Herlihy’s revolutionary ‘Buck Board’ turns 10

Coastal Point • R. Chris Clark  : Colin Herlihy and Eric Simons go over some notes after the last Bethany Skim Jam of the summer.Coastal Point • R. Chris Clark : Colin Herlihy and Eric Simons go over some notes after the last Bethany Skim Jam of the summer.Chances are, if you follow board sports, you know who Colin Herlihy is. You’ve seen him in the newspapers and in the magazines. You’ve seen him in surf movies and documentaries and pretty much anything else there is to be seen in.

Chances are you also know that he’s got his own signature bodyboard model from Toobs or you’ve noticed the deer logo on the front of one of those boards under the arm of a grom headed to the beach.

But what you may not know is that, while that deer logo is a symbol, it’s not just a symbol for the Herlihy board, or even Herlihy himself, but a symbol for all of Sussex County. A symbol designed to remind people of an idea that was launched long before its time, and of two kids from the backwoods of Delaware with a passion for riding waves, and a dream.

“Just the other day, I was sitting on the beach in Fenwick, watching these guys skimming and stand-up surfing the Buck Boards, having such a good time, and was thinking about this story and how things like this evolve and how much fun and joy people can have from putting a few ideas in motion,” said Eric Simons, who was instrumental in a long trial-and-error design process that resulted, now more than 10 years ago, in the first Herlihy prototype. “I think it’s pretty cool to be part of something like that.”

A lifelong waterman and friend of Herlihy’s, Simon’s involvement in what would turn out to be a revolutionary endeavor for bodyboards and bodyboarders began long before either of their careers in the surfing industry did.

Before there were Go Pros and Instagram and “Stacking Clips,” before the Bethany jetties were destroyed for beach replenishment, and before Herlihy ever won a contest or charged Hurricane Sandy or even sported a sticker on his board — it all started with the two of them, when they were groms themselves, trying to balance their bodyboards on their bicycle handlebars as they made their way to the beach.

“We would always go straight to Hollywood Street and surf that jetty, because the older guys had the others on lock and we hadn’t earned their respect yet,” said Simons, who, along with Herlihy, has long since become a leader in local lineups. “It was classic, because by the time I got my bike off the back porch, flippers on the handlebars and on the seat with my board, he would be pedaling by.”

“I grew up on Tingle Avenue on Route 26, and as soon as I was old enough, I would ride my bike to the jetties with Eric all year ’round,” Herlihy recalled. “I remember plenty of days in the winter, riding my bike in the snow coming home from Boogieboarding — we would ride straight down the center of Route 26 and not see a single car.”

In what could be considered a twist a fate, the less crowded spot produced a shorter, hollower wave than the other jetties in town — which Simons claimed worked to their advantage and sparked their interest in discussing different board designs for different wave conditions.

“After our sessions, we would talk about some of the waves we caught and how we could’ve made some of the deeper ones drop knee if our boards were different,” he explained. “Colin had this black and white composition book we would make notes and sketch in — he and I would always critique each other’s waves and bounce ideas off of each other.”

As their wave riding progressed, so did their ideas of how to progress their wave riding. If they weren’t in the water, they were discussing how to improve their abilities and their boards for when they were.

After a while, Herlihy landed his first sponsor, Shoreline Board Shop in Ocean City, Md., which played a large part in getting him noticed by his longest-tenured sponsor and eventual manufacturer of the Herlihy pro model, Toobs Bodyboards.

“They were my first sponsor and, to this day, was the only shop that was strictly a Boogie board shop,” Herlihy noted. “The owner, Steve, took notice of my contest record and said if I put together a résumé, he would give it to the Toobs sales rep.”

In 1993, Herlihy officially joined the Toobs team — which consisted of some of the best bodyboarders in the world. Still attending Indian River High School at that time, he was spending all of his school breaks in Puerto Rico and riding the Toobs “DKB,” or “Drop Knee Board” — a new and unique design that featured a rounded nose.

“The DKB was a major step in the right direction for the drop knee movement, but [it] still wasn’t good enough for us,” recalled Simons. “Colin had access to boards and the ability to start ordering custom shapes — we wanted bigger, better, faster.”

After riding the 42-inch DKB for a while, Herlihy custom ordered a 43.5-inch board and, upon testing it out, was pleased with the results — prompting him to go even bigger. When his 45-inch board arrived, however, he encountered another obstacle.

“Once I got up to 45-inch boards, I noticed these boards were so long and flat the nose was digging into the face of the wave and causing me to pearl,” he explained of what happens when the nose penetrates the water’s surface, causing the rider to fall. “I knew I was on to something with the longer boards but needed to do something about the nose.”

