Introduction: As I write this I find myself wishing I had taken notes along the way. There are details that got lost in the mix, comments made by many old timers about the boards that I wish I could recite verbatim, and names that I wish I could attribute them to that I never made note of. Since we have decided to make this a regular series, I promise to do better in the future. Make sure to leave any comments below, we'd love to hear from you!
Sliding Ass and (Not) Taking Names
OK, let me first say that I am hardly any sort of authority on surfboard design, nor am I a particularly skilled surfer. Though I'm a fourth generation San Diegan and I grew up with a lot of friends who surfed, I got bitten by a different bug of the two wheeled variety at a young age. That steered me off into a long and successful career as a Lambretta guru, but as a native San Diegan I always respected and admired our legendary surf culture and the crazy characters it has spawned.
During the scooter daze of the '80s and '90s it was common to hear 91X or FM94.9 blaring at the shop, and though I didn't start surfing until the mid '90s, I always thought that that Bird guy who did the surf report sounded like a pretty cool cat. By then scooter racing had run its course (nearly bankrupting a whole generation of Mods in the process!), and I took up surfing after discovering that my good friend (and fellow racing fanatic) Glen had been doing it since he was a kid. I had no idea. Within a few short years the whole ceiling inside my scooter shop was covered in surfboards suspended from the ceiling. I happily gave up road rash for chapped lips and sunburn!
And while I've been surfing for 20 years now, I didn't start until I was 34, and therefor I don't have the seemingly innate ability that comes with being a grom from birth. Though I've never shaped a board, I am pretty decent at ding repair, which comes in handy because I wipe out a lot. More on that later...
When it comes to riding waves, I'm pretty much all arms and legs and knees and elbows. Ninety-nine per cent of my water time has been on longboards, and I have a bent kneed, parallel stance that looks like more like snow skiing than surfing - like a stretched out goofyfoot Gumby-esque cartoon version of Pier Moore, only not nearly as coordinated, but with much better hair, and minus the ever present can of beer in my back pocket. The vast majority of my surfing has been done in and around San Diego county, with a few random trips as far north as Big Sur and south into Baja Norte, plus one hilarious escapade to Hawaii only two years into my surfing life that I won't get into here. And no matter how many Jared Mell videos I watch, I just can't quite get even one of his moves down... oh well.
(Oh and I'll also admit that perhaps part of my fascination with vee bottom boards just might have something to do with my first initial... haha! Thanks ma!)
But seriously, (and speaking of Jared Mell) there are two videos that really sealed the deal for me and susequently led to this article - the first being "Maestros Del Longboard - Bob McTavish", which which I found on Jared's amazing YouTube channel (spend a few days and nights there, you won't be sorry!) More on the McTavish video in a moment...
"Billy Hamilton V Bottom Surf" is the second video. It was filmed by MacGillivray and Freeman in France in '67, and it's five gorgeous minutes of amazing surfing in mind blowing conditions, set to nothing but the sound of the ocean's roar. Most of the boards have really radical vee in the tail, making them some of the most extreme examples of this short lived era (some say it lasted as little as eight months). The boards in the video look to be in the 7' to 8'6" range, most with super wide square tails and a flat stern that looks ready for an outboard motor. For months on end, every time I went trolling for some surf action on the 'net I kept finding myself coming back to this video:
Having been a young boy in the '60s and looking back on this amazing era, my mind returns to a time and place when life was still able to be lived peacefully, and on your own terms. Sure, Madison Avenue sold a new look every season, but their ultimate sell job - the dirty hippy culture - was not destined to get its claws fully into its victims for another couple of years. Woodstock would see to that. And not everyone went the caveman route. There was a strong sense that things really were progressing forward, not backward. There were so many cool cars coming out of Europe, fast and maneuverable motorcycles from Japan, Italian design was at its pinnacle, and then these crazy new surfboards from Australia!
So anyhow one day I'm at Bird's working on his scooter, and I keep pulling out two boards and just staring at them from every angle imaginable - a sun yellow 8'6" Challenger Micro Vee pintail and an 7'10" Surfboards Hawaii with the big wide ass tail and an insane amout of vee like in the movie. Bird sees me geeking out on them and says "Take them. Try them out!". He also tells me that he and Isaac have dubbed the S.H. board "Ghost Rider" because of the crazy dude emblazoned on the deck with the words "Rock n Roll Eddie"... too cool.
