What about the Bonzer?
Recent fin articles by Stu had a Bonzer-sized hole in them and when the design was put in the dock in the comments it wasn't exactly acquitted. More like a hung jury, which I think deserves a re-trial. As a decades-long Bonzer afficionado, please allow me to present the case for the defence.
The historical weeds relating to who did what and when regarding surfboard design are thick and impenetrable, filled with hostile egos and unreliable narrators. Having said that, it seems fairly certain the Bonzer design was the first three-finned board which featured the triangle fin configuration which begat the Thruster, the most dominant fin design of all time.
This both stabilised the directional capability of the small, wide-tailed boards which the early shortboards of the Nixon era-70's favoured and began an adventure in capturing diagonal water flow which led to the other dominant design feature of modern shortboards: the single to double concave. More on hydrodynamics in a minute.
The Bonzer is a Californian design, inspired by Australian shortboard surfing, particularly Wayne Lynch and Aussie slang. Bonzer: a good thing. It's a classic garage innovation, coming out of Ventura via Malcolm and Duncan Campbell. While it's always been there and had its occasional flirtations with the mainstream, the Bonzer has been largely overlooked by hipster reworkings of classic designs.
Some of that is the dumb luck of bad timing. The 1994 film Litmus was most notable for the reintroduction of the fish via the baroque stylings of Derek Hynd at J'Bay. Yet Hynd claimed the best board he ever rode out there was an '89/'90 Campbell Brothers Bonzer. The board was beat to death by the time Litmus was filmed. Five years earlier and it would have been the Bonzer being showcased and a Bonzer revival which lit up the nascent alternative/hipster movement of the late-90's, which has continued to roll on through to the present day. A sliding doors moment.
The design briefly and notably flared up in Australia as pro surfing was beginning to come to life in the mid-70's. The Campbell Bros licensed the design to Mike Eaton of Bing Surfboards, who passed on the genetic information to Peter Townend. PT made the first Bonzer in Coolangatta, then brought the design to Cronulla, as part of a shaping stint for G&S surfboards. Filmmaker Steve Core captured footage of PT down the coast, and also Terry Richardson at Aussie Pipe in his 1974 film Ocean Rhythms. The footage holds up today, showcasing what Hynd felt when he made a homemade version in 1973: “It drove instead of pivoted, delivered more release off the bottom”.
Despite PT's performances at the 1974 Coke Surfabout, an example, according to Hynd, of how “progressive surfers were on dramatically different equipment” the design sunk into obscurity as the reality of the pro tour took hold. Why?
According to Bonzer devotee Terry Richardson, it was the rise of the twin fin, which culminated in four World Titles to Mark Richards. Less obvious was the lack of fit between the cosmic stylings and ethos behind the Bonzer and the new Bronzed Aussies-era of pro surfing. Richo described the Bonzer as being “the essence of what was happening back then”.
That essence was not something a sport hell-bent on distancing itself from its drug-fuelled 60's and 70's image was keen to promote.
Through the 80's and 90's the Bonzer languished, kept alive only by the religious zeal of the Campbell Bros and a few devotees, such as Mick Manolas and Mitch Thorson who together found an underground home for 5 fin Bonzers in the Margaret River region. Another devotee, Davey Miller, produced an insane body of work at Pipeline and Sunset Beach through that dormant period.
I met Miller in the mid-90's. At the time he was evangelical about the Bonzer and John Coltrane, spending hours “educating” me about the genius of both. I guess it worked.
While Miller's zeal failed to capture the mainstream, or even much a of chunk of the burgeoning alternative market, his enthusiasm ensured a steady stream of pros and recreational surfers kept the design alive. Malcolm was a long term ghost shaper for Channel Islands and it was this connection that got the Bonzer into the 2006 Taylor Steele/Chris Malloy film Shelter. Taylor Knox's surfing on a green Bonzer at Angourie, one of the spiritual homes of the shortboard revolution which inspired the original Bonzer design, had a resonance which linked up both eras and countries. Knox's surfing still holds up: a blend of high performance carving and single fin purity of line.
Shelter cemented the reputation of the Bonzer as a fully fledged design concept and ensured the cult following that Bonzers enjoyed would slowly grow. But still the question remains: Why no break out into the mainstream, like twinnies?
A few reasons apply. First, as a proto Thruster, the Bonzer hasn't enjoyed the cool factor of the rest of the hipster revival, which has always styled itself as a reaction against Thrusters.
Second, performance wise, the design is not as versatile as a Thruster. I see the Bonzer as a single fin on steroids, and despite the presence of side fins they can't be pumped for easy speed in bad surf like a Thruster.
To get the best out of the design, the so-called “fifth gear” that Bonzer afficionados like to rave about, the hull has to be at a certain speed. When that happens, the combination of small, canted keels, concaves and a centre-fin produces an incredible feeling of locked in, drivey speed, that can still be broken free due to the small size of the keels. A unique feeling that Derek Hynd describes as “stable but unstable: loose when it needed to be, then grippy for acceleration”. *
Paradoxical feelings which may only appeal to the fringe.
There's never been a coherent version of hydrodynamics as it applies to surfboard design but the Bonzer is one of the few honest attempts that has some sense behind it. The essence of it is captured from water flowing diagonally across the bottom of the board. The side keels and concave bottom redirect this water flow tailwards, and to the single fin. The original marketing called this a nozzle effect.
Hydrodynamic theories like the Bernoulli Principle / Venturi Effect and Newton's Second Law of Motion describe this nozzle effect created by captured water flow: "If a volume of fluid is flowing horizontally from a region of high pressure to a region of low pressure, then there is more pressure behind than in front. This gives a net force on the volume, accelerating it along the streamline.”
It's this sense of acceleration along the streamline that Bonzer lovers crave. As to the design itself, while it may always remain fringe, possibly not cool enough or too complex for hipster fashion, elements of the Bonzer have stood the test of time.
The single to double concave bottom is still the shortboard standard.
The triangle-shaped fin array remains the dominant one for boards required to corner at speed.
Perhaps these will remain the Bonzer's greatest legacy.
// STEVE SHEARER
* From Jon Frank and Andrew Kidman's 2018 film and book project 'Beyond Litmus'.
The Modern Bonzer: A Primer
Though every major label has an alternative twin or mid-length in their arsenal, very few list a Bonzer in their range, and the same goes for most backyarders who are generally orbitting the same designs. There are, however, a few shapers committed to keeping the Bonzer flame burning. Here are three of them:
Matt Percy - Third Rail Surfboards
With impeccable heavy water pedigree, Matt Percy specialises in big wave Bonzers purpose built for the reefs and bommies around Margaret River. When it comes to getting feedback from his customers, Perc rarely has to wait long as he's usually out there surfing on the days his boards are designed for.
Jye Byrnes - Jye Byrnes Surfboards
Though he's considered an alternative shaper, Jye Byrnes takes a practical approach: He simply services surfers looking outside the 6'0" Thuster box. Jye has two Bonzers in his range.
Luke Daniels - Daniels Surfboards
Another shaper whose enthusiasm for the Bonzer stems from his personal experience of riding them. Though Luke can shape traditional Bonzers, he's willing to subtly shift the fundamentals, tinker with the foundations, and push the design forward.