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How Did The “Thruster” Change Surfing?

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Aired 8/12/10

How did Simon Anderson's three-finned "Thruster" surfboard design change the sport of surfing? We speak to Anderson about what inspired him to shape the "Thruster." We also speak to Scott Bass and Jim Kempton about the impact Anderson's design has had on surfing.

The Sacred Craft Consumer Surfboard Expo will take place this weekend at the San Diego Convention Center. Admission is $10. For more info go to sacredcraftexpo.com.

Surfer/Shaper Simon Anderson is the creator of the three-finned "Thruster" surfboard.
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Above: Surfer/Shaper Simon Anderson is the creator of the three-finned "Thruster" surfboard.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Surfing has gone through some revolutionary innovations that have transformed the sport. For instance, the use of fiberglass for surfboard construction, and the introduction of the shortboard. One of those transformative innovations happened in the 1980s with a surfboard known as the Thruster. Just a few short years after it was introduced in surfing competitions, the tri-fin design of the Thruster had taken over in both competitive and recreational surfing. This year, at the Sacred Craft Consumer Surfboard Expo here in San Diego, Simon Anderson, the surfing champion who designed the Thruster is being honored, and it's a pleasure to have him on the show today. Good morning, Simon.

SIMON ANDERSON (Surfboard Designer): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Thanks for being here.

ANDERSON: My pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: I’d also like to welcome Scott Bass. He’s curator of the Sacred Craft Consumer Surfboard Expo, and Scott does the surf reports weekday mornings right here on KPBS. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT BASS (Curator, Sacred Craft Consumer Surfboard Expo): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And Jim Kempton is the president of the California Surf Museum in Oceanside. Jim is also the former editor and publisher of Surfer magazine. Good morning, Jim.

JIM KEMPTON (President, California Surf Museum): How are you today?

CAVANAUGH: Good. Thank you. Now we’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. If you have a question or a comment for surfing great Simon Anderson about his career or about the Thruster, give us a call right now, 1-888-895-5727. Well, congratulations on this 30th anniversary of this remarkable innovation, Simon.

ANDERSON: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder if you could take us back to your thought process that went into the design of this surfboard?

ANDERSON: Yes, well, it was back in the days of single fins and twin fins, of course, and three fins had been done before in the past but in a different configuration. So I was on the world tour and the tour’s expanding at that stage, that’s the professional surfing tour, and we were going to more and more places that had small surf and I’m a big guy, as your radio audience can see.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, indeed.

ANDERSON: So I was kind of struggling in the small conditions and the twin fin was the popular design of the day and it worked really well in small surf so I really had some trouble there. And being a surfboard maker as well as a professional surfer, you know, there was something I could do about it. So that was kind of the environment.

CAVANAUGH: Right, now, you know, it may be surprising to people now but you were one of the top surfers in the world at the time and you also shaped your own boards. Was that common?

ANDERSON: No, not very common.

CAVANAUGH: Okay.

ANDERSON: But more common back then than today. These days, there’s no surfer shapers on the tour.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I wonder, as I say, you were a top surfer on the single fin and then came the two fins and they didn’t do too well for you because, as you say, you’re a big guy and you need that kind of power. So what are the key elements of the Thruster design? How did it differ from not only the one- and two-finned boards but the other three-finned boards that were out at the time?

ANDERSON: Well, essentially, in the end, as it turned out, the three-fin Thruster board, it combined the best elements of both designs, the twin fin and the single fin. The single fin was quite stable but a little bit slow. The twin fin, very loose and fast but not very stable. So it ended up being a design revolution. You know, it turned out amazingly well, better than I could’ve possibly imagined. And I was really – I was just looking for a board that was going to work in this gray area that I had where my twin fin was okay in one to two foot surf, small surf. My single fin was fine in four foot plus surf. It was just this little area where the twin fin was too loose and the single fin was too slow. So I was looking to fill that gap and one day I was at Narrabeen. A friend of mine who’s a shaper from there, Frank Williams, he had a twin fin and he was mucking around. He’d actually had a whole single fin on the back and he sanded it right down so that the board would be loose enough because with a big single fin and the twin fin, it was a bit stiff. So he ended up with this tiny little thing at the back, and I said, what’s that do, Frank? His name’s Frank Williams.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

ANDERSON: And he said that helps make the twin fin stable. And that’s what I was really looking for is a stable twin fin. So I thought I’m going to make this real stable and I put a fin back there, and the rest is history.

