Paddle out for a small, weak, summer surf and chances are that you’ll see a fair few people riding single fins. Like the twinnie in recent years, a resurgence of interest in these classic styled boards has made them a common sight when the waves are fun – when surfers are open to experimenting. But what about when the waves get seriously good? If you travelled half way round the world to end up face to face with some of the most perfect waves you’ve ever seen – heavy waves with serious consequences if you make mistakes – would you paddle out on something that is based on 40 year old design, or would you grab your trusty high performance thruster? That’s why, despite any hipster trends, when you paddle out in big, perfect surf, you won’t see single fins in the line-up. Why risk wasting what might be the session of your life? All boards go well in good waves, but the only boards you’ll surf well on those days are the ones that you know, the ones you are in tune with, the boards that you surf day-in, day-out. It just happens that for John, those boards are single fins. – Greg Martin
I feel like I should maybe start by saying don’t necessarily do what I do – I would hate to be responsible for ruining the best session of your life.
When Mathilda and I headed to Indo for the spring we never expected our holiday to turn into some strange, art-house film shoot but then surf trips often have a habit of producing the unexpected. Flying into Kuta, our original plans didn’t stretch much beyond just relaxing for a few days and then getting an idea of what the charts were doing. We booked some onward flights to Java, to go and check out a sand-bottomed point break which doesn’t need much swell to get going and would provide some playful walls to blow away the winter blues. Then, at the last minute, the charts changed. We never got to that point break.
I’ve been over to Indo for spring four times now; those surfs are what I look forward year round. After going for two years in a row and then finding myself unable to go for a third year due to the everyday trappings of work and a mortgage, I decided to free myself up by selling the house and going freelance, thus giving myself the freedom needed to make this annual pilgrimage and generally travel more. I was rewarded last year at G-land with a perfect day, which I now realise will be the best surf of my life. In the back of my mind, I was heading back to Indo this year hoping for the same again… I think I’ll always be looking for that day again.
A really good looking back-to-back swell was heading our way, so we bailed on the Java flights and jumped on a plane to Lombok. As well as G-Land, the ridiculously long barrels of Desert Point were on my wish list, and this chart had convinced me to go there for the first time.
The area where Desert Point is on the island of Lombok is a national park and so still, thankfully undeveloped, with only the most basic of accommodation available and electricity from the generators only on a few times a day. But that doesn’t stop the influx of surfers when the right chart shows up for this incredible wave, and this was the first sizable swell of the season. The wave itself is relatively easy to surf, but it’s definitely shallow. For the size, I found it a lot heavier than I expected and I found myself getting rumbled. You definitely get tickled by the reef a lot. Apparently this swell wasn’t ideal for it, so the first 200 metres of it was breaking, but on better swells I was told it would break for another 150 metres past where we could surf. It’s not too shallow where you take off, but as you go down the line things change, especially in the middle section, there’s a real shallow spot and that’s where you get those really bowly barrels. At dead low, as you paddle out past this spot, you can see all the water drain off the reef, a sight you’re not away of when you’re on the wave, it definitely gets you thinking. The take off zone is really tight and almost everybody there is pretty competitive, so it’s quite hard to pick off waves. In between sets, the line-up shifts slightly beyond the peak because of the current, so even if you are sat in position, if there are no waves, you will drift, so everyone is constantly fighting for position. Being on a single fin helps a little, because you’ve got a little bit more volume. I was on my 7’2 red single fin which Adrian Phillips shaped for me eight years ago. It was my go-to-Indo board. It was a magic board. I never thought it would die.
Surfing a single fin in waves like Desert Point doesn’t really give you much advantage beyond paddle power and for most would be a disadvantage, but the reason I do it is because these are the boards I surf. I used to only surf thrusters, but a little while back, at the point when I was growing tired of surfing little boards in small, British waves and realising that I was never going to be some red hot shredder, I rediscovered my dad’s old 8ft Con single fin, the board I had learnt to surf on. Suddenly, those two foot crumbly days became really fun, so I started longboarding every time it was shoulder-high or less, which is quite often in England. Having fallen in love with the style of surfing, I started looking for single fin boards that I could ride when it got big. Soon after, the 7’2 red single fin was born.
