The Big Sleep, Observations And Articulations With Richard Kenvin

[Richard Kenvin on a balsa Simmons, Jan. 2010. Photo by John Slavin.]

Some say the only places worth living are haunted. For 52 year-old surfer-historian and writer Richard Kenvin, that place is San Diego. One ghost particular to the area is Bob Simmons, a Douglas Aircraft mathematician and surfer/shaper who died under tragic circumstances surfing big Windansea in 1954. He was 35. Simmons’ experiments with foils and hydrodynamic lift, along with foam and fiberglass construction during the late 1940s, laid the foundation for the modern surfboard. He left behind a wealth of design information, contradictions and questions surrounding his surfboards or ‘hydrodynamic planing hulls’ as he insisted they be called. It’s easy to wonder how his boards would have evolved had he lived through the shortboard revolution and beyond. His death haunts Kenvin, a longtime Windansea kingpin and San Diego legend – he won the 1979 Stubbies at Blacks and in 1985, beat Mark ‘Occy’ Occhilupo and Tom Curren in a four-man heat during an ASP event at the Ocean Beach Pier – whose Hydrodynamica project has celebrated Simmons’s legacy, replicating original designs and inspiring new ones with the guidance of surf historian and Simmons confidante, John Elwell. Their research has informed the futuristic leanings of a younger generation of high performance surfer/shapers, Daniel Thomson, Ryan Burch and Lucas Dirkse, and has spawned an international backyard/garage movement with their conception of the mini Simmons.

Hydrodynamica started as a movie project documenting the evolution of the fish and over the last ten years has redefined contemporary surfboard design in the process. The movie has yet to hit the silver screen but is already affecting what we’re surfing on. This interview was conducted February 13, 2014 by phone on a snowy New York afternoon, while Richard enjoyed a sunny San Diego morning on a park bench in shorts and flip flops.

Mike Machemer: When did you start surfing?

Richard Kenvin: Started in 1970 on a dual fin belly board, then a 6’0” single fin round-tail, and then on my brother Peter’s G&S twin fin from the Rolf Aurness/Corky Carroll/Mike Eaton era. That board had super gnarly down rails, a wide blocky tail and high aspect ratio fins canted out. It had a lot of Simmons in the outline, but they took Simmons out of everything else, especially the rails and fins. Those twins were very loose and skittery and guys like Rolf, Corky and Gary Propper ripped on them but they also had some problems spinning out, hence the myth of a twin fin being a small wave design only. A true Simmons dual keel will never spin out. Eaton helped us out when we made the first 'mini Simmons,' which was pretty cool as he had made those square tail twins back in 1970, and had even experimented with some dual fins in the late fifties. But I mostly rode single fins as a kid. My first board was a 6'0" round tail from 1969 with a Fins Unlimited single fin shaped by Dan Bridgeman. The Bridgeman brothers were these super OG Blacks guys, a really smart and creative crew. We happened to rent their house when I was nine and they had a little skunk works where they made their own boards and ones for their friends.

MM: As a kid growing up in San Diego, were you aware of Bob Simmons?

RK: The first Simmons board I saw was a dual fin hanging on the wall of the Chart House, the restaurant that Buzzy Bent, Joey Cabell and those guys did, when I used to wash dishes there. I didn’t even understand that it was a surfboard. I grew up riding single fins at Simmons Reef and knew about Bob dying at Windansea but didn’t have any understanding of his boards. All I heard about were the Simmons single fins or the ‘Simmons spoon,’ a confusing thing about his legacy because he didn’t ride them after 1947 or so, when he came up the dual fin hydrodynamic planing hull, which is in a completely different universe from the single fin spoon. I didn’t understand Simmons until the fish drove me toward him when I was trying to get the fish story from Steve Lis, who I thought was maybe inspired by Simmons. But it wasn’t a direct influence for Steve, I mean he knew of Simmons in an abstract way like the rest of us in San Diego, but it didn’t affect him directly when he made the fish, even though the fish rides off a lot of the same principles. Everything I learned about the Simmons planing hull, the dual keel, came from John Elwell. Without Elwell, it’s doubtful if Simmons would be influencing anyone today.

[Richard Kenvin on a 5'7" Cyberism, 2011. Photo by Ernie Tyler.]

 [John Elwell portrait by Doug Wylie.]

MM: Your Simmons research with Elwell has introduced his legacy to the younger generation; surfer/shapers like Daniel Thomson, Ryan Burch, and Lucas Dirkse are continuing to re-interpret his design ideas in a high-performance arena. Why Simmons?