Looking to his quiver of surfboards for the answer, he determined that the way to solve the issue was by adding a rocker in the nose; he just wasn’t quite sure how to do it yet. With Herlihy now spending his entire winters in Puerto Rico, it wasn’t until Simons — who was still in school at the time — visited for a surf trip that they began to search for the answer.

“I showed him the boards I was riding and the issues I was having, and [that’s] when the nose rocker design was cultivated,” Herlihy recalled.

“[That’s] when I got my scalpel, rubber gloves and mask to create our version of Frankenstein,” Simons joked about the initial design process.

For the next couple of winters, the two of them began making adjustments to the DKB themselves — measuring cuts, pulling out strips of foam and trying to figure out a way to glue it all back together.

“My dad ended up pointing us in the right direction of what glue to use,” Herlihy explained, noting that they had to use a marine-grade adhesive. “It took a long time to find the right glue that wouldn’t fail in the heat, saltwater [and] trauma.”

Before the glue settled, they would bend the nose, trying to create more rocker, using coffee tables, bar stools and even decks of old boards to prop underneath and hold it in place. After waiting a few days for the glue to dry, they’d hit the surf to test it out. Through continuous trial and error, they eventually perfected the design — content with its performance not only in bigger surf in Puerto Rico, but back at their home break, as well.

“When I would return home for the summer months, I was surprised to see how well these boards worked in the small summer shore break conditions,” Herlihy said. “They turned out to be the ultimate board for all conditions — they were amazing for standing up on, as well as skimming out to the shore break, and people started taking notice.”

When Toobs started getting requests for custom boards similar to Herlihy and Simons’ “Frankenstein” creation, he approached Toobs’ owner about manufacturing the design as his signature model. Initially, Toobs was skeptical of the design, since nothing like it existed at the time, but they said that, if he could prove that the board worked in Hawaii, they would consider it.

“Out of the blue, I got the call that I was invited to the Dropknee World Championships at Pipeline, and the contest was in two weeks,” Herlihy said of how he got his first chance to prove that his board worked. “I had never been there, let alone rode a wave [to] that degree of demand.”

Not knowing what board would perform best on the North Shore, he quickly ordered a quiver of boards ranging from 48 to 51 inches, added some rocker with the help of Simons and his father, and hopped on a plane.

Even after he placed third in the contest, however, Toobs was still skeptical of putting the design into production.

“There was just nothing at the time even close to the design and length of this board,” Herlihy explained of their skepticism. “From a business standpoint, it was a risk to put something so foreign-looking on the market.”

However, in 2003, after increasing demand for the board, and with help from Bethany Surf Shop owner Jim McGrath, Toobs finally began production on the Herlihy pro model.

“Like all products, we needed to know there was demand for the product before we put it into production,” explained Toobs General Manager Patrick Patten. “Jim McGrath convinced us there was a market for the board, and he was right.”

After sending in the deer logo, designed as a tribute to his home town and an old Cadillac with the nickname “Buck,” McGrath and Bethany Surf Shop were the first shop to order the Herlihy model. The first shipment of boards nearly sold out on the first day.

“By the time they shipped them, we had 12 of them sold,” said McGrath, noting the unusual demand for boards that late in the season. “The first 24 hours, we had two left, and then they were gone — never seen anything like it.”

“The initial feedback was a doubletake from everybody and quite the element of curiosity,” Herlihy described. “Realize there was nothing on the market that even came close to the design of this thing — it was like carrying around something from the future.”

From there, Herlihy, and his board, were launched into the industry spotlight, and more than 10 years later, they’ve never left it. His career as professional bodyboarder has exploded into to a career as a professional surfer, owner of a surf school and renowned outdoorsman, and countless other ventures. More importantly, than that, however, it’s turned a kid from Sussex County with a dream into a reason for the community to be proud and an inspiration for others to follow their own dreams.

“Colin is more than part of the team, he is part of the Toobs family,” said Patten. “We could not be more stoked to have him. He has been one of the most influential team riders we have had in our 25-plus years of business.”

While other companies would eventually come up with their own similar designs, Toobs remains one of the few that refuses to move production overseas and proudly prints “Made in the USA” on many of their boards. As a result, the board has remained a bestseller at Bethany Surf Shop and beyond.

“We sold out today. A box came in today. I was down to one, I think,” McGrath said earlier this summer, highlighting the board’s continued popularity.

Even after 20 years of it all, Herlihy is still the same kid riding his bike to the Hollywood Street jetty. He still drops in with the groms every Monday night at the Bethany Skim Jam. He’s still inventing ways to continue to generate more exposure for Delaware surfers, and he still gets just as stoked when he sees a kid walking around with the board that he designed. However, he knows that he never would have been able to do it without a little help.

“The 10-year mark means a lot to me,” he said. “As far as all the help that I have received from Toobs, Steve from Shoreline, [the] community, Eric and, most of all, my friends and family — if it wasn’t for them, this dream wouldn’t have come true.”