Feature

The Materials At Hand

Bear and Nick Mirandon, the discoveries of the pioneers, and the charting of new surfing frontiers.

In 1964, Bear Mirandon founded a small surfboard venture in a garage near WindanSea. The name he chose for his business, Surfboards La Jolla, neatly reflects the indigenous nature of the boards he and his brother Nick have designed over the years. These creations are part of a uniquely local lineage of surfboards, and they are as much a part of the collective consciousness of WindanSea as the shack or the infamous parking lot. Bear Mirandon is bound to La Jolla like a gnarled Torrey Pine clinging to the bluffs, or the coarse white sand, found only here, that blankets the pocket beaches between La Jolla Cove and North Bird. Every WindanSea local has a Bear story and most have ridden his boards at one time or another. More than 40 years ago the Mirandon brothers designed surfboards that do not fit comfortably into the standard evolutionary timeline. Raised at WindanSea during the balsa era of the 1950s and mentored by the likes of Al Nelson, Carl Ekstrom, and Mike Diffenderfer, the Mirandons learned early on that experimentation was often more rewarding than following the status quo. Gifted with creative minds and an innate sense of design, they merged the boards of the 50s balsa renaissance with those of the 60s shortboard revolution: “Mr. Simmons, I’d like you to meet Mr. McTavish….”

The story of the Mirandons’ unusual surfboards begins at WindanSea on a summer day in 1957. It was the end of the balsa era, just before the advent of the foam surfboard. Experimental board design had flourished during the balsa days, and in the 50s it was not unusual to see the WindanSea guys out messing around on a variety of shorter boards. 

“My brother Bear and I were bodysurfing down at WindanSea,” says Nick Mirandon, “and after a while I went in on the beach and saw Butch Van Artsdalen out there riding this little balsa board. It had a really wide squaretail with two fins on it, and it was very short. I was just amazed by it. I thought it was a bellyboard at first, but he took it out and started standing up on it and just ripping. I couldn’t believe he was standing up on it. Then Al Nelson was riding it—all the hot guys from WindanSea were out there riding this little two-finned board. I just thought, my God….” 

It was Al Nelson who had built the little dual-finned squaretail, but Al was not concerned with changing the future of surfboard design. He was merely making use of the leftover five-and-a-half-foot slats of balsa that came with the 11-foot bundles he received from his supplier. Having been a friend of Bob Simmons, who occasionally rode short, wide boards at WindanSea before his death in 1954, Nelson knew that a board so short would need ample thickness and plenty of width in the tail. 

“With a wide tail,” Nelson says, “Simmons’ answer was to put two fins on it…so I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s what I’ll do.’ So I put two fins on it and it worked. I used to leave the thing down on the beach so people could ride it. It wasn’t that hard to ride.”

There were plenty of other interesting little boards laying around at WindanSea at the time, including Robert Patterson’s 7′ Quigg egg, and David Chaney’s little downrailers. But it was the unusual multi-finned boards that captured the Mirandons’ imagination. 

“My brother and I had seen the double-finned boards that Bob Simmons had built,” says Bear, “and we had seen Al Nelson’s little board. I can also remember watching Bobby Burns riding balsa boards in the seven-foot range at WindanSea, and they had two fins on them. He performed very well on them, and they were amazingly small boards for the time [around 1955]. We had also seen that Simmons had used double fins on bigger boards on quite a few occasions.” 

But the Mirandons would spend a few years going with the flow of conventional design before they got around to their own experiments in the second half of the 1960s. Bear celebrated his 13th birthday in 1960, and, like Nick, his teenage years roughly paralleled the early years of foam. His first surfboard was a discarded balsa that he reshaped with the help of his father, who had once watched Duke Kahanamoku shape a board with a drawknife in the 1920s. 

“From that experience,” Bear says, “I ended up getting a number of old balsa boards—people were just tossing them because everyone was getting foam—the first 10 or 12 boards I shaped were balsa boards, and that helped me a lot as far as learning to shape.” 

When foam boards first appeared (despite Al Nelson and the boys’ initial rejection), the Mirandons, like most surfers, were instantly seduced by the easy virtue of the new material.

