Talking Design with Rusty: Quadrophenia Part II

Part one of Quadrophenia was focused mainly on what makes a good quad. In part two, Rusty interviews notable shapers, surfers and designers on the history of quads. Enjoy. --Ed

tom-carrollPipe Master and former World Champ Tom Carroll on a serious quad in the eighties.

Simon Anderson on quads:
I'm looking to make a quad that performs like a thruster -- in other words: predictable and connecting smoothly through turns. My 2009 quad has a twin-type plan shape with flat nose entry but a lot of tail rocker with deep vee through the back half of the board and at the swallowtail, deep single concave cuts through the front half of the bottom with a double cutting thru the vee to the tail.

The fins are more clustered than last year's model. I use normal thruster side fins and 1/8" smaller double-sided foiled-back fins both at five degrees -- the forward fins point to the nose tip and the rear fins point straighter up the board.

This style of board for me works great in waves that lack a little bit of power and I find that I can do power turns off the top thru a section with a flatter or weaker face that actually feel like thruster turns on a more powerful wave.

My quads are designed for the most part for small waves, from one to four feet. Average surfers can surf these boards in bigger waves up to six feet and have a lot fun because of the extra speed and looseness off the top. But in the end, the quad is essentially a well-behaved twin fin and the trick is to harness the wild element -- as much as possible -- associated with this type of design.


There's a lot of speculation on who made the first quad. I imagine quite a few designers were searching for ways to build more drive into twin fins and expand their range. Glen Winton is one the first surfer/shapers that I know of who made a four fin. Certainly there were others.

Greg Mungall talked to me recently about the impact of Simon's visit. Greg had a hot-selling twin-fin model with Nectar. Nectar's focus quickly shifted to the Thruster. With Simon's back-to-back wins at Bells and the Coke, the design was more than validated and in heavy demand. Greg asked Gary McNabb if he could do a double-wing swallow three-fin. Gary declined but offered up, "Why don't you put four fins on a board?"

Greg did and took it to his next pro event in Japan.

Late in 1981, Australian shaper Bruce McKee made his first quad and hasn't looked back. His Mission Quattro is a nearly three-decade long commitment to refining and evolving the four-fin surfboard.


Bruce McKee on quads:

I found it interesting the way in 1981, the Thruster was first created, then packaged and heavily promoted by the mags and pro surfer community. It was definitely a major advancement, a great mix of needs finding a solution. A new concept with an iconic statesman to represent it. To me, though, it was just one solution; before the end of 1981, I had commenced what I called: "Mission Quattro."

I saw the first four-fins and quads as twin-fins with baby stabilizers on the back and nothing more. Just as I saw twin fins with baby stabilizers on the back for what they were. Were they also Thrusters? No. You could add a number to the fin combo but that's just a label.

I found that Thrusters had flaws -- not that anyone wanted to agree with me. To say otherwise was heresy, a sacrilege. Maybe it was just my shapes, but I tried other's boards too. Maybe you can have a full quiver of shapes, make a narrow-tailed board to aid the tail fin's penetration and hold, larger fins, etc. But that meant that board shapes and tail widths needed to be customized to certain size waves, as a golf bag has a range of clubs for each part of the course. But I wanted an all-around club, or at least greater versatility out of one. Nursing turns on a Thruster or double setting bottom-turns wasn't attractive to me, so the logic appeared to me to be that having four fins of similar size on the rail, should hold in better than a thruster. To combat the twin-fin image quads had, I placed larger rear fins than the fronts on the board, plus it had a four-channel bottom, which was popular at the time. (I had never ridden a traditional quad, which I knew would ride like it looked -- like a Twinnie with baby back fins.)

curren_slabbertWhen the legendary Tom Curren tore into legendary J-Bay for the Search movies, it was a little known fact that he was riding a quad shaped by Bruce McKee. Photo: Lance Slabbert.

My first-ever bottom turn on that first Quattro board had me feeling that "Eureka!" moment -- like an explorer finding the Fountain of Youth, my own Holy Grail. Acceleration, speed, hold, foam-climbing ability, was all there. Problem was, the world was starting to pulse with Thrusters, and my quad or what I called a Quattro, named after the car, was promptly classified as a lost cause, and sympathetically smirked and snarled upon by surfing's new "Thought and Design Police."

Although my first Quattro had the fin cluster too far forward, it still hung in and I could thump the bottom turns. If I got my foot right back I could go past vertical. I knew then that the system would be amazing for guns. I could have the fins forward and it would be loose with no fear of spinning out. I stuck a baby back fin on the tail for a quick fix but knew that I just had to move the cluster back a bit to get the feeling right.