RK: He basically defined how the modern surfboard works, going rail to rail with multiple fins. Forget about the single fin spoons he made, they are completely irrelevant. It's the dual keel planing hull that is the foundation. Every pro today that drives his toe and heel side turns, does so on a lifting rail anchored and directed by an outboard fin, near the rail, on each side of the board. In between is a planing surface. That's Simmons. Simmons defined that long ago, MR and Simon really brought his ideas back into mainstream board design, intuitively. But far from being irrelevant, Simmons planing hull concepts are the key to making super high performance boards now. Simmons is the way to make a more efficient and versatile performance board.

It’s a really lucky time to be a surfer, someone like Daniel Thomson has so much to draw on, everything that came out of Simon Anderson’s thruster design, all the rockers and curves that came from single fins, he can put all that into his boards to whatever degree he wants, and have all this knowledge of Simmons and Lis, too. The boards Dan makes are very small but paddle really well, draw super long carves and also super tight arcs and then fly down the line like a fish. As far as airs go, they are more in tune with skating than a conventional pointy board, from an aesthetic stand point and from a functional stand point. I’m saying that through observation, not experience, as I can’t really do airs. Daniel Thomson made it possible by paying very close attention to what Simmons was really saying about how a surfboard functions, and now he’s got a design that rides more like a skateboard than any surfboard ever has. It’s a really good thing for performance surfing. I think we’ll see the effect in a few years, and I think it’ll be a young guy like Greyson Fletcher or Kalani David, someone who can skate and surf really well, that will really show what the modern planing hull can do as an aquatic skateboard. I mean, I think of that Vans contest in Huntington, where you’ve got all the skate stuff going on, and guys competing in both surf and skate events at the same venue. Eventually a kid is going to go, “shit, I’m not skating a pointy, elf shoe deck in the bowl, why am I surfing on one?” There’s always all this talk about surfing and skateboarding together but there’s a design/equipment disconnect. Imagine where skating would be if decks never evolved. Decks would still look like single fin surfboards. But skaters didn't care if decks started looking weird in the late seventies and early eighties, like the Hammerhead and stuff; they just wanted decks to be functional, to allow them to do what they wanted to do. And the stuff they wanted to do was radical, new, and progressive-- uncharted territory. They didn't let irrational hang ups about what a skate deck was “supposed” to look like stop them from pursuing a better design. Eventually, what worked stayed in and what didn't work got filtered out. Along the way things got weird, but minds stayed open.

In surfing, the mentality has been very different, very close-minded. The board that will really cross that shit over is here, now -- the boards Daniel is making. The person that will do it will be a kid who can skate and surf really well. I firmly believe that. I think the aerial stuff will become way more skate-like, smooth and stylish, faster and more efficient. I can already see glimmers of it the way guys surf on Daniels boards, just skatey-smooth, ‘skate style,’ above the lip without the pointy flip nose. I mean, George Downing needed a pointy nose on his hot curl because he was pioneering giant waves in Hawaii on a finless wood board in 1948, with trade winds gusting up huge vertical faces. He had a really good reason for it. But small wave boards today don’t really have a good reason to have pulled noses with tons of curve.

[Richard Kenvin on a 5'8" Simster. Blacks, Jan. 1, 2010. Photo by Scott Sullivan.] 

MM: Any word on when the Hydrodynamica movie is coming out? The Simmons-inspired designs it revitalized have already made it to the mainstream and are evident in what people are surfing and shaping. Everyone has their version of the mini-Simmons.

RK: Yeah, I’m stoked the mini Simmons became a garage and backyard board, as well as inspiring shapers to tweak it themselves. People all over seem to be having a lot of fun riding and refining them. Some of the best ones I’ve seen are made by Bob Mitzven here in San Diego, who actually shaped Simster #2 for me back in 2007. We want to finish the film; it’s just been logistics and finances. My feeling is, what I’d hope that the film would accomplish, has already happened without the film being done. But we’re still doing it. It’s going to get finished.

In the context of surfing, so many people in the film are worthy of their own documentary, whether it’s Carl Ekstrom or Daniel Thomson or Ryan Burch or Steve Lis. With our limited resources, Hydrodynamica exists on a super small scale. We get orders for custom boards through the website, and a couple of shops in Japan, Hawaii, and of course Pilgrim in New York. Chris Gentile has always been very supportive of Hydrodynamica, and he’s got one of the very first mini Simmons, a 5’1”, on display at the Brooklyn location. I just sent a mini Simmons up to northern California yesterday with Larry Gephart keels shaped by Hank Warner. Hank shapes all Simmons derived planing hulls and Daniel shapes all the modern ones, which we’ve probably made thirty to forty of. He can do 200 hand shapes a year for our thing, the CyberSim and a few other models, same thing as a Vanguard but without all the bells and whistles, simpler but with principles taken directly off Simmons’ boards. I’d like to do some inbetweeners with Hank and on Daniel’s side, I’d like to do some wider ones that are quads and dual fins but just wide and short. Along the same lines of the Vanguard or the Golden Mean Machine, instead of a 5’10 thruster that’s 19 inches wide, do some stuff that’s 5'5" by 22 inches, as a quad or dual fin.