CAVANAUGH: The rest is history.

ANDERSON: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: You know, hearing you describe it, Simon, it sounds as if maybe the competitive circuit was a little bit more wide open in those days. Was it? Was it a little looser?

ANDERSON: Looser? No, it was – we were actually paving the way for today’s tour that you see now with the super professional athletes that are going around. But back then we had Shane Horan, who was really setting that trend of training and being super professional and Mark Richards, who was holding him out, who was, you know, obviously our greatest champion to that point until Kelly came along. So that tour, it was pretty loose. I was pretty loose on the tour. But it was a little bit looser back then but now, of course, well, there was less money involved and we were, in effect, pioneering the tour and trying to develop it. Trying to get it a professional sport where we could make money out of it and, you know, make a career out of it and not have to – you know, it would’ve been great if I didn’t have to shape but I did have to shape to get by. So a little bit looser but still the forerunner of what you see today.

CAVANAUGH: I want to get in our other guests into our conversation but I also want to invite our audience. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, if you’d like to join the conversation. We do have a caller. Jeffrey is calling from San Diego. And good morning, Jeffrey. Welcome to These Days.

JEFFREY (Caller, San Diego): Hey, thank you. Hi, Simon, I’m a big fan.

ANDERSON: Thank you.

JEFFREY: I’m a big guy, too. I happen to be a big fan of the Twinser shape for its speed and looseness. But I was wondering if you still experiment with design and if there’s any other designs that you’ve used, I guess, besides the Thruster these days since, you know, a lot of the older shapes are kind of coming back into style. And I’ll take your answer off the air. Thank…

ANDERSON: Yeah, sure. I’m working on a few things. I ride – I have models that are quads and I ride quads now and again. I’ve got standup boards that are essentially a single fin with the small side fins kind of like a tri-fin back in the old days. I’m continually working on boards that are going to help me surf. As I get older, I’m 56, so I need a little bit more help these days. I’m not as fit as I’d like to be, kind of like all of us, I guess. So there’s a super amount of work for me to keep doing on design and, you know, I’m still doing that and I’m really enjoying it.

CAVANAUGH: I want to bring in Scott Bass and I know that at the Sacred Craft Expo, you are celebrating the 30th anniversary and, of course, Simon is going to be there and you’re going to have a whole sort of shaping contest and all of that. But I want to take you back and you don’t look like you can remember the 1980s but I’m going to ask you if you could. And do you remember when you first started seeing people riding Thrusters? And when did you get your first one?

BASS: Yeah, I do, and it was an exciting time, obviously, in surfboard design. I was one of those guys that sort of held out for a little bit. I don’t think I got a Thruster until 1983 and I was always, you know, a few years behind the design curve, so to speak. But it was a very exciting time for the surfboard industry and it should be noted that, you know, I don’t know if there’s a correlation but when the Thruster came on the scene it was also a time when the surf industry and surfing in general was starting to sort of get bigger, get larger, more mainstream, if you will. And it was certainly a lot easier for surfers to begin surfing when the Thruster was on the scene. Learning on a single fin, you know, it took a lot more time. You needed a good wave and as a beginner it’s hard to surf in good waves. And so I think that there’s probably some credit due to Simon with – in regard to the growth of the industry during the eighties.

CAVANAUGH: And, Jim, I want to bring you in because you were editor and publisher of Surfer magazine when Simon unveiled the Thruster and I want to get the feeling, what was that like at the time? What do you think it did for surfing?

KEMPTON: Well, it was a tremendous amount of experimentation that was going on during that era. It was really right on the heels of the twin fins. Twin fins had really only begun to be accepted themselves and the professional surfers were the ones that were using them more than anyone at that stage and so it was going through a design revolution that really we’ve only had a couple of in the entire history of surfing. And what was interesting about the Thruster and Simon’s design was that it became the dominant design aspect of surfboards with regards to fins for the next two decades. Virtually was nothing else that was ridden until nearly the turn of the millennium.

CAVANAUGH: Well, everybody who knows anything about surfing and, believe me, I know very little but knows the incredible colorful language that you guys use to describe everything from the water to your boards. And I know that in describing the Thruster, Jim, you said it had three nails in the face. What does that mean?

