Jun 15, 2014

30 Years of Testing and Tinkering #7: The Slow Leak Revolution: Part 1

With great fanfare, conventional board surfing experienced a transformation during the late 60's that shook its framework to the ground. Surfers referred to it as "The Transition Era," while the surf media dubbed it, "The Shortboard Revolution."

In either case, the classic "too big to fail" longboard labels like Webber, Hobie, Greg Noll, and Gordon & Smith were upended to the degree that they were never able to fully recovered their former glory. The emergence of the shortboard era -- in the form of smaller surfboards and a fresh attitude -- was that powerful.

Nat Young kicked off the whole mess, winning the World Surfing Contest in the fall of 1966 on a blade-thin 9'4'' he named Magic Sam...

Sam was short by the standards of the day (10' plus noseriders were commonplace), and it featured a narrow, flexible fin designed and constructed by George Greenough. That fin was a key to Sam's performance...perhaps even more so than its shorter length and lean thickness profile.
Nat Young's convincing win in the World Contest jump-started a mega-shift in surfing. Attitudes changed, and boards began dropping in length. From 10 foot long beach party props in the early 60's...

...to sub-7 foot mind machines by the early 1970's.

Shorter-than-usual surf crafts have been ridden throughout surfing's history...

...but Nat Young's dominance in the mainstream arena of contest surfing...

...combined with Greenough's outside-the-box boards and surfing, resonated with surfers of every social perspective.

Calling the shortboard transition era a "revolution" sounds cheeky today, but if anything, it's an understatement. For those who weren't around back then, we went from seeing nothing in the water under 9'6'' long to seeing nothing over 8' long in 18 months. The change was so radical, surfers who were inclined to keep riding longboards were actually intimidated to do so. By the Woodstock summer of 1969, only San-O and Waikiki continued to embrace longboard surfing. Even First Point Malibu -- longboard heaven by any measure -- was filled with nothing but shortboards...aside from the occasional appearance by Lance Carson.

The mythology of the shortboard revolution has been expressed for years, but historians invariably assume that stand up surfing was, and is, a pinnacle of the surfing experience. The fact that the seminal character in the transformation from longboards to shortboards -- George Greenough -- was both a kneerider and surf matter is generally downplayed.

With all that in mind...

Mat surfing's own transition era -- from heavy cotton canvas rafts to new-age nylon rocket ships -- was also inspired by George Greenough. But we experienced a much slower change. George refers to it as "the slow leak revolution." That's a double entendre of sorts...referring to how long it took for the changes to take place, as well as how leaky mats (ridden softer by default) were one of his first clues that more pliable mats performed better.

As covered in posting #6, the emergence of the Morey Boogie broke the lineage of mat surfing by 1974, because Boogies provided a more practical alternative for the recreational beach goer. The reliable Converse Hodgman surf mats of the 60's and early 70's ceased production, and we were left riding our dwindling stash of Hodgmans...later followed by whatever else we could find in the market place.

During the post-Hodgman era (roughly 1978 onward) we had a choice between the ubiquitous dime store cheapy mats -- which tended to be too small in dimension and too short on durability -- or slightly better surf mats imported from Taiwan with an Australian surf corporation logo stenciled on the deck. Some of those imports had skegs and handles bonded onto them. Some even had crudely pointed noses as well.

Rip Curl and Merrin were the primary distributors of these mid-range quality mats, and by the fall of 1978, George started bringing suitcases filled with Merrins back to California when he returned from his annual stint in Australia.

We would carefully peel the handles and skeg off the mats....


...and transform them into "serious mats for serious mat surfers."

George's long-held belief that softer mats (either loosened up through repeated use, or ridden with low inflation, or both) were faster had been proven time and again. Without us knowing it, going all the way back to the 60's, that had been 'Phase 1' of the slow leak mat revolution.

'Phase 2' began to coalesce in 1978, when we would alternate between old, fully broken in Hodgmans and crisp new Merrins the same day in the water...and the Merrin would be faster because they were flimsier. Merrins turned out to be fun to ride, in many ways better than the more durable Hodgmans.

At that point, we had no idea what the limit was for a soft, pliable mat. All we knew was that Merrins had opened our eyes to the advantages of mat which was even more compliant than a broken-in Hodgman. But again, we had no idea how far we could take it.

