Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Papa's Got a Brand New Bag

I'm back. And, in the words of James Brown, "Papa's got a brand new bag."

That's right. In the last few months, I've gotten into riding bags... of air. Aka "inflatable surf mats" or "magic towels." They were invented in Oz in the 1930's, popular with the beach-bound ho-dads in the 1950's, and then they disappeared - deflating their way into the underworld of beach sub-culture.

Which is where George Greenough (all praise be to GG) found them. He - and a few of his intrepid/eccentric buddies - kept surf matting alive (and thriving) throughout the 60's and 70's. You can see proof of this in GG's film "Crystal Voyager."

Frustrated with the poor quality and rarity or Converse-Hodgeman mats in the mid-to-late 70's, Paul Gross ( and Dale Solomonson started making their own. They used better materials, superior construction, and a light-weight, performance-oriented design to create the first "modern" surf mats. And thank goodness for that, because without their commitment, we couldn't do this:

The pictures speak for themselves: surfmats are a hoot. Riding so close to the face of the wave, the sensation of speed is outrageous. And it's the only surf craft in which everything is variable - just like the wave. With the mat partially deflated, the rail and internal channels are constantly adjusting to the face of the wave. Squeeze for grip, relax for trim. It's simple... and incredibly hard all at the same time. As GG said, "The funny thing about mats is that they're the easiest thing to surf on a basic level, but they're hardest thing to surf on an advanced level. It takes ten years of experience before you can drive them anywhere near their potential."

I'm no where near riding mats at their full potential, but that's part of the fun. In my local line-up, no one takes me seriously when I'm on a mat - least of all me. I don't feel the pressure (internally or externally) to compete. All I want to do is have FUN... and maybe get a little better. I'd like to say that I approach board-surfing with the same mindset, but I don't. I get competitive and mean, aggressive and shitty. And if I'm gonna be like that, I might as well go to work.

I'm not alone in my adoration of surf matting. Stecyk calls surf matting "the fly fishing of surfing," but it's more than that. Riding a surf-mat gives you automatic entre into a community - and that's rare in this world. There are probably less than 40 people in Southern California that ride surf mats with any regularity, and maybe 250 world-wide. We might be few and far between, but we love riding together - especially on the same wave (bumper-mat style).

Can you imagine how different board-surfing would be if you flipped the "it's MY wave" attitude on its head? We're talking collaborative wave riding.

The more the merrier! Right, Surf Sista and Marvin?

Just watch the fin-to-face action, Marvin.

And on that note, I'm gonna go get some low-tide peelers. Who's with me?

** Almost every photo here was taken by the illustrious and immensely talented Ken Samuels.


  1. I took up up mat surfing two winters ago and it is way fun still. I surfed for forty years and this made going out in the water a fresh experience. Last week I got locked into a shore break peeler and I've never gone faster on a wave. Mat surfer silhouette=sea lion silhouette; this makes going out north of Pt. Conception sketchy. Also two foot waves are double overhead.