The arrival of foam was a mixed blessing, as design began to take a backseat to the instant gratification of lightness. Surfers were so excited about the reduced weight that they hardly noticed that many of the functional concepts explored by balsa masters like Joe Quigg and Bob Simmons had gone missing. 

Nick Mirandon mastered the art of nose riding on his first custom foam board that had been built by Andy Jones in a little house near Pearl Street in La Jolla. The place was a major local hangout, with the bedrooms of the house serving as the shaping and glassing rooms, and it was here that Bear and Nick became enamored with the art and process of building surfboards. Jones was a master craftsman, known for beautiful curved stringers and super-fine glass jobs. The boys would go by the shop after school and watch Jones work, wanting nothing more than to build boards of their own. 

One day Larry Gordon approached Nick on the beach and offered him a summer job. Nick accepted and began working as a glasser in a full-blown surfboard production environment at Gordon & Smith surfboards. With his natural artistic sensibilities and reverence for craftsmanship, Nick excelled in the art of resin color and pinstriping. Before long, Bear was hired too, doing color work and clear coats. The Mirandons were immersed in the world of surfboard manufacturing, and they loved it. With Hynson, Frye, and Diffenderfer in the G&S shaping bays, the standards in the shop were high, and the brothers felt the weight of responsibility every time they glassed a board.

Toward the end of his stint at G&S, Nick began planning his first pilgrimage to the North Shore. One day he snuck into Diffenderfer’s shaping room to get a closer look at a board he had seen Diff working on. Nick took one look at the board on the racks and knew he had to have one just like it. It was a beautiful semi-gun with a streamlined plan shape. Diff called it the X-15, after the supersonic jet that had broken the sound barrier. Nick worked up his nerve and asked Diffenderfer to shape him one. 

“Sure, kid,” he replied, “I’ll shape you one. We’ll call yours the X-16.” 

Diffenderfer shaped the board, and Nick glassed it. 

“It was the best board,” says Nick, “I mean I rode this thing in the biggest surf in La Jolla. I rode huge Horseshoe on it, and big Black’s, and it was turning all over the place and so fast. That was about 1963.” 

The X-16 began to pull Nick out of the nose-riding trend, allowing him access to bigger and better waves.

Meanwhile, Bear learned the finer points of shaping from Al Nelson and Carl Ekstrom. They both stressed to him the importance of riding his own boards in order to understand cause and effect in shaping.

“Al and Carl were excellent instructors,” Bear says, “They showed me that in shaping there was really no specific criteria or rules, only certain basic techniques, and from there you had to feel your way along. Even the principles of hydrodynamics would not apply in all instances, and sometimes it was a combination of factors that worked best.” 

He gained confidence in his craft and began making boards for local surfers. They rode them, liked them, and came back for more.

“Bear was doing a lot of experimenting, a lot of neat things,” says Carl Ekstrom. “I like to think that I influenced him, because he was younger. He started gaining quite a following.”

Bear designed a logo for his boards: a red-and-black cross with the words Surfboards La Jolla intersecting at right angles. He built them in a garage that served as headquarters for La Jolla Ding Repair, a little business he’d started after graduating from high school. 

“I worked with Al and Carl for a while,” Bear says, “and shortly thereafter, in 1964, I began building the first Surfboards La Jolla boards.” 

Nick, who had graduated from high school a few years earlier, spent two years studying fine art in Laguna. He returned to La Jolla after his studies and was impressed with his younger brother’s up-and- coming surfboard business. Recently married, Nick knew he had to get serious about making a living. Already a gifted surfer, artist, and resin colorist, he was intrigued with the opportunities for creative expression that Surfboards La Jolla presented. He talked it over with Bear, and they decided to team up and do their best to make a living building surfboards.

In early 1966, about six months before Nat Young and the World Contest came to San Diego, the Mirandons designed and built the first of a series of groundbreaking boards that would eventually have an influence far beyond their tight- knit La Jolla scene. 

