I came across this article by Paul Gross in an issue of Surfer (Vol. 16, No. 5, 1975) recently and was struck by how relevant and applicable it still is today. These are exciting times to be a surfer, with board designers like Tom and Jon Wegener and Richard Kenvin (and the shapers he's been working with like Joe Bauguess) taking a second look at concepts from the past and applying them to modern boards. Also Danny Hess, Burt Burger, and many others around the world are applying supposedly antiquated materials like wood into modern, high performance shapes, creating stronger, better boards. It seems we are in a new era that really is looking "forward to the future with a perspective of the past."
"It's an adventure to get on a surfboard and paddle out. Something is going to happen to you." -Phil Edwards
Beyond that agreeable statement, ideas of what surfing was, is, and should vary according to experience, understanding, and personal taste. A common tendency is to believe that NOW is the most advanced period surfing has experienced, and that we are constantly moving ahead. To many, surfing's past may seem archaic and foolish: muscle-bound jocks herding heavy, ridiculously long, sluggish hulks around, with little thought of what they could be doing.
"1949- 1954... was the period of the only true innovation of design concepts and riding technique the sport has ever endured." - Mickey Dora
With few preconceptions, early creators developed understanding and methods that, for better or for worse, are still with us today. They were the ones to realize that such "absolutes" as the addition of a fin could improve their ability to angle; that boards should be longer than they are wide; that rocker helped to keep the board from hooking chop and pearling. They went further to conclude that goofy- foots were abnormal.
"Put one foot in front as you stand- preferably left foot forward, unless this feels unnatural." - John Severson, Surfer Magazine, Vol. 1 #1, 1960
They were vary aware of the various rail shapes and how they affected the way a board felt. They fiddled with lengths, widths, templates, fin size and placement, square tails, pintails, round tails, and yes, swallow tails. They had the time and the waves to work out and understand a multitude of subtleties that most of today's "designers" are still assessing.
"Compared to Simmons, we are still throwing paint at the canvas." -Tom Morey
All of this was occurring with little of the benefit of mass communication. Word of mouth, while in the hands of a then friendlier crew, still traveled slowly. Films were scarce ... there were no magazines.
With "Gidget", foam, and SURFER Magazine, surfing was elevated to new levels of social awareness. With a new image, a new pack hit the water. Spots got crowded, fins grew into skegs, and boards became, as they still are today, handshaped, hand- laminated, white foam, wood- stringered, eggshell structures.During what is now referred to as the "longboard era," commercialism and formalized heroism escalated to new heights. For the first time, experimentation and the resulting likelihood of progress had falsifying factors to contend with. Manufactures effectively unified appearance standards; and, at a snail's pace, allowed things to change often enough to give the illusion of constant, uninterrupted (and non- disruptive) progress.
However, a handful of wave riders have stood out through more than one era, and are not opposed to telling us about how it was and what they see it becoming ...
Phil Edwards, the man with the first signature model, the first surfer to ride Pipeline, winner of the first SURFER Magazine Reader Poll (the ultimate assessment of advertising effectiveness besides sales), and rightfully respected wave rider, gives much of the credit for his early development to Mickey Dora.
"Mickey ... just didn't stand up; he actually moved around on the board ... he made something of it ... he made the rest of us look like idiots ... I copied him. Just straight down the line copied him ... sometimes I feel I'm a two-bit version of Mickey Dora." -Phil Edwards
"Dora's surfing, like that of many other knowledgeable surfers, is always done in the terrain of the wave ... he is high on the wall, trimmed up on the board as far forward as possible without stalling the board's speed, looking to be in a position of no escape. The wall throws out, Dora drops both body and board down, taking all the speed into the eye. What does he do? He goes flat on the board, lying down, vanishing inside exploding white water, and (did you expect otherwise?) comes squirting out the far end onto the green, stands up, and rides into the shorebreak." -Dale Herd
Dora is not the greatest surfer of all time. That is a title without a holder. However, what he and other knowledgeable transients of past to present have to say should be listened to, as it stands to reason that a participant/ observer of some considerable dimension would have a more objective, learned view of today's "state of the art" than the average guy out in the water. What they are saying is most likely not what you would like nor expect to hear.
"To the unenlightened eye, things have constantly been progressing; however, close scrutiny reveals the modern world to be a mere illusion of opulence, grandeur, and good feelings ... I now publicly state the some kid from nowhere ... is going to come forward and thrash any and all matinée idols." Mickey Dora
"No matter what people say about the short board being faster, I'll never believe it, because with the longer board, you just end up further down the beach." -Phil Edwards
"Now is a generation of very handsomely equipped, well- suited trashmen surfing very slowly through garbage waves ... I am looking at your surfboards and thinking they are junk. You know, really, it's the basically the same as before. In actuality, a guy paddles out on one of these 'modern tools for total involvement' out to the lineup at the stupendous speed of about one mile per hour. He rides in at perhaps 10- 15 m.p.h., occasionally he may hit 20, even 25 m.p.h., on really good, really large waves." -Tom Morey
"I would say every surfer hungers for speed." -Nat Young
Speed? Twenty-five miles per hour? Kids on skateboards can go faster than surfers do on the biggest, hollowest, waves ridden. (True, the illusion of speed while surfing is tremendous.)
"Imagine boards which will maneuver super well and which will paddle at 10 m.p.h.!" - Tom Morey
It might seem strange that the most disruptive thinking is being done by individuals who saw their "youth" in a time when acid was something in your car's battery.
Ignorant rejection of the concepts put forth by Dora, Morey, Edwards, and those like them is not surprising. Innovators often are forced out of the limelight (assuming they got that far ... or wanted to), labeled as "eccentrics" or "out of it," and dismissed.
"The true surfing frontiersman who create in obscurity are so far advanced over the rest of the regressive rat pack, it's absurd." - Mickey Dora
Rather than rejecting the manner of surfing we now enjoy, these people are trying to show us that our enthusiasm for what we see as new is ill-founded, and our lack of comprehensive vision is clogging the development of new feelings we could be enjoying.
"Don't sock yourself into fads and fancies; go develop a board that will take you where you want." - Wayne Lynch
"How, pray tell, will we ever improve if guys don't try out their ideas?" - Nat Young
Surfers from every "era" have a common ground of understanding, one that transcends equipment, maneuvers, and style. It is something that cannot be lost, no matter where you go with your ideas. Look forward to the future with a perspective of the past.
Joe Quigg recalls Rabbit Kekai with his toes wrapped around the nose while completely in the tube at full speed, riding a short redwood board with a V-bottom and no fin ... at Queens ... in 1947.