The Science of Surfing

It has been 26 years since the Australian power surfer Simon Anderson revolutionized the sport by affixing three fins to the underside of his short board, a setup that increased maneuverability on turns without sacrificing the stability of the original single-fin arrangement. The tide turned toward innovation again last year when the Australian-owned company Surf Hardware International launched H2, a package of three fins radically reengineered for faster performance. Unlike surfers-turned-shapers like Anderson, whose breakthroughs are the results of trial and error, Surf Hardware was the first in the industry to engage in a rigorous R&D process.

Company cofounder Bill McCausland approached naval architect Andrew Dovell in 2001 to improve an in-house fin prototype. The American-born principal of Murray Burns & Dovell—who moved to Australia in 1989 to design hulls for that country’s America’s Cup yachts—immediately noticed that the fin could be made more aerodynamic without changing its appearance. (Surfers are usually conservative in their buying habits.)

Dovell and the in-house designers negotiated a series of performance-versus-control trade-offs that he compares to working with yachts. “When you’re designing a sailboat you’re very concerned about creating something that’s going to go faster,” Dovell says. “But an aspect of sailing I’ve always concentrated on is balance and feel. If the helmsman can’t relate to the handling, he can’t get the potential out of the boat. Likewise, if a surfer has a fickle fin he can’t predict or understand, he won’t surf as hard.”

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