What Type of Board Works Best at Sunset?
Talk about a loaded question! No matter how I answer it, at least one surfer will strongly disagree. Some believe that the responsiveness and agility a shortboard affords is the only way to truly experience a wave. Others maintain that the smooth glide of a longboard is the key to achieving that bliss-like harmony of surfer and sea. Some claim that a tri-fin setup is essential for full performance. Others remain fiercely loyal to the single fin configuration, and even deride side-fins as "training skags." Some favor new high-tech materials such as epoxy boards and carbon fins. Others dismiss each innovation as pure bunk (although I don't see many of them riding 80-pound redwood planks).
The bottom line, of course, is that there is no single "best" board. It all depends on your skill level, your objectives, and the conditions where you are surfing. Nonetheless, I believe it is possible to make some very basic observations to help guide and inform your decisions about what kind of board(s) to use at Sunset.
First of all, if you are a beginner and you just want to learn to stand up on a wave, you will have an easier time starting on a longboard. This is because longboards can get you into a wave earlier and with less paddling, allowing you to experience more time on the face where you can really learn. The choice between single fin and tri-fin is not so important at the beginning stage, but you do want to make sure you pick a board with sufficient buoyancy for your weight. A male of average weight and height will probably find a 9'6" board that is 3" thick and at least 22.5" wide (in mid-section) to be adequate. Adjust accordingly if you are lighter or heavier.
As your skill level improves, you will have to decide what kind of surfing experience you seek. Watch some classic surf videos of longboarding (such as "Endless Summer") and shortboarding (such as "The September Sessions") so you can decide what style most resonates with you. One way to compare the two approaches (and this is overly-simplistic, I know) is that longboarders aim to follow a line in the wave that holistically conforms with its intrinsic essence. Shortboarders, in contrast, often attempt to shape the wave by their actions so that it allows them to accomplish an objective of their own making, such as an aerial or an off-the-lip. Another overly-simplistic differentiation is that longboarders tend to work through a wave by adjusting their foot positioning on their boards, whereas shortboards work through a wave by adjusting their boards' position on the face of the wave. Of course, in the real world, your surfing style will encompass many different elements -- these distinctions merely reflect one's emphasis.
Both approaches can be incredibly fun. You don't have to commit solely to one or the other. Many surfers have multiple boards of different types. On any given day, Sunset may be better suited to one type or another. As a general rule, however, longboarders do generally get more waves and longer rides at Sunset. Keep in mind, Sunset tends to be a small, mushy wave. I would say that 90% of the time, the waves at Sunset are 2-3 feet or smaller. Because shortboards have less planing surface, they tend to flounder on weak, small waves and do better on bigger waves with more forward thrust. In contrast, even a knee-high wave with shape can be fun on a longboard. Furthermore, Sunset waves tend to be quite sectiony. A longboard often allows you to project through a section of whitewater and then return to riding a nice, clean face. This can be accomplished on a shortboard, but it takes greater skill and more self-generated energy to propel oneself through the section. (The smaller planing surface of shortboards mean that their momentum dissipates more rapidly.) On the other hand, when Sunset is pumping and the waves are head-higher or larger, a shortboarder can pull off turns, get deep in the pocket, and generate blazing speeds that would be impossible with a longboard.
This brings me to the question of tri-fins versus a single fin. While on shortboards, the tri-fin setup has pretty much taken over, on longboards there is still a strong contingency of loyal fans of the single fin camp. Most would agree that a single fin produces smoother, more graceful turning. It also tends to be more conducive to noseriding. On the other hand, a single fin is harder to turn except from the "sweet spot" towards the rear of the board, so more footwork is required to get the most from the board. Likewise, a single fin is harder to turn until you reach the bottom of a wave (thus, the classic bottom-turn so characteristic of longboards). A tri-fin board will allow you to work a wave more aggressively, carving up and down the face, whereas a single fin is more about locking into that perfect trim position and advancing to the nose.
In all honesty, Sunset is rarely very good for noseriding, at least not in the way that Malibu is. In fact, the Sunset wave is so variable and unpredictable that it is almost the polar opposite of Malibu's machine-like precision. This does not mean, as so many Malibu-lovers assume, that the Sunset wave is crap. I would assert that Sunset can produce waves of possibly equivalent merit to Malibu's, though with much less frequency. It is hard to verbalize the difference, but a Sunset wave at its prime can present more of a glassy, pristine, and workable face than the mold-like Malibu wave. And here is where my key point arises: these pristine Sunset waves (especially when initiated from the point) often demand an extremely quick, cranking turn from the take-off in order to beat the section and develop the speed necesary to get into all this face. Such an extreme turn can be harder to execute if you are riding a single-fin board. The tri-fin offers the advantage of being able to more easily commence the turn from the moment of take-off, as well as to project one's forward energy. This means that you are likely to enjoy more of these rare, beautiful waves on a tri-fin.
Finally, there is the element of crowds to consider. Whenever a sizeable swell hits Sunset, you can expect large quantities of surfers in the water. Often, the congestion is so heavy that the best waves are rendered unrideable because a surfer cannot stay on the wave without colliding into one or more of the sitting ducks in the line-up (many who inexplicably make no effort to paddle out of the way.) A shortboard may offer the advantage of being more maneuverable through this obstacle course. On the other hand, longboarders will inevitably cluster at the furthest out spot where the waves first peak. If the waves are lined up neatly and consistently, this phenonmena can be extremely irritating for shortboarders, as there will be no way for them to catch one of these waves without dropping in a longboarder who has picked it off further out. This is not necessarily an argument for joining the legions of longboarders at Sunset, but it is something to be aware of when deciding what type of board you want to buy.