[Richard Kenvin, 5'6" Lis fish. 2006. Photo by Scott Sullivan.] 

MM: What have you been riding lately?

RK: I’ve jumping back and forth between a 5’8” x 20” x 2.75” Vanguard hand shape tri fin by Daniel and a 5'6" Lis fish, the rust colored one, and some paulownia finless boards by Jon Wegener. The Vanguard is a boat, I call it “the Beast,” it’s actually pretty ugly but it’s really fun to ride. In 2006, I got into the mini Simmons thing, and finless wood boards, and asymmetrics by Carl Ekstrom and Ryan Burch, and kind of got away from my fish. Almost immediately after the first mini Simmons in 2007, I started trying to get a tri finned version working, the first of which was the Simster, then the Butterknife, and now finally the CyberSim that Daniel Thomson designed in 2010. My CyberSims are 5’7” x 19” tri fins with the thruster-cluster but the fins are set much straighter and with less cant than a conventional board. So, that was about four years I rode straight dual keel mini-Simmons or Simmons derived tri fins, asymmetrics, and finless boards, and now I’m on these super-refined modern planing hulls that Daniel makes.

But back to the fish…I’ve been working on an exhibit of boards and ephemera called ‘Surf Craft’ for the Mingei International Museum in June. Mingei is a craft and aesthetic philosophy developed by Soetsu Yanagi in the early 20th century. His ideas were published in a book called the ‘Unknown Craftsman,’ and he founded the Japan Folkcraft Museum in Tokyo in the 1930s. His philosophy applies to surfboards and surfing really well. A craftsman/designer like Steve Lis or Skip Frye creates in a very pure Mingei way. Anyway, the directors of the museum asked me to 'curate' an exhibit of boards and put together a little book along with the exhibit, with an essay and photographs, which I’ve done. In working on it, I gathered lots of old fish for Ryan Field to photograph, and wrote about them, etc. It made me want to start riding my Lis’s again. So I’ve been riding a little 5’6” Lis a lot lately, and really enjoying it. I can go back and forth between Daniel’s refined planing hull tri fins, the Cybersim and the Vanguard, and the Lis, without any trouble. In fact, the tail of the Vanguard is as wide as the fish. It’s not an issue going from board to board, whereas I used to try to go from my ‘thruster-thruster’ to a fish and it was a crazy, major adjustment either way. But now with these boards Daniel has been making, which the fish was a big part of the inspiration, I can jump back and forth and not lose continuity at all. Lis, Skip, Pendo and those guys have been making wide, swallowtail tri fins for years that work great. Daniel’s are something very new though, because of the Simmons influence and the super efficient use of a more parallel outline, super dialed in planing surface, and a wide, blunt entry. Also, I’ve been riding a 5’6” x 18.5” Vanguard tri made of paulownia wood with a foam core, but that's kind of another story.

[Richard Kenvin, 5'8" Vanguard, 2014. Photo by Sakae.]

MM: Do you still ride contemporary thrusters?

RK: I’ll ride contemporary thrusters at really, really, good Big Rock or big Blacks. Around here, you don't get the opportunity to have true thruster worthy conditions too often. Hawaii, Indo, West Oz…that's another story. You need them all the time in those places. But not in Southern California. Thrusters work really well at Big Rock. I have a 6'9" Rawson that Pat made me in 2002 and a 6'5" Rusty that he shaped for me also from 2002. I have a couple of 7’6”s and a 9’6” widow maker. But on all the bigger swells here over the past ten years, I’ve ridden 9’0” x 23” dual keel balsa Simmons replicas, which handle anything San Diego can muster with the exception of one or two gnarly reefs. My Rawson and Rusty thrusters are kind of narrow, but for critical waves and backside those boards definitely get the job done. I spent a lot of time during the past ten years riding good waves on boards that maybe weren’t appropriate for the conditions but did so to try to really figure them out, so now I feel I can ride a Vanguard or Cybersim as a step up, when it gets good, and they get the job done, you can knife it under the lip, all that stuff.

[Richard Kenvin 6'9" Rawson thruster. Big Rock, 2010. Photo by Aaron Goulding.] 

MM: How about longboards?

