Inside the world’s most desirable surfboard: Stu Kennedy’s Sci Phi
Behind the curtain with the most talked about surfer-shaper duo in the world right now, Sci-Phi masterminds Daniel ‘Tomo’ Thomson and Stu Kennedy.
The first thing you notice about master shaper Daniel ‘Tomo’ Thomson’s residence is that it isn’t where genius should live. His home is a granny flat at the back of Owen Wright’s father’s place, on a hill behind Lennox Point. The modest digs add more heft to the fact success and recognition has been a long time coming for the world’s most talked about shaper.
“See this?” he laughs, pointing to a table made from a door and a pair of rusted trestles. “It’s made from trash left behind by the builders!”
Tomo and his number one test pilot, fellow Lennox Header Stu Kennedy, shocked the world at the Quiksilver Pro last week with their secret weapon: The Slater Designs Sci-Phi model, via Firewire. A few inches shorter than anything ridden in the event, with huge carved channels, peculiar rails, and an ice sculpture tail, its roots belong as much to the original fish-shape movement of the late 60’s as they do to jet-fighter wing templates.
“To make a statement and really impress Stu, it’s gotta out-perform everything else on the market,” says Tomo. “Through all of January, I did 12 different file tweaks before I wrote his name on the first one.”
The unlikely duo who, within three heats, shifted everyday thinking around surfboards.
It worked, spectacularly. Stu opened with a win over Kelly Slater, bowled over Gabriel Medina, and took down John Florence in a thriller before losing to Kolohe Andino in the semis. His performance was the talk of the event. Explosive, relentless, fast, powerful and innovative, all performed with a level of control rarely seen at this level. Pretty remarkable for a guy who, prior to the event, was unknown outside of Australia (and by many within it). But, they’ve heard of him now.
“I’ve never experienced this kind of media attention in my life,” says Stu. “I got home and had 200 text messages.”
His sponsor, Firewire, has been inundated with orders and requests for information. There’s been texts from Kelly, envy from a handful of WT surfers, and a general explosion of interest in Stu and Tomo.
“I was born into shaping,” says Tomo, whose father was a shaper, and showed him how to carve out his first rail as a five year old. Tomo Senior’s mates included George Greenough, the original design experimentalist, and a host of other early board innovators, all of whom had their affect on him. By 16 Tomo was one of the best junior surfers in the richly talented North Coast region, riding his first self-shaped board to victory in a Northern NSW regional contest. That same year he stood wide-eyed in his father’s bay watching Tom Curren work on a series of flex-tails, twin-fins and fishes with his father.
“Curren was like god then,” he recalls. “That was super inspiring.”
Stu, the honest Lennox Header who blitzed two world champs and a hypebeast.
Curren, like many others, had been swept up in the fish resurgence of the early naughties and travelled to Australia to shape and experiment with new designs on the world class sand-bottom point breaks. Tomo had a sponsorship deal with Rip Curl and a future as a competitive surfer, but Curren’s influence altered his course.
“Watching Curren shaping it himself, riding it and ripping, I was like fuck, this is sick,” he says. “I just wanna shape weird boards, too… rather than just accepting what’s forced down your throat.”
As a parting gift, Curren left Tomo one of the most prized surfboards in the world at that time – the Tommy Peterson-shaped 5’7” Fireball fish Curren rides at Bawa in Beyond The Boundaries. “That was my board for a couple of years,” says Tomo. “It influenced me to ride fishes.”
It was around this time that another figure in the fish renaissance, Californian Richard Kenvin, gave Tomo a clunky, 22”-wide 5’5”. “It was full retro style, but there was something I really liked, just the speed and carving, big hacks, wooden fins.”
Tomo wasn’t the “retro guy.” High performance surfing was his calling, but he loved the speed and momentum of the twin fish. Could there be a board that combined the flow of a fish with capacity for the directional changes of a high performance thruster? Tomo spent the next eight years down a rabbit hole of naval architecture literature, jet-fighter design templates, scientific modelling from wind and drag tunnels, and the bottom contours of kite-surfing boards to find out.
That rail work? Blistering! So much juice squeezed from such gutless Snapper!
Meanwhile, Stu was making his charge. A blistering teenage career culminated in a lucrative Rip Curl contract and the fastest Australian Junior Series win on record (he won the entire series with two events still to run).
By 22, however, with a mortgage and a kid on the way, he was dumped by his sponsor and found himself on the end of a shovel, working unskilled manual labour jobs. Not ready to give up on his World Tour dream, Stu entered into a shaping partnership with Tomo and Firewire, the pair working extensively to come up with the initial ‘Tomo’ prototype – a diamond-shaped nose with straight rails (and other modern design tweaks). That was in 2012 and Stu took the board on the road to Trestles and the US Open, putting on a show that was good enough to earn the attention of Kelly Slater.
That extra spark in the face wraps dances perfectly on the edge of loose and controlled.