My first boards from 1981 to 1988 had 10% larger rear fins than front, but on my migration to Europe via Hawaii, I took with me a board with all fins the same size. It was way too small for the conditions I found (a 6'5"), but I got enough waves and big turns in to have complete faith in the direction I was following.

I ended up on the north coast of Spain in the Basque Country. Soon I linked up with the Pukas and factory Olatu where I was resident shaper for 12 years. I managed to make a bunch of Quads, but, as is true in many industries, there are companies that push for innovation and others that want conformity that brings safety. Many of the surfing industry's shaping gurus had me pegged as a heretic -- a poor fool who had lost his way; obsessed (not dedicated) with trying to make others swallow the medicine. According to them, Quads were caustic medicine.

quattrogunsAussie expat quad-o-phile Bruce McKee and his eighties and nineties quad guns.

During a surf session at a lefthand point break, a friend visiting from Oz asked, "Why don't you put the back fins closer together more like a thruster's center fin?" I remember saying, "But there's more drive when they're on the rail." With longboards, the fins are way forward, so if you move the rear fins forward you tend to follow the rail so the back fins have a big spread between them. This means that you have to do big body gyrations just to get the board to come down off the lip after running across the wave face. The problem was that the lower side fins engaged too late and the board felt like it was stuck on one tack still wanting to go up the face. What a center fin does is it re-centers the board between turns and enables it to easily be redirected back down the face.

So the words of my friend stuck in my head and, later, I couldn't believe how stupid I had been for not analyzing his words more carefully. His idea was totally logical in that, by bringing the rear fins closer together, they reacted faster in re-centering the board while still maintaining drive. I found that too close loses drive -- so there was a happy medium there that combined the best factors of both.

The early Tom Curren quads had the rear fins close together because they were squashed in narrow tails. They worked due to correct combined fin size, flex toe-in, etc., but needed a back foot overpowering the back fins to get a good pivot off the top when at speed. I had veered off the good track while trying to cluster the fins, not realizing the relevance of the distance between the rear fins to each other.


Nearly three decades later, Bruce McKee is still a staunch advocate of the four-fin. His M5 is a design with five boxes. It is what he calls "The System of Truth" and adds, "The ball is your court."


Back to the early quads.

News drifted back to us in Southern California of Simon's victories at the Coke Surfabout and big Bells. Time to have another look at Simon's three-fin board, the Thruster. Most designers and shapers on the planet began working, in earnest, to understand and evolve the design.

MR had dominated professional surfing for four years riding a twin-fin, winning consecutive world titles from 1979 to 1982. 1982 was a year of transition. Some surfers still rode twins in small surf and would switch to singles in bigger surf. Many had changed over to three fins. Cheyne was still riding singles in all conditions. Glen Winton was starting to have competitive success on a four fin.

[1982 final rankings: 1. MR (two fins); 2. Cheyne Horan (one fin); 3. Tom Carroll (three fins); 21. Glen Winton (four fins)]

By 1983, most competitive surfers had moved to three fins, with the exception of Horan and Winton. Tom Carroll took home the first three-fin world title. For the next quarter century the three-fin dominated the competitive landscape. Simon's design has been further refined by shapers the world over and has become, arguably, the single most important, enduring surfboard design of all time.

Several generations of surfers have known only Trifins.

Who remembers this magazine cover?

1984-surfer-4-fin-cover050Larry Bertlemann. Quad. Aerial. 25 years ago.

He shaped it with George Downing. Larry had been working on twins and added rears to add more drive. The previous winter he told his friends that he was going to "fly." This shot is at V-land on a 5'10" and LB claims he was 230lbs. at the time. He also mentioned that the fins were 747s. (Originally called 747s now called 757s.)

rainbow_757This is from 1983.

Why do evolutionary branches of design get choked off, atrophy, only to be "rediscovered" and nurtured into a new life?

As a relatively new sport, the majority of the surfing audience looks to its competitive heroes and icons to validate what is good. A one-design mentality keeps the equipment very homogenous. It's rare to find a top competitive surfer that will cross the line for fear of prejudice -- at least in the line of duty.

Concurrently, there is another side to the surfing culture that participates in, not a sport, but this kinetic art form; the quest for newness empowers these artists to walk down a different road, indifferent to the opinion of the masses. Herein lie the eclectic seeds of change and variety, freshness.

Why didn't Bob Simmons' twin-finned board take a linear path to Mark Richards' four world titles?

I asked Carl Ekstrom recently what was the first three-finned surfboard he could recall. His answer: "In the late '50s I built a board with a tail that was too wide, it kept spinning out. I couldn't afford to make another one so I stuck two small fins on the rail outside the main fin. It fixed the problem."