I had been out surfing Scar Reef on my own for almost an hour. Having driven over to West Sumbawa from Lombok after the Desert Point sessions, I’d got up early to score this spot before the wind kicked in. The swell almost seemed like it had dropped, it was maybe about head a half. But then this monster set just appeared out of nowhere, double the size of any set in the previous hour. I was actually shitting myself a bit, and I don’t shit myself often, but I was about a kilometre out to sea, on my own, just trying to scratch it out to this set. I tried to get under it, but it was just so top to bottom, in the end I had to throw the board and swim under. It was like a ten wave set, and after the third one though I came up and the 7’2 red single fin was bent, and after the fourth, in two pieces.
Looking for a new board in Bali is easy, looking for a specific style of refined single fin however is tricky, there are a few shops selling some very nice single fin guns, but unable to find the right replacement for mine, I decided to get one shaped and headed over to Deus to see which shapers were floating about. Ellis Ericson, son of legendary Aussie shaper Bruce Ericson, is fairly young, but shaping some interesting single fins. I took him the snapped 7’2; I made a couple of changes, giving it more of a classic pipeline gun outline, pushing the wide point further forward. In the last few years I’ve been surfing boards with a lot of roll in the bottom, so I incorporated that a little bit into this gun and added a bit more vee in the tail. It’s a toned down version of the bottom style that was really happening in boards from 1968-70, when surfboards were starting becoming shorter. I had G-land in mind for the board when I got it shaped; it’s my favourite wave I’ve been to. I imagine it would be my favourite wave in the world.
There are always waves at G-Land, but I wanted to go when there was a swell that would get Speedies working, the heaviest wave there. When I picked up my board, there wasn’t really a proper swell showing. G land is quite expensive, so we didn’t want to have to spend the money and not get some Speedies action. I was a bit bummed, thinking that G-Land might not happen after all, but then a swell showed up, and it started looking better and better. So we booked and went. It’s funny, because when you arrive at such an intense place and people are looking around eyeing each other up to work out who is going to be who in the line up, when they see you take a 7’2 and a 7’11 out your board bag with massive fins you can see them thinking ‘should this guy be here?’
You have to surf differently on a single fin; it definitely slows you down, not speed-wise on the wave, but mentally, because you’re not necessarily trying to get from the bottom to the top of the wave quite so quickly. With a single fin, you have to find the speed from the wave, instead of generating speed from a bottom turn, or pumping. There’s less friction, so you hold your speed better, but you have to find that speed in the first place by putting yourself in the right place on the wave. You surf the whole board almost all of the time off the centre, hence the shape with the wider point further forward. So you end up using the rail more as well. At Speedies on a good swell you’ll be taking off at Launching Pads and it’s actually quite a rampy take-off which is good, because single fins aren’t great if it’s a real slabby take-off, so you generate a lot of speed on the drop with a single fin and then have to do a bottom turn going at mach 10. It’s actually more stable than doing that sort of bottom turn on a thruster, but you have to lean right over and put the whole rail in. If you were to surf a single fin in this position as you would a thruster, off the tail, I can imagine you’d be cartwheeling off the back.
So anyway, after your bottom turn, it all depends on what the wave is doing, whether you want to speed up or slow down, but there is definitely room for movement up and down the board, for example, when I see the barrel section coming up and it’s going to run down the line, I’ll definitely step forward on the board a little and get my weight forward. The design of the board allows you to be in different places. Single fin guns are very stable in the barrel, and you don’t have to pump through the fast sections because the board keeps its speed. So, because you can just stand there, I find barrels on a single fin much more enjoyable, you can feel the wave and look around, it feels like you’re in there for longer. So as long as you’ve set your line right and the wave allows you, you’ll make it. For me, riding a single fin just feels good, there’s a sense of freedom that I don’t get from surfing other boards.
The film kind of wrote itself through our entire trip, We packed the camera gear with the initial aim of just get getting a few clips for keepsake, or maybe at a stretch a short surf film, but then we got into filming other aspects as we moved about, which led to ideas being thrown around, which led to a plot and then how to execute that plot, and so on. We basically got a little carried away and are now producing a semi fictional, art-house style film with little surfing in, it’s going to be pretty out there visually and just quite weird. But, not to let decent surf footage go to waste, the film will be paired with an aesthetically matching short surf film. Keep an eye on www.sinkswim.co.uk.