“We decided to come up with some new innovations,” Bear says. “We got some blanks and came up with something really unique and functional. The concept we were working on was the swallowtail. Carl Ekstrom had an asymmetrical design at the time, and I noticed that the swallowtail would lend itself, in essence, to overlapping two asymmetrical templates, even though the outline of the board would be symmetrical. That concept appealed to me because the asymmetrical has a very positive function, especially in one direction. In this case, we were going to have the benefit of that in both directions. The swallowtail went in about seven inches, and the board had an extreme early cutaway fin that looked like a scimitar. This board became known and advertised as the Superboard. It was the first swallowtail that I know of that was designed with an engineered concept behind it. We actually applied for a patent for the swallowtail, and eventually received a patent pending for the design. This was in early 1966, but we kept those boards under wraps until later that year.”

The testing grounds for the Superboard were not exactly peeling point breaks, but the Mirandon boys had grown accustomed to meatier fare, hucking themselves over the ledge at Big Rock and pioneering the powerful walls of Black’s Beach. 

Garth Murphy, a core member of the Mirandons’ crew, remembers, “Nick was a goofy-foot, he was the best young guy at Big Rock by far. After Butch Van Artsdalen, Nick was the first surfer we saw who consistently got tubed there. He was beautifully balanced, an artist. Bear was a regularfoot, and he’d grit his teeth and go deeper than Nick and paddle over the ledge, grabbing his rail and trying to pull in, hoping to get spit out on the shoulder—that straight-legged, three-point stance, deep in the pit, the bigger the better, was Bear’s signature move.”

“Bear Mirandon was like a Hells Angel at Big Rock in those days,” says Stanley Pleskunas. “We were kids, cowering on the reef thinking, ‘This guy’s gnarly!’ He was riding Big Rock backside on a Superboard. I mean, everybody was riding a noserider and these guys were out there riding real waves on these crazy boards.”

“The Mirandons were probably the first standup guys to build boards that could ride Big Rock,” says Steve Lis. “Prior to that, it was really tough because the longboard just didn’t fit.”

In the mid 60s, Black’s was an empty paradise, with lonely backlit cylinders reeling under the primeval bluffs. 

“Black’s was my spot,” Nick says. “It was paradise for me because it was mostly a left, and I loved the type of wave it was. I hit amazing days there. Perfect tubes, crystal-clear water, light offshore, and we were the only ones there. I surfed it way more than anyone else in the late 50s and early 60s.” 

As if that wasn’t enough, to the north and south of WindanSea were a series of fast, shallow reef breaks, including Big Rock, that were virtually unsurfed. The Mirandons and a handful of their friends had these spots to themselves for years. 

“All the guys my age will say the same thing,” says Chris Prowse.  “We were so lucky to surf in that era because crowds were nonexistent.” 

These breaks were the laboratory for the Mirandons’ experimental boards, and they called for a no-nonsense, functional approach. Innovation was inevitable, as standard boards just didn’t work at these spots. Twinkle-toe fancy footwork on the nose was fine for Archie’s lefts at La Jolla Shores, but was of little use when negotiating an eight-foot set wave lurching out of the canyon at Black’s or a menacing slingshot bowl bending down the reef at Horseshoe. The Mirandons designed the Superboard to deal with the situations they confronted at La Jolla’s unpopulated fringe breaks, and as far as they were concerned, it handled them well.

But this was still the era of signature model noseriders, and when the Mirandons unveiled the Superboard at La Jolla Shores, they were promptly ridiculed by one of the most popular surf stars of the day. This was early 1966, and the San Diego scene was as staunchly conservative as the rest of the state. The Superboard was too much, too soon for California’s myopic trim and noseride mentality. The freethinking atmosphere of the balsa days was a thing of the past. 

“It was hard to break through with a new design,” Nick says, “and our boards were pretty far-out looking.” 

One notable exception was Bob Cooper, who called the shop and asked to try the Superboard. Cooper made a special trip down south to surf it. His opinion was that it was a functional design, a good board, and he encouraged the brothers to continue refining it. Later that year, Bear felt more assurance when he watched Nat Young trample the traditionalist competition at the World Contest in Ocean Beach on a board that had more in common with the Superboard than it did the popular signature model noseriders.

