About this Article
Written by: Anthony Edwards
Written on: December 1st, 2005
Tags: lifestyle, physics
Thumbnail by: Shalom Jacobovitz/Wikimedia Commons
About the Author
Anthony Edwards was a senior majoring in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Southern California in the fall of 2005. He was also a member of Tau Beta Pi, the engineering honors society.
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Volume VII Issue III > The Engineering Behind Surfing
Many people enjoy watching surfers or riding waves; however, few people consider the physical or design aspects of this pastime. The physics of surfing, from the way waves are generated, to the concept of buoyancy, to the physical forces that enable the surfer to ride a wave, show that there is more science than luck in catching the perfect wave. The design, materials, and construction of a surfboard are also key factors.


Surfing is a sport that has long been associated with the identity of California. Along almost every stretch of coastline, a casual observer may notice surfers bobbing around in the water. Surfing is also one of the few sports with a direct connection to nature, for the beauty and power of a wave is at the heart of the sport. Once a sport reserved for Hawaiian chieftains, surfing has evolved into a billion dollar industry that is popular around the world. Technological advances have drastically improved the design of surfboards, and this has made the sport more accessible to the public. Yet, when admiring the skill and grace of a surfer riding a wave, few people consider the physics behind catching that wave or the engineering design that produces the board.


The modern surfboard is the product of a hundred years of material and design evolution, but surfing actually has its roots hundreds of years ago in Hawaii, where the boards were essentially long planks of wood. Early California surfers used boards made of redwood. Then, in the 1920s, the lighter, more functional balsa wood became the predominate material used. In the years following World War II, board design changed radically, due to improvements in materials technology developed during the war [1]. During these years, polyurethane foam and fiberglass became the dominant surfboard materials. Then, in the 1960s, the fiberglass and foam technology improved, as did the manufacturing of fins. By the 1970s and 1980s, board design had evolved into the state that it is today, with the advent of the option of number of fins and the creation of various types of polyurethane and fiberglass materials. During this time the epoxy resins were also brought into their current state [2].
Modern surfboard developments include using computer-aided design programs that are synchronized with polyurethane molds in order to create a computer-shaped core. Injection molding may even turn out mass-produced cores in the near future. Research into plastics that could potentially be injection molded into a final product board that would not need to be shaped or coated with fiberglass is currently being conducted. These both have the potential to greatly reduce the cost of a surfboard; however, there is debate over whether the public will accept these mass produced, plastic surfboards, which are known inside the industry as "boards without souls" [1].