A Study in Single-Fins

Talking single-fins with aficionado Rob Machado

What got you into riding single-fins?

The first time I went to Al Merrick’s house when I was 16 or 17. He had this photo on his wall from the ‘70s of a bunch of dudes with the coolest looking boards I had ever seen. From that day on, every time I went to Al’s house I would beg him to make me just one of those boards. At the time Al was so focused on progressing the sport, he would just laugh at me and say, “Oh Robert…we’ve already done that.” But I never gave up and I kept asking and asking until one day his glasser called me and said, “We have this single-fin here that Al shaped for you.” I was so excited. I felt like I was 12 again, and I was picking up my first custom board. I rode that board for months and months. That was the beginning for me.

What’s the best part of surfing on single-fins?

The best part about riding a board like that is the paddle-ibility (making up words here). You can get into waves so early and draw such a different line than a standard thruster. Just watch old footage of guys like Gerry back in the day at Pipe. Their boards were so thick, they got into waves super early and drew such a different line. Especially compared to how Pipeline is surfed today. Take a guy like John John. It would be really interesting to measure the volume of a board that John John rides at 10-foot Pipe compared to a board Gerry rode at 10-foot Pipe. I bet the difference would be mind blowing. But it’s all relevant when you see how differently their approach to the wave is. To me they are both equally impressive. Both take an exceptional amount of skill.

PHOTOS: Single-Fins on the Sunshine Coast

Some of surfing’s most stylish moments happened on similar boards. What is it about them that make people ride waves beautifully?

I think it has a lot to do with the lines that you are forced to draw with boards like this. There is no cranking it off the bottom and going up vertical into the lip. If you want to do that, you’re riding the wrong board. These boards stretch your surfing out and force you to use more of the rail. One thing I really notice is how spot-on your technique needs to be, which leads to creating beautiful body positioning, which leads to beautiful images. Your body positioning has to be very precise to ride these boards correctly and to get the most out of them.

Is there something nostalgic about these single-fin moments or has surfing moved on? Is this just more of a retro-fad?

Single-fins will never go away. They offer something that no other board can, and it’s where we came from. I think every grom nowadays should have to spend some time on a single-fin. I truly believe that when I stopped doing the Tour my surfing changed, and I attribute a lot of that change to riding a lot of different equipment, single-fins, twin fins, finless, etc.

READ: A Case for the Single-Fin

Last year, we were on a trip in the Mentawais and I remember you having an incredible session on a single-fin. Talk about the waves that day and why a single-fin worked so well out there.

When we pulled up to check the surf, there were a few different peaks working. A deep A-frame peak that would rarely connect through the inside and then a wide, bowly peak that would only break on the biggest sets. It had a very similar set up to Ala Moana bowls. Most of the waves were pretty sloppy and shifty and there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for shredding. But it was the wide peak on the biggest sets that really caught my eye. My thought was to be super mobile and bounce back and forth between the peaks, so I rode that yellow board, a 7’2″, don’t know the width. 3 1/4” thick. Paddles like a beast.

Would you have had the same experience on a regular thruster?

I remember one wave that let me in super early where I faded back to set my line. For me, the single-fin line is so different than a thruster. With a thruster, I find myself moving around inside the tube more with little pumps, using the transitions inside the tube to generate more speed and to flirt with the foam ball. But back to that wave, I got in early and set my line, and the section was lining up perfectly. The one thing about riding a big single fin like that is controlling your speed, because once you set your line those boards go really fast. It takes some time getting used to. But I timed this one perfect. When the lip landed and the foam ball started attacking me, I had faith in my trusty single-fin to get me through. I swear that single-fins ride the tube as good as anything.

Do you always pack a board like this?

The hardest thing for me to do is pack my boards for a trip. I have so many boards and want to have the option to ride any of them at any given time. My worst nightmare is pulling up to a spot and feeling like I don’t have the right board for that day. So I try to bring a wide variety of boards that are going to keep me entertained, inspired, smiling, and in the tube.

