New movie traces 50-year history of the ‘fish’ surfboard design

Documentary shows how the designer of a popular surfboard model never made a nickel.

When Joe Ryan rode a surfboard design known as a fish for the very first time, he was blown away. “The first wave I caught I raced down the line and I had so much speed I didn’t know what to do with it,” Ryan tells GrindTV. “I was like, what is this? Where does it come from? Why doesn’t everybody know about it?joe ”

It was a wave that sparked his recently released documentary called Fish. The former professional triathlete would spend roughly six years financing, writing, filming, animating, editing and narrating the film himself to answer all of those questions.

In that time, he traced the history and influence of the fish design, from its creation by Steve Lis in the San Diego Cliffs area in 1967, all the way through to today. 

“It took a year and about five people vetting me to get in contact with Steve Lis,” Ryan says. “I knew there was no film without Steve and I wasn’t going to do it until I had spoken to him.” Steve Lis was a kneeboarder who had created the fish design as a teenager in 1967.

The boards are much shorter and wider than normal surfboards, and typically have two large fins in the rear. However, Lis never patented the design, or made any attempt to cash in on its success. Instead he shared the design with other surfboard makers in the area.

Steve Lis signs one of his own creations. Photo by Joe Ryan

Steve Lis signs one of his own creations. Photo: Courtesy of Joe Ryan

“It was a bitchin’ thing to see everyone pick up the ball and run with it and rip on it and have a good time,” Lis says in the film. This handover may be one of surfing’s most selfless acts and one of its greatest gifts.

However, despite always being ridden in San Diego, the design fell out of favor elsewhere. Such was the popularity of a new three fin model in the early ’80s, that all other designs became obsolete, even if they didn’t suit the average surfer.

At one point in the film, professional surfer Rob Machado says, “I’d say 95 percent of the people that were surfing in the ’90s were probably on the wrong surfboard.”

However in the latter part of the ’90s, the fish design came back. Led by freesurfers like Dave Rastovich and Donavon Frankenreiter, surfers began to realize its speed and flow offered a new (or more fun) way to surf.

Dave Rastovich takes a high line on a Fish near home. Photo by Billabong

Dave Rastovich takes a high line on a Fish near home. Photo: Courtesy of Billabong

“I didn’t want this movie to be for people who were already into the design,” says Ryan. “I wanted to get across how the fish has revolutionized board thinking. I feel it’s changed how people think about surfing, about how good it feels to simply ride a wave.” 

Joe Ryan (middle), with Steve Lis on his right and San Diego shapers who have shared the design. Photo by Joe Ryan

Joe Ryan (middle), with Steve Lis on his right and San Diego shapers who have shared the design. Photo: Courtesy of Joe Ryan

Best Film awards at surf film festivals in London, Florida, Lisbon and Bells would suggest that Joe’s film has had a positive impact. However it was at the first ever screening at the Bird Shed, the Cliff Crew’s traditional HQ in San Diego, that Joe knew he had been successful in his dream of making the right film for the right reasons.

“Steve Lis came and did a Q and A, which is unheard of as he is such a recluse,” says Ryan. “He told the crowd, ‘This is our story, not mine.’ You know Steve shared the design and they took ownership. And from that little pocket it has spread the world and made a huge difference. I’m just happy to play a very small part in telling that story.” 

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