Birdwell Blog

Richard Kenvin’s Hydrodynamica
In California #022

Richard Kenvin ran his hand along the rail of a freshly shaped fish. We stood in a backyard shaping room in La Jolla. Outside the door were dozens of surfboards, all of them fish or fish variants.

            “I’d ridden some fishes in the mid-‘70s,” said Kenvin. “But moved on to more conventional designs. Then, in 2002, a friend turned me on to a little fish, and it just sent my brain into like, ‘Wow, this is much more like it!’ I was 39 years old and newly in sobriety, and everything just clicked. It was a great rediscovery.”

            The board was a five-foot-five kneeboard fish, which quickly led Kenvin to Bob Simmons. Simmons looms large in surf history. Hailed as the father of the modern surfboard, in the 1940s he brought fins and friendlier bottom curve and fiberglass to the board, hence spawning a more high-performance approach. Simmons looms particularly large in San Diego, where, in 1954, he died in a surfing accident at Windansea, Kenvin’s local break.


Photo by John Slavin (Left)            

            “I went obsessive,” said Kenvin, with expressive hands. “I was like, ‘I’m going to make a movie about it. I dove into all this research. I met John Elwell, who was Simmons’s friend and historian. Elwell wrote a beautiful article about Simmons in a 1995 issue of The Surfer’s Journal. It’s called ‘The Enigma of Simmons.’ That was two decades ago, and I haven’t stopped with my research and design explorations.”

            I first heard of Richard Kenvin in 1979, when he won the Stubbies Pro at Black’s in San Diego. His handsome mug and fierce carves splashed the surf mags of my teens and twenties. In the mid aughts, I heard that he’d become not only obsessed with Bob Simmons, but maybe a little haunted by him. Around that time, I went to a party that Kenvin hosted at his downtown San Diego loft. It was less a party than a design summit. Surfboards were everywhere—in corners, on rafters, stretched languorously across sofas and tables. Design luminaries—from teen Tyler Warren to sixty-something Carl Ekstrom—spoke passionately about fins and foils. “Double-fisted” applied not to two beers but two boards in hand. Rails were pawed. Rockers were scrutinized. Kenvin showed us clips from his opus-in-progress, “Hydrodynamica,” a documentary about Simmons and his omnipresent design influence.

            “Simmons basically redefined how the modern surfboard works, going rail to rail with multiple fins,” said Kenvin, now seated in an outdoor patio adjacent to the shaping room. Again, there were surfboards everywhere. And fins. And fin templates. “The Simmons planing hull drives all the boards that I ride now,” he continued. “They just give this amazing feeling. I wanted boards that roll and glide like a skateboard—that’s how I wanted to surf. These boards give me that feeling.”

 Photo by Jon Foster
     

            Kenvin’s an interesting combination of intellectual and athlete, his coke-bottle glasses pointing to the former, his tanned, muscled frame to the latter. He writes for The Surfer’s Journal. He curated “Surf Craft,” an exhibition of boards from the late 1940s to the present, at the Mingei Museum in San Diego. He surfs most every day. And if there are no waves he might get out there and bodysurf, as he did on the morning we met.

            “I’m just really fortunate,” he said. “I have a supportive wife, and the ability to pour a lot of time and attention into surfing. I’m content being here in San Diego. I’m 60. The clock is ticking. I’m really lucky that my body is working—I don’t take that for granted.”

            Jake Allen appeared from the house with a pot of coffee. He poured out three cups while his cat played with a surfboard leash. Jake shapes under Richard’s Hydrodynamica label. The board we were looking at earlier was one of his creations. Jake is 31, tan and lithe, with a relaxed comportment and brown-green eyes that look like they’ve seen many a deep blue barrel.

Photo by Jon Foster (Left) and Michelle Kenvin (Right)          

            “I was 13 when I first saw RK [Kenvin] on a Simmons-style board,” Jake told me. “Nothing’s been that inspiring for me, not for a long time. Doing boards with RK now—it’s just epic.”

            Jake downed his coffee and headed into the shaping room. Through the door we watched him run sandpaper up and down the rails of the blank.

            “The passion for these boards is just so big,” said Kenvin. “And being someone who’s 60 years old and doesn’t have any kids, it’s been really rewarding to have connections with younger surfers, and also people in their 90s, all linked through this passion. There’s a strong sense of community that may be the most rewarding thing for me.”

Photos by Jamie Brisck   
    

           Kenvin got up and pulled one of the boards from the rack. Jet black, with rainbow-colored fins, its curves were clearly of the Simmons varietal. He caressed the rails and turned it on its side to examine the rocker.

            “It just keeps going,” he said. “I’m just as stoked and excited on the feelings that I get from the boards today as I was when I first got on that little Fish in December of 2002.” 

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For more of Richard Kenvin go to https://hydrodynamica.com.

Follow him on Instagram: @hydrodynamica

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