Simon Anderson needed an edge. This was 1977. Anderson, a lantern-jawed Australian surfer ranked number three in the world, was an excellent power carver, more than able to hold his own in the larger waves.
Thus the issue.
Surfing was becoming increasingly popular. To accommodate the growing crowds, pro contests were being held not at the beaches that had the best waves, rather at the beaches that could hold the largest crowds.
These beaches typically had smaller surf—which was not Anderson’s forte.
The issue was technical. Back then, surfboards came in two main varieties. The classic single-fin model, and the upstart twin fin. Each had their purpose. The single fin was great in bigger waves, but got slow and sluggish in small. The twin fin was an improvement in the small—though not entirely. While the twin fin was faster and more maneuverable in small surf, with fins positioned at the far edges of the board the results were way too squirrely for a power surfer like Anderson.
But, in October of 1980, insight arrived. Anderson noticed fellow surfer/board-shaper Frank Williams had placed a tiny half-moon shaped piece of plastic near the tail of his surfboard, directly between the twin fins.
When Anderson asked, Williams told him this half-moon acted as a stabilizer. That was the innovation he’d been waiting for.
Anderson, who had then been shaping surfboards for over a decade, went home and modified Williams design, designing a block-tailed surfboard with three full-sized fins instead of two—two on the edges, one in the center. He called this tri-fin arrangement a “thruster”—because the stabilizing fin also provided more thrust—and a revolution was born.
The invention of the thruster was one of the most critical innovations in the history of surfing. Almost all of the above-the-lip, wave-slashing acrobatics that have come to define modern surfing can be traced to this single development.
To put this in a historical context, surfing is a sport that is nearly a millennium old. For over 950 of its years, surfing was also a sport that took place on the wave’s face. Now, certainly, the face of a wave is a mighty artistic canvas, allowing a near-infinite number of possible kinesthetic interpretations, but when it comes to the upper edge of human performance, having to restrict possible moves to the wave’s face is still a limiting factor.
The tri-fin design, though, removed this limit. It produced more speed and more stability and, over time, surfers learned to harness both to launch off the wave’s lip—thus removing a nearly 1000 year old performance limit.
All of which is to say, there is a very tightly coupled link between the upper limits of human performance and technology. More importantly, with 3D printing about to become available to the average action sports athlete, well, get ready for the earth-shattering.
Now, to be sure, 3D printing is already making inroads action and adventure sports. A recent article in Surfer pointed out that already 3D printers are being used to design new fins and new fin boxes and full-sized surfboards aren’t far behind.
Why is this such a big deal for the future of human performance?
Two main reason.
The first is cost, which is still a major barrier to entry in action sports. High quality surfboards, skis, snowboards—to offer just a few examples—all start out in the $500-$1000 dollar range. And today’s athlete can’t just rely on a single piece of equipment.