KEMPTON: What I was talking about is just that one of the things about a single fin that is a difficulty is that they’re big and they’re stiff and they’re either in and sort of holding you aboard or they’re out and it’s completely loose. The thing about the Thruster was that it was able, because it had three fins, to actually have a fin engaged on the face of the wave wherever that was in places that people had never really put their boards before. And while twin fins could do that as well, there was always – there was much less stability involved, as Simon mentioned, so the idea of combining the idea of the power and the torque that you get out of a single fin and the looseness and the ability to put yourself in positions that twin fins have was a combination that allowed surfing performance to really expand.

CAVANAUGH: We’re taking your calls if you’d like to join the conversation. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. Ian is calling from Solana Beach. Good morning, Ian. Welcome to These Days.

IAN (Caller, Solana Beach): Morning, Maureen. I have a question for your panel. Most wind surfboards and, I guess, standup boards are now made out of – in a lot more high tech than the older boards are. In fact, they would consider the older boards to be pretty well obsolete in those sports. So I want to have your panel’s opinion on carbon fiber epoxy and vacuum bagging in molds, which is the current way in which almost all of those boards are made today.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Anyone want to take that?

BASS: Simon, why don’t you step in?

ANDERSON: Hmm, that’s a toughie. You know, I’ve kind of stuck with the regular PU foam and fiberglass and people have tried epoxies in our game, in the shortboard game, over the years many times and it seems like after awhile they go back to the PU so, you know, there’s a lot of stuff to deal with when you’re making surfboards with the various designs and fitting them to different people so, not being a scientist or, you know, having the contacts with the chemical companies, I stick to what I know and when someone comes along and they’ve got a better product that’s surfing better and can help me out, I’ll be really stoked. There’s one of those words for you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you.

BASS: And, Maureen, if I may address Ian’s question, too.

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

BASS: The sandwich bagging, the vacuum bagging, sandwich constructed surfboards, it’s a great technology and it’s a technology that is especially great for entry level surfers that want to get into the sport, try it out. They’re very strong boards. They might generally be a better price point. That’s to be determined. But once you get a little bit higher in your level as a surfer, it’s – you get to a point where you want a custom design or you want a board that has a little bit more sensitivity and sort of doing things the old fashioned way, if you will, hand-laminating, custom shaped surfboards, certainly helps you determine your own design.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Simon, I want to get back to the story of the Thruster because there’s a part of it that is almost as remarkable as the design that you came up with, and that is the fact you never patented it, you just let it out there, let anybody make a design, a thrust – another board like that with that stable tri-fin that you developed. Did you think about maybe, you know, oh, this is a great invention of mine. I maybe want to patent that and make sure that I get all the royalties from that?

ANDERSON: Yes, definitely I thought about that long and hard and I talked to people who advised me that I could patent it, and I talked to people who said that I couldn’t. And at the end of the day, I had – The world tour was coming up, I had the next contest to go to. I didn’t want to be in a courtroom trying to enforce a patent on something. It hadn’t really been done in our industry before. So it was kind of two hard basket and the demands of my profession kind of caught up with me. So, bad luck, there goes another fortune slips – slipped through the fingers.

CAVANAUGH: But, indeed, I mean, Jim, we’re talking about what, indeed, could have been a fortune.

KEMPTON: Yeah, I think Simon’s being a very – very cordial here in his response. Actually it was an extremely generous thing to allow the rest of the world to go with that because there were innovations made over the last – next two decades to his design that did different things and expanded different ways that probably would not have been as successful in terms of the average surfer if he had done that, although it would have made him a lot more money. So I think there’s a lot of credit due to the fact that he allowed everyone to benefit from this. You know, Jonas Salk didn’t ask anything when he discovered the polio vaccine and I use that example all the time with people that are saying, well, the drug companies won’t do anything unless you – they can make a million dollars. And I say, well, lots of people do. You know, when it’s a great thing they’ve done and they let the world in on it, that’s what really, you know, people remember.

CAVANAUGH: It kind of goes with the soul and the spirit of surfing.