"Both of them?!? Twist my arm!" I say! *grins*
Looking at the Surfboards Hawaii board, it's as if you took one of McTavish's '65/'66 longboards and smashed the tail in at the rear, resulting in a shorter board with a much thicker tail, but perhaps similar overall volume, particularly when compared to the last board McTavish rides in the video. Look at that board in the photo to the right - even though it is well over 9', it has a very thin hollowed out nose à la un "cuillère Greenough".
As was the case with most boards from this era, Ghost Rider bears no signature, but I'd sure like to know who shaped it. Dick Brewer had left Surfboards Hawaii by then, and according to a guy named "Chungo" that I met at Cardiff reef, S.H. was operated by a guy named Mark Nicholson during this period, but I don't know if he did any shaping or not.
Other interesting design elements include really knifey 50/50 rails, a large flat spot under the nose that borders on being concave, which gradually transforms into a slightly rolled mid section that transitions quickly to the vee at the rear. Overall rocker is minimal, with the result that when viewed from the side the board looks like a dart, with a quite blade-y nose and the thickest point being near the fin where all the vee is. There is a deck patch for knee paddling and a hole drilled in the fin for a leash cord. There is no other leash attachment on the board. She's had a lot of well done repairs over the years, which just adds to the overall patina. Bird tells me that the board "came out of Texas", though I don't know if that was its original home since new.
Though the Challenger is prettier, her shape looks downright conservative in comparison. The template is pretty straightforward rounded pin with a fairly conservative outline, 50/50 rails, a rolled bottom and deck, a moderate amount of nose rocker, soft egg shaped rails, a fairly light glass job (for those days anyhow) and lots of volume. But she too has a radical amount of vee, starting at about 2' forward of the tail. At that point the upswept rails (thanks to the vee) are also starting to get quite a downturned edge. It's as if you used a hot iron under the tail of a standard (non-vee model) Micro model, melting both sides upward to create the vee, and flattening out the underside of the rails in the process. And it's all punctuated with a long, swept back Greenough inspired 10-3/4" plastic w.a.v.e.Set box mounted flex fin.
It's not just that these boards look cool. They were conceived during some very fast times... in the late '60s society was rapidly being reshaped in almost every conceivable way by a youth subculture revolution on the rampage. Nothing was out of its purview, and "Let it all hang out!" found its way from Laurel Canyon and Haight Ashbury into shaping bays, resulting in some of the weirdest concepts ever tried, many developed under the influence of illicit mind altering substances that had been introduced into American society via - believe it or not, Life Magazine!
This revolution manifested in the surfing world with the quick demise of the "longboard era", which was suddenly seen as "squaresville", and was put to rest seemingly overnight by everyone but a handful of diehard aficionados as the "shortboard revolution" took off like lightning. Even Dora went minipin single fin in the '70s, forgetting all about Fain and dodging Venice pilings for kicks instead. Maximizing G forces was the name of the game; power surfing at high speed was the goal. Almost overnight, "popping the fin" on your V bottom took the place of nose riding as the "mouvement de jour".
Nat Young's 1966 world title win at Ocean Beach on his McTavish designed "Magic Sam" board stands as a testament to the tight knit nature of the surfing world, decades before the internet entered the public realm. Visionary board makers Gordon & Smith quickly took notice and added former Australian and world champ Midget Farrelly to their star studded lineup, and the Midget Farrelly Stringerless model was born.
From the beginning the weight saving feature of not having a wooden stringer allowed for more flex and feel, and before long it incorporated a fair amount of vee in its sligthly pulled in tail, and a Greenough inspired flex fin. None of this likely came as any surprise; G&S were major players stateside, and Floyd Smith moved to Australia in '66 to form Gordon & Smith Australia, which remains a major player down under to this day. G&S's excellent book "One Long Ride" depicts this era in great detail, and it does a wonderful job of shedding light on Larry and Floyd's nimble marketing savvy and visionary position in the surfing world.
Day One - Swamis
My first foray into the world of riding vee bottoms is a chest high day at Swamis. I wanted to be familiar with the wave so I could concentrate on the boards themselves, and Swamis is my go to spot whenever I'm up north. It's a place where I'm quite comfortable going left or right, and I know the wave well enough to go leashless up to about head high, even on rare examples of surfing history that are almost fifty years old(!). Both boards have holes drilled in the fins, but I hate using a leash unless it's absolutely necessary. Had it been big enough to warrant a kook cord, the thought of trashing an original plastic Waveset fins may have been enough to keep me out of the lineup.
Now it's time to hit the water on the S.H., and I'm really pumped because that five minutes of Billy Hamilton, Mark Martinson, and Keith Paull are burned into my memory banks after having watched that beautiful European footage dozens (hundreds?) of times. From the first paddle stroke I pretty well know what to expect. The first thing I notice is that because the board has so much flotation in the tail, my feet are hanging off the back up to about the base of my shins, and there is nearly as much board in front of me as on my 9'6" longboard.