  • oj

    spot on! i too love single fins as they make you approach wave riding real differently. although i love riding shortboards, i felt the need to kinda think more about the rail and the curve of the wave instead of being in that “modern collective” mindset or tail wafting and full rotators….dont get me wrong its cool but sometimes you just have t change it up. i learned on a 7’4″ herbie fletcher and downsized to a “found under my grandmas house” 6’0 lightning bolt single fin that i rode all the time growing up….now i have a channel islands MSF and a 5’5″ Kashiwai…needless to say im stoked.

  • Geoff RightCoast

    One of the coolest dudes out there. Love his style and how he brings another way of going about things in the water. Single fins will never die especially when speed and style is relevant!

  • dg1501

    As far as I’m concerned, Rob is right there among the most influential surfers of our time. Besides the emphasis on pure stoke, he’s been so huge in helping usher in new designs that work in less-than-ideal surf. I can truly say that my Biscuit is the biggest reason that I still have a great time at my dribbly local most days, and anyone enjoying a hybrid shape owes Rob at least for his part in leading the charge. Keep up the great work, Rob!

  • billyjamz

    When I started surfing I was on only thruster shortboards and struggling cause I didn’t have the fundementals that a single fin board teaches you. Everyone should own a single fin midlength or shortboard or atleast have spent two months on them. They have a tendency to teach you how to read a wave differently. Some of my favorite sessions ever have been on single fins. I always try to tell the next up’n’coming generation to try and ride everything and keep an open mind ’cause where you want to go on a wave might not be in the equipment that you are riding.

    • Byron

      well said…I agree and have had the same experience. I had to completely revamp surfing, but it taught me quite a bit and still continues to do so…especially reading the wave correctly.

  • Old Fart

    I’ve been surfing for 47yrs., started on a longboard went to single-fin 6″2 down to 5’8 twins then tri-fins. I am now having my dream board built, back to a single-fin. The best boards were Lightning Bolts, the wide part up in front 3rd. There called a forward shape it allows you to get in earlyer because of the weight forward. These boards were thick and meaty so they have plenty of flotation for paddleing and they have plenty of down the line speed. Now I’m taking the same board and using a new bottom, single concave, and channels with small rail fins. The problem with these boards is that they would spin out, re pop a fin, that’s the reason for the rail fins, also your not going to duck dive very well with them. These boards are very loose in waves and the added flotation will have you paddleing faster than you ever thought. Give one a try some time, it may take some getting use to at first but once you get it wired you will have alot more fun and catch waves easyer and earlyer .

  • ArabeeB

    I am totally a kook and therefore not qualified to comment…. but…. I got my first board earlier this year from Chops (I feel very lucky to have met him). I left the choice to him, after all I know F all about surfing, except for the fact that I want to, and he said this ‘people worry too much about volume and length’ and he made me a single fin because it would ‘teach me to turn properly’. So I’m surfing that in anything I can get my hands on – big/small cold/warm. Chuffed as hell.

  • Kieran Burns

    If Rob can’t go vertical on a single, he needs a new shaper. I suggest Geoff McCoy

    • Mark

      That’s a good point man. Rob seems like a pretty decent surfer, but I would agree that he probably doesn’t know too much about boards and shapers and how to properly ride a single fin. You should probably try and get in touch with him and see if he would be interested in booking you for some lessons? I bet you could teach him a thing or two.

      • Jack

        Just a quick response Mark, I think Kieran meant look at Geoff’s designs in particular the Lazor Zap, and is not being critical of Machado. I’ve been surfing single fins my whole 23 years surfing life, the Zap is easily the most directional, extreme single you could ride. Fast too, designed for in-and-around the pocked carving – look up some early 80’s footage of Cheyne Horan and note the spray on bottom turns. This design at 5’8″ was also PADDLED into 20ft Waimea by Cheyne… it won Bells too. Geoff also makes the Astron Zot short single, and ‘Nugget’ designs and is one of surfing’s great people.