In the fall of 1967, the WindanSea Surf Club went down to Australia to avenge Nat’s world contest victory, but it was the WindanSea Surf Club who got schooled in Sydney. Ted Spencer won the event on an 8’4″ rounded pin shaped by himself and Bob McTavish. Spencer’s board, nicknamed Little Red, sported a fin designed by George Greenough, whose presence in Australia was igniting a fire in shortboard surfing that would spread around the world. 

A short time later, a kid named Wayne Lynch emerged from the wilds of Victoria, exploding on surfing’s hang-ten mentality like a Molotov cocktail. Many of the hardcore WindanSea Surf Club trim-and-glide guys suddenly became eager comrades of McTavish and the shortboard revolution, returning with freshly opened minds, V bottoms, and the lingering effects of a potent dose of involvement-school awareness. 

“That was one of the major things,” says Steve Lis, “when the guys from WindanSea came back from Australia with the first V bottoms and shortboards. That was the same time the Mirandon brothers had the Twin Pin. They were doing some trippy stuff in La Jolla. Boards were getting shorter, maneuvers were becoming more pronounced, people were starting to actually use their rail more in turns.” 

Progressive design was finally entering the foam era after a long hibernation. The Mirandons had already made a statement with the Superboard in 1966, and in 1967 they shifted into creative overdrive. In spite of the Superboard’s lack of acceptance, Bear was busy shaping. 

“In late 1966 and early 1967, we started to encounter the first shortboards of the foam era, the Greenough-influenced Australian boards and the Brewer mini guns,” says Bear, “and, of course, Nat Young showed up in San Diego in 1966. He was a big guy, 6’4″, 200 pounds, and he had a nine-foot board that he rode at different times during the World Contest. It was pretty impressive, and it drew some interest from me. However, a friend of ours named Rod Supresio came back from Maui and had seen Dick Brewer build the first mini guns for Reno Abellira. These boards were little spears. I couldn’t believe ’em. They were very well shaped and they had great dynamic design principle. So, I was inspired to start building some here in early 1967, and, by springtime, I was shaping a phenomenal number of these boards. About the same time I met some Australians—Keith Paull and Bob McTavish. McTavish had initiated a deep V diamond tail—short, with a big banana-type fin—and he did great things on them, especially at pointbreaks. But the boards wouldn’t glide; they bogged out in a straight line and they cavitated. So I made some boards where I mellowed that whole principle out, using a flatter planing surface with a shallower V just back by the fin.”

With the shorter boards becoming popular, Surfboards La Jolla was doing well. 

“Bear had a bunch of hot guys riding his boards then,” says former team rider Chris Prowse. “He had Butch Van Artsdalen riding his boards, Ricky Grigg, Tom Ortner, and tons of other guys.” 

But there was not enough cash coming in to support two people, and Nick took a job on the floor at George’s Surf Shop in Huntington Beach. The V bottom craze was in its early stages, and George’s couldn’t give away their inventory of stock longboards. 

“I came up with an idea,” Nick says. “I rode some V bottoms and they weren’t working for me, they were spinning out. I had to be really careful when I rode them. That’s not the way I wanted to surf, I didn’t want to be careful. I wanted to turn as hard as I possibly could; that’s what shortboards are for—to do things you couldn’t do before. So, I went to Bear and told him, ‘I want to make a board that has a V bottom and a wide tail, but I want to put the Superboard swallowtail on it and I want to use two fins and angle them out.’ We sat there and designed it, and then he shaped it. He put a deep concave channel between the pins. So it was like two pintails, with two fins, and the double-fin concept came from the little Nelson balsa board I saw at WindanSea in the 50s.”

Bear and Nick had quietly created the first locally popular multi-finned board of the shortboard revolution: the Surfboards La Jolla Twin Pin. The fins were fiberglass blade keels set 90 degrees to the V plane, resulting in a pronounced cant. Nick glassed the board, adorning it with black and yellow pinstripes on the deck and a psychedelic color explosion on the bottom. The Twin Pin mélange featured nearly every design influence the brothers were experiencing at the time, combined with ideas that came directly from the 50s balsa era. From Simmons and Nelson came the deep concave, planing surface, and dual fins, from Brewer the mini-gun pins, and from McTavish the V bottom. 