All of this rearward floatation and the really radical vee also makes the tail really want to slide ass sideways down the wave, and the only thing back there helping to hold any sort of a line is the big single fin. And then to further pad your enjoyment (assuming you like a good challenge), the fin is so flexible that you are already well into a slide before it loads up, and by that time you're halfway down the face of the wave, sideways like a dog down the sidewalk.
My first wave is a chest high left, and I as make the drop, all of those moments that have been seared into my memory banks from France in '67 come to life. As I set my back (left) foot into the tail, I make sure to keep enough forward momentum with my front foot to hold speed, using enough downward force to ensure a clean drop without sliding ass too much or pearling. I kept the slide under control and fade into trim as the wave starts to jack up behind me, then take a couple small steps forward to feel the speed. It is a short ride as the wave quickly mushes out, but really, really fun nonetheless!
I decide to play around on the punchy little lefts that are starting to filter through the lineup. I find that if I hang about two thirds of the way inside and slightly to the north of the pack, I can pick off a lot of the small to mid sized waves that stray through on the north side of the peak, and often get a clean shot at a wide open left. I do this for about an hour, and mix in a couple of zippy chest high rights too. By now I am pretty stoked to have gotten a taste of what the video promised in some small, punchy waves. I never do take the Challenger out... next session!
Day Two - Crystal Pier
After a day at a reef break I am curious to hit a beach break, and Crystal Pier is the best call on this day. I suit up mid morning and score a receding tide with little wind and some more waist to chest waves, but with a little more zip at the expense of Swamis' usually perfect shape. Not a lot of quality to work with, but when a shoulder does appear, it is a sexy shoulder indeed!
I am starting to get a feel for what the boards can do, and I'm soon making some fun drops side slipping down the face of the lefts breaking off the pier. This is my favorite spot for nose riding, and I find that the S.H. is surprisingly up to the task. I am now officially in love with the S.H., but as a show of good faith I take the Challenger out for a few waves as well. The extra six inches of length and added volume make the board much easier to ride, more like a stubby longboard with a loose rudder, and the rolled bottom and softer rails make for a much more forgiving feel overall. It's not nearly as manic as the S.H., but still lots of fun.
One thing these boards do have trouble with is quick change of direction, so lining yourself up properly with the wave at take off helps, as I find out after a couple of short swims to shore. If you try to do an all-in-one-motion-late-drop-with-roundhouse-cutback and then quickly tuck the rail into trim, you will likely flail. But as I mentioned at the beginning, perhaps it's just me. Maybe you can do all that and more. There is a comments box below, and I'd love to hear from you... haha.
Day Three - Swamis Revisited
Round Two at Swamis brings slightly larger surf and pristine conditions. With a couple of sessions already under my belt I am champing at the bit to hit the water, and it shows when I get a little too aggressive on my first wave going backside on a smoking shoulder high right. As I approached one of the boils I try to carve a low line out into the flats and bottom turn around the fast approaching section. Instead I slide ass at full speed. The board squirts out from under me like a watermelon seed, rocketing toward the rocky point. The tide is on the high side, but luckily there are lots of people on the beach - it being a splendid day and all - and a nice lady picks it up and sets it safely ashore until I can make the long swim to shore to retrieve it. I thank her in earnest and paddle back out feverishly, not wanting to show outwardly how glad I am that I don't have some 'splainin' to do when I get back to Bird's... whew! Hahahaaa! 
After that little escapade I decide to once again go sit a little further north and concentrate on the generally less crowded (though still hotly contested) lefts. I soon grab a few nice slices of lefty pie, leaving behind some crust and few slices of delicious fruit as I continue to try to grok what this crazy board has going on. Several hours go by, and I'm starting to have a blast!
Day Four - La Jolla Shores
My good surfing buddy Ferdie Morales has agreed to meet me at the Shores with his new water housing, and I'm stoked to get some good images of the boards in action. Ferdie plans to add water weddings to his services, and he's stoked to try out his new rig. (Not that I'm going to ask the S.H. to marry me just yet... haha) It's a typical nice day at the Shores - peaky chest to shoulder high beachbreak waves mixed in with a fair share of closeouts. Luckily the crowd is light and the sun is out, and what little breeze there is is from the south, creating slightly offshore conditions.
