The Influencer

When seeking the roots of 70s California style and performance, Oxnard’s Russ Short has become a default source.

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For a while in the 1970s, Russ Short’s star was ascendant. Rumors escaped from Oxnard—surfing’s own Hermit Kingdom—about a powerful, young goofy-foot prowling the peaks between Point Mugu and the Santa Clara River.Few were brave enough to go and return with an eyewitness report. However the first photos to appear in the surf magazines confirmed that something was afoot along that forbidden sliver of coast, with its aura of secrecy and notoriously insular surf community. 

Short was a member of a band of outsiders. They were on a different beat than most others and he soon shone as the brightest, the most talented, and the most soulful adept in the Bonzer cult that centered on the work of the Campbell brothers. As the Campbells’ test pilot of choice, he advanced his own surfing while helping advance their design. He also had the ardent support of Craig Fineman, a surf photographer who pushed him beyond his limits and captured his talent on film. Nevertheless, somehow, Short seemed to slip through the pages, back into obscurity. And then he was gone. 

Russ with daily driver in his Ventura County home grounds, circa mid 70s.

He first arrived in Oxnard in the 1960s at the end of a long journey. His father was a career Naval officer and the family followed their patriarch from one posting to another as he rose through the ranks. The longest Russ had stayed in one place was on Oahu, where the family spent their first year in a hotel in Honolulu. While there, his father bought surfboards for Short and his older brother Mike. They were made of Styrofoam—the kind that were sold in five-and-dime stores during that era. Short took his board down to Waikiki but each time he fell, the winds would blow it out to sea and the local boys would have to retrieve it for the crazy haole. One day, a beachboy offered Short the use of a surfboard from the rental rack for free. Every day thereafter, Short would return after school to find the same board, with the checkered pattern on the nose, waiting for him. All these years later, he wishes he knew the beachboy’s name.

Following that first year, the family moved to Ewa Beach. By this time Short had his own surfboard and he joined the Ewa Beach Surf Club. He competed in contests all over the West Side and was written up in the school paper. After four years, however, just as he entered James Campbell High School, Short’s father received new orders. He was going to Vietnam.

The family moved to Orange County, where they spent the next year and a half. While Russ’s dad served as Chief Weapons Officer aboard a battleship off the coast of Vietnam, he and his brother enrolled in high school at Bolsa Grande in Garden Grove. It was there that Short met Fineman, who at the time was an aspiring surf photographer in his brother’s class. This was during the beginning of the Shortboard Revolution and Russ’s interest in surfing waned temporarily. Had he not been cut from the junior varsity baseball team, he might have thrown himself into sports instead.

The cool, crowded waters around the pier in Huntington—and the confusion of new shapes during the initial, experimental phase of the paradigm shift—dampened his enthusiasm. Still, Short surfed well enough to garner Fineman’s attention. When Fineman learned the family was moving to Oxnard, he told Russ about the waves at Hollywood by the Sea and used his connections with Chuck Dent to get Russ a new board shaped by Barry Kanaiaupuni.

“As Malcolm and I were digging in for the upcoming decade,” says Campbell, “fighting for three-fins and double concaves, Russ moved into the 80s exploring different designs from a variety of shapers.” Shown here riding a Mike Perry single-fin.

After he moved onto the base at Port Hueneme in 1969, Short felt he’d landed in a most inhospitable place. The beaches seemed eerily empty compared to those in north Orange County and he soon learned that the reputation of the notoriously insular local surf community was well earned. The closest beach was Silver Strand, a mile long stretch of sand between the Channel Islands harbor mouth and the entry to the Port of Hueneme. Jetties at either end of the beach helped keep the sandbars in place. In the winter months, swells rose out of the deep-water canyon before landing on the sandbars with unusual power. It wasn’t long before Short learned that Fineman was right—there were good waves in Oxnard. 