In October 1980, Simon crossed paths with Frank Williams. Frank, a journeyman shaper, had worked with Geoff McCoy, Barry Bennett and other notable Sydney boardmakers. Simon ran into Frank as he was coming out of the water at Narrabeen with a board that was essentially a twin fin with a strange little "half-moon" shaped fin on the tail.

Simon asked him what the third fin was for, and Frank told him, "It helps make it more stable."

Simon's instant response was, "I'm going to make it real stable!" In that moment the Thruster was conceived in Simon's mind.

Glen Winton, in all probability, may not be the first person to have put four fins on a surfboard but is credited with the design. In a recent Nick Carroll/ASL interview, Glen actually claims to have started with six fins with the intention of knocking two off after getting a feel for the board.

"I put six on with the aim of picking one set to knock off. I actually won a contest on the six. That's how four fins were invented -- by knocking two off 'em."

mcintyre_libia_seanbrodyShayne McIntyre, four-fins and fancy-free in Liberia. Photo: Sean Brody

Nick Carroll weighs in on quads:

Pros pooh-pooh them for a few reasons. One is that their favorite boardmakers by and large haven't yet "conquered" the design, they've just sorta dummied one up as a semi-Fish or whatever, which just doesn't cut it at a high-performance level. Another is that they have very little trouble with their current equipment -- a refined single concave thruster is a pretty damn good board and it'll go wherever they want, so why fool around? I think that is changing at the moment, a benefit of Kelly taking a few risks -- although the conventional wisdom is that KS was blowing it, riding 5'4"s etc. in heats, a lot of the pros saw him riding those little things in freesurf sessions and were pretty much blown away by what he could do. It's opened up the doors for shorter boards and increasingly quads I suspect.

Me, I got fascinated by the four-fin thing about four years ago after being tormented by TC for a coupla years on it, he is an Early Adopter! They'd irritated me in the past because I'd always felt there was a real loss of center-line feeling in the board -- that it's good to know where the center of the board is when finishing turns, especially because it allows you to flow swiftly into the next turn, and without a center fin, there was just a sort of void, which caused the board to respond slowly at the end of turns. Like whatever speed you were gaining out of losing the back fin, it was negated by that weird clumsiness at the end of a turn.

The old twinnies used to make up for it with that mega-vee through the fins -- nothing like vee for giving you a sense of a board's center-line! So I got one made that was a bit radical at the time, 5'7" with a straight-ish rocker, double concave with a little spine through the fins to give it a sense of the center, template pulled in to conventional hi-performance width at the tail, and back fin set in a bit closer to the stringer. Surfed it a couple of times but then along came those carbon rail epoxy boards and I kinda forgot about it ... dug it out again six months ago and I couldn't believe how quick and sorta savage it was. Have got a few since then and I'm beginning to wonder if in time the quad's advantages might push the thruster aside a bit. It's just taking time because the fin set is so riddled with potential fuckups. People tend to use too much fin overall for one thing.

Why the heck are they faster, well I don't know if all of 'em are faster, but they FEEL like they are, because there's no center fin dragging on entry into a low angled turn like what most normal-level surfers do as a matter of course while running along a wave. That back end freedom is pretty seductive.

Three fins, they're less complex, they surf in arcs and snaps along with longer carves and they recover better in airs and slides, they love single concaves which still feel like the best bottom going, they're easy to tune using a fin system. But they can feel draggy next to a quad, especially for a surfer of average ability, and there's not much left to explore about the design, it's there and it ain't changing the sport any more.

Four fins, they run fast and free, their ability to run longer turns mean they can be shaped short (i.e. a 5'8" quad can ride similar sized surf to a 5'11" three-fin) which makes for some very different lines, they're excellent tuberiding boards, done right they give you heaps of feedback while you're surfing them (you can feel a lot more underfoot than on most conventional three-fins). They can feel awkward on quick direction changes and they don't all like to surf in arcs off the top, but there's still quite a few questions in the design and that makes it exciting I think. The quad could still change the sport a bit.


Pat Maus, a teamrider, came to me five or six years ago and wanted to build four fins. I hadn't really made any since the early '80s.

Pat Maus on quads:

Yeah, the first time I got on a quad the waves were waist-to-chest-high, and all I had with me was my tri-fin squash tail. Nathan [Fletcher] took one look at my board, and in typical Nathan tone gives me the, "Psssssss! Yer still riding three-finners? You should try that quad right there."