Once again I grab the S.H. first, because by now I'm fully infatuated with her sexy lines. To avoid any bouts of screaming jealousy, I calmly explain to the Micro Vee that because she has a little delam near the feather on her bottom, I have chosen the S.H. once more, hoping that she'll understand... Women! LOL
This little situation soon becomes more complicated when I start seriously flailing on the S.H. I miss almost every wave I paddle for as Ferdie is laughing at my sudden ineptitude. It seems that I'm either too late to make a clean drop, or too early and the wave just passes me by. I do manage to make a few, but I'm scratching my head wondering why I can't seem to get my timing down.
Meanwhile, the Micro Vee is waiting patiently on shore, seemingly saying "See, you need to be riding ME!", and so I dutifully oblige. I don't know if it's the extra flotation, or the nose rocker, or what, but suddenly I'm getting lots of waves and having a ball on the M.V. for the first time. I chalk it up to the Shores' more "point and shoot" conditions being more conducive to her predictable handling. Ferdie takes her out for a spin but comes in after only two waves, saying he doesn't want to "mess up his groove" on his other boards, whatever that means... I think he's just chicken! Haha!
Days Five through Fifty-five
Bird seemed to be in no huge hurry to get the boards back, and with my longboard at a local repair shop for some much needed TLC after a run-in with a tri-fin, I got more and more stoked on these crazy old boards the longer I had them. Everywhere I went they drew comments, both in and out of the water. The S.H. in particular had an immediate effect on people, especially sitting on my roof racks - its tail can look like an A-frame mountain cabin from certain angles!
I may have put in fifty sessions during this two month long ménage à trois. Though rarely overhead, the surf often had excellent shape for this time of year, and there were many two session days to be had, including some action at PB Point, Hairmos/Hermo's, more Crystal Pier, Swamis, and some really memorable days at Tourmaline riding those loooooong left walls into the cove that happen under the right conditions and really allow you to see what a board can do under speed.
I now understand why this design was so short lived in the furious quest to come up with shapes that would allow highly skilled surfers to go pretty much anywhere they want on a wave, any time they want. And these boards will never do that. Heck, I've never done that. But then I'm not Ryan Burch or Beau Young, and I do need to get on more types of boards for sure. But that doesn't mean these boards aren't a kick to ride! In fact, I've already put a deposit on the S.H., it's that addictive.
Try to steer hard from the tail you're really asking for it - they will just spin out from under you, and your chances for recovery will be slim. But if you can anticipate the slide, wait for the fin to hook up, set your rail, and find the sweet spot, these boards haul ass, and they're loads of fun!
And if you find that you need even more speed, rather than pumping up and down or rail to rail for acceleration, the vee bottom asks you to slither its tail side to side through the wave, not unlike a fish bursting through the water by rapid repetitive side to side motions of its tail, all the while steering with your back foot like it's guiding the tiller of an outboard motor, and as you anticipate the change in pitch that will inevitably occur with the change in direction, keeping your front foot poised and ready to go to one rail or the other, or step on the pedal for more speed, or all of the above, sometimes all at once! Crazy, man!!!
Back in those scooter daze when we weren't racing on two wheels, we were often racing on four - and we even had a Club, the GoKart Racers of America, or GOKROA as we called it. We had membership cards printed up and everything. We kept score every time we raced as part of a hotly contested championship series. What a pack of dorks, I know! Anyhow, one of the tracks we raced regularly was at Marshall Scotty's Playland Park, just east of El Cajon. They had an oval "slick track", which was like racing on an air hockey table covered in ice, with solid steel tires. OK, it maybe wasn't that slick, but you get the picture. Going in a straight line meant you were heading for the wall!
I always won at Marshall Scotty's Playland Park.
And that's what riding a radical vee bottom is like. Because of their built in limitations, they allow you to hone in on particular aspects of your surfing that you may not otherwise explore on a board that is more predictable. Want to learn to drift your longboard? Try it on a vee bottom first. Want to explore the effects of fore to aft weight bias on acceleration? Go for it! They may even be the ideal stepping stone on the way to mastering finless board riding. I know that my ability to explore the limits of my longboard has improved now that I've experienced the V, for sure.
These boards offer more than just a glimpse at surfing's past, they require a unique way of surf boarding; one that everyone should experience for themselves. I'm glad I did, and I think you would love it too!
See you in the water!
P.S. - We are always on the lookout for writers of original surfing material - articles, fiction, historical pieces, commentary, etc. Please send a Private Message to one of the administrators if you would like to join our team:
 If you have ever wondered how in a few short years 1960s American society could regress so rapidly from contemporary style to long scraggly caveman hair and shabby clothes, listen to Jan Irvin interview Dave McGowan as together they expose some of the very strange characters behind the '60s "cultural revolution".