Curtis Hesselgrave develops new, better stabilizers on a wave
of 'trial and error'
By Terry Rodgers
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
December 6, 2005
Fin makers historically have been among the most eccentric
artisans in the surfing world.
The legendary Tom Blake, who in 1935 was the first to attach
a fin to a surfboard, was a mystic loner. George Greenough,
whose flexible, raked-back fins were inspired by the dorsal
fins of dolphins, remains a stony recluse in the Australian
outback. Fin box innovator Tom Morey, who renamed himself
"Y", is a classic mad scientist.
One of the current masters of fin design, Carlsbad's Curtis
Hesselgrave, has pursued this specialty with both passion
and precision. If he has any loose screws, they are well hidden.
A self-taught mechanical engineer who also knows a thing or
two about physics, Hesselgrave, 59, has approached fin making
over the past 30 years as both an art and a science.
His favorite technique?
"Trial and error," he said. "It's a powerful
sorting process to come up with a good design."
Fins are an integral part of any surfboard.
"You can't separate boards from fins," he said.
"The board is a planing hull. It's skipping like a rock
across a pond. Fins give you the character of how a board
will ride." "My job is to provide a service to the
board builders," he said. "I'm helping them with
fins that allow their boards to work better."
He is a walking almanac of knowledge on how fins work.
"A surfer on a tri-fin board is using only two of the
fins at any given time," he said. "When he's moving
across the face of the wave, the outside fin is just along
for the ride."
Raised in Nyack, N.Y., on the Hudson River, Hesselgrave briefly
attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn before finding work
as a lab assistant at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty
Earth Observatory. He spent seven months at sea with researchers
who were documenting the theory of plate tectonics. By age
20, he'd been around the world.
A personal turning point came when he was befriended by Ray
Hicks, a NASA aeronautical engineer, who trained Hesselgrave
in the fundamentals of science. At age 22, he moved to Laguna
Beach and quickly discovered surfing.
In 1971, he fell into a job working for Mike Hynson's Rainbow
Surfboard Co. A year later, he was hired by Bill Bahne of
Fins Unlimited, whose adjustable fin-box systems for longboards
would become the industry standard.
While always hovering around the surfing industry, Hesselgrave
explored some side roads, too. He spent years in the skateboarding
industry as a magazine writer and promoter of the sport.
Designing the now-defunct Del Mar Skateboard Ranch helped
him realize his talent for engineering.
By 1982, he was manufacturing surfboard fins at his own shop
At the end of the decade, he was swept up in the windsurfing
craze. He designed fins that in 1990 helped sailboarder Pascal
Maka set the world speed record for sail-powered craft at
43.6 knots (50.2 mph).
The fins Hesselgrave designed for windsurfing came in handy
during the late 1990s, when tow-in surfers complained of having
trouble turning their boards in waves over 30 feet.
Working with Hawaii's Laird Hamilton, he designed fins for
a tow-in board that were slightly concave on the inside surface,
a feature that increases stability at high speeds. It evolved
into a four-fin board that became a breakthrough.
"This has enabled modern tow-in surfing (where surfers
are towed into waves by partners on personal watercraft) to
become what it has become," Hesselgrave said. "Fins
were a huge part of building the bridge to that new frontier
This fall he left Future Systems, a Huntington Beach-based
fin company, to rejoin his longtime friends Bill and Bob Bahne
at Fins Unlimited in Encinitas.
The company recently acquired a computer-driven milling machine
that can make sophisticated fins at high volume. Hesselgrave
adores it. He can design a three-dimensional fin on his laptop
computer and the machine will make a precise copy.
His current experimentation is exploring how flex in fins
stores and releases energy. Template, foil and flex are the
three controlling factors that determine how a fin performs,
"Flex is the least understood design component in all
of this," he said.
Looking to the future, he envisions advanced designs that
will speed up classic longboards by 20 to 30 percent.
"We're not done, not at all," he said. "Surfing
is still a neolithic culture. We're still in the new stone
age. We haven't reached the Bronze Age yet."