RK: I ride one every ten years in the right kind of waves, like Scorpion Bay when its one foot. I’ve ridden lots of longer boards, like Frye Fish-Simmons and Simmons replicas, but those aren’t 'longboards.' Lucas Dirkse and Ryan Burch are insane longboarders, like David Nuuhiwa, and they also rip on fish like he did. Those guys are as good as anyone in the world; me, I’m not a very good longboarder. I didn’t really have a talent for it. I prefer riding an alaia type, finless wood board, in those kinds of conditions. It’s funny, though, I have a much greater appreciation of the artistry of longboarding now than I used to. Guys like Tyler Warren, Ryan Burch, and Christian Wach kind of followed Joel Tudor’s lead, in terms of a super style-centric path that includes classic log riding but also tasty shortboarding.

[Richard Kenvin, 5'6" x 18.5" Pawlownia, Vanguard, 2013. Photo by Michael Sangiolo.] 

MM: A few months back you sent an obscure text, “Butch died too young.” Can you explain?

RK: Well, these photos turned up of the 5’6” dual fin surfboard that Al Nelson made in 1957 that Butch Van Artsdalen rode at Windansea. Reno Abellira told me some stories about how Butch continued to experiment with dual fins boards on the North Shore at places like big Haleiwa. I think as time passes, the tragedy of Butch dying at 39 just deepens. In the fifties, guys like Butch and Wally Froiseth rode little dual fin boards in smaller waves that were very in tune with Simmons, and they pioneered big surf in Hawaii on single fin guns. They were open to trying completely different stuff in small waves. I first went to the North Shore in 1979 and Butch was still lifeguarding there and I may have said hello to him. But as a kid growing up all the old Windansea guys were gone, they were no longer around and it’s really only through looking into Simmons that I got to know a lot of them. So, Butch and Al ripped on a little 5'6" dual fin made out of balsa wood out at Windansea, it’s just another one of those ‘flash-in-the-pan’ novelty type things but on the other hand that board really influenced the Mirandon Brothers. It blew their minds as kids and helped them to make their twin pin, and the twin pin kind of affirms young Stevie Lis as he’s making his fish and watching Chris Prowse ripping stand up on a Mirandon twin pin. They’re all kind of obscure things but wound up influencing people down the line. To Nelson, it’s just something he did no big deal at all, just a little experiment to see if they could ride it and they could. But to the Mirandons it was a big deal and to me it’s a big deal but to Nelson who shaped the board, it’s not such a big deal.

In doing this book for the Mingei exhibit, I’ve been thinking about the big historical picture and you get the year 1919. Bob Simmons, Wally Froiseth and John Kelly were all born that year. Fran Heath, the other main hot curl guy was born two years earlier in 1917. I think about Froiseth and Simmons, especially during this year’s Vans contest at Sunset. Daniel had Timmy Reyes and Stu Kennedy riding his step-up, wide tail boards in pretty macking Sunset. Timmy Reyes is riding a 6'1". I have a frame-grab that I took of Stu on a wave easily four times overhead and he’s on a 6'3". I started thinking how Simmons went straight to Sunset in 1953 with Flippy Hoffman and was riding a dual fin planing hull out there, basically just him and Hoffman. So, multi-finned surfing at Sunset actually first started with Simmons himself.

I think of who the next person riding multi-finned boards at Sunset, on smaller days, and its Wally Froiseth standing up on a tiny little dual fin paipo in the mid-fifties. Then in 2013 you have these young guys, Timmy and Stu, riding these boards that were designed by Daniel, who has a deep awareness of Simmons and the paipo, and I definitely see a connection there. With the book the two main design roots of modern times are Simmons and his planing hull and Heath, Froiseth, Kelly and Downing and the Hawaiian hot curl. You have those two diverse design ideas on either side of the spectrum eventually coming together when Simon Anderson makes the thruster. Another thing that came into focus was early pro surfing, the IPS, from 1976-1982 when everything happened in board design, in the context of competition that is still happening now. The chronology of it with Ben Aipa and the Sting, MR riding Aipas and then MR having Brewer make him a twin fin after seeing Reno riding one in the 1977 Coke contest in Australia. All this stuff feeding into each other during a six year period, the thruster and all tied into this neat little time period from 1976–1982. And on the outskirts you had the Bonzer, Geoff McCoy’s Lazor Zap, and the fish exerting influence. By 1983, the ASP came into being and it has been all about the thruster ever since. Reno knew Wally Froiseth, and Wally was a big influence on him. Reno spent a lot of time on the South Shore of Oahu as a kid and knew about the little dual fin paipo that Wally stood up on. There’s this Australian Open going on right now at Manly in Sydney and it's dribble. Exactly the kind of feeble conditions that that Reno rode his twin fin in during the early days of pro surfing in order to get through heats and surf better. But is anything like what Reno did going on right now? No, not at all, everybody is riding the same board in total dribble, really having to grunt a lot to make it work and get through heats. Which kind of trips me out knowing that mind-blowing small wave boards exist that could make for effortless surfing and airs in weak surf, but we’re not seeing it. It’s not crossing over into the pro surfing realm; it’s hard for that stuff to crossover because it’s risky for a pro to buck the standard criteria and because of loyalties and obligations to board sponsors. But meanwhile, Tom Curren is out there ripping on his quiver of Tomo planing hulls in the “free surf” realm…