Here's George running across a wall on a Merrin in Greg Huglin's classic film, Fantasea...

...and shooting footage off his back on that same yellow mat...

After a year or two of use, our first-gen Merrins became worn to the point of being threadbare...and, like a broken-in Hodgman, they went even faster! So broken-in Merrins became 'Phase 3' of the slow leak revolution.

One afternoon in the upper parking lot at Rincon, probably around 1980 or '81, Greenough floated the idea that maybe we should peel the fabric off the bottom of our tired Merrins, leaving just the thin rubber inner lining. Paul Masiel and I scoffed at the notion, assuring George that the bottom would explode before he even made it out through the shorebreak. And even if he did make it, there's no way something that radical would work on a wave.

George being George, he took that as a challenge. The three of us paddled out, and after we'd made it to calm water, George rolled off his mat and started tearing the fabric off the bottom. Paul and I looked at each other, rolling our eyes. George sensed our disapproval and said something like, "I don't care if my mat pops...all I need is one wave to tell us if this is a good idea!"

A little set rolled in (like, shoulder high) and George spun around and took the first wave. I caught a later wave in the set, and as I rode towards George, who was paddling back out, he had that steely-eyed stare that he gets when he's right about something, and wants you to know it. I pulled out of my wave, and he paddled up to me, slipped off his mat, shoved it towards me and barked, "Try this."

By dark that evening, all three of our Merrins had the bottom fabric peeled off.

The rubber bottomed mats were so pliable, they jumped gears without any input from the rider. We could set them in trim, the bottom would conform the wave face, and the mat would just keep accelerating. George started calling them "Peelers."

While the Peelers didn't pop after 5 minutes as we feared, they were extremely fragile because of their thin rubber bottoms...so it didn't take much to ruin one. If they touched the bottom when you were paddling out, it was over. If you rode too far up onto the sand coming into the beach, it was over. They weren't practical, but as George pointed out, "If we have to break out a new Merrin every other week, the performance is worth it!"

For all the shortcomings of the Peelers, they became 'Phase 4' of the slow leak revolution.

Our observation at that point was that every time we rode a thinner skinned mat, it worked better. We still didn't know what the lower limit would be...but thus far, the more flexible a mat's skin was, the more performance a rider could wring out of it.


Epilog: If you look at this mat riding sequence in Fantasea, there's a bit of mat-transition history lurking in there...


The opening shot is of George and I carrying Merrins up the point. The wave I'm riding, right at the start, was the first wave I ever rode on a Merrin. You can see I'm a little tentative with the small size of the mat, and the slippery deck (compared to the coarser Hodgmans.) George had been riding his yellow Merrin for some time, and was totally tuned in. 

All but one of the shots in this clip are of us riding Merrins. The POV/backpack shot George took, at the 1:45 mark, is of me on a "Stripes Across" Hodgman. That shot was taken the day before the other shots were taken, and that was the last time I ever rode a Converse Hodgman in earnest. After I surfed my Merrin a few times and got the hang of it, I liked it better.

FWIW, the Merrins in this sequence weren't Peelers. George didn't come up with that idea for another couple of years.

It's hard to believe that the mat surfing shown in Fantasea is 35 years old...


pranaglider said...

Great stuff Paul! Thanks for sharing the details.

cherlita said...

Wonderful story and movies, Paul. Mahalo!

Anonymous said...

The Fantasea footage is the best.

rodndtube said...

Nicely written, Paul. Thanks for your continuing contributions to the surfriding world.

Anonymous said...

Hello Paul-

Thanks for posting your latest article and including the part about Greenough's fin. I posted it on our museum webpage. I think people will find it interesting.

It is also my surreptitious attempt to convert more to the mat cult ;-) .

Mahalo- John

Unknown said...

Thanks again. I am really enjoying this series.


Anonymous said...

Great read and some fantastic film clips looks like it is just not mats that have come on a long way but wet suits as well. How close are those peelers mats to the modern mats we ride today ?

Tremor Temchin said...

Phenomenal stuff, PG!

tuskedbeast said...


It's SO special to read your first-person accounts on this little bit of history. So great to have this footage elaborated on and contextualized.

I continually feel like we're in on a secret "meaning of life" with mat surfing. What a privilege!

Thank you!!

harmless neighborhood eccentric said...

Unreal Paul. Danke!

Anonymous said...