Nathan was kind of curious to see how someone other than himself could make the board work. But the last time I saw a four fin -- I think Glen Winton was carrying it! Anyway, I loved the board after the first wave, and since Nathan had a new one, he gave me that board. It was a 5'7" bat-wing quad, shaped by Cole.

The how and the why they work so well? Well, ask any person that's tried a quad and nine times outta 10 the first thing they mention is how fast they go. Then come the people who love how easily they can do turns and control the board. You see, with a quad, the moment you set your rail and go front side or backside, you already have two fins grabbing the face. That allows you to make later, more critical drops as well as being much more stable during tuberides.

quad_barrelPat Maus puts his quad to the ultimate test.

Also, we can't forget about the youth of today. Most of them just ask: "Does it do good airs?" Across the board, surfers will all agree that the quad can punt some good-ass airs! One of the reasons being is the fin placement on the trailer fins. If you look at a regular tri-fin setup, you'll notice that rake from the trailer of the tri-fin more often than not ends up right at the end of the tail. That means when doing an air the last thing to leave the lip is that trailer fin, giving it a feeling of tracking off, if you don't nail it just right. Now, with the quad, that last thing to leave the water is tail, not a fin, so you can kind of imagine in your head: "Sliding of the tail brings nose underneath me and oh-my-god, I just pulled the best air ever!"

Why do most pros stick to tri fins? I think it has a lot to do with them just being so familiar with tri fins. I'm sure some guys on tour figure, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." It could also be that most pro surfers are under a tremendous amount of pressure from their sponsors to win or get good results, no matter what. That could tend to mess with a man's willingness to wanna try new equipment. However, I'm sure the most loyal professional tri-fin surfer has at least one quad in mix.

Is there anything missing from the quad ride? No, I think they are the most well-rounded surfboard out now. One thing I would really like to let people know is that the brand of quad has just as much to do with your perception of a quad. What I mean is, just because you have a shorter, wider surfboard with four fins on the bottom doesn't always mean you will get the performance that so many people talk about. My only advice to anyone looking to progress their surfing ability by riding a quad would be to do a little homework and go with the guy who has the most experience.


Jeff Clark on quads:

Started focusing on quads for big waves around 1990. With guns, it's an easier formula -- you're drawing longer, swoopier lines. Tri-fins stay centered; they want to go straight. Tri-fins pivot. Quads have inherent speed and hold, but there's an information gap -- a void -- going from one rail to the other. (Lots of vee on quad gives a centering feeling.)

The goal was to build a board with the best qualities of both designs; to make a quad feel more like a tri-fin than a twin-fin. At first, the fins were too close to the rail. I moved them closer together - 1 3/4 to 2 inches off rail. I experimented with wider tails at first, around 11.5" on guns in the 9'6" range. They were too wide; so I brought them back to 9.5" to 10.5".

First instinct on late drops is to set a rail; tri-fins want to straighten out. It's that centering thing -- trying to set a rail and battling with the back fin. Quads want to find one rail. Unlike a three-fin board, there is no conflict between front and rear fins. They are all pointed towards the nose on either side of the board.

A tri-fin with flat-sided fins will cavitate, and with the back fin not connected, you find yourself sliding down the face -- you have to go straight or flatten out to reconnect.

Big wave quads: nine inches of base (two fins) in the face on your inside rail; 80/20 foils hold better. You never have to adjust your line back towards flat or perpendicular to the wave's energy to reconnect.


Pat Rawson's take on quads:

When the energy is running down the line, more surfers are receptive to the qualities of a quad. When the energy is coming in towards the shore, the preference is generally three fins.


Personally, after working with Pat Maus a few years back, I made myself one and have been riding them almost exclusively for the last five years. The only time I might switch back to a tri would be in a short, hollow, backhand wave. After riding them for a few years, I made a convertible for laughs. At one of my favorite testing grounds, a fairly long hollow left (frontside for me), I took it out first as a tri. I thought to myself, yeah... I remember this feeling. Solid bottom turn, up the face, snap off the top -- feels pretty good. Surfed for a couple of hours. Took a break. Went back out with it switched to a quad; pretty much the same conditions. The board was so much faster and quicker on was night and day. I haven't look back since.

Like a Wikipedia entry, this thing will grow and change. Any constructive input is welcome. Thank you for your help on this:

Bruce McKee
Nick Carroll
Pat Maus
Larry Bertlemann
Jeff Clark
Glen Winton
Simon Anderson
Pat Rawson
Greg Mungall


Thanks to our friends over at

One Response to “Talking Design with Rusty: Quadrophenia Part II”

  • glen March 6, 2010

    simon invented the 3 fin .glen winton invented the 4 fin,I only shair
    crdit with Ricardo Boacau(brazil).