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Fins: Mix Match & Move

Posted on September 27, 2014

It’s common knowledge: no single design component affects the surfboard more than the surfboard fin.

I have a nice stash of surfboards to choose from. Not a single one of these uber-designed, modernly crafted, handsomely finished water craft performs as it should unless something is sticking out of the bottom. Don’t believe me? Try riding your board without fins.

I gave fins lip service. It was all talk, no action. I rarely tried new fins; rarely changed out my fins. I didn’t move my fins around. I would buy a surfboard, perhaps ask for a suggestion from the shaper or the surf shop employee, screw the fins in and away I went. Two years later, when I sold the board, you guessed it, I sold it with the same fins.

Did I sometimes buy fins because they matched the color of my board? Ummm, I’d like to say, “No, I didn’t.” Buuuutttt… maybe once.

The point is I very rarely strayed from the original fin incarnation.

A few years ago I custom ordered a surfboard from a renowned master surfboard craftsman. He designs boards. He designs fins. He designs lots of cool stuff. He’ll make anything, and he does so with meticulous precision. His name is Carl Ekstrom. He is a design guru. He dons a wide brimmed, white, straw hat.

Carl made me one of his gorgeous asymmetrical surfboards, with five fin boxes, and two different rail outlines and two different rail shapes.

Carl unveiled the board and said, “Scott, have you given any thought to what fins you are going to ride in it?”

“Well sort of. I brought all my fins in a bag. ” I muttered, hoping for some insight.

Guiding my crusty old ‘bag-o-fins’ towards Carl I half-pleaded, “Which ones should I use?”

Carl handed me a box with five or six different fin templates he had produced in his shop.

“Why don’t you try these out and mix them up with some of yours,” he suggested in his kind paternal manner.

So that day that’s what I did. I followed Carl’s suggestion. I mixed and matched, all different types of templates: sizes, shapes, cants. All different types of constructions: plastic, fiberglass, carbon, foam tipped – and yes, even colors -- as instructed by the master.

I spent three hours at a favorite beach break, riding waves, switching fins. Riding more waves. Running up the beach to swap fins. Riding more waves. Running up the beach to move fins. It often only took me one wave to decipher the fins worth in that particular board. Like morning prayers and meditation, the more I did it, the more I liked doing it.

Fifteen years back I was interviewing shaper Rich Pavel about his speed dialer fins (a fin cluster that he came up with by more or less bi-secting a keel fin and slightly separating the two halves). At one point Pavel waxed on about the early days of marine-ply keels. He explained that occasionally, if he was in experimentation mode, he would ride a wave to the beach and break the fins off the board, right on the sand. With salt water running out of his nose he’d break out some sandpaper and grind the fin rope down a bit, then attach a new set of keels. He’d standby, eating a sandwich and watching the tide move a foot or so as the resin cured. Thirty minutes later he’s paddling back out.

I didn’t have to go that route – I had Futures boxes.

I did end up with a unique combination of fins in my Ekstrom that day -- unique and hideously incongruent. Nevertheless it proved the best combination for that particular board. Four completely different fins all-together: Carl’s handmade wide-based front quad fin; a tall and rakey plastic back quad (dug out from the bottom dregs of my fin bag no less, with decades old waxed and dog hair attached); an uber-modern hex glass large Pancho Sullivan template; and a Kelly Slater/Sean Mattison inspired nubster in the middle box. Five boxes. Four fins. All different: some stiff, some flexible, one white, one red, one black, one green and black. The board worked insane, and to this day is the fastest – Point A to Point B – down-the-line surfboard I’ve ever owned (with a tip of the hat to my friend Chris Christenson who has made me some fast ones too).

I’m going to go out on a limb here – you are like me, and a bit lazy when it comes to fins.

C’mon, come clean. When was the last time you switched out your fins in the same session?

We all know, intellectually, that a different fin set-up is going to change the boards performance.

When was the last time you actually experienced that knowledge?

Do yourself a favor. Set up shop on the beach with a bag of fins or even just two different sets. Ride a few waves. Switch the fins out. Ride a few more waves. Switch the fins out again.

I was surprised how quickly I noticed the difference in my Ekstrom’s performance. I gained a new experience. Plus the numerous boards in my garage took on new life as I was inspired to do it more often, and I do. In fact I carry that bag of fins with me in my truck at all times.

I hope you will do the same. – SB


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