He soon met Duncan Campbell and his older brother Malcolm. The Campbells had moved to Oxnard from Pacific Palisades in 1965. Both of their parents were artists and the Campbell brothers seemed more cultured and opinionated than most of their contemporaries in the area. They were also committed Shortboard Revolutionaries riding self-made equipment. Non-conformists—existing on the fringe of the heavy, localized surf culture that policed its own ranks—they were outsiders in their own community. 

They had begun shaping their own boards in 1968, the year before they met Russ, and had developed their signature design in the family garage with their father’s help: the Bonzer. In 1972 they added a new design element in the form of double concaves. When Short initially rode one, he realized it was a game changer. “I knew on the first wave,” he says. “The board was so drastically different that I didn’t want to give it back.”

Fineman joined Short in Oxnard in 1972—the same year that Russ graduated high school—and was quickly integrated into the tight-knit group that had coalesced around the Campbell brothers and a shared commitment to the Bonzer project. “It was pretty much a dream situation,” says Malcolm. “We had a group of really good friends, good surfers, a really great photographer, and good waves.”

Shot from up on the rocks at Point Mugu Naval Base, this angle clearly explains why in 1977 Shaun Tomson said, “Russ is the best I’ve ever seen at moving to the front part of the board.” The color scheme of this Bonzer was a rare departure from the yellow bottom and rails of the traditional “Russ Short model.” The stylized “star” on the deck is an ancient sign for the constellation Orion, a recurring theme in the Bonzer Cosmology.

Through Commander Short, the group had access to the Navy’s Pacific Missile Testing Site at Point Mugu. Occasionally they would drive up to Rincon but mostly they stayed closer to home, confining themselves to a few beaches between Point Mugu and Hollywood by the Sea. Their preferred spot was a peak at Silver Strand, which had once been considered too fast to ride, though the rollout of new designs from the Campbells changed that. “It was a freight train,” says Short, “but with our boards we were able to surf it. Bonzers worked insane there.”

Although they were all very talented and competitive with one another, Short established himself early on as the standout among the group. They pushed each other in the water, testing the limits of their boards and their abilities while Fineman stood on the beach, his long-lens aimed at the lineup. It was a heady time and Fineman’s early faith in Short paid off. As more and more of his photographs appeared in Surfer, Fineman worked his way up to senior staff photographer. “He believed in my surfing,” says Short. “He pushed me a lot. He’d ride me. I’d come in after surfing three or four hours and he’d say, ‘What are you doing, get out there. Don’t you want to be famous?’”

Everyone lived to surf, working only as much as required to keep a roof over their heads. Through word of mouth, and frequent appearances in Surfer, Short caught the attention of Rick Jorgenson and Gary Pennington. The two film students had already lined up Dan Flecky, a regularfoot from Newport Beach, to be in a surf film and were looking to pair him with a second surfer. Before they finalized the deal, the filmmakers drove up to Oxnard to meet with Short. They discussed the project with him, then met with the Campbell brothers. Jorgenson remembers being intimidated by the vibe in the water at Oxnard. “I knew of Russ from pictures that I’d seen,” says Jorgenson. “I knew he was good but when I went surfing with him, that’s when I knew he was the real deal. He was the best of the best.”

In late August of 1977, Short and the rest of the crew flew from Tijuana to Mexico City, before taking another flight to Oaxaca. When they landed, they hired a van and a driver to take them to the coast. It was supposed to be a short drive but they ended up driving over several mountain passes and through dense jungles, in torrential rains. Eventually they arrived in Puerto Escondido, which at the time was still a sleepy fishing village with unpaved streets and few amenities. “Flecky told me that I’d hate it down there, that it was mostly rights,” remembers Short. “But the first day we got there, the lefts were going off.”

Oxnard, circa ’77. “I was 22 and Russ was 24 years old,” says Campbell. “Little did we know that more than two decades would pass before we would make Russ another Bonzer. It’s like a rock ‘n’ roll band playing a gig without knowing they’re breaking up at the end of the night.”
“For our birthdays,” says Campbell, “local diver Mike Parrish (with white hat) would bring everyone big lobsters. That’s Fineman on the far left, Silver Strand local Richard Hodge holding the lobsters, and Russ on the far right.”