But the split tail anchoring the design concept was purely Mirandon. It was an extraordinary creation for 1967. The Twin Pin was like looking at a Keyo V bottom while peaking on a heavy dose of mescaline. The fins were elongated and distorted, dripping off the tail as it split into chiseled fractals, the resin colors swirled and melted into a cavernous, breathing concave. With its hallucinatory visual qualities, the Twin Pin perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the psychedelic surf era. 

“It was bitchin’,” says Stanley Pleskunas. “I thought it was just totally cool, it was like Star Wars for back then. The fins were angled with a really narrow base and all the area up high; the board had all these original progressive elements going on.”

In spite of its outrageous appearance, the Twin Pin worked. Nick first rode the board on a good day in Newport Beach.

“I took it out,” he says, “and just started turning like I’d never turned before. I’d never had a board hold like that before. I was just cranking it as hard as I could. I tried to spin it out, I wanted to spin it out, but I couldn’t. David Nuuhiwa and some guys were there that day. They saw me on that board and saw me walk by with it. They’d never seen anything like it. I mean, that’s it; it was the first one ever made. Then I went to WindanSea, and I was out there with Mike Doyle and Rusty Miller on a really good day. They were riding V bottoms, following McTavish, and they were surfing like they were going to spin out at any moment. But the Twin Pin was holding in the turns no matter how hard I cranked it. When I dropped in and made those turns, I had so much speed; it felt so good. Still, Mike Hynson saw the Twin Pin on the beach at WindanSea and he thought it was funnier than the Superboard. He just thought it was ridiculous.”

But other surfers weren’t as skeptical as Hynson, and Nick was having too much fun to care. Before long, some of the best surfers at WindanSea were riding Twin Pins. Chris Prowse, one of the hottest young surfers of the time, absolutely ripped on it. 

“The difference there,” says Prowse, “is that finally, instead of one fin in the center of the tail, there were two fins out on the rail, and that was definitely a different thing: A Twin Pin, not a twin-fin. My first one was maybe 6’10”. I rode it at 15th Street in Del Mar, and I liked it right off the bat. Then I rode it at Big Rock and Black’s; I rode it all over the place. I had a good time on the thing. You get a bunch of doubletakes with a board like that. People look at it and go, ‘Whoa, that’s weird.’ But if there’s a guy that can actually ride it pretty well, then that can change people’s perspective. Things start progressing, moving away from the status quo. There was a lot of experimentation in those days. From a 10′ single-fin to a 6’10” double-finned Twin Pin, that’s a big jump. Pretty soon Bear just started taking longboards and peeling the glass off them and shaping them into Twin Pins.”

By now the Mirandons knew they had a major design break- through, but the Twin Pin had its flaws—the most noticeable being a tendency to track, which was partially remedied by towing in the fins. Nick adapted to the limitations of the board and got it wired, demonstrating the validity of the design the old-fashioned way: by taking it out in real waves and surfing well on it. Nick’s performances in La Jolla attracted the attention of some of the better local surfers, and orders for the Twin Pin came rolling in. “Quite a few of our riders began to get these Twin Pin boards,” says Bear. “Amazingly, surfers from everywhere started ordering these boards, coming to see them, and riding them.” Jon Close, Gary Keating, and Matty Welch were among the talented WindanSea surfers who regularly rode Twin Pins. Prowse, more than any other surfer, was considered the master of the strange new board. In the late ’60s, he drew dynamic new lines all over Black’s and the La Jolla reefs on a 7′ Twin Pin.

