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!”