[Alaias, Feb. 2014. Photo by Michelle Bossuot.]

[Richard Kenvin, Daniel Thomson. Next Generation 5'1", Tomo Vaders. 2014. Photo by Michelle Bossuot.] 

[Richard Kenvin, Daniel Thomson. Baja 2006. Richard Kenvin portrait in Kauai, 5'6" Lis. 2006. Photos by Ryan Field.]

MM: Has Slater ridden one? Seems he’s becoming a design ambassador for the tour.

RK: I’m don’t know if he has or hasn’t but he was very complementary and positive about Dan’s designs when Stu Kennedy rode one at the US Open in 2012. He certainly understands how and why they work. What Slater is doing with his boards is insane, you get into Slater and his quads with fins out on the rail and planing surface in between and again it’s Simmons, but with a lot of conventional shortboard stuff blended in. But look at the shit that he’s doing on those boards, incredible. If you look what he’s doing with the inside quad fins, getting a kind of pivot point but with a lot less drag than having a central fin… It’s similar to the old Lis gun fishes, which had a set of twins set close together near the stringer, like what Slater is doing, but Slater also has the outboard fins near the rail.

MM: Have you talked to Slater about this?

RK: No, I don't know Slater. When Mark Thomson picked me up at the airport in Oz around 2005, we stopped at this health food place in Kirra. Slater was there, I was super jet lagged and he and Mark started yapping. I just sat at this table with them and wished I’d had a tape recorder, it was the most awesome thing ever but I didn’t really say a word. For forty-five minutes Kelly Slater and Mark Thomson talking about everything from galactic energy field weirdness to board design. This is right before Slater really started delving into his new design stuff, I think. Mark asked him if he’d been trying any new designs and Slater said he’d been riding a diamond tail. Mark just started laughing at him, “C’mon mate, a diamond tail?” Slater went from being the guy that everybody, including me, blamed for ruining the thruster, but now he’s like a guru, he’s gone to the other end; he’s considered a crazy maverick who rides weird boards. But more importantly, he’s inspired and progressing both his design ideas and his surfing. Now, if he rode Daniel’s modern planing hulls for a year, would he rip on them? I’m sure he’d freaking kill it. But he’s obviously onto something with his designs that seems to perfectly suit his own path and continues to allow him to surf better and better, and will also positively affect performance for everyone in the future. Slater is actually a huge influence on Daniel as far as contemporary design goes.

MM: Slater gets plenty of credit, who’s an underrated surfer in the history?

RK: Underrated? Maybe that's not the right word, but I’d say Bob Simmons, Wally Froiseth, Al Nelson, Mike Eaton, and Steve Lis pioneered some multi-finned design concepts that are working in boards that everybody rides today. And Simon Anderson is kind of like Simmons, he’ll never get enough credit for what he did for surfing.

MM: What have you been reading lately?

RK: Raymond Chandler, John Fante’s Ask the Dust, that whole genre I like. Chandler published The Big Sleep in 1939 and his last book, The Long Goodbye in 1954. Simmons started surfing in 1939 and died in 1954 and in fact, they were looking for Simmons’s body right in front of Chandler’s house at North Bird in La Jolla. That’s just a way or perspective of looking at Southern California, when you have to live here and deal with all this other shit that’s going on. It’s kind of an escapist way to romanticize things, like going to New York and thinking about Edgar Allan Poe when walking past NYU because they tore his house down to build Furman Hall, or Jim Carroll’s place that you took me by and to walk through his neighborhood after reading The Basketball Diaries. There’s one little New York style park we have here in San Diego with a wrought iron fence around a house built in 1840-something. I’m sitting on a bench in that park right now but they lock it up every day at 4pm, it’s so regimented. There were probably benches in Chandler’s day, benches are important in cities.

[Richard Kenvin, 6'0" Butterknife Tri, Big Rock, 2012. Photo by Michael Sanigolo.]

- interview and words by Mike Machemer