Looking Back, Shaping Forward
Gary McNeill shapes the future using parts from the past
Looking Back, Shaping Forward
“It’s not where you take things from - it’s where you take them to."
The concept of originality is flawed, in surfboard design the same as in any other creative pursuit. Nothing is original, everything is borrowed. Like BowerBirds building new nests from old things, surfboard shapers use prior ideas to advance design. Simon Anderson wasn’t the first shaper to put three fins on a board. In fact, at Bells ‘81 - the Thruster’s breakout contest - he wasn’t even the only surfer with a three-finned board.*
What Anderson did do was get the mix of old ideas right. Three fins of equal size, in a triangle, on a board with a reduced nose area. And it worked.
Thus did old ideas become new.
The following story is also about originality and theft, however it begins far from a typically creative space, with a bunch of people sitting under the pandanus palms on a North Coast headland. Among them is Dave Rastavich.
“I called the gathering Finding The Fall Line,” explains Rasta, “and what I wanted to do was pretty much the antithesis of anything in the organised surf world, the WSL and all that stuff.”
As Dave explains it, the plan was to invite friends, each of them bringing a board to be ridden by the group. Historical designs and interesting shapes were preferred. Rasta had a John Peck Penetrator and a Lopez Bolt, Justin Crawford had a few MPs plus some of his Dad’s kneeboards, Tom Wegener made a toothpick. In fact, there were many pre-malibu boards including Olos and Hot Curls. The designs ran the gamut of surfboard history. There was even a goat boat and a boogie board.
A number of shapers were in the group: Dan Thomson, Neal Purchase jnr, Gary McNeill, Luke Daniels, and Chris Brock.
“It was word of mouth,” says Rasta, “friends, and friends of friends only. Then we picked a weekend and found a spot and rode everything for the morning and had it all videoed. We then got together that night and replayed the wipeouts and the hilarious moments so people could laugh at themselves.”
It wasn’t just a chance to share laughs, but also to riff on the various designs with everyone sharing feedback. Octogenarian Rusty Miller offered perspective on the older boards, plus some history on the area.
“It’s not every day you get 80-year olds sitting down with 5-year olds,” says Rasta. “Only good can come from multi-generational hangouts, and only good can come from people spending a day at the beach where there’s no winners or losers.”
Though there weren’t winners or losers, there were favourites. Of the many boards ridden, there were a couple that people found hard to give up and pass on to the next person. “One was a Tommy Peterson-shaped Fireball Fish,” says Rasta of the design Tom Curren rode to acclaim during a 1994 Rip Curl trip to Northern Indonesia, “while the other was a Dane Kealoha Model Town and Country twin fin.”
“Both of them were 5’8”, both rode differently to modern boards, and both, “concludes Rasta, “were exciting in their own way.”
Shaper Gary McNeill concurs on the day’s favourites. “I rode both boards myself and they were just so fast,” says Gary. “In fact, I couldn’t stop thinking about them, and I don't know if it was because they were both 5’8” but I started to imagine them together; getting the best qualities out of each board.”
His spirits quickening, Gaz hit the shaping bay with a head full of ideas, yet before we discuss where the ideas are going to, we first have to note where they’ve come from.
In 1994, Tom Curren was at his enigmatic best. After collecting two world titles in the 80s, he semi-retired then came back to win one more in 1990 - the first surfer to regain the title - and though only aged 26, he was drifting away from the tour; finding inspiration in ideas and equipment that didn’t align with competition. A year earlier, for instance, he got a wildcard into the Rip Curl Pro France and surfed a second-hand 1970s twin fin in his Round Two heat against Matt Hoy. Won the heat too.
Increasingly he was moving away from the six-oh Thruster, exploring surfing’s design roots, and on Rip Curl’s Search campaign, sometimes just exploring. In 1994, the two elements combined when he packed a 5’7” Tommy Peterson Fireball Fish into his boardbag for a trip to the Hinako Islands in Northern Indo. Midway through a mighty session at Bawa, he inexplicably swapped boards - inexplicable as the surf was ten feet - yet with Sonny Miller’s camera rolling, Curren put on a fantastic display of surfing, showing what was possible on shorter equipment.
Though Peterson called it a Fireball Fish it wasn’t a Fish as we know it - it had three fins for starters. “It was kind of like a fish hybrid with a shortboard,” said Curren at the time. Yet along with Litmus - Andrew Kidman, Jon Frank, and Mark Sutherland's movie which was released the same year - the board kickstarted the worldwide interest in twin fin Fish.
