Fin setups: everything you need to know

By now you have probably heard some surf language pertaining to fin setups; if you don’t recognize it yet, this article will have you feeling confident and in-the-know about the various types of fin setups and what each one means.

Fins are a key part of how your board will feel underfoot and perform in the water, and like a lot of things in surfing, it’s really up to you what you like. Different people will prefer different things, and different conditions will also require different set ups. The most common set ups are thruster, twin fin, single fin, and quad.

So let’s get into it:

The most common set up for beginner surfers is a thruster – meaning three fins total, one in the center (center fin) and two on the sides (sometimes referred to as side bites). Short boards with three fins are typically referred to as thrusters, whereas long boards can sometimes be called a 2+1 setup (meaning one center fin with two side bites).

Surfboard fins

Typically, a thruster is better for beginners because it is less loose compared to a single fin or twin fin, and allows you to use your rails and make sharper, more precise turns. The fins on the side will help the tail of your board stay in place and not slip out from under you.

If you are thinking of taking a surf lesson, you will probably ride a longboard with a thruster set up, which is the best set up to practice standing up and holding your balance.

Thrusters are also considered “high performance” boards, since they will allow you to make snappy, sharp turns, maneuver in the pocket, and generate speed by pumping down the line.

A twin fin set up has two fins on either side of the tail. If you’re heard a board referred to as a fish, this is a board that has a split tail, with points on either side (like, you guessed it, a fish). Fish surfboards are very often riden as a twin fin.

Some boards can be ridden as a twin fin but still have a center fin box to give the option of a third, smaller fin in the middle – what’s known as a trailer fin. This will provide more hold and stability, perhaps on bigger days, for example.

Surfboard fins

Going down in number, a single fin will be the most loose feeling board, because there is less surface tension created by additional fins.

You will typically have to set your line earlier on the wave, since you cannot dig into the rail or make sharp broader turns. Single fins are super speedy down the line. Turning requires applying more weight to the back foot to shift the fin,

Both twin fins and single fins allow for more broad, sweeping turns, and some describe them as “skatier,” akin to a skate board feel.

An advanced surfer on a single fin is memorizing to watch: long lines, beautiful carving turns, and speed down the line. Single fins have traditional roots in surfing, and were around long before the advent of contemporary thrusters. The surf style of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s is known for these aforementioned attributes.

Compared to a twin fin or single fin, a thruster is more conducive to dynamic pocket turns and front-/back-side snaps, where you can maneuver the board up the face and make very sharp angles. Short boarders on the WSL CT, or champion tour, will be surfing on thrusters.

It doesn’t stop there! You can also have a quad (4-fin) set-up, that offers speed in small waves by pushing water towards the end of your surfboard, to the tail. The fins near the rail will still provide grip and hold on the wave and allow you to have drive down the line.

Lastly, a 5-fin setup has all five fin boxes. This is great because you can mix and match your set ups and ride thruster, twin fin, etc.

Girl surfing

What other different styles and types of fins are out there?

In addition to pop-in fins, some surfers ride boards shaped with glass-on fins. Glassed-in fins are laminated into the surfboard. A glassed in fin is smoother and rounder than a traditional pop-in fin.

However, as you may have already guessed, glass in fins are difficult to repair and there’s not much you can do if you break a fin on the reef in a wipe out. This makes them less versatile – but oh so very stylish!

A bonzer set-up will look very unique the first time you see it: a bonzer uses a larger fin with one or two fins on either side (so 3 or 5 fins total) that are flared out at an angle. This is to efficiently organize water flow and direct water diagonally along the tail.

However, as of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, there is a new surf entry called alternative craft. This is where competitive surfers can have fun and compete on non-high performance equipment like single fins, stand up paddle boards, even foil and asymmetrical boards. The possibilities are endless!

How do I select fins?

The only real obvious step when choosing your fins is knowing what type of fin box your board contains.

There are two types of fins: FCS (abbreviation for Fin Control System) and Futures. Dating back to the 1990’s, FCS are probably the most popular fin brand.

You can find fins that have tabs or plugs to screw in your fins to your board, and fairly recently, FCS has launched a keyless fin without grubs or screws, for even easier setup. The keyless, or pop-in fin options are available for both short board fins and center fins.

As you experiment with trying new fin sizes, shapes, and models, make sure you note the details of everything you try: model, size (e.g. XS, S, 5”, 7” etc.), and design.

As you progress in your surfing, whether you’re in Los Angeles or the Maldives, definitely do not hesitate to seek out the opportunities to hone your craft in different ways.

If you’ve only ever longboarded, don’t be afraid to pick up a short board and test it out! Same thing, if you only ever ride thrusters, experiment with riding a twin fin or a single fin, for example, This type of play will only make your surfing better and give you a better sense of what you like.

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