Thirty-three years ago today—April 18, 1981—Big Simon Anderson won the Bells event on his new-fangled three-finned thruster design. It’s usually considered the big breakout moment for the thruster, but Anderson had actually ridden his new board weeks before at Burleigh Heads during the Stubbies contest. Even on the new design, he unceremoniously lost out in the opening rounds, held in dribbly little waves. Had Anderson won the Stubbies, we’d all have that event burned into our memories, and the thruster would have entered pop surf history’s timeline a month earlier. Ironically, Anderson built the thruster to compete with everybody else and their squirrelly little twin-fins in small surf, but lost out in exactly those conditions. He then proceeded to blow the surf world’s doors off the very next month riding a thruster at 10-foot Bells, an event that he probably would have won anyway riding his beloved single-fins. That’s probably for the best. It works better as a story to imagine the thruster’s debut at big, grunty Bells rather than thin-lipped crumblers at Burleigh.
Though he typically gets the credit, Anderson wasn’t the first to slap more than two fins to the bottom of his board. Bonzers, with their big center fins and two smaller side finlets, had been around since the early ’70s. Ian Cairns even won the ’73 Smirnoff Pro on a three-finned bonzer. As a matter of fact, Anderson was inspired to work a third fin into his twinny game after seeing a board made by Hot Buttered’s Frank Williams, which featured a stubby little stabilizer fin in between two big side fins.
History gets a bit murky when it comes to the evolution of surfboard fins, is what I’m saying. Bob Simmons was scooting around on twin fins in the late ’40s, for example. You just know he must have tried a third fin when nobody was looking. At least once.
Anyway, Anderson’s real contribution was to place three fins of all the same size, in a nice tight little cluster right in front of a squash tail. Boom. The modern high-performance surfboard. His other contribution was to crush everybody at the ’81 Bells event. Had he skittered out, lost in the first round, and quietly packed up his thruster and went home, well, somebody else would be known as the father of the thruster I suppose. But who knows when that would have been. Watching Anderson swoop around giant righthanders with the speed and control of a single-fin, but the rail-to-rail hot-doggery of a twin-fin opened the rest of surfing’s eyes to what the thruster could do. It helped too that Anderson was a master shaper. He knew his thruster was a golden ticket. He just had to show everybody else.
Nearly four decades later, ninety percent of us who will ride a shortboard on this hallowed day will do so on a board that’s the direct descendant of Anderson’s Bells winner. Happy Bells-win anniversary Mr. Anderson. And happy sort-of birthday, thruster.