum leap right away?
I remember seeing a picture of Glenn Winton back in the 80s holding a board with something crazy like nine fins. Did you ever think, “Okay, three is good. Maybe four, five, six or more will be even better?”
Not really, although someone else tried five fins before me. When we first put three fins on it seemed like such a big deal to have three on there instead of two or one. Plus everything was glass on fins back then, so it was a big effort to sand around all those fins, so the idea of five didn’t appeal to me as a manufacturer. And there was a lot of work to do in developing the shape of the three-fin board.
Ultimately a lot of people did a lot of great work in developing the shape of the thruster, the shape and placement of the fins, and that sort of stuff.
Are you ever surprised that 30 years later, even though some other fin configurations have enjoyed temporary popularity, that the thruster still completely dominates the market?
Well I’ve been hoping that there’d be something else just as revolutionary that would come along. It really helps surfing go to higher levels. If you look at where people have taken the performance of three fin boards, it’s amazing. It’s hard to imagine guys could go faster or get higher than they’re doing right now. But who knows, if there is another breakthrough in design, then everyone benefits, not just the guys at the top end of the sport. Older guys and beginners benefit from design advances, too. So I say, bring on the new thing! I’ve been looking forward to it because it’ll help my surfing.
Do you ever laugh at the retro movement that’s been going on for a while, where people are basically moving backwards, riding twin fins and single fins—boards and design you guys were riding 30 years ago?
No, I don’t laugh at anyone riding anything. It can be practical to go backwards because we’ve gone so far forward that we’ve left the average guy behind. He struggles with the modern equipment that the pros ride. It’s hard to paddle and catch waves on those boards. Once you’re on the wave the performance is fantastic. But it’s like an Formula One car, you don’t need one to go down to the market to get the groceries.
So in a way it’s a practical and necessary step, and it’s good that it’s gone that way. Part of my work as a shaper these days is making boards that enable me to catch waves efficiently, but still be able to surf as good as I want.
Well, everyone owes you one when it comes to design evolution, that’s for sure.
Maybe, but I’ve only ever done things for myself and to help my surfing out. I figure if I could find ways to surf waves better, that I could pass it on to other people. I was lucky enough to be where I was, and I worked hard on my surfing and shaping, and I’m happy that I’ve been able to contribute.
I was just lucky to be at that point in time when the latest three fin design had to come out at some point, and I was just in and around when it did. If I didn’t come up with it right then, there were a lot of other people at the time that were working towards that same end goal.
I’m just fortunate, 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.