“He came up to me at the US Open ‘cos I making heats on it (the no-nose Tomo),” recalls Stu. “He’s like, ‘Can I try your board?’ I was like, ‘Not this one, but you can try that one. Put your stickers over mine if you like.’ He’s like, ‘Nah, I’m not worried about it.’”
The Champ liked what he felt. A pair of unknown Aussies from one of the most high performance pointbreaks in the world were pushing the progression curve harder than anyone and he wanted in.
“Kelly was tripping on it, ’cause he’s like, ‘the dude,’ who is supposed to be the experimentalist and all of a sudden there’s someone doing something way more gnarly than what he’s doing and someone pretty much surfing better on it,” says Tomo.
Look at that bottom end! Who’d have thought…
Tomo and Slater crossed paths again shortly after. This time, Tomo invited The Champ up to his apartment to take a look at a few more prototypes.
“I had six brand new cutting-edge designs,” says Tomo. “He was super psyched. I said, ‘Take your pick, give us some feedback.’ He took a couple and rode them and was freaking on them and was super psyched, and then we just started surfing them everyday and feeding on it all. He paid a lot of attention to us, and gave us a good wrap on it. Obviously he’s been paying a lot of attention since.”
When the opportunity came up for Slater to become a major stakeholder in Firewire, Tomo believes the work he and Stu were already doing for the company was a big part of his decision making process.
“When the Firewire connection came and he was thinking of buying the company he knew I was involved and wanted to get a head start on testing my stuff to see if that was the clincher for the deal I think,” says Tomo.
With the deal signed, it meant Tomo and Stu had the greatest surfer ever on speed dial to test boards and offer feedback. Unbeknownst to most, this time last year Kelly was making secret missions from the Gold Coast to Lennox back beaches to test boards with Stu and Tomo.
Is there any working relationship more important for a competitor than the one he has with his shaper?
WSL/Kirstin Scholtz (L), Kane Skennar (R)
“Kelly is Kelly,” says Tomo. “He has 10 boards in there that he’s juggling but it’s great the times when he clicks in with you and really focuses in. We had some great moments surfing together, where he gives you great feedback, and a breakdown of what we can do. He gets super psyched on that, texting back and forth the refinements.”
With Kelly’s blessing, Stu and Tomo pressed ahead, eventually coming up with the board that stopped the surfing world. It is a combination of everything that has come before.
“The Sci-Phi goes back to that fish lineage; a hi-fi fish template hybridising as much as possible with short board DNA,” begins Tomo, before going onto give a technical breakdown of each design feature that would test a NASA physicist.
“It was about coming up with the right tail configuration to get that pivot and tightness in the pocket because generally that wide-tail (of a fish) will shoot you out on the face a bit. You’ll get the hold but you won’t get super tight and radical in the pocket, which you need for contest surfing…so the bat-tail gives it that really sharp clawing-in effect on the back foot when you pivot off it. It helps you get super radical on the lip, and just grip it and pivot and release in snaps and hacks. You see Stu do a lot of those carves to fin release turns and they always look really good. That wide-tail doesn’t catch, it just pops out of the lip.”
This was the turn that unhooked everyone. Re-watch in HOD, now!
The moment it all sunk in for Tomo was the Gabriel Medina heat. Stu had already knocked Kelly, but critics were blaming the champ’s board (another Slater Design, this time a Greg-Webber-shaped, Shane Herring-inspired vacuum-sealed brown banana).
“We shouldn’t say he showed him (Slater) up in case he gets rattled,” says Tomo of the performance.
“‘Cause I did show him up last week… Nah, nah,” laughs Stu.
As Stu powered past Gabriel, Tomo could feel the heads in the competitor’s area turning to look at him. “It was like, woah, this is real… He absolutely demolished that heat. He took Medina down fairly, with classic Aussie power surfing mixed with radical innovation. Watching that was as good as it gets for me. Everything after that was cream.”
Near-perfection isn’t always pretty.
The Gold Coast result has given Stu enough money to pay a year off his mortgage, while also upping his seeding, and putting him a big step closer to the tally of 16 heat wins required for him to qualify for next year’s tour (he is competing as an injury replacement for Bede Durbidge). For the next stop at Bells, you can expect a Sci Phi with a “bit more beef,” says Stu. Tomo will be there with him, as he will for most of the year, testing boards too in a bid to figure out what works at the rest of the stops on tour.
“Hopefully I’ll have some newer designs up my sleeve that I’ll use as my personals to ride in those waves and work on next year’s stuff and keep pushing it. I just wanna take that opportunity of being there to try new ideas that I’ve been playing around with.”
As for Kelly, it’d seem an inevitability that he’ll make the jump to Stu and Tomo’s Sci Phi. He already rides them “all the time” in freesurfs. Though, as Tomo points out, these are not things you bring up with an 11 time world champion.
“I think he’s waiting for the right moment,” says Tomo. “You can’t second guess the guy. You trust he knows what’s going on.”
This isn’t over.
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