Fin Forward Thinking
Jason KenworthyA proponent of anything that’ll give him a competitive edge, Kelly Slater’s been tuning his FCS fins for over a decade now.
Go to enough World Tour events and you’re apt to bump into Tyler Callaway. An East Coaster in origin, today Callaway lives in San Diego and serves as the front man for FCS fin systems. And should you find him at an ASP event, chances are you’ll find him studiously watching the world’s best surfers best, namely because he’s a fan, but also because so many of them have his equipment under their back foot. Kelly Slater, Mick Fanning, the brothers Hobgood and Julian Wilson to name just a few. And while it’s easy to disregard your fins as being somewhat trivial, after this conversation with Callaway you may reconsider:
What’s different about the fins Slater was riding in the ’90s and what he’s on now?
When we started working with Kelly there was one template that he designed himself called the K Fin. It was a little bit smaller and made from stiffer material. Over the years he’s enlarged that template about 10 percent and gone to a smaller trailing fin that has more rake. This new combination has been known as the K2 .1. It’s been his go to fin set up for most of his world title wins since ’97. He’s also added a third template called the K3. This fin has a lot more rake than the K2 .1 and helps him draw longer arcs in down-the-line waves like Trestles, J-Bay, Bells etc. One of the innovative things that Kelly did was to maintain the same rear fin in both sets. He figured out that would keep the release point where the board would release and slide exactly the same. So by changing his front fins he could change the arcs the board would draw on the face easily, yet when it came time for a money turn tail slide there would be no surprises. Originally the K3 was made in fiberglass and he liked the softer flex in the tips. Over the last few years as his boards have gotten shorter and shorter he’s moved to the stiffer performance core version with carbon. Having less rail in the water, I think his desire for the stiffer fin was reacting to that shorter evolution he was working on with his boards.
How valuable has that relationship been in terms of changes in design?
Incredibly valuable as outlined above. Kelly is an extraordinarily focused individual. He spent a fair bit of time figuring out the different aspects of his equipment that give him the performance he’s looking for. From that understanding comes his ability to be creative in terms of what he wants to do on a wave, and evolving different ways to try to get that from his equipment.
What’s allowed them to change?
Technology, evolution and understanding. We have made leaps and bounds in the technologies we use to make fins since the early days. We have evolved new designs and materials one by one with each new generation being a building block for the next. And we’ve greatly increased our understanding of different combinations of things that work together and why.
For instance we’ve learned a lot about leading edge radius on fins and how they affect the surfer’s ability to force a turn with the small board at high speed without spinning out. Or how they will help a board ride a little lower in the water and roll smoothly rail to rail. Leading edge radius on a fin can really affect how your board wants to be ridden, and what it will let you do easily.
When you get feedback from surfers, what kinds of things are they after?
It varies a lot from individual to individual. Kelly, for instance, was looking for an edge in competition, to be able to adapt his board to the conditions without the change throwing him off. The Hobgood’s were looking for one fin they would love in all conditions, so effectively they wouldn’t have to think about changing anything. Julian combined his two favorite templates to create something in the middle. Mick and his shaper Darren Handley started with Darren’s tried-and-true template and gradually evolved the leading edge and the flex pattern to fine tune the speed and forgiveness that he was looking for. Most of the surfers we work with are competing and that tends to drive their needs towards dependability. More and more surfers like Kelly and Mick are influencing everyone else to change their fins and change their surfing.
In your estimation, what’s the best construction material?
Everything works and has some strong points to it. We spent a lot of time and money developing Glass Flex with Dick Brewer’s two nephews who do our injection molding in California. These are the off-white fins that come standard with most stock boards. We built an expensive machine to graph the flex pattern of fins and were able to get them to flex very close to a hand foiled fiberglass fin. Performance-wise, that was leaps and bounds ahead of the old black-or-white fins we used to make prior to 2004. It might seem like a lot of trouble to go through, but it’s important to us and it’s really important to the guys who put their names on boards. Some of our competitors just copied the color, if you flex them side-by-side in two different boards with your hand you can really see the difference. From that came Green Flex, which gets its resin from recycled carpet, which would have otherwise gone to a landfill. We spent a lot of time trying to make sure that that would perform as well or better than Glass Flex, and it does.
Resin transfer molding technology led us to our performance core material, which allowed us to better engineer flex patterns and produce very light fins with a nice progressive flex to them.
Now a lot of people like the new H3 with its carbon Kevlar hybrid tri coil technology. They’re designed to return the energy you put into your turn back to you coming out of the turn. So what’s best? If you ask 10 different surfers and shapers you’ll probably get at least five different answers. It all depends on what you’re trying to achieve. Surfing is a very personal form of expression.
How have fins changed as surfing’s progressed? Are there better fins for airs or Kolohe or Julian’s brand of surfing?
Fins are evolving quickly now that most of the top surfers are experimenting with their fins. That’s something a lot of them weren’t doing two years ago. I think Mick switching to FCS and winning his second world title was a big wake-up call to the rest of the boys on tour.
One of the features of the H3 is a more upright, less raked tip. There are a lot of surfers who feel that is a lot more forgiving when you land sideways or backwards. It’s easier to control and spin back around … or so they say. Since I don’t land too many of those (zero) I listen closely to what they are feeling. It’s fascinating and it will probably lead us in some new direction with design that we will be as exciting as the changes we’ve seen in performance the last year and a half or so. I think this is one of the most exciting times surfing has ever seen.