Deep Design: Daniel Thomson on Surfboards, Physics and Simmons

Dan Thomson putting it on a rail. Photo courtesy of Tomo Surfboards.

Daniel Thomson of Tomo Surboards is a young and innovative surfer who is part of a core group of San Diego shapers pushing the edge of design and development to move surfing to the next level. He has been affiliated with Richard Kenvin’s Hydrodynamica project that is based on the influence and theories of San Diego’s legendary surfing innovator Bob Simmons.

Serge Dedina: Why did you starting shaping surfboards? And what is it about creating surfboards that you love?

Daniel Thomson: I was fortunate enough to grow up in a surfing family so I pretty much have been surfing since I can remember. My dad (Mark Thomson) is a respected shaper in Australia so ever since he made me my first board, I was involved in the shaping process. As I evolved as a surfer, my desire to shape more specialized equipment became apparent so I continued to follow my passion for exploring the connection between creative art specialized for performance surfing.

Dedina: Who are your shaping and surfing influences?

Thomson: My dad obviously. George Greenough was a family friend during my younger years so his work definitely made an imprint on me.  More recently the work of Bob Simmons uncovered by the research of Richard Kenvin has been inspiring. Also, I like to look outside of surfing for inspiration: modern aviation, quantum physics and the universe challenge the mind to think deeper for new ideas.

Carl Eckstrom and Daniel Thomson at the Hydronamica opening in San Diego earlier this year.

Dedina: How did you end up shaping and surfing in San Diego?

Thomson: After making a few trips out to San Diego from 2004-2010, I realized that the market for progressive designs was stronger in California. Also, I was ready for a change of pace in my life.

Dedina: Your boards have been associated with the hydrodynamic theory and movement espoused by Richard Kenvin that was directly influenced by the design of Bob Simmons? How did you interest in the legacy of Simmons and the partnership with Kenvin occur?

Thomson: Richard was visiting in Australia back in 2003 on one of his first Hydrodynamica missions. He was looking to connect with Dave Rastovich.

In hope that he would be able to film him riding some of the keel fin fish boards he had brought over, Richard tracked down my dad as a support filmer and naturally my dad suggested to Richard that ‘I give these fishes a go.’

A few sessions later, we had some awesome footage of Rasta and me riding these boards. After that I kept in close contact with RK and continued my natural progression in refining the fish design.

Dedina: What are the types of surfboards you are shaping now and specifically what are the designs that you see working best in Southern California?

Thomson: Generally all my boards are fairly suited to California because of the straighter curves and wider tails. The boards that I am currently most excited about are my new Next Generation Modern Planing Hulls (MPH).

They are basically 21st century adaptations of the original Bob Simmons plaining hulls mixed with wakeboards technology. They seem to be very functional designs with a whole bunch of potential to be seen as an apex high performance design in the future.

One of Dan’s Simmon’s inspired planing hulls.

Dedina: Explain what the hydrodynamic principle means for surfboard design and surfing in general?

Thomson: Broadly speaking, you can apply some sort of hydrodynamic principle to any surfboard. More specially describing a hydrodynamic planning hull is a board designed to minimize drag through several different streamlining methods including utilizing a parallel rail line from nose to tail with a wider nose tail profile and straight-line fin placements

Dedina: What materials are you working with right now?

Thomson: I have always been a firm believer in epoxy resin for its strength, durabilty and flex memory. I am currently working with XTR (closed cell styrofoam) Epoxy and several applications of vacuum bag carbon fiber.

Dedina: You are shaping boards for WQS surfer Stu Kennedy. How did that relationship come about and how do you work with him in terms of giving and receiving feedback?

Stu Kennedy with his Tomo quiver. Photo courtesy Tomo Surfboards.

Thomson: Stu has been a close friend from my hometown of Lennox Head so I have shaped for him quite a bit in the past. When I was home visiting in March, I showed Stu some of the latest boards. He was pretty blown away on how they surfed, and he has barely set foot on a regular short board since he tried one.

Since I shaped him a new quiver of the MPH’s he has been dedicated to riding them in high-level completion as he feels he can achieve his best performances on these boards. He recently placed 9th in the 6 star WQS in England and a 17th in the U.S Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach.

Dedina: Are most pro surfers too conservative with the boards they are riding?

Thomson: Most definitely. The cutthroat nature of competition doesn’t nurture experimentation. Most elite surfers have grown up there whole lives riding one style of design and is not confident riding something unorthodox. Most are jaded to the fact that there could be a left field design out there capable of performing better, so they tend not to have faith in something new. Things are changing though.

Dedina: There’s a photo with Kelly Slater and you when you were a grom and more recently Kelly commented on the boards you shape for Kennedy. How has Kelly’s surfing and his own departure from pro surfing surfboard orthodoxy influenced your own career as a shaper and a surfer?

Thomson: I have always been experimental in nature with my equipment so I haven’t so much been following Kelly design wise. However his surfing is what inspires me most to figure out ways to improve my design to allow me to surf at higher levels.

Dedina: Where do you see yourself going with your shaping career? Where do you see yourself in ten years?