BASS: Yeah, and if I may expand a little bit, people don’t – some people don’t know this but 1977 World Champion Shaun Tomson surfed against Simon Anderson in the 1981 event down in Australia, I believe it was the 2SM Coca-Cola Surfabout. And Simon won the event against Shaun Tomson. The two guys were in the finals together, Shaun Tomson on a twin-fin, Simon on his new three-fin. And as the story goes, and correct me if I’m wrong but Shaun Tomson immediately said, hey, Simon, will you make me one of these boards? So you’ve got here two highly competitive guys on the world professional surfing circuit and one guy going, hey, will you make me a board? And Simon generously saying, absolutely, and made him a board which I believe he went on to win an event on. Shaun Tomson went on to win an event. And that’s sort of like having, say, a NASCAR driver go to another NASCAR driver and going, hey, will you build me an engine? And that simply wouldn’t happen these days. And Jim Kempton’s right, Simon, extremely generous with his design.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take a call. Jay is calling us from La Jolla. Good morning, Jay, and welcome to These Days.

JAY (Caller, La Jolla): Hi, and what a pleasure to be in such great company. Simon, I’ve surfed for the past 40 years. I’m (unintelligible) under Rusty (unintelligible) with his own brand of music and then he became, you know, famous. But I was going to ask you if you’d ever tried standup paddling and what you thought of it and if you’re going to maybe ever try it?

ANDERSON: Yeah, I’ve – I standup paddle. I like it. I think it’s good for when the surf’s not very big and – or if the weather’s inclement and you can get out on a lake and have a paddle between when you might be surfing. It keeps your fitness up and you’re more surf ready and just learning the skill of managing that big board with a paddle in the surf is a good thing. So I’ve got something that I’m doing where my graph is going up instead of down so that’s good.

CAVANAUGH: Where do you like to surf the best, Simon?

ANDERSON: Well, I live in Sydney and I surf at Narrabeen, North Narrabeen Beach, which is a pretty famous beach. Got world class waves occasionally when the conditions are right. So that’s my spot.

CAVANAUGH: Now you were talking about some of the design innovations that have happened in the last few years. Have you tried these things out? What kind of these innovations do you like now, Simon?

ANDERSON: Yeah, well, I’m still making boards for a living…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

ANDERSON: …so I’m influenced by what the pros are doing and I think there’s been a little bit of a break away from that, though. I think, you know, if you look at the kind of super athletes these days, Mick Fanning, Kelly Slater, etcetera, and I don’t know that the general public can relate to the equipment that they’re riding because it’s very refined and it’s fast and twitchy and you need to be really fit in order to surf that so there’s a lot of boards that are being made for people without those skills or older guys. I’m finding now in Australia, in particular, and it’s been the same in California for a long time that older people keep surfing, you know.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

ANDERSON: They don’t give up. It’s a great sport that you can surf for life just like golf or tennis. So there’s a lot of boards to be made for people like that and, you know, we’re looking at going back to the old designs and applying that and, you know, there’s still a lot of work going on with the high performance Thrusters that the pros are surfing. And there’s just little subtle variations so you can’t really see that but there’s a lot of work going on.

CAVANAUGH: You know, I didn’t ask you but I’d really like to know, what was it like the first time you used that tri-fin design, the Thruster? I mean, did you get out there and immediately say, oh, wow, yeah, this is right.

ANDERSON: Yeah, absolutely. The first board I made, I was targeting that two to three foot area that I was talking about…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

ANDERSON: …and I surfed it in those conditions but maybe a little bit bigger and the very first wave that I caught, it was just, you know, unbelievable. It took me straight to that new dimension in surfing that hadn’t really been seen where you connect through turns like with the single fin. You go down to the bottom, do a big turn, bottom turn, and then you kind of lose speed halfway through that turn, then maybe you’d hit the face and it just wasn’t flying right through the – you didn’t keep the speed through your turns. So I felt that straightaway on the first board and it was just unbelievable. And I knew straightaway that I was onto something.

CAVANAUGH: We’re taking…

ANDERSON: That I was smarter than I look.

CAVANAUGH: We’re taking your calls and you can post online at KPBS.org/thesedays. Gary’s on the line from Ocean Beach. Good morning, Gary. Welcome to These Days.

GARY (Caller, Ocean Beach): Hello. Thanks for having me on. Hi, Simon. Good to hear you on the radio.

ANDERSON: Good day, mate. Yeah, nice to be here.

