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The Evolution of the Surfing Fin

TLDR; Surfing’s history is rich and in the UK it dates back to the 1700s when Captain Cook’s crew saw the Haiwaiians surfing. Equipment has changed a lot over the years from riding ‘wooden coffin lids’ in the late 1920s through to modern day high performance fins and fiberglass surfboards. Surfing fins have also evolved from rudimentary shapes and styles to refined edges and clear outlines that are waterproofed with fibreglass. As surfers we need to recognise those that have come before us, to continue advancing our sport and developing the equipment we use.

I find the history of surfing in different countries fascinating. How did surfing come about in the country, who went before the surfers of today and what kind of equipment were they riding. I have been to some surf museums in a few different countries now and usually they’re quite modest museums with just a room or two, but careful thought has gone into the selection of exhibits. This was no different when I was down in North Devon for one weekend in mid August, where I stumbled upon the British Surfing Museum in Braunton. The exhibition was free to the public and there was lots of interest inside and outside from the market where many of the stalls were selling old surfing magazines, clothing, and bargain basement wetsuits. The history of surfing in the UK actually dates back much further than I thought with the OGs surfing in the UK as early as the 1920s.

In fact, one of the pioneers of British surfing and his mates were the first to make that hollowed journey from London down to Cornwall in 1929, after seeing Australian surfers on TV standing up on surfboards. They decided to replicate it with a heavy wooden board that resembled a coffin lid, surfing with no fins. Eventually, they got the hang of it and were able to stand up on the heavy wooden board. It’s amazing that these early pioneers after seeing something on TV were inspired to try it for themselves having very little reference points apart from the TV images. It was in this period that a surfer in North Devon made his own wooden board with a leash/leg rope more than 30 years before they were used commercially.

But surfing history extends even before this period, in fact more than hundred years earlier surfing was observed by Captain Cook’s crew when HMS Resolution sailed to Hawaii. In his journal the ship's surgeon detailed how the native Haiwaiians derived great pleasure from riding the waves and calling out to each other when there was a favourable appearance of swell (Source:

It’s equally fascinating to have exhibits at such places documenting how surfing equipment has evolved from wooden surfboards to the modern fibreglass boards awash at beaches nowadays through to the evolution of the surfing fin - from wooden and glassed on fins through to modern day hybrid honeycomb fibreglass fins with varying degrees of flex and performance. The minute details are drilled down into, and continuously iterated upon. 

The shape and structure of the surfing fins has changed greatly just in the last 60 years, early versions of a longboard fin lacked the clear definition of what we now know and love and have become accustomed to seeing. Whilst rudimentary, those early surfing fins paved the way for the kind of development we’re seeing today with all kinds of radical designs such as S-wings and foil technology. 

The foundations have been laid by those early pioneers and arguably one of the most important developments in surfboards came in the 1980s at Bells beach with Simon Anderson’s thruster which ushered in a new era of surfboard design and riding. Ever since, especially with fin design things have been developed with the thruster in mind. Futures and FCS fin systems offer the surfer choice based on personal preference and allow for a range of setups from thruster through to quad. Furthermore the twinnie has seen a big comeback in recent years, from upcycled skateboard decks that are glassed to high performance composites there’s certainly a few options out there now.  

Fins and fin placement on the board

Shapers now know exactly what effect a slight alteration of positioning of the fins will have on performance. Close to the tail will have more hold and stability, whilst moving away from the tail and towards the nose will feel looser. Whereas in the early years, there was a lot of guesswork now shapers know the exact ranges to play within. Not only this but the range of tools the shaper has available to him now to ensure that the cant angles are right, the measurements are spot on and the routing of the fin boxes is perfect are cheaper and more abundant. 

Fins to match customers preferences and changing tastes

At Shaka Surf we know that there has been a big shift in terms of surfer preferences to try new things out and experiment with different fin setups and boards. We also know that surfers are beginning to take more of an interest when it comes to the manufacturing side with more surfers becoming hobbyist shapers. Many of the main brands are falling short when it comes to sustainability despite their claims. For instance, bamboo is being used increasingly in surfboard and fin production for part of the manufacture, but the harvesting of bamboo is actually more damaging to the environment than other woods. This is why it’s important to really think carefully about the choice of materials and where possible upcycle instead of sourcing brand new material. A perfect example of this are our eco surf fins which are upcycled from discarded plastics. 

The future of surfing is looking bright with athletes and surfboard manufacturers pushing the boundaries all the time, who knows where it’s heading in the next 50 years. We look forward to seeing it progress and hopefully we’ll still be surfing and enjoying the stoke just as much as before.

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