The history of surfing is the history of design. Look at the surf spots of the last 100 years, look at the boards that rode them—there’s a correlation. The 12-foot redwood plank riders would have driven right past Teahupo’o, Ours, Shipstern Bluff. Square pegs, round holes.
But there’s an interesting twist in the design timeline that almost contradicts the above, and that’s the finless surfboard. Those pre-20th-century wave riders in Polynesia, Peru, Wakiki Beach—they rode finless. Sure, they shaped in convex hulls and/or dragged their feet in the wave for traction, but for the most part they were slipping and sliding. It was not always a happy story. There was a lot of what they called “sliding ass.” The introduction of the fin, by Tom Blake in 1935, was seen as revolutionary. Holding power meant arcing, carving, climbing and dropping, gaining some command over the wave. Hotdog longboarding emerged from this. Then the shortboard revolution. Then the twirling, somersaulting, corkscrewing pyrotechnics that we see today.
So it comes as a great surprise that finless surfing has made a comeback. Pioneering the charge is Aussie Derek Hynd, age 60. About a decade ago Derek began riding what he calls “free friction,” and last I checked he hadn’t stepped on a finned board since.
I got to watch Derek ride The Pass in Byron Bay in person a couple of years ago. He rode forwards, backwards, sideways on the inside rail, sideways on the outside rail, he spun, he twirled. I remember thinking, This is like sliding down a snow hill on a trash can lid. Derek was well into middle age, but the stuff he was doing on the wave was the stuff of nine-year-olds.
Thanks to Derek and his 11’6” lemon yellow free friction board, I rode finless for a week. The thrill was a giddy one, like that weightless feeling you get when driving over a hump in the road at high speed. I felt light and terribly irresponsible. After surfing finless I felt like stealing $3 from my mother’s purse and buying candy. Then hunting lizards.
Finless surfing has grown, and the north coast of New South Wales, Australia may be its epicenter. There are lanky, longhaired kids who spin and slide and find deep thrill and intoxication in the finless trip. The consensus is that though you lack traction, you go a lot faster, and get to sideslip boogie in wonderful ways, and that sideslipping feeling is far richer than the earnest and directional finned approach.
I see it metaphorically. Finless surfing is about surrendering control. You are forced to go with the flow. There’s a real letting go, a willingness to fall flat on your face.