        • Saulo Padua

          Jack, what I think Rob actually meant in saying that you can’t go vertical on a single fin is that you can’t go vertical on a 7’1 single fin. I think he by saying “single fin”, he really meant “mid length single fin”

          • s4p

            It’s certainly tough. Doing so on a standard 7’0 thruster is no walk in the park either for many…

  • EastCoaster

    One nice offshore, chest high day in the fall I had the most incredible ride on a good karma 6’8” single. Slipped into the peak like a bullet, pumped hard twice, nearly lost my balance. I Crouched and like Rob said once that foam ball hits you on a single fin, you’re flying. I wish they still made boards like that today, they are just too much fun haha.

  • http://vizualize.me/ExtremeNZ C.P. Spencer

    Single fin madness, works best with tequila.

  • turpentine

    I’ve been surfing for forty years and of course learned on single fins. I have to say that I don’t really see the point in advocating for single fins. They turn awkwardly. The truster was a definite improvement and I don’t see any reason to go back.

    • Roy Stuart

      No they don’t.

  • Gonçalo Ângelo

    Well i’ve never rode a single fin. I surf for almost 3 years, not to much, but i immediately felt atractted to those thruster powerfull, radical, strong moves, that we can see in the Tour. In the past few months i felt something was missing, like if i was more worried about doing “tricks” than enjoying the surf session itself, so i begin researching for some different boards than my own Al Merrick Proton…it took me to the Al Merrick Sperm Whale. Dual/Quad fin, like they have cutted in half a longboard 🙂 tottaly different from what i’m riding. Friday, i’m going to pick it up….and i’m pretty excited ’cause i fell it will change my surf vision. Maybe the next board will be a Single fin…who knows 🙂

  • Liv

    I’ve always thought about the difference between thrusters and single-fins, the ride, the feel, movement and flow. I always thought it was so cool, but so different.

  • dom thegrom

    charged a double overhead wave on my singlefin caddy and was one of my most memorable rides

  • Ashley Bullard

    I’ve been looking into getting a single fin for around 6 months now, i’ve decided to definitely go for one but i have only really rode twin fins, had short boards for short periods of time but i think its time for a single fin. Any suggestions on dims for a first single fin?

  • Roy Stuart

    I started on singles in ’75 and have stayed on them ever since.

  • pickles

    if you cant go vertical on a single then you better watch some wayne lynch showing you how its done….easy

  • Bonana

    I recently broke my favorite board, a late 70’s 7’10 Bill Caster single fin i picked up off craigs’ list for $160… super bummed. I’ve ridden all different types of boards but nothing has ever given me the same feel as those old school singles. They feel like you’re flying, so fast, great for smooth powerful turns and a whole lot of fun which is what its all about. i learned on a similarly shaped board that my dad had laying around when i was a kid so maybe that has something to do with it but I’m also a pretty big guy especially as far as surfers go (6’3 280) so those older shapes with lots of foam and the wide point forward just work better for me. As far as getting vertical on them goes you definitely can but i think what he meant is that they’re not really the shape/style most effective for that if you’re trying to really make a living at it ( longer / generally flatter rocker / wide point forward ). Can’t wait to hunt down another.

  • Daddontsurf

    I was fortunate enough to ride late 60’s early 70’s single fins from a number of shapers. The most fun? 7-10 Diffenderfer, 6-4 Haut and 6-8 Halcyon. Everyone of them where great boards in solid waves and fair to fun in mushier waves. No zap in crap but all kinds of fun on the run! Off the top of my head, I think Doug Haut will still make a single fin, pretty sure Dave Parmenter will also.
    My condolences to the guy who broke his Caster without getting it templated. I wish I had done my Channin-Diffenderfer.

  • Kevin Kane

    There has never been, or will there ever be a better ‘single fin’ shaper than John Bradbury, Creative Freedom Surfboards of Santa Barbara, CA.