They were there for less than two weeks but lucked into a run of solid swells, surfing the main beachbreaks but also a long, left pointbreak that provided the highlight footage for the film. “Russ is an artist,” says Jorgenson. “To him it was about being one with the wave. His ability to read the wave, to know exactly what to do, when to do it, just blew me away. Every time he’d takeoff, it was like, ‘Okay, here we go: cameras rolling.’”

Russ had never seen a left pointbreak in his life. “I hadn’t done a huge amount of travel at that time, and surfing that left point was all I wanted to do,” he says. “If I heard the waves were going to be good, I’d get up early, get a taxi, and travel to the point by myself.”

The film, In the Mist of Summer, was cut quickly and made into a 20-minute short that did the usual circuit of surf theaters and high school auditoriums (before disappearing for the next 30 years). Short, it seemed, was on a roll. An article he wrote about the Mexico trip appeared in the March 1978 issue of Surfer, including an impressive cutback sequence taken from the film. But it was harder than ever to compete for attention. The North Shore had long been the ultimate proving ground for ambitious surfers and the most reliable place to establish a reputation. The founding of the ISP in 1976 was the dawning of the “professional era,” which, combined with the rise of the surf apparel industry, would change surfing forever.

Fineman wrote about Russ for Surfer in 1979. In the article, the photographer praised his friend’s downhome, laidback approach, contrasting it with the flashier, attention-grabbing style that was coming into fashion. Short, it seemed to imply, represented values that were fast fading as the surfboard was transitioning into another era. He had a solid local reputation, wrote Fineman, begging the question: why had he not received greater recognition? Fineman went on to defend Short’s lack of interest in competing, before concluding, “a surfer like this is just as valuable as 20 Pipeline Masters.”

In an effort to take the next step, Russ moved away from Bonzers. “I went out, tried other stuff, waiting to get sent places. It didn’t work out for me on their boards. I surfed different and even though I got good pictures, I didn’t feel it,” says Short. “Thinking back, it probably bummed Malcolm out.”

The Campbell brothers had experienced their own share of disappointments and took it with equanimity. “We understood what was going on,” says Malcolm. “There were never any hard feelings.”

Fineman certainly believed that his friend deserved wider recognition and was, no doubt, frustrated that, despite his best efforts and documentation, Short did not “break” the way one would expect. He had made brief visits to the North Shore throughout the decade, but something compelled Short to return home early, rather than make his stand. Did he have misgivings about missing the boat? “I grew up in Oxnard,” he says. “It wasn’t cool to be famous. It just wasn’t.”

Only a handful of pictures came out of Short’s 1977 trip to the North Shore. This shot at Gas Chambers shows him at the height of his powers. After the Bonzer was tested and proven by Jeff Hakman and Ian Cairns in ’73 and ’74, it was no surprise Short’s model performed.

He says he almost wanted to hide when the magazines came out, knowing that there would be a backlash when his picture appeared. “You were accused of selling out Oxnard in order to make something of yourself,” he says. Along with his friends, he was further shunned within in his own community, yet he kept coming back. “I was a competitive dude,” he says. “I didn’t understand why it wasn’t right to want to be known. I was just confused by what was happening on the beach. My only regret is that. I don’t know why I came back. I went to the North Shore a couple of years in a row. Once I started surfing Pipe I should have stayed. I was feeling really comfortable out there. I think, ‘What if’? I think about a lot of stuff.”

Malcolm agrees: “If he’d have put his time in at Pipe he would have been, for my money, as good as anybody out there. He would have been right there with the best of them.”

Ultimately, the only thing that Short cared about was surfing. And while Hawaii offered warm water, great waves, and a shot at fame, there was the draw of the near-empty beaches, with perfect waves at home, where he could have any wave he wanted. “For 20 years we had it to ourselves,” he says. “I just wanted to surf more than anything. It’s all I wanted to do.”

In the early 80s, both Duncan Campbell and Fineman moved to the North Shore. Short made a couple of trips over there during that time before getting married in 1985. He stayed around the Oxnard area for a few years, starting a family, before burning out on the scene. “I forgot what surfing was for,” he says.