Thomson: I would obviously like to be successful. I am more of a surfer/designer than a ‘shaper’ so hopefully I will be surfing more and not be a slave to the shaping room. I have always done it for the love of surfing and a healthy creative outlet. So as long as I am doing that, I will be happy.

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The Legacy of Bob Simmons

Bob Simmons at Malibu.

“It was the winter of ’49 after a big epic perfect swell. I went to the IB (Imperial Beach) County Life Guard Station early waiting for the others to head for the Sloughs,” recounted Coronado surfing historian John Elwell. “This figure strode by who had clothes of a laborer.

His wool plaid jacket was full of fiberglass fibers that sparkled, his long pants were well worn and stained with resin. He was going up on the boardwalk in front of the station to talk to the Master of the Sloughs, Dempsey Holder.”

Elwell was talking about Bob Simmons, the eccentric genius who helped influence modern surfboard design.

The Surfer’s Journal published this description in Elwell’s article, “The Enigma of Simmons” in 1994.

Simmons died during a big swell in La Jolla at Windansea in 1954. His use of aerodynamic principles and incorporation of Naval architect Lindsey Lord’s research on planing hulls to build short foam-based twin-keeled surfboards back in the early 1950s, influenced the work of groundbreaking surboard craftsmen such as George Greenough and Simon Anderson.

I talked with Elwell at the opening of Richard Kenvin’s exhibit on Simmons, “Hydrodynamica: Remember the Future” at the Loft 9 Gallery and Space 4 Art last Saturday.

Kenvin, the legendary San Diego surfer, has spent the past decade documenting the influence of Simmons. He collaborates with shapers such as Daniel Thomson and Carl Eckstrom, using Simmons’ foundation to reinvent the modern surfboard.

Kenvin wrote on this website that,  “Accounts of Bob Simmons riding short foam and balsa boards at Windansea in the early ’50s inspired us to build a series of short Simmons planing hulls for Hydrodynamica in 2006.

Another stimulus was a 5’6” Simmons-inspired planing hull that Al Nelson built and rode at Windansea in 1956. Simmons was employed by Douglas Aircraft in 1952, as were famed California modern designers Ray and Charles Eames. Simmons’ planing hulls are functional examples of aerodynamic form being used as a central element of mid century modern design.”

“Bob Simmons played ping pong and researched waves at Scripps, and made surfboards in the station (IB Lifeguard) when the surf was down. Bob and Demps (Dempsey Holder) talked for hours on end on wave and surfboard theory,” Elwell said.

According to Elwell, Simmons often said, “My surfboards are hydrodynamic planing hulls. You don’t need much fin as they are for directional stabilization.”

Pioneering La Jolla surfer John Blankenship once told me that, “Simmons used to show up at Windansea and tell everyone, ‘If you guys had any guts you’d be out with us at the Sloughs.’”

Simmons used the Sloughs, a winter big-wave spot down in Imperial Beach at the mouth of the Tijuana River, as a testing ground for his twin-keel design.

“He lived in the parking lot of the IB Lifeguard station in his car and made boards at the station,” Elwell said.

Carl Eckstrom is a surfboard shaper and designer who helped pioneer asymmetrical surfboards. He was also there Saturday night. His unique boards were on display along with those of Aussie shaper Daniel Thomson of Tomo Surfboards.

Carl Eckstrom

To Eckstrom, Simmons’ boards were, “Designed for speed and not high performance. These things,” he said, pointing to the Simmons boards on-display, “are beautiful pieces of sculpture.”

Former world surfing champ and shaper Peter “PT” Townend was on-hand at the exhibit. He was studying Kenvin’s collection of twin-keeled surfboards including many by San Diego’s own Steve Lis.

“I got beat by these back in the 1972 World Championship in OB,” PT said. “Jimmy Blears and David Nuuhiwa won the event. I rode a traditional single fin along with Larry Bertlemann, but on the day the of the finals, the waves were tiny and Blears and Nuuhiwa had their fishes which worked perfectly in the lefts coming off the pier.”

PT examines the collection.

Thomson is originally from Lennox Head, Australia. He used Simmons’ and Lord’s ideas about planing hulls to make modern high performance surfboards. A couple of his boards were on-display including an ultra-modern thruster, he calls the “Fractal Design.”

“The Simmons Planing hull has always made sense to me because of it’s scientific applications of low drag control and dynamic lift,” wrote Thomson. “I have been gravitating more and more toward the parallel rail lines because it naturally allows the design to be ridden smaller without compromising stability and paddling ability, not to mention the performance potential is greatly increased.

The ‘Fractal Design’ is an architectural or functional art piece, based on Simmons’ platform with Fibonacci and Phi mathematics designed into eight unique measurements of the board. The relationships with ‘Phi’ proportions is not only very pleasing in theory, but is very close to my ideals of the perfect high performance surfboard.”

The past is the future. Eckstrom and Thomson

Kenvin worked on the exhibition with Mark Weiner. Both deserve to be commended for turning an interest about Simmons’ historical legacy into an opportunity to provide greater understanding about the cultural and design influences of modern surfing.

Thomson's interpretation of Simmons. One of the most interesting boards I've ever seen.

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