Also included a sneaky intro page shot, my personal favorite from the trip.
And a quiver chat near the end.
9’6 Slide 65 log
This is my most recent board, I just picked it up from shaper Rob Wright the other day and have only surfed it once. From what I have seen, Rob is shaping probably the most finely tuned, forward-thinking logs here in the UK. After years of riding all sorts of different longboards, this is the result of what I want from an all-round log. The blank has been reversed to allow for plenty of tail kick and a flatter nose. The template is what’s presently known as a pig, the widest point is further back and it has a narrower nose and a wider tail. That suits my style of surfing – 60s influenced contemporary logging. It has quite technical bottom contours based around roll. Heavy glass, no leash plug.
7’11 Alex Knost single fin, AKA The Donkey
This one of Alex Knost’s early boards; I think it is number 15. I haggled it off him in Morocco in December 2010. It’s based loosely around a Dale Velzy vee bottom from around 1969 but without the over the top vee bottom. It’s a really versatile board, there’s nothing too radical about it but it’s really fun. There’s quite a few knocks in it from being in an Indo board rack, and one or two from baggage handlers. I think it might be time to hang it up somewhere safe and just get something similar shaped. It’s my most enjoyable board to surf. Crazy 14 inch flex fin included.
5’10 Chris Garrett tri-fin
This is probably my most high performance board. I bought back in Bali, mostly for going backhand on bowly waves which is tricky on a standard single fin, or maybe just for those days when I need something a little more drivey. It’s got a really radical concave-vee in the bottom and two really big twin fins with a tiny centre fin. It looks like the template might be based on an early Mark Richards style twin fin.
5’3 Kookbox twin
I bought this back in September 2011 off my friend who brought it back from California. It was shaped by Jeff McCallum and I guess is a kind of cross between in Mini Simmons and a twin keel fish. It’s a really, really fun board, really slippery and skatey to surf. It has a rolled scoop nose and is a super wide board, probably 22”or 23”. Very fun to surf indeed.
7’5 Empire Surfboards single fin, AKA The Dirty Pin
Shaped by Steve Croft, who’s knocking out some interesting boards in South Cornwall. He shaped it for me in October 2011 and it was inspired by the surfboards of John Wesley, Kookbox and Knost. I don’t really know how to describe it, but it’s another mid-length style which is popular in California just now. I’m really into surfing boards between 7ft-8ft these days. It has a pretty full on pintail, but not drawn out like the single fin guns. It’s got a lot of roll in the nose and has a scoop nose as well. The art is my own, it’s actually printed on a large sheet of fibre paper and glassed in. I’m enjoying getting back on this one now after it wouldn’t fit in the boardbag to Indo.
7’4 Ellis Ericson single fin gun
This is the board I got shaped to replace Old Red when it snapped in March this year. There’s vee in the tail going up to a little bit of roll in the nose. It’s more of a Pipeline inspired gun than the board that it replaced, not that I’ve ever surfed Pipeline! It’s definitely inspired by the past. It is for surfing big, hollow waves but I’m sure it’ll get it’s fair share of water time here in the UK and elsewhere. The fun thing about these boards is they’re actually fun to surf in most waves, you just gotta go with it.
7’2 Adrian Phillips single fin gun, AKA Old Red, Red, Swift, Lucky, The Lupus (it’s had many names)
Adrian of Fluid Juice shaped this for me back in 2004. It’s pretty much flat on the bottom, with just a bit of vee in the tail. The rails are quite boxy and it’s very, very flat. Looking at it you’d probably think I’m crazy to surf it in bigger hollow waves but it was just a dream to surf . In fact I’ve had all of my best rides on this one, most of them within a few hours at G-land last year, one of them was just ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous.
9’6 Adrian Phillips log AKA The Goose
This is a very heavy board, shaped for me by Adrian back in 2005. It has been my staple log for the last few years and now is now my log for when it’s really small and weak, or for when I get a little sentimental. It’s a joy to ride but most people don’t get on with her, she’ll buck’ em off. The artwork is by Neil Erskine. Heavy, flat, rolled with slight concave in the nose and a slightly scooped out tail. No leash plug.
I am proud to have new roll as photo ed…