Of the six finalists in a major regional surfing contest held at Ocean Beach in 1967, three were riding Twin Pins, including Chris Prowse who won the event, and Nick Mirandon who took third. Steve Lis, who watched Prowse win the contest on a Twin Pin, puts it this way: “There was Nat Youngand David Nuuhiwa and that whole battle in 1966, and then it changed, radically, from that point on.” Lis, who was 15 at the time, was in the early stages of tinkering with his kneeboard fish, but it would still be a while before the design entered into the stand-up realm. Riding on the excitement generated by the Twin Pin, the Mirandons opened a new shop on Turquoise Street in La Jolla in 1968. This was the golden era of Surfboards La Jolla, and it coincided with the full flowering of the shortboard revolution. 

This was also the peak of the psychedelic pop scene in San Diego, and the shop was a microcosm of the new cultural attitudes and artistic expression characteristic of the ’60s youth movement. New York superstars of pop art and literature Andy Warhol and Tom Wolfe both visited La Jolla and attempted to appropriate local surf culture into their work. Posing as an insider, Wolfe wrote a social commentary in 1966 called “The Pumphouse Gang”, which juxtaposed WindanSea surfers and establishment values. Warhol and his Factory entourage arrived in 1968 and made a film about “the lost art of surfing” called San Diego Surf. In an act that today’s hustlers of generic pop-out surfboards would do well to remember, Warhol purchased two asymmetrical boards from Carl Ekstrom, solely on their merits as works of art. Ekstrom’s boards are still stored and cataloged in the Warhol collection. In 1967, a San Diego band named Iron Butterfly released the single “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” which was nothing if not the audio equivalent of the Twin Pin.

The boards that filled the racks at Surfboards La Jolla in 1968 mirrored the sensibilities of the time. They were beautiful and new, a mixture of whimsical intuition and practical design. Bear and Nick were respected figures of the local surf counter culture; the kids were in awe of these gnarly, biker/hippie brothers who charged the reefs on their psychedelic spaceships. Stanley Pleskunas, Steve Lis, and Rusty Preisendorfer were among the younger surfers who came up during the Twin Pin era. One of Rusty’s first boards was a Twin Pin, which he claims had a profoundly positive effect on his surfing. Steve Lis credits theMirandons as being a major influence on his early fish boards.

“Everyone was tripping and building boards,” says Lis, “…trying to make better surfboards, just trying to make surfing better.” 

The Mirandons and their frequently bizarre creations were agents of change, more about the intangibles of creativity and inspiration than widespread acceptance. One day a famous surfer walked in and politely asked if he could try a Twin Pin. He was handed a board off the racks, which he took down to P.B. Point for a quick surf. After the session, he returned to the shop and uttered a brief, yet perfectly appropriate summation of the Mirandon experience. Putting the board back in the rack, he simply smiled and said, “Very interesting.” His name was Miki Dora.

By 1970 Steve Lis’ kneeboarding sessions on his fish design were already legendary, and the board had crossed into the stand-up world via Jeff Ching. Fish and swallowtail single-fins were everywhere in the early 70s. Ben Aipa had been working on swallowtails independently of the California scene for some time in Hawaii, and the Stinger was right around the corner. David Nuuhiwa, who was there for Nick Mirandon’s debut of the Twin Pin at Newport Beach in 1967, had been on a fishing trip of his own since the late 60s and skated all over the place on an ultra-short board with a split tail and double fins in the finals of the 1972 World Contest in San Diego. The face of surfing had been completely transformed in six short years. By then, the design concepts of the Superboard and the Twin Pin didn’t seem so strange. Hawaiian Jimmy Blears won the 1972 World Contest also riding a fish shaped by Ocean Beach local Mike Sheffer. 

Indigenous design is everywhere in San Diego, and many of the surfers there choose to ride boards from the local lineage rather than those tailored to meet the performance criteria of WQS judges. As for the Mirandons, both Nick and Bear are still experimenting with surfboards, still riffing on ideas they’ve had since they were kids on the beach at WindanSea 50 years ago, watching as Butch ripped on a little balsa dual-fin.

“My brother and I have always been into new things, dynamic things,” Nick says. “After all these years, I’m still into it. I make boards for myself, my kids, my friends, whatever…I really believe that surfing is a very beautiful, creative thing. Once you get hooked on it, that’s it. It’s just too much, it’s too amazing.”