Jun 29, 2014

30 Years of Testing and Tinkering #8: The Slow Leak Revolution: Part 2

“Progress” in the field of mat design had been moving at a snail’s pace since the first surf mats appeared on beaches in the 1930’s...

The reasons were simple. Even the earliest mat worked pretty good, and there weren’t that many “serious” mat surfers in the world. Plus, mats were mass produced, so unlike the burgeoning custom surfboard industry of the 50’s and the 60’s, the needs of individuals were lost to the restrictions of the manufacturing process. Mats were sadly lacking...stuck in a 'one size fits all' mode.

By the early 60’s, George Greenough started riding stock Converse Hodgman mats softer and softer, to wring more performance out of ’em. A combination well-broken in fabric and low inflation levels added a 2nd, 3rd and sometimes even a 4th gear to his straight line speed. His enormous surfing talent combined with the quality point and reef surf in the Santa Barbara area netted an effective approach.

The late 60’s saw some progress. One Australian company market a serious surfmat with rocker built into it. That mat, while sluggish, turned easily and was the first attempt to advance design beyond sticking crude rubber fins on the tail. (I believe the name of that rockered mat was something like, “The New Curve To Surf.”)

In the early 70’s, Woody Woodworth, down in Corona Del Mar, started customizing Hodgmans by laminating a second layer of canvas for supreme toughness, and adding small twin fins to the tail.  While these rafts were the polar opposite of Greenough’s finless, softer-is-better design paradigm, ‘Woody Rafts’ were well-suited to the dangerous, jetty-adjacent surf in his area. It was probably the first instance of mats being built (or in this case, heavily modified) for one particular need.

By 1978, the Morey Boogie had killed off the high end surf mats like the Hodgman Converse, and the cheaper, Taiwan-built Rip Curls and Merrins replaced them by default. Unintentionally, these flimsy mats gave us insight into what could be achieved with more pliable fabric. Then George broke the scene wide open when he started riding Merrins with the bottom canvas torn off, leaving only the raw rubber liner material as the bottoms skin. “The Peelers” were the first mats to really exploit the idea that a mat built with thin fabric could excel. They were very fast by that era’s barometer. Whenever we’d drag out a Hodgman for old time’s sake, it was a shock how heavy, stiff and slow they were by comparison to the Peelers.

In response to that upgrade, Merrin modified their mat design with a nylon-over-rubber bottom, which added slickness, but was actually stiffer than the canvas and rubber bottom. So not a real improvement, but a good attempt.

For a couple of years, roughly 1980 through 1982, the Merrin Peelers were the gold standard of mat surfing