A ripple of interest in the idiosyncratic fish shape is spreading across the surfboard world.
Words: Shannon Denny Photography: Mark Leary
In a factory in the Cornish countryside, not more than two miles from England’s Atlantic coast, a figure faces a great lump of white polyurethane foam held up on trestles. Standing in a layer of snowy dust, he’s surrounded by dark blue walls with a waist- high strip of lighting running around the windowless space. The paint colour prevents too much light from bouncing around, and the position of the bulbs focuses illumination onto the foam. The room is set up to maximise contrast and make the tiniest shadows visible on the polyurethane’s surface. A shadow indicates a bump, and this must be smoothed away because after many hours of art, science and graft this mass of plastic and air will become a surfboard, capable of skimming the ocean’s pulses as smoothly as a salmon slices through water.
It looks a bit otherworldly to the layman, but Rob Lion is perfectly at home in the shaping room of a surfboard factory. Here he regularly takes in hand the templates, saws, planers, sandpaper, fibreglass cloth and resin that contribute to the complicated process of making boards. Although mystical alchemists and mad scientists could be seen as distant cousins, Rob isn’t the type to keep his formulae and calculations secret. Instead he’s keen to share all he’s learned and exchange ideas, which is why he’s currently busy organising a Fish Fry, an event that brings together shapers, riders and fans of the idiosyncratic surfboard genre that is the fish.
In contrast to so many surfing events, a Fish Fry is non-competitive and non-commercial. Having been held in California, Australia, Japan, New York, Italy, Portugal, Florida, England and Ireland, their central mission is to facilitate the exchange of design concepts in and out of the water. This isn’t about winning, losing, buying or selling, but about celebrating creativity and sharing waves. Such events attract “counterculture revolutionaries and people who just want to have fun”, Rob explains. “That’s what the fish is all about, taking something out in the water that’s going to make you laugh, that’s going to make it all fun again.”
In the pantheon of surfboard shapes, the fish is the offbeat but charming stepchild that sits between the traditional longboard and the high-performance shortboard. The first modern surfers rode longboards, and refinements over the fifties and sixties made it easier to trim along the face of the wave with panache. Today, longboarding is still all about style. Thanks to their length, width and foam content, these buoyant boards are capable of catching unbroken waves with relative ease. From here you’re able to cruise down the line, cross- step or noseride till you’re hanging all ten toes. Throw in a soul arch – that classic longboarding stance, which sees the surfer leaning back casually - for good measure, and you’ve got the complete logging experience.
But in the late sixties, it was a 5’5” fellow called Bob McTavish whose ideas brought an end to longboard dominance. A shaper since his teens, McTavish is widely credited as being the man behind the shortboard revolution, which saw surfers the world over ditching their heavy watercraft for a lighter, smaller, more agile board.
It’s not just about length though; these sticks of foam are also thinner and narrower. They have more curvature or ‘rocker’, their noses are pointy and they tend to feature a number of fins in contrast to the classic longboard’s single fin. Such a template and set-up equals more radical rides. A shorter board offers enhanced manoeuvrability, tighter turns and the ability to perform on steep, hollow waves. When you see Jordy Smith land tricks like a superman air or a rodeo flip, these are the latest results of McTavish’s vision.
The fish emerged on the scene in the seventies, and Steve Lis is said to be the genius behind its creation. It was an experimental little beast from the start, cooked up in the garages of San Diego. Working in a shack in his backyard, he put together a short, flat board with a split tail and twin fins. He christened his 5’4” baby ‘the fish’, and rode it both as a kneeboard and as a stand- up surfboard. Others latched onto the unusual outline and adopted the chubby, stubby template as their own. With a fish, a rider could get fun tube rides, faster horizontal speed, cutbacks and better performance on small waves.
Over time, some of the key features of the fish made their way into mainstream shortboard design. Although plenty of individuals carried on quietly riding fish, the shape faded into the background through the eighties and nineties. Then, around seven years ago a ripple of newfound interest in the shape started spreading through the surf world.
What brought about this fish-focused zeitgeist? One factor is a subtle shift in the surf industry in the last few years that’s been helped along by the recession. The big surf brands still run the show, and the pro tour is every bit as bedazzling as ever, but in increasing numbers wave riders are simply exploring other avenues for getting their kicks. “I think we just had twenty-five years of standard thrusters, and people just got frustrated with it – I know I did,” Rob says. “People were ready for something that was going to be fun again. It’s a really fun board to ride. I mean it’s got all the speed you could ever want, and if you make ‘em right they’ll turn on a dime.”
