It seems fitting that many of surfing's most visionary prophets often began their paths toward enlightenment on their knees. Much like design guru and kneeboarding virtuoso George Greenough, San Diego's Steve Lis also felt more connected to the surf when kneeling down, whipping turns and getting barreled like few standup surfers can. Born in 1951, Lis began exploring the possibilities of wooden bellyboards and paipos, eventually winning the 1966 Paipo World Championships. The event took place at his home break of Ocean Beach, and the then-15-year-old had no trouble ripping apart the familiar peaks on his knees, riding a self-shaped wooden paipo. While Greenough's POV documentation of flawless Australian pointbreak tube rides radically expanded his public profile at the time, Lis haunted California's southernmost reefs in relative anonymity while contributing to what many a surf historian would consider one of the most progressive and influential design innovations of the late '60s.
Shaping boards in his family's garage in 1967, Lis set out to design a craft that would allow him the tight positioning and fluid maneuverability of his shortest pintails while accommodating his swim fins, which hung off the back of his normal boards and created drag—not ideal when surfing some of La Jolla and Sunset Cliffs' more cavernous reefs. Looking to build a board that kept his fins from dragging behind him, Lis simply used the fins themselves as a template, sketching their outlines into a split tail.
"I just put down some butcher paper, got down like I was kneeboarding, and traced it out around me so everything was out of the water and it was a clean shape," Lis recalls.
For the fin setup, Lis landed on a twin-keeled formation, which shared similarities with what post-war surf-design legend Bob Simmons had developed independently years before. "Lis had no prior knowledge of Bob Simmons or his work, but intuitively arrived at some of the same design solutions that Bob Simmons had 15 years earlier," says San Diego design buff Richard Kenvin. "Lis' design came in a much smaller, refined, and more maneuverable package."
"Stevie is brilliant, he's reclusive, and he's immeasurably talented," says longtime friend and fellow Sunset Cliffs local Stanley Pleskunas in the thoroughly researched 2015 documentary Fish. "I remember the first time seeing him ride it. It was a red board with black fins. Star Wars was still years away, but it was Star Wars stuff."
Imagine the long, bulky boards still being ridden by most surfers in 1967, when the shortboard revolution was just warming up, and then picture a skinny little spaceman flying through the lineup on his knees, ducking into tubes on a board shorter than his own body.
"You'd just sit back with your mouth open, thinking, 'Oh my goodness,'" recalls Skip Frye, whose own versions of the Lis design have become some of the most coveted fish in the world, perhaps second only to Lis' own handshapes.
While Lis continued to build and refine his own boards, apostles like David Nuuhiwa, Mike Tabeling, Montgomery "Buttons" Kaluhiokalani, Dane Kealoha, and Mark Richards also picked up the design and ran with it.
"The design was so versatile, everyone could put their own spin on it," says San Diego surfboard collector and owner of Bird's Surf Shed, Bird Huffman, who keeps a bounty of Lis handshapes and Lis-inspired designs on display at the Shed. "They're maneuverable and designed for flow. The straighter outline gives you that drive down the line, and when you combine that with a keel fin, you get instant speed out of a turn. A longer board with a straight outline and a keel fin has that tendency to draw turns out, but because the boards were ridden short, it made them maneuverable. You have leverage to push through turns, but you can redirect much quicker. You end up with a board that will handle flat spots in a wave and still tube ride like you wouldn't believe."
While Lis has enjoyed his privacy and a low profile over the last five decades, his design's contributions to some of those eras' most inspiring surfboards and performances can't be understated. Derek Hynd and Tom Curren picked up the fish torch in 1995, capturing a generation of imaginations in Andrew Kidman's underground epic, Litmus. Around the same time, while the rest of the surfing herd sunk to their necks on glass slippers, Matt Biolos and his merry band of black sheep—Cory and Shea Lopez, Chris Ward, and Andy Irons, to name a few—dragged their twinnies all over the globe for …Lost's iconic film 5’5″ x 19 1/4″. Their progressive take on the San Diego fish sent a thousand shapers back to their sheds looking for shorter, round-nosed templates and made …Lost's round-nose fish one of the best-selling surfboards in history. Most recently, in 2015, the Lis classic was reimagined in spectacular fashion by fellow San Diegan Ryan Burch, who set the surf world ablaze with his smooth, powerful arcs in the South American points featured in Psychic Migrations. Burch earned a Best Performance nomination at that year's SURFER Poll Awards, showing that the fish is much more than a throwback; it's a design that enjoys more relevance and influence even now than it did 50 years ago.
"This wasn't supposed to be the end product," says Lis of his now half-century-long influence over surf design. "I just wanted to go surfing and make some bitchin' surfboards."