Fish Surfboards: The Ins and Outs of a Timeless Design
It’s no shock that the point of surfing is purely for enjoyment – so you might think that the idea of a more user friendly board would be widely accepted and that most average surfers would opt for them, right? Nope. For the last few decades the craze has been all about high performance shortboards. We’re talking thin, narrow, and chippy boards that paddle like you’ve got an anchor attached to your leash and need a wave around chest high or up to link together a turn. Maybe it’s because of the increasing popularity of the pro surfing tour, or maybe it’s because people were afraid to step away from the norm. But either way, the typical high performance shortboard does not make anything easier for the average surfer or weekend warrior on those smaller days. But what were you supposed to ride if you didn’t want to hop on a longboard or funboard??
As of the last few years we’ve been seeing more and more shortboard shapers gravitate back to the pure enjoyment side of surfing – offering shorter and fatter boards that excel in small to medium sized waves and paddle / catch waves similar to the feel of a longboard. It’s with all this change that we are starting to see the surf industry move back to the fish design as the ultimate small wave machine. But what exactly makes this shape so special?
The fish design is one of the most unique and recognizable surfboard outlines in the history of the sport. The shape features an overall wide outline with a wide nose that, with the help of a relatively flat rocker, enables the surfer to paddle easily into waves and get in early to set their line, in contrast to a standard shortboard which requires a bit more work to get into the wave and quick reaction once your in.
Another unique feature of the fish is the tail – known as a swallow tail. The swallow tail is a “split tail” design that offers plenty of surface area like a square tail, but has two points that give extra hold and traction. The wider tail allows it to maintain a great amount of speed in soft parts of the wave, making it ideal for small waves and up. The two ends allow the board to feel solid and engaged when holding a hard turn and moving fast. For these reasons, the swallow tail is one of the most versatile tail designs for waves of all shapes and sizes.
When you combine extra nose and tail width into a surfboard, what you end up with is more foam which translates to increased buoyancy. For this reason surfers tend to ride a fish smaller than they would a traditional shortboard. This helps to increase the maneuverability of the board without sacrificing the paddle power or float of the board.
Combining speed, hold, and ease of catching waves creates the ultimate small to medium size wave weapon – ideal for summer time sliding.
The fish doesn’t stop there. It ain’t just a small wave weapon! Surfer’s of all skill levels have been pushing the fish in waves of all consequences. With the double pin tail it can hold any line, you just need to be able to harness the speed.
Above: Harnessing speed in a big wave. Photo: Woody Gooch (https://www.woodygooch.com/)
Many shapers offer a modern “twist” on the fish design, taking some of the elements that make the fish unique and fine tuning them to work in a wider variety of waves. These “hybrids” look a bit more like a performance board than a fish, appealing to surfers that prefer a more aggressive approach to wave riding.
The original fish design was first introduced by Steve Lis in San Diego back in 1967, originally designed for kneeboarding. During the mid to late 60’s, surfer’s became obsessed over trying to ride deeper and tighter in the pocket. The idea was that kneeboarding could get you deeper in the barrel and closer to the pocket of the wave than ever before with stand up surfing (mainly because of the length of the boards that were used during this time time period).
Above: Steve Lis with his fish Photo: Warren Bolster via Encyclopedia of Surfing
At the time Lis was riding pin tail boards and using swim fins to help him get into waves. He noticed that the fins would hang over the tail of the board and create drag in the face. He then had the idea for the “split tail fish” design, to create a board that had extra width to hold the swim fins but still have the hold of a pin tail board.
Lis was not the first to create a split tail board, nor a twin fin surfboard. These were already pretty well known in the early 70’s (though only few people “stand up surfed” a fish by 1973). However, Lis is credited for the design of the fish because he combined the two into what you will find at most surf shops around the world today.
Mark Richards was another pioneer of the surf industry when it comes to the fish design – although his take was a bit different than the Steve Lis fish. At the time, Mark was a pro surfer from Australia competing on the pro tour. After seeing a few surfers using a fish during some of the competition events, MR began his work on a fish design in 1976. With master surfboard craftsman, Dick Brewer, helping MR with his design, he developed his famous 6’2 fish, with large twin fins set around 11 inches from the tail.
Mark Richards, 1977 Photo: Jeff Divine
Mark Richards rode his fish design through the 70’s and into the early 80’s during which he was atop of all of his competition winning the world title. He was able to maneuver the fish better than anyone at the time, throwing tighter carves in the pocket and harnessing all of the speed the twin fin has to offer.
A true retro style fish features two fin boxes (or glassed on fins), often referred to as “twin fin”. The idea behind the twin fin configuration is speed. Having two large fins along the outside of the tail and nothing but board between them allows for minimal drag while moving through the water.
This combined with the usual wider outline through the tail with twin fin designs is guaranteed to send you screaming down the line at mach 10. The only downfall is the lack of maneuverability with the traditional keel fins, as they do not offer too much grip or pivot. There are multiple different templates for twin fin sets nowadays, so efforts can be made to make a retro fish more maneuverable, such as a more upright fin – but may also sacrifice speed and drive.
Modern fish designs or “hybrid” fishes often feature either a four fin or five fin setup, allowing the surfer to change the way the board feels in a variety of different waves. A modern fish is usually a bit more pulled in at the nose and the tail, and features less width/volume overall. This leads to increased maneuverability and less speed, making it a bit more manageable for surfers that prefer a performance shortboard but still want that ultimate small wave machine.
Needless to say – we are pretty stoked to see the fish making a comeback into modern surfing. These boards provide everything you want for a summertime surfboard, and we are loaded up at the shop with fishes from all of our major surfboard manufacturers. Come by and get your hands on one of these!