22 July, 2012 22 July, 2012

7 Innovations That Changed Surfing

As the sport of surfing has moved from being the pastime of Polynesian royalty to an internationally recognised “sport” in the current era, it has been shaped and affected by a number of innovations and inventions. We take a look at seven examples that have left a lasting impression on our counterculture.

Wax is to surfing is what blue jeans is to fashion; it’ll never go out of style and will always be a necessity. Pads, sticky foam, rough-coating and all sorts of ridiculous ideas have entered the foray over the years, but the original breakthrough in traction always has the last laugh.

The history of surf wax goes back to the 1930’s, when Alfred Gallant Jr. walked across his mother’s freshly waxed wooden floor and realised what his board had been missing all along. For the next three decades, surfers melted bars of paraffin across their balsa wood surfboards to give them a grippy surface we’re all familiar with today. By the early 70’s Wax Research (later known as Sticky Bumps), Mr. Zoggs and Mrs. Palmers were being manufactured and sold around the world, and the rest is history.

Even if something better than wax came onto the market, it wouldn’t sway a majority of surfers to jump ship. The olfactory senses – that we use to smell – are known for creating strong nostalgic connections. Everybody can relate to sniffing a fresh block of Palmers and getting flashbacks of smoking waves, a memorable dawnie or a particular session. Deep stuff.

Man-made structures aren’t high on the list of people’s favourite things at the moment, but we have a few to thank for some of the world’s finest inner-city surf spots. Think of New Pier, North Beach, East Beach, Wedge, the Fence – to name a few popular ones. These large structures have given the precious sand a structured shape to work around, which has resulted in the cooking waves we recognise at these spots, year in and year out.

In the same breath, a few harbours and piers are responsible for the total destruction of some amazing surf spots. It wasn’t too long ago that Port St. Francis came along and flattened the fickle, but legendary spot 69’s. So for better or worse, these structures have certainly changed surfing.

Whether or not you agree with the ASP World Tour format or whom it deems to be the winner at the end of every year, the fact that it exists has changed surfing. Since the tour’s inception, almost every red-blooded grom who has asked themselves: ‘Am I good enough to be a pro surfer?’ has found an answer with the ASP World Tour.

For all the haters out there, remember this: surfers made the tour. A few decades ago Shaun Tomson, Rabbit Bartholomew and gang were busting down the door to create a professional platform that would give professional surfers the structure to make a living, and here it is today. It’s far from perfect and it’ll probably keep changing again and again and again. It may even give way to a new tour (something we’ll know at the US Open later this month). But like it or not, there’s no denying the affect the ASP has had on surfing over the last few decades.

If you look at photographs from the 1950’s and 60’s, notice how a bulk of the surfers are ripped like wild baboons. Without leashes, your standard session at Muizenberg, Nahoon or Bay of Plenty was like a visit to Virgin Active. Losing your board used to mean a long and sometimes harrowing swim to shore – especially in waves of consequence.

When leashes came onto the scene during the 70’s, some people were understandably skeptical. It seemed like a naffy way out of swimming for your board. The first leashes that Pat O’Neill designed were also incredibly dangerous. The prototypes were made from stretchy surgical cord that shot your board back at you like a missile. Pat’s father, Jack, the famous father of O’Neill wetsuits, even lost an eye using one – that’s how he came to wear the famous eye patch.

Years later now, a leash is part of everyone’s standard equipment. While its influence on surfing seems perfunctory and arguably degenerative in terms of creating rounded watermen, but it has given people the confidence to try new moves. With so many people in the water today, can you imagine the chaos that would ensue if leashes weren’t invented?

If necessity is the mother of all inventions, surfing wetsuits were always going to come along. There are too many good waves breaking in cold water for surfers to stay away.
The first suits to hit the market were tight-fitting, looked ridiculous, felt uncomfortable and chafed you till you bled from the horrible craters they made in your skin, but they worked…

Wetsuits have done more than make surfing in places like Cape Town, J-Bay in winter and Northern California bearable for longer than half an hour; they’ve opened the door to the entire world. Thanks to the gift of neoprene, waves in the Arctic Circle and Norway are now rideable. They’ve always raised the level of performance in dangerous, cold waves, but offering surfers a safe and reliable way to stay in the water. A guy like Twiggy can also thank neoprene for his career – Dungeons, Mavericks and the Cortes Bank would be out of the question in baggies.

The thruster may not be the ultimate set-up for all waves (as we’ve seen increasingly with performances Kelly has put on with quads, as well as a host of big-wave chargers with their four and even sometimes five-fin setups.), but it gave modern surfing a dimension it lacked. At a time when twinnies and single-fins were running the show, Simon Anderson went out on a limb to make himself a board that would hold in bigger surf, but offer drive and response in the piddly stuff – which is what most tour-sanctioned contests were faced with back then. Anyhow, this is a story we’ve all heard before, but for good reasons.

The Age of Discovery is back, thanks to the free distribution of information on the world wide web. The opportunity to discover new spots and epic waves across the world is no longer exclusive to sponsored hellmen and crazies. Swell charts, weather reports, real-time wave cameras, blogs, photo journals and surf spot guides are available for almost every surf destination in the world. Every day the remaining secrets of the surfing world are being sought out and experienced.

That sounds like a goddamn nightmare to some people, but keep in mind that some spots will always remain hidden or unridden. They’ll be the ones that are too hard to find, too heavy to surf, plagued by diseased water or too sharky. Or they’ll be the spots that are circled by the scariest monster of all: rumours. As long as people believe the juice isn’t worth the squeeze, your secrets will be safe.

The Internet is the monster that has changed everything. And sometimes that monster is a great asset, other times it’ll just piss you off.


  1. Baron
    27 July, 2012 at 11:51 am · Reply

    You guys are forgetting the most important innovation. The one that has lasted the longest, the one that has transformed our lifestyle into a high flying sport. Polyester foam and fibreglass. With out these two products the boards would still weigh between 100 to 50 kilograms.

  2. Kp
    24 October, 2012 at 2:01 pm · Reply

    And Kelly Slater

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