It’s an opinion echoed by Grant Newby, who has for several years organised the Alley Fish Fry on Australia’s Sunshine Coast. “Everybody was surfing on a 6’2” by 19” white thruster with black logos, because that’s what the pros were riding,” he remembers. “It became very bland, very boring, very predictable.” The fish, with its old-school resin tints and hand-foiled plywood fins, offered an injection of colour into the two-tone corporate landscape.
Simon Skelton runs the showroom at Gulf Stream, where shaper Julian Matthews just won UK Fish Shaper of the Year. Pushing three digits, Simon’s quiver of classic and modern surf craft runs the gamut from ply bellyboards to big-wave guns, but he admits he finds himself on fish eighty per cent of the time. “There were a lot of surfers who’d surfed a lot through the years and had been riding 6’3” shortboards since the early 1980s,”he observes. “The whole surfing world was ready for a change. In the last six to eight years there’s been interest in other craft, so that whole stigma’s gone; fifteen years ago you looked weird if you didn’t walk down the beach with a 6’3” thruster, whereas now you can ride anything and everything "
The fish also works well in less-than-perfect waves, which has helped them spread to far corners of the globe as riders constantly seek out any vaguely surfable spot of coastline. “They’re essentially a small-to-medium wave surfboard design,” Simon says. “They go really well in weak, sloppy waves, and they go fast without any power from the waves – so consequently they make you feel a better surfer than you are!”
Another feature that’s pushed fish to the forefront is a renewed spirit for experimentation in the air. “Yes, there’s an awful lot of shapers out there,” says Grant, ”but the ones who shaped fishes were the innovative shapers, not the ‘me too’ ones.” The shape is intrinsically linked to exploring the limits of invention and imagination. Rob explains: “With the fish, it’s a pretty simple formula: 5’6”, 22” wide, 17” nose, 17” tail, 10 to 12” butt-crack and as flat a rocker as you can get it. You start with that, that’s going to work. And because it’s such an efficient design, it lends itself to experimentation.”
This yearning to push boundaries isn’t isolated to the shaping rooms either – you can see it out in the water as well. Gracefully and laconically leading the charge are the Yard Possums, a collective of intrepid So-Cal shredders devoted to bizarre floating devices, from chunk of foam to alaias. If it rips, they ride it. Tyler Warren is another wave renegade currently crafting unidentified sliding objects. He’s best known for his ‘bar of soap’ board, so named both for its shape and ability to supply slippy, smooth carves. He shapes sub-five- foot planing hulls from stringerless foam blanks, and takes inspiration from Bob Simmons, the legendary post-war shaper and surfer whose twin- fin balsa boards were way ahead of their time. Or look to the example of Cyrus Sutton, creator of the surf-centric website Korduroy.tv that’s all about promoting a DIY ethos in waveriding. He claims his favourite board is a 4’10” block of foam devoid of fins, stringer or fibreglass.
This back-to-basics movement in surfing borrows directly from those heroes of the garage workshops of the last century. Before there were shops to deliver your gear in tidy, stickered and logoed packets, a surfer had to make everything himself. Nowadays, this ethic is driven less by necessity and more by artistic choice. If you believe that surfing is an act of creativity, there’s a current feeling that the flexing of your creative muscle doesn’t just begin and end in making a wave; it can extend to making a board, foiling a fin, making your wax, sewing up a board bag and designing a sticker of your very own.
In addition to all this is the fact that the fish is an inherently non-combat craft. In the early championships, contenders rode longboards. Following a seismic shift, chasing a title shot required a shortboard. In contrast, the humble little fish was a board for fun waves, for mucking about with friends in suboptimal surf, for riding on your knees, your feet, your belly – whatever stacked up to provide the most joyful experience in that pointless commute that is surfing. The classic fish has rarely been mustered into competitive service, so it has no real contest connotation.
“The thing is, we surf for fun,” Grant points out. “And who is to judge whether you’re having the most fun? Or what you’re doing is the most fun thing to be doing? Or what you’re on is the most fun thing to be on?” Only a tiny fraction of the world’s surfers are in a position to do it for prize money and trophies. The rest of us are in it for the laughs, and for many the fish is the ideal vehicle for getting there.