When summer starts to show its face each year, surf shops and magazines begin their annual round of promoting various “Fish” surfboards, usually hanging the label on anything with a bit more volume and a swallowtail. Touted as being the perfect shortboard option for the small, weak waves usually associated with summer months, the Fish is actually a versatile shape with a fascinating history (and three distinct “species”) that deserves greater consideration than just as a junk-wave “plan B” for surfers who don’t want to ride a longboard.
The Lis Fish: Unlikely Origins
The Fish was actually designed initially for anything but small, sloppy waves; the first incarnations were made to surf the heavy, hollow reef breaks around South County San Diego such as Big Rock in La Jolla and Newbreak at Sunset Cliffs. In 1967 Point Loma kneeboarder Steve Lis shaped the first Fish from a snapped longboard (most likely inspired by the twin-finned “twin pin” design by Surfboards La Jolla), and every element of the design was tuned to suit the challenging waves that he loved; the short length allowed manoeuvrability in hollow sections; the high volume meant that despite it’s short length it would paddle into waves easily; the fish (or “swallow”) tail is akin to two single pin tails to hold into the wave face, and the down rails are made for speed. The fact that so many of the Fish’s design characteristics (such as a flat bottom for speed and a wide tail that makes the shape looser through turns) are also desirable in small wave boards is almost coincidental.
Lis and the crew of San Diego kneeboarders who were the test pilots for the Fish were underground though; whilst the design eventually leaked out into the wider world of surfing, the shape’s origin story didn’t go with it. Possibly the first person to surf standing-up on a Fish, rather than ride it as a kneeboard, was a Point Loma friend of Lis’ named Jeff Ching.
"Stevie Lis was knee boarding on a 4’7” kneeboard that had a big split swallow tail and dual keel fins, and was doing the most amazing things with the speed that he generated like racing way out in front and then doing full wrap round house cut backs. One of his waves that still is stuck in my mind was one where he had so much speed that he pulled out of the wave and did a 180 on the back of the wave, and then dropped back in to continue riding. I got the idea of standing up on Stevie’s knee board from Val Ching, who stood up on wooden paipo boards at The Wall at Waikiki Beach when I was a paipo-boarding grom in the early 60’s. One day the Sunset Cliffs crew were all sitting on the beach at our local reef and I asked Stevie if I could have a go at it with his kneeboard. I swam it out and caught my first wave that made history. The best way that I could describe it was it was like riding on your feet. Unlike the gunny single fins we were riding at the time the board actually squirted out of turns and all I had to do was think of where I wanted to put it on a wave. From that day on I rode Stevie’s kneeboarduntil he got tired of me borrowing it and made me a 5’5”. With the new standup Fish I was able to ride tubes, nose ride, take off super late on my knees, take the highline down a walled up wave, do roundhouse cut backs and climb the foam ball. I even did a carving turn on the underside of a lip upside down. The Fish is the most versatile wave-riding vehicle ever invented!"
Jeff Ching riding a Steve Lis Fish in 1970, photographed by Warren Bolster
However, when Jim Blears and David Nuuhiwa placed 1st and 2nd riding Fishes in the 1972 World Championships, held in waist high waves in San Diego, the Fish earned a reputation for small wave performance - and it stuck.
Following Blears’ World Championship win in junk surf, the stand-up Fish design was developed to further accentuate its small wave performance features and as a result most of these iterations were difficult to control and surf in waves over head high. Because the original Fish was designed and surfed as a kneeboard it was surfed with an incredibly low centre of gravity which combatted the looseness and skittishness that resulted from the wide tail, flat bottom profile and stiff, low profile keel fins. The design soon fell out of favour, until Hawaiian surfer Reno Abillira took a fish to a series of contests in Australia in the mid 1970s.
