If 2011's Billabong Pro in code red Tahitian swell was a revolution of sorts, 2012 was more of a silent coup. Whereas 2011 changed what was thought possible at this giant of a wave, last year marked an important change in surfboard evolution that continued to play out last week.
Look at it this way: Tom Blake first put a skeg on a surfboard around 1940. And if you consider that modern surfing sort of began in 1950, the singlefin was boss for 30 years. The twin, from the 70s fish to today's retro sticks and grovelers, while fun, was never the go-to comp board.
Simon Anderson ushered in the thruster in the early 1980s, and the three-fin set-up became the undisputed king for the next three decades of pro surfing. That largely changed last year at Teahupoo, when Mick Fanning and Joel Parkinson did hand-to-hand combat in the finals of the Billabong Pro in perfect six-to-eight-foot Chopes. And while there was a good bit written about the 25 percent more fins in the water, that 30 minutes didn't really get the credit it deserves for its impact. Quads have now become a reasonable option for waves of consequence around the world. And there is an "alternative" on the World Tour for the first time in 33 years.
Of course, quads have come into favor among average surfers over the past decade. Who doesn't want to make more speed at your average summertime session at Creek or C-Street in Wrightsville Beach? But a lot of this has to do with what "they" ride vs. what "we" ride. "We" ride quads to better deal with what we are given day-to-day. "They" ride quads to go faster on waves that we only might surf. While Greg Long talks quad set-ups on Jaws guns, it just doesn't translate to your Tuesday after-work paddle out.
Kelly Slater has been publicly experimenting for years. Like everything else, he leads the way. He was riding a quad when he won Teahupoo in 2011.
"Personally I think Kelly likes them for the amount of speed he is able to generate in a small area, as well as the stability they provide when navigating the foam ball, as wins at Chopes and Fiji have shown. Riding a shorter board in waves of consequence, he gets in later and therefore is deeper -- that burst of speed the quads give him is key. I guess you could say in crazy waves, pretty much either a 1 or a 10-point ride, depending if he makes it," offers Travis Lee, marketing director at Channel Islands who often travels with Slater.
"He mixes it up a bit in smaller waves, tri's, quads, and five fins. Depending on the conditions, he has the formula worked out in his head from years of experimenting on what to ride where and when. But he he will definitely throw a curveball at you now and again, just when you think you have his decision making process figured out."
It's very likely that when Slater was experimenting with epoxy quads in 2009, Joel Parkinson and Mick Fanning could still never see themselves riding anything but the trusty thrusty. Yet there they were in 2012 sans trailer fins. This year, they both had boardbags full of four-finners. (Knowing Parko, probably a few dozen boardbags.)
In this year's Billabong Pro, with medium sized waves, the guys were getting more tube time by staying deeper but keeping speed to come off the foam ball and out of the barrel. Julian Wilson and Josh Kerr converted. Wildcard Anthony Walsh is crazy about 'em. CJ Hobgood was on a 5'11 quad and said he loves the speed he gets coming out of the barrel. (Of course, Slater went back to the thruster.)
But the coup de grace was the final where "Ace" Buchan beat Slater – riding a quad in competition for the first time in his life.
"I've been riding for JS for 10 years now, so my equipment is at a point where I can pick up a batch of fresh boards before an event and have extreme confidence that they are going to work. JS has my boards tuned in for each spot and we make little adjustments here and there each year as we learn more about the waves and me as a surfer," said Buchan. "I bought a whole quiver of new round pintails here and had the option of thruster or quad set ups in all. I've been playing around with quads for a little while but hadn't pulled the trigger in an event. I had a great freesurf the day before finals day on a new 6'0 set up as a quad. When I rocked up on finals day and saw the waves had picked up a little I knew that was the board."
Buchan used those four blades to dispatch Jordy Smith, John John Florence, Mick Fanning and then Slater in his run to the win. In the final, he picked off two waves in the opening minutes that proved enough to slide past Slater in the final.
"I just love the forward thrust you get from a quad when you need to cover a lot of distance really quickly. And that's exactly what you need to do in the tube to get high scores here. By the time I got to the quarters, I wasn't even thinking about my equipment. Everything was just instinct and reaction. Those boards are the best, when it feels like it's just an extension of your body."