Gary had his own brush with the OG Fireballs as in the early-90s he was production manager at Nev Surfboards where Tommy would spark up some inspiration before shaping his boards. “Those curves are familiar to me,” says Gary of the Fireballs. “I hadn’t thought about them for a long time but I remember holding those boards.”
One lesser known fact about the Fireball design is that it didn’t strictly come from the mind of Tommy Peterson. In the mid-80s, Lennox Head shaper Phil Myers was busy devising a bottom shape that would include the then-obligatory three fins but allow him to drop in his beloved channels. He found it in the Hydro Channel: a set of channels that ended in a step before the fins, with a flat panel after it - see image below for a single fin version.
During a visit to the Free Flight factory, Tommy Peterson showed interest in Phil’s invention and, though nothing was said, the same elements curiously appeared in his Fireball Fish. “Good artists copy. Great artists steal," said Picasso, though Myers was far more gracious. Fortunately he was, because it later came out that another surfer, John Kelly from California, pictured above right, had created a step tail long before Phil had even picked up a planer.
The Dane Kealoha Model twin fin has an equally complex history. Borrowing heavily from the fish designs of San Diego kneeboarder Steve Lis, it features a short and wide planshape, generous thickness and a wide swallow tail. The Lis fish ran the twin fins parallel, however mid-70s shapers began to toe the fins in to provide faster reaction time and create a board that was predisposed to turning. Like nature, the boards abhorred a straight line.
The twin fins' willingness to turn led Reno Abellira to bring what was still a fringe design to the 1975 Coca Cola Surfabout, using it in small waves at Alley Rights, North Narrabeen. He rode the same equipment in the 1976 Surfabout, where he placed fourth.
Mark Richards won the contest but noted Abellira’s performance on the 5’3” x 20” fish. “His fish was skating over sections at speed where others were bogging down,” wrote MR much later on his website. Having abandoned twin fins a few years earlier, MR revisited the twin fin idea, adopting the concepts he saw in Reno’s board. His first board was the ‘Bumble Bee’, 5’11” long by 22” wide with a bulbous nose that made it look slightly absurd against the savagely angled boards of the day.
MR kept fine-tuning the design, eventually riding it to four straight world titles, and though he had the most success on them, other surfers also raised their performance levels on short, wide twins. Reno’s countrymen Larry Bertleman and Dane Kealoha were two who ripped on twins, and both were sponsored by Town and Country.
Town and Country had an Australian licensing deal with Byrne Surfboards, however they never shaped Dane Kealoha Models. “We did plenty of Larry Bertleman T&Cs,” says Phil Byrne of that late-70s period, “but we didn’t do any of Dane Kealoha. I’d say that board was shaped by Glenn Minami; it’s a classic ‘town’ board.”
'Town’ being the south side of Oahu. Home to small and sometimes sucky reef breaks, not unlike parts of Australia’s East Coast - or at least more similar than Oahu’s ‘country’, the fearsome waves of the North Shore.
With a board sitting in each corner of his shaping bay, Gary married ideas from each together: the planshape, edge, and thickness of the T&C, the bottom contours of the Fireball, even made it a twin fin so it was more fish than the original Fireball, while the rocker had neither the nose curve of the Fireball nor flatness of the T&C, but instead incorporated Gary’s own rocker.
“It was the best day of shaping I’d had in a long, long while,” says Gary. “There’s a lot to think about when you’re working from boards like these.”
Early reports are encouraging. “It reminded me of being young and driving my brother’s Torana XU1,” says Gary referencing a classic Australian muscle car. “No matter what you were doing it always had more to give.”
Meanwhile, Rasta has one wrapped in flax. “I rode the Frankenfish just the other day at one of the pointbreaks here and it went great. It’s going to be the go-to board for me - it feels so good.”
As you may have guessed, the Frankenfish is Rasta’s name for the new design though nothing has been settled just yet. Friends have suggested the DFF - short for Don’t Fucken Forget - so everyone who rides one remembers whose shoulders they're standing upon. Which, even if that name doesn’t stick, is exactly how Gary sees the design: One board with many fathers.
And maybe, just maybe, he’s found the right mix of old things so the Frankenfish/DFF comes to be seen as something new.
// STU NETTLE
*Ian Cairns also rode a tri fin, though it was closer to what we'd call a 2+1, and also had a planshape made redundant by Simon's Thruster.