Edge Boards and The Mysterious Mr. X

The quest for speed at the dawn of the Shortboard Revolution. Excerpted from the new issue of TSJ.

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Edge boards were ridden for just a few years, primarily on Oahu’s North Shore, in Kauai, and in San Diego at Sunset Cliffs, by a core group of outstanding surfers. The design was originally made for steep, powerful waves and was first ridden at Pipeline and Pipeline Rights in the fall of 1968. The original edge board crew contained surfers and designers spread across Hawaii and California, including “Mr. X,” Vinny Bryan, Rick and Todd Value, Dana Nicely, Eric Gross, Robbie Cushnie, and Bunker Spreckels.

The design was the first true shortboard. Through rail modifications and bottom contours, the craft’s proponents pioneered “on top of the water” surfboard design. They also made breakthroughs with the down rail concept that over the years has led to the progressive tucked under rails of today. Before edge boards, surfboard rails were relatively soft, even in the tail. Edge boards, on the other hand, had hard down rails and mostly flat bottoms. They were ridden with a variety of fins, including small keel fins, reverse keels, vertical fins, finger fins, and occasionally were surfed finless.

While the design sprang from many minds, “Mr. X” conceived the first edge boards. His desire to fly fast over the water drew him to explore “low drag” and in doing so he designed thick, down railed boards with flat planing surfaces and razor sharp edges from nose to tail. “He experimented with different rockers, templates, and bottoms,” says Ben Ferris, who was part of the Cliffs and Kauai edge board crews. “He had designed boats and understood water flow. The whole shortboard evolution was helped by the edge boards—these short, thick, down rail boards helped everything go shorter.”

“Of all of the people I’ve spoken to about edge boards,” confirms Nat Young, who was on the frontlines of the Shortboard Revolution, “Mr. X is known to be the father of the edge board. Yet no one has ever heard of him.”

“Of all of the people I’ve spoken to about edge boards,” says Nat Young, who was on the frontlines of the Shortboard Revolution, “Mr. X is known to be the father of the edge board. Yet no one has ever heard of him.”

A.K.A. Bob Smith, Mr. X was born Robert Imhoff in 1945. He grew up in Los Angeles and continues to use “Bob Smith” as his nom de guerre today, primarily because this was the name he went by during his early North Shore surfing adventures. His interest in wave riding began in 1960 in the South Bay. By the summer of 1961, he was embarking on quests as far south as Ensenada, and as far north as San Francisco, camping in his panel truck. He was always interested in how things worked. The very first board he made was an experimental finless with a deep concave than ran one quarter the length of the board from the tail. “I built stuff,” he says, “fixed most everything, and tried to improve things. I consider myself to primarily be an inventor and that’s how I approach any area. I ask, how can I understand this, and what can I do to improve it? Currently, I’ve been developing an exotic high-speed sailboat and have one patent on it so far. I always fixed my surfboards and started making my own in about 1965.”

In the summer of 1967, Smith decided to “drop out” and go to Hawaii. This was when he changed his name to Robert Smith, commenting, “How ya gonna drop out if you take it all with you?” He took his surfboard and suitcase to LAX and jumped on a one-way flight. Pipeline was high on his list of places to explore.

He made his first North Shore board in the winter of 1967. It was a very thin, 9’6″ semi-gun with down rails. Paddling it was challenging because it sat submerged in the water like a modern shortboard. “I broke it twice at Pipe,” he says, “but did get some good rides on it.”

Australian surfer and design pioneer Bob McTavish was at Pipe in 1967 with Dick Brewer and Mike Hynson and observed Mr. X flying on his 9’6″. “We saw the first down rail board, produced by an unknown guy,” recalled McTavish in Tracks magazine in 1980. “And do you know how the three leaders in design from California, Hawaii, and Australia at that time reacted? We laughed! Then the guy proceeded to paddle out at Pipeline on his knife-edged down railer and to our shock and amazement, it didn’t dig in. It just flew across the wall.”

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