Abillira’s 5’3” twin-finned fish caught the attention of Newcastle surfer Mark Richards, who at 6’1 was tall for a competitive surfer and despite his natural ability struggled against shorter, lighter rivals on the narrow-tailed single fins of the era when the surf was small at competitions. He adapted the design to produce a longer surfboard with a narrower, cut-in tail (perhaps inspired by the Ben Aipa stingers of the era) to offset the loss of maneuverability from the increased length, and with large twin fins rather than keels. Richards’ interpretation of the Fish was designed to conform to the contest judging criteria of the late 70s and provide a competitive advantage, and between 1979 and 1982 he became the first surfer to win four consecutive World Championships – all on MR twin fins. When Simon Anderson added a third fin in 1981, the design again fell into the shadows.
The Lost 90s
In 1994 Tom Curren rode a 5’7” “Fireball” Fish shaped by Tom Peterson in Bawa, Indonesia, but few surfers could relate to what he was able to achieve on the design. A couple of years later, in 1996, Chris Ward watched Curren surfing a Fish on the North Shore and called …Lost shaper Matt Biolos to ask him to shape him “a Fish”. Biolos visited some local surf shops that he knew had old surfboards hanging on the walls to “read up” on the design, and his interpretation was a 5’5” x 19”¼” round nosed but narrow tailed surfboard with a more curved template than the 60’s originals. The …Lost shapes were performance Fish, with fast, flat bottoms and designed for more radical surfing. Under the feet of their team riders Chris Ward, Andy Irons, Cory Lopez and Bruce Irons, almost anything was possible and the 1997 film 5’5” x 19”¼” kick-started the “short/fat/wide” surfboard movement and the shift away from “standard” 6’2” shortboards towards alternative shapes and, eventually, back to the source of the original 1967 Steve Lis Fish.
Retro Revival and a Summer Slop-buster, or Slab-Suitable?
These days a Fish can be (almost) whatever you want it to be. Some Fish are small-wave shortboards, whilst others are certainly Fishes in outline shape but not necessarily in length. They can have two keel fins, twin fins, twinzers, or quad fin set-ups, and can be designedand tuned to a huge variety of wave types. For us here at Otter Surfboards a Fish needs to have fairly straight rails, low rocker with a flat bottom, and a wide swallow tail. Our 5’10” Fetch Fish has a more progressive tail template but is a “classic” Fish being sub-six-foot and performs well in a wide variety of conditions, whilst our 6’4” Woodburner has a broader tail and more volume throughout so is great for smaller or flatter faced waves.
We’ve surfed our Fetch in larger, hollower waves in the past – the sort that Lis originally designed the Fish to perform in – and know that they go well if surfed with an understanding of how the boards perform, but more often than not they’re also a small day alternative to a longboard. They needn’t be, though, and we hope to see more surfers embracing the Fish’s hollow wave design pedigree in the future, and certainly beyond the summer.
If the history of surfing is something that interests you and you enjoyed this article, then be sure to check out and subscribe to the fantastic History of Surfing and Encyclopedia of Surfing websites which are run by surf historian and writer Matt Warshaw, who kindly assisted us with producing this article.
Naming something is a difficult business. And, you only get one shot. Sometimes, a name comes instantly as if it was always meant to be, whilst at other times the right name takes a little longer to reveal itself. Every model of surfboard that we design and make here at Otter Surfboards is given a name, and this is standard practice not just here but in almost any industry that produces something, be it surfboards, watches or cars.
It took us a while to find the right name for our latest model, a 7’10” “Sunset-style” single fin mini-gun inspired by those developed in Hawaii in the 1970s to successfully ride the powerful waves of Oahu’s North Shore. It needed a name that implied both speed and power. We spent a good bit of time over numerous tea breaks throwing ideas around, but none felt quite right. And then, as is often the case, tea provided the answer. Stacked up, at the back of the workshop, are a number of old tea chests that we use for storage. Tea chests stamped with their port of origin, from India, Kenya, and China. They made us think of the ships that originally raced to deliver tea from the East Indies to London in the middle third of the nineteenth century: the Tea Clippers.
