Some tidbits on Al Nelson’s 5’6″ dual keel made in 1957…

Clips by Ryan Field, Richard Kenvin, Matt Shuster. Surfing by Lucas Dirkse & RK, 2007-2009. Mini Simmons shaped by Joe Bauguess, Rusty Preisendorfer, & Griffin Stepanek.

Little Nugget

“The picture of Jim Hovde was taken by Mike Burner in a backyard on Diamond Street in Pacific Beach, California in August of 1960. Between them, on the grass, are a couple of surfboards. The board on the left is a brand spanking new 9’6” polyurethane foam and fiberglass single fin, the latest and greatest space age hotdog machine of the day. The board on the right is a relic from the last days of the balsa era. It’s a 5’6” parallel-railed board with dual fins. Al Nelson made it in 1956. It’s not a belly board or a kneeboard; it’s a stand up board. Butch Van Artsdalen, David Cheney, Al Nelson and others all ripped on it at Windansea in the fifties.

I’ve been mining information on “obscure” little boards for over 10 years. In 2003, in this context, I recorded interviews with Reno Abellira (who was living with my brother, Peter, at the time), Nick and Bear Mirandon, and John Elwell. In 2004 I talked to George Greenough and Bob McTavish on the subject, and recorded interviews with Steve Lis and Skip Frye. By 2006 I’d interviewed Wally Froiseth, Bev Morgan, Ben Aipa, Rabbit Kekai, Jeff Ching, and Al Nelson. During that time Andrew Kidman conducted an interview with Mark Richards on my behalf, and Cher Pendarvis conducted an interview with paipo rider Valentine Ching. Over the years I interviewed many others, including Mike Eaton, Larry Gephart, and David Nuuhiwa. Between all of their experiences a pretty comprehensive picture of pre-thruster design evolution began to emerge. Conventional wisdom relegated many of the little boards built and ridden by these surfers to ‘flash in the pan” novelty status, but the more I looked into it the more I saw them as cornerstones in the foundation of progressive design.

Given the unfair advantage of 54 years of hindsight, the juxtaposition of the two surfboards in this old snapshot is thought provoking, to say the least. Foam had only recently replaced balsa in 1960, and boards like the one on the left of the photo were now “maneuverable” because they were “light”. But the single fin design itself hadn’t changed much in the transition from wood to foam. Now, I’d wager my bottom nickel (and throw in a set wave at Windansea in July for good measure) that most of us could agree, in 2014, that by today’s standards the older balsa board on the right will out-maneuver the foam board on the left. Not because of the materials it was made out of, but because of its size and it’s design.

“The little twin fin was an idea that popped up one day” Nelson told me in 2006 “because I had a lot of five and a half foot slats of balsa left over from the wood bundles I was getting from General Veneer. I decided to just glue them together and make a little board. I ended up with a parallel-railed little board with a wide tail. With a wide tail like that, Simmons’s answer was to put two fins on it, so I just went, yeah, that’s what I’ll do, sure.” Nelson was very matter of fact and nonchalant about the whole thing. It was just a practical use of leftover materials, and a successful experiment to see if such a little board could be ridden. ‘And it wasn’t hard to ride” he said.

The phrase “flash in the pan” originated with the use of flintlock firearms 300 years ago. Sometimes the powder in a musket’s firing pan sparked and “flashed” but didn’t ignite the main charge in the gun barrel. Maybe the powder in the barrel was damp, or the spark didn’t pass through the “touchhole” between the pan and the barrel. Either way, the gun failed to fire the bullet. Not because it didn’t “flash” but because something failed at the point of connection. Nevertheless, “flash in the pan” came to mean a thing that failed to deliver, something that came and went in a flash without any lasting effect. Which isn’t really fair on the flash pan if you think about it. It flashed just like it was supposed to. Despite the brilliant flashes of Simmons, Froiseth, Lis, Abellira, and Nelson, it wouldn’t be until Mark Richards came along that the flash in the pan would finally connect with the main charge, fire the bullet, and hit its mark. It’s been all about dynamic rail-to-rail surfing, on short boards with multiple fins, ever since. From that perspective, Nelson’s little board isn’t a novelty. It’s a prophecy.”

-RK 2014

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