When Duncan opened Café Haleiwa, it become a popular hangout for the North Shore crowd. He still surfed, riding a five-fin Bonzer at Pipeline, and loaned out boards from his quiver to interested surfers. Davey Miller proved the Bonzer could work in waves of consequences throughout the 80s, but the 90s saw a surge of interest, culminating in the appearance of the design under the feet of Rob Machado in the films Shelter and Sprout.

Joel Tudor in particular would also play an important role in reviving interest in the design during the early 90s. Duncan remembers showing him old footage of the original Bonzer crew, with long hair and beaver tails flying. “After that my phone rang in the middle of the night,” says Short, who was awakened in his Utah home, several time zones away from Hawaii. “It was Duncan and Joel Tudor and Joel said: ‘I want to surf like Russ Short.’”

1977 was a breakout year for Short and the Bonzer. “We made this kit for Russ’s trip to the North Shore,” says Campbell, “and more importantly, for the filming of In the Mist of Summer. Malcolm and I were down in Queensland with Richard Harvey, incorporating the Jim Pollard Fluid Foil—a design shift that would become the ‘Bonzer Light Vehicle.’”

Tudor went on to order many boards from Malcolm, which helped kindle interest in the Bonzer among a new generation of surfers. He also very publically proclaimed the same admiration for Short he’d relayed on the phone. 

Around the turn of the millennium, Malcolm, Duncan, and Russ rendezvoused in Oxnard. During this visit, Malcolm presented Short with a board he’d shaped for him. It turned out to be a turning point. “I think it surprised him,” says Malcolm. “We just wanted to pave the way for him to get back to Ventura. We knew he was ready.”

It would be a few more years before Short returned to the coast, but the timing coincided with the appearance of online clips featuring his long lost performance from In the Mist of Summer. “You always hear,” says Tudor, “‘Oh this guy ripped,’ but you never have footage to prove it. With this, the footage was—holy shit! It was undeniable.”

Alex Knost soon picked up the baton, bringing the original three-fin Bonzer designs that Short rode back into the limelight. Now, it seemed, everyone wanted to surf like Russ Short. The Campbell Brothers have since been receiving new orders for three-fin Bonzers. “It was a funny thing,” says Malcolm. “It kind of resurrected Russ. Rob Machado really freaked out when Duncan showed him the films. Same with Joel and then with Alex Knost. It really struck a chord with all three of those guys, big time.”

The result was the first Russ Short model, based on the boards that Short rode in the 70s and continues to ride to this day. “It’s almost like a prize fighter coming back,” says Duncan. “He’s so revered, such a great surfer. He’s a legend now. So many people know who he is, and how he surfs, and they want to surf like him and ride boards like he rides.”

Today Short divides his time between a 20-foot Catalina sloop in Marina del Rey and his girlfriend’s apartment in Malibu. He’s grateful for the experiences he’s had, and for the roles his friends played in his life. “If it wasn’t for Fineman, for the Campbells, I wouldn’t be here,” he says. Flattered by his resurgent recognition, he hopes his children better understand the great passion of his life. “When there’re waves,” he says, “I can’t get my wetsuit on fast enough. I’m still trying to get better. I’m in my sixties and still trying to surf the best I can. I’ll never stop.”

Russ Short, Silver Strand, Oxnard. April 2017. Photo by Shawn Parkin.

[Feature image: Speed, finesse, power—Russ on his first Bing Bonzer circa 1973. “This board—a 6’7″ × 20.75″ with a 6.5″ diamond tail—was shaped by Mike Eaton,” says Duncan Campbell. “Photographer Craig Fineman was a master of capturing moments like this. We all lived and surfed together, and took this thing of ‘Surfing, Surfboard Design, Photography, and Movie Making’ very seriously. As early as 1971 we all owned good super 8 and 35mm cameras. We studied the film very closely. Being stylish without being radical was easy—and unacceptable. Being radical without style was a mess, and a non-starter.”]