“To sailors, three things made a ship a clipper. She must be sharp-lined, built for speed. She must be tall-sparred and carry the utmost spread of canvas. And she must use that sail, day and night, fair weather and foul.”
Named after the verb “clip” which historically meant to run or fly swiftly, clippers were fast square rigged sailing vessels with three masts. They were very narrow and incredibly fast, designed to “clip” over the waves as opposed to pushing through them. Every element of their design was concerned with achieving optimum speed, rather than cargo capacity or comfort. Internal space was given over to stowage for extra sails and accommodation for the crew required to handle them, and so they were limited to carrying low volume but high value cargoes such as tea, opium, spices, mail or passengers. Clippers raced each other to complete standard journeys in record times, competing to deliver the first cargo of a year’s tea harvest to London, and thus fetch the greatest price. To do so, they were sailed hard and few had lifespans exceeding twenty years. When other ships would reduce their sail area to weather a storm, clippers were known to push on regardless, and the last China clippers were the fastest commercial sailing vessels ever made. Despite their ability to deliver a cargo in the fastest possible time, the age of the clipper came to an end when they had to compete against steam ships that were not governed by the wind and could keep to a schedule, and which could utilise the newly built Suez Canal in 1869, compounded by the effects of an economic slump.
We thought that naming our latest offering, designed for fast, powerful waves, after the clippers of old seemed appropriate. When other surfers are under-gunned, the Clipper delivers the ability to keep going, getting in early and delivering the goods. And it’s nice to take inspiration from the old tea chests in the workshop, and to have finally drawn some direct inspiration from a humble cup of tea!
The 7’10” single fin pintail had been back from the laminators for a few weeks, taking up residence on the workshop wall whilst we waited for a suitable swell to test her in. It being mid-winter, we didn’t have to wait very long. The Clipper is a very specific surfboard; reminiscent of 1970s Sunset guns, it was designed with size and power in mind.
Everybody was talking about this swell. It was a decent size, with a really good long period, and most unusually for this time of year it was dead west and due to be met by light offshores rather than the standard onshore storm winds that mess up most similar swells to hit these shores.
We met in the dark and drove north before most of the county rose to make their way to work, up through steep slate valleys and kissing the edge of the moor momentarily. When we arrived it was still the deep blue of the pre-dawn and the tide was high. But it was booming through. It was hard to tell just how big it was, but it perhaps wasn’t quite as big as we’d expected. It looked manageable, and despite the inside being littered with rocks and boulders the point-break waves meant that paddling up to gauge it first hand was an easy stepping stone to paddling into a first wave. This spot holds size well, but once it gets to “big” the swells start to move the boulders that line the point, and you can hear them grinding together eerily as you duck-dive. It’s daunting.
Jonny is a confirmed big wave head. Having spent a decent amount of time on the North Shore of Oahu and working with Owl Chapman, he’s put time in paddling into serious waves out there, including at sizeable Waimea, and cold water and the need to wear wetsuit boots back home in the UK doesn’t put him off. He paddled the Clipper to the top of the point, waited for a loomer, and stroked confidently into it, guiding it down the face and banking it into a long and drawn out bottom turn.
The waves this morning offered large faces to run out onto before cutting back, and as they hit the inside they boiled up off the rocks and offered a bumpy run like a racetrack paved in cobbles. Again and again Jonny dropped, drove and faded, coming back to the boulder-strewn beach for a breather at one point having ridden one beyond the point of no return, before paddling back up the point for more. As the tide dropped and the swell started to diminish ever so slightly, the larger sets became fewer and further between and more difficult to navigate, whilst the day got lighter and visibility improved. By mid-morning the last waves were ridden back to the shallows, the few surfers who’d tackled the waves rock-hopping back to the beach and congregating around their car boots on the roadside. And then, just like that, everybody headed off to their late starts at work and we hit the road back to the workshop to hang the Clipper back on the wall, dripping wet still, and get on with a day of shaping whilst we planned where to pick up the search again the next morning.