GARY: Hey, I’m just wondering if you were aware of some of the other three-fin designs before you did it because I remember back Reno Abellira had some side fins. I remember you could even buy stick-on side fins that you could put on the sides of your single fins. They were little short ones. And then, of course, in the seventies, the Campbell brothers did their Bonzer thing. I wonder if you were even aware of that stuff over in Australia?

ANDERSON: Yeah, of course. The Bonzer innovation was pretty big in Australia and it was there for a while but it kind of died out. You know, those boards obviously are difficult to manufacture and maybe there was just a little bit too much fin there in the beginning and it kind of died out and the fins you’re talking about I guess are tri-fins and they came and went as well. So it was really twin fins and single fins and I’ve got to pay a fair bit of credit to Geoff McCoy at this point because I was just riding his new innovation which was the no-nose design, which just took the area out of the nose, and I think that paved the way to make my Thruster board actually work when it did. So, thanks, Geoff.

CAVANAUGH: Craig is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Craig. Welcome to These Days.

CRAIG (Caller, San Diego): How you doing?

CAVANAUGH: Great.

CRAIG: Morning, Simon.

ANDERSON: Morning.

CRAIG: Since I was one of the people who actually bought something at that little thing in the magazine that was around about 10 years ago about thanking you, I’m wondering how many people sent you a dollar or a fin back then to say thanks for coming up with the Thruster?

ANDERSON: Ten million. Ten million people. Not quite, but there was a few. It was nice.

CAVANAUGH: What…

ANDERSON: But just give me a wave, don’t send me a dollar.

CAVANAUGH: What was that promotion? To send Simon some money because he didn’t take anything out of the patent?

ANDERSON: Correct.

CAVANAUGH: I see. I see. And so you didn’t get ten million dollars.

ANDERSON: No, not yet, but I’m still waiting.

CAVANAUGH: Still waiting for it. Scott, I want to give you a chance to tell us about the Thruster Shapeoff that’s taking place at the Sacred Craft Consumer Surfboard Expo this weekend. What about that contest?

BASS: Yeah, at each event that I put on, we honor a specific shaper and, obviously, this year Simon Anderson. So I’ve asked six shapers to come in and attempt to replicate Simon’s classic board, the board that he won the Bells event on in 1981 and those shapers, Pat Rawson, Brian Bulkley, Larry Mabile, Jason Bennett, Michael Baron and one other that I’m missing right now, but Pat Rawson, did I mention him? Anyway, those guys are going to be given an hour and a half in the shaping bay at Sacred Craft. They’ll be mowing the foam right there in front of everybody. And afterwards, Simon and Gary McNabb will go into the shaping bay and look over the boards and determine the one that is the best replication of that board and we’ll give that guy $1,000 for his efforts and it’s all part of celebrating the surfboard, which is really what Sacred Craft is all about.

CAVANAUGH: And Jim.

KEMPTON: I just wanted to follow up and say that he mentioned Gary McNabb and I’d just like to give a shout out to Gary, who was the person here in Southern California who teamed up with Simon. He saw Simon’s designs, he knew they were great, and he brought them to Southern California and turned all of us on to the boards. Probably they would not have had the popularity that they did in California as quickly as they did without Gary’s expertise in making boards and his understanding of Simon’s vision. So I just wanted to make sure he got some credit in here as well.

CAVANAUGH: And you did. So, Simon, when you judge these boards, are you going to have to try them out first?

ANDERSON: No, they’ll just be in shaped form. I’m looking forward to it because it’s going to be a tough task because I’ve tried to replicate the board before myself and I’ve done it numerous times and each time is a new challenge because it’s a fair bit different to a normal board that we surf today. Boards have moved on quite a lot but that board will still work so I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you all so much. I mean, our callers were really excited to talk to you and it’s really been a pleasure. Thank you so much, Simon Anderson. Thank you.

ANDERSON: No worries. Nice to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And Scott Bass, good to see you.

BASS: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And Jim Kempton, thank you.

KEMPTON: Thanks, Maureen. Always great.

CAVANAUGH: The Sacred Craft Consumer Surfboard Expo takes place this weekend at the San Diego Convention Center. For more info, you can go to sacredcraftexpo.com. And you can go online, tell us what you think, KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, it’s the Weekend Preview on These Days on KPBS.

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