My Beautiful Bonzer

A few months ago I got a new surfboard, which is nothing too surprising in itself, but this one was a little special, and has a pretty good story to it.

First off, it’s a Bonzer, the first I’ve ever owned. The Bonzer “design” is a particular combination of fins and bottom contours that was developed by brothers Malcolm and Duncan Campbell, around 1971. It was the first tri-fin design, arriving on the scene 10 years before Simon Anderson’s Thruster. It was also one of the first designs to use a mix of concaves to channel the water flow for extra speed and control, decades before Al Merrick started marketing his “Tri-Plane Hull” that became the industry standard through the 1990’s.

A diagram from 1973 showing the intended waterflow
A diagram from 1973 showing the intended water flow through the concaves and fins

The design was years ahead of it’s time, when most surfers were drawing the careful lines dictated by the single fin designs of the day, the Bonzer required the rider to keep the board carving from rail to rail in order to get the most out of it. Ian Cairns, Jeff Hackman and P.T. were all Bonzer fans, and Bing Surfboards licensed the design for a few years. However, just as the Bonzer was gaining traction, the emerging pro tour was pushing surfers to find boards that allowed for snappy surfing in small waves. In 1978 Mark Richards unveiled his redesigned twin fin, which were a much easier design for shapers to copy, and the Bonzer was largely left by the wayside. 

Russ Short, Mexico, 1977

So what made me get a Bonzer? Well, I’ve always been fascinated by the design; the long, low fins and aggressive bottom contours look like nothing else out there, and the power surfing that the design encourages is a style that I’ve always aspired to. While the boards aren’t common, they’ve always retained a cult following among some of the best surfers out there. Tom Curren was a fan, Taylor Knox loves them, and his section in the 2005 movie “Shelter” showed that the design is still as relevant today as it ever was.

Taylor Knox and Donavon Frankenreiter, Australia, 2005

Then last year I heard an interview with Malcolm Campbell on the Surf Splendour Podcast, in which he mentioned that, not only was he still shaping, but he was based only 10 minutes drive from my girlfriend’s home in California. That was all too much for me, and I decided that I couldn’t miss the opportunity to own an original board of such unique heritage. 

I decided I would get a replica of one of their original 70’s shapes, the Russ Short model, but with the 5 fin setup they introduced in the 80’s and a rounded pin tail. My plan was to use this board on bigger days here in Costa Rica, when the added paddle power and big swooping turns would be perfect. I asked for the board to be finished with a deep red resin tint, and a full gloss polish, so that it would look as good on the wall as it did in the water, a true heirloom board.

So how does it surf? Well the simplest way to describe a Bonzer is that it’s somewhere between a single fin and a thruster, but that doesn’t really explain it. The side fins on the Bonzer have long bases, but are quite low in profile. Even compared to a modern thruster, the amount of fin on the rail is huge, creating a lot of down-the-line acceleration when you put the board on rail.  However, their low profile, combined with the Vee in the bottom contours, means that when you go to roll onto the opposite rail, the side fins release very easily, making the board very responsive and easy to turn. Meanwhile, you always have the anchor of the big centre fin, keeping the board from slipping or sliding, and providing a solid pivot point to turn around.

Two 6'4, round tail boards. Notice how much more of the rail the fins cover on the Bonzer vs. the Thruster.
Two 6’4, round tail boards. Notice how much further up the rail the fins cover on the Bonzer than on the Thruster.

My conclusion is, that this set-up, which is what a Bonzer really is (you can apply the principles to any style of surfboard), is a fantastic option for anyone wanting a solid, dependable board, that still allows for easy maneuvering. Advanced surfers may miss the ability to make the board slip and slide, but will love the way the board holds and accelerates through turns. For intermediate surfers, who are working on their bottom turns and cutbacks, it’s really important to feel confident that you can lean on that rail and drive through the turn. The Bonzer set-up allows you to do that, without fear of slipping, and will even help to connect those maneuvers with extra speed. In the video below you can see from the Trace readout that the board actually builds speed through it’s turns, despite the conditions being much smaller than the board was intended for.

Fun little surf on my 6'4 @campbellbros Bonzer yesterday. #tracetribe

A post shared by Harry Knight (@hjmknight) on

Watch the speed readout through the bottom turns and particularly through the cutback. Therein lies the joy.

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