A few weeks ago, Daniel Thomson, the San Diego-based surfboard shaper and one of the most innovative thinkers in his field, returned to his native Australia to celebrate his 31st birthday. Some friends came to his parents house; they had a party. Among the guests was Stu Kennedy, the 22-year old pro surfer from Lenox Head. Some beers were popped. And Kennedy began digging through Thomson’s stash of surfboards.
Thomson has forged his reputation on blending the design principles of the thruster -- those three-finned, wave-destroying machines that have become standard issue on surfing's World Tour -- with the speed and flow of the 1950s-inspired planing hulls and fishes that have come back into vogue over the past decade. The boards look downright futuristic, some of them resembling fighter jets.
Upon finding Thomson’s Vanguard model -- a straight-railed stick with a chopped, diamond-shaped nose and swallow tail (more wakeskate than surfboard, really) -- Kennedy grabbed the board and, without saying a word, left.
Thomson didn’t consider Kennedy’s abrupt departure rude; the two men go way back. As a kid, Kennedy would rush home from school, grab his surfboard and then run several miles to the beach. Frequently, a teenage Thomson -- also on his way to surf -- would spot the boy from his car and give him a lift.
Thomson, who started shaping boards at 13, eventually began making boards for Kennedy. Back then, though, Thomson was only shaping thrusters. It wasn’t until later, after he came off the World Qualifying Series and started riding alternative boards, that he discovered his current path.
“Once I got on the fishes, I felt like, ‘Wow, this is a totally different sort of feeling,'" he said. "It’s giving me something else entirely. I wasn’t able to surf as radically or with as much control, but these boards are giving me more flow, more speed. Things I hadn’t felt."
In 2009, Thomson relocated to San Diego, where many surfers and shapers were reexamining the design of Bob Simmons, the father of the modern surfboard.
Before drowning in 1954, Simmons transformed the surfboard from a boxy plank to something that was portable and maneuverable, a surf craft using hydrodynamics, with fins, foil and rocker. He developed the modern planing hull, creating a surf craft with a straight rail line and wide tail -- two design features that increase dynamic lift -- and, accordingly, drive and speed. Thomson embarked on using Simmons’s theories to create the ultimate surfboard.
“I’m trying to make the smallest possible board. You’re literally just interacting with the wave and what it’s telling you. It’s more like skateboarding."
A few days after the birthday party in Australia, Thomson and Kennedy took the same flight back to California, where Kennedy headed to San Clemente to surf in the Nike 6.0 Lowers Pro. On the day of the contest warm up, Thomson gave Kennedy his newest model, the Death Star.
“It’s the culmination of six or seven years of research, design, and testing,” Thomson said. “When I ride one I immediately feel like I can surf several levels above my ability.”
The model that Thomson gave Kennedy was 5-foot-1, but with very little curve in the outline; it was nearly rectangular. The straight outline gave the board a longer rail line, which in turn allowed Thomson to shorten the length. He chopped off the nose and added a triple diamond-tooth tail that aggressively bites into the wave, preventing slide outs. There are also multiple concaves through the nose to increase lift. The board is only 2 1/8 inches thick and 17 1/4 inches wide. Thomson says the board was based on the design of a wakeboard.
“I’m trimming fat,” he said. “I’m trying to make the smallest possible board. You’re not being retarded by any swing weight and you’re not trying to control the board. You’re literally just interacting with the wave and what it’s telling you. It’s more like skateboarding."
Thomson’s operation is small. He doesn’t have a surf team like a lot of the larger companies. Still, a number of the world’s top surfers ride his boards -- Josh Kerr and Dave Rastovich, to name a couple. A few months back, Thomson gave a 5’ 1” Vanguard to three-time world champion and surfing icon Tom Curren. Curren, now in his mid-40s, defeated Dane Reynolds on the board in a heat at the Rincon Classic. That was enough for Kennedy, who volunteered to ride the Death Star in the Nike Lowers Pro.
According to Thomson, the reaction at the beach when Kennedy emerged with the board was overwhelming. “There’s an underlying consciousness with the top guys," he said. "They all have a real interest and desire for something new. Everybody wanted to pick it up, touch it, know about it. They didn’t think it could do what it does.” Unfortunately, Kennedy lost his first round heat -- the waves were scarce.
The next day, Kennedy returned to the beach to film some footage on the board (in the video above). “I have a feeling that this board has the potential to be the apex performer in professional surfing,” he said.
Follow Alex French on Twitter @FrenchAlexM
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