The edge fish and other throw-forwards
When looking back at the history of surfboard design, it’s tempting to think progression is neat and sequential. That one breakthrough leads to another and forever onwards as the months and years fly by. In the process, new ideas are tested, and used if they work, or discarded if they don’t - tossed into the skip bin o’ history.
But how then do we explain tri fins appearing over a decade before Simon got the formula right? Or twins at least three decades before MR? And concaves on boards for over half a century prior to Greg Webber nailing the equation?
Clearly, just because a design has been sidelined doesn’t mean it won’t have future relevance. Cometh the hour, cometh the design...
Heady stuff, no? What, you may ask, brought on this meditation. Of wondering, not what history is, but how history works.
The answer lies in the corner of my shed.
Two boards. A 5’6” and a 5’8”, Free Flights shaped by Phil Myers with his version of the edge design dropped into the bottom of each. The first, the 5’8”, was ordered in a whirlwind, all heat and flash, before the credits of Ank and Ellis’ film had even rolled up the screen - and if you haven’t seen ‘On the Edge of a Dream’, I urge you to do so.
“In the future I believe every surfer on the planet will have some kind of edge element at play in what they’re riding,” wrote Ank in the accompanying book, and though he and Ellis reverted back to single fins, I had something else in mind.
Phil did too. We settled on a 5’8” x 19 ½ x 2 ⅜ , with a slightly more generous planshape than what you’d find on an equivalent shortboard. “The edges make a wide board feel narrow,” said Phil, so we went shorter and wider. Quad fin with Phil’s vent system for lift and that centre line feel you also get from single to doubles.
It may make a wide board feel narrow, but the central theory, the reason edge boards were first conceived, was to reduce the planing area and hence the wetted surface area. The result is less drag, more top end speed, and for longer too as it didn’t require constant pumping.
The 5’8” edge got ridden for a solid six months, whenever the waves were small and sucky. With volume removed from the rail its natural inclination was to turn, which it did so easily off its planshape curves, yet the best feelings came during the moments in between - during those longer glides when it’d hold the speed. The 5’8” delivered enough feedback to know there was something going on underneath. It was a mighty claim, but perhaps Ank’s prophecy was right.
However, it wasn’t until I saw a picture on Phil’s Instagram account that I had a Eureka moment about the edge concept. The image? A short and wide fish with edges dropped into the bottom.
“The edges make a wide board feel narrow,” Phil told me. So of course, put them into a wider board! Apples fell, light bulbs flashed. Make it a double, Phil.
But hold on a second...
You see, I’ve never had a great deal of luck with fish. Flat rocker and rear-mounted twins don’t suit my style, but fortunately for me Phil wasn’t keen to lean on tradition. The board we decided on was wide and short, and it had a swallow tail, but that’s where the lineage ended as it was a quad, with the tail pulled in and a fair kick of lift to take it vertical.
Phil was picking through the skip bin o’ history, grabbing various design elements and reconfiguring them into a modern board. “I can’t do production shaping anymore,” Phil told me while the board was being made. “You know, just making the same boards as everyone else. I need to be working on new ideas to keep me interested.”
Of course those new ideas can be old ideas revisited and given a modern spin.
In a recent film for Surfer magazine, Mark Richards said the twin fin never reached its potential as it was so quickly superseded by the Thruster, hence progress is still being made on the twin fin as shapers revisit it.
How many other board designs have had an arrested development? Especially when so many of them came during times of mad invention, either pushed to the extremes until they did reputational damage, or pushed aside like the twin fin was.
My reverie for a new theory of history was interrupted by an ominous text message from Phil: “Give George G a call. He wants to talk to you.”
Deep breaths and beta blockers are in order for how often do you get the chance to speak to a titan like Greenough? But that wasn’t my only misgiving, I also had it in my head that George would be against meddling with the edge - a design he popularised. It was a judgement formed without any evidence whatsoever, more a paranoid hunch, but it turned out I needn’t have worried.
“Hell no,” said George in his mid-Pacific accent, when I asked, “you know we always have to keep moving, we have to keep swimming.” Which I took as a metaphor for design progression. He wasn’t precious about the edge design being tweaked with.
“I was first messing about with edges up in Santa Barbara,” explained George, “at around the same time Steve Lis was working on fish down in San Diego. We were trying to do a similar thing: get as fast and lively as we could in the waves we had.”
“I needed to pull the tail in when I came here [to northern NSW],” continued George, “and then we did the stubby double-enders, but the waves in Diego are slow and they slope and Steve used that wide tail to ride them.”
These designs - the edge, and the fish - arose separately by creating boards that suited local conditions. The same rules don’t quite apply anymore; advances in materials and rocker mean boards can be ridden across all manner of conditions. But what about mixing those designs together, was there a rule against that? I put the question to George.
“No, no, no," implored George. "Do it, it’s gonna be interesting to ride, fins are gonna be touchy, and I don’t know what waves you ride but I’d be looking at the tail very closely…” the digressions from George went on for many minutes more, but the bottom line was that he thought it was a good idea. George was happy. I was too.
The 5’6” fish arrived late winter and it was a marvellous board to ogle. Even better to hold and stroke. It looked like Thunderbird 2 in outline, bulbous at 21” wide, yet sleek in profile, just 2¾ and beautifully foiled. Classic curves met unexpected angles. For one, the edges created two rocker lines: the rail line which was straighter and the edge line which carried the curve.
Where the edge faded near the fins, the rocker curve was subtly transferred to the rail line making for a shallow vee out the tail. It was a sublime blend of curves.
Late winter and early spring provided a long run of south swell on the NSW coast, which allowed ample time to run the 5’6” through its gears. First impressions were that it felt narrower than its 21” width. Not quite as ready to go on rail as the 5’8”, but more so than a usual fish - there was little lag in a fast heel/toe pump. As you’d expect it loved a lateral run, however the quad set up and tail lift increased the turning range. That versatility included the vertical axis, from which it wasn't shy. And, just like the 5’8”, the best feelings came in between moments, when the board was running flat holding its speed between turns.
The board got ridden in everything from 8’ point surf to 2’ beachies, with a sweet spot in the 2'-4' range.
I gave regular updates to Phil on how the board was going, but the conversation flowed both ways. While I was dialling in the fish, Phil was giving in to curiousity. First he dropped edges into a longboard, and with great success - it makes a wide board feel narrower, remember - then he took up an offer from George to copy some of his templates from the late-60s.
Since then, Phil's made a few boards from those templates, stubby little things with subtle edges, yet rather than following tradition with a single fin he’s dropping quads in with his vent system too. It may be sacrilege to some, but George is cool, and who knows what will result from them? We have to keep swimming...
Phil isn't the only one curious to see where these experiments will lead. He's taken a bunch of orders for edge mals, while Troy Hirst from PSI Laminating persuaded Phil to make a run of edge fish - twin fins - that'll be sold through Sideways Surf, and David Portch from Sothis Glassing in the states is also keen to make and distribute them.
The US connection came about when Keenan Roxburgh bought the first edge fish from Phil, then, in his job as WSL longboard judge, Keenan travelled to the US where a local rode it.
The local, of course, was David Portch.
Shortly after Phil explained the connection, a picture came through on my email. Not a photo, a sketch, blue pen on paper. It was the outline of a surfboard with six lines running from around the mid-point to the tail, and two curved lines following the rails through the central section.
I didn't need the sketch explained to me, I knew straight away. It was Phil's interpretation of a six channel surfboard - a design he's mastered over almost fifty years of shaping - mixed with the edge. I don't know if he's serious or not but I like where his head is at - a long way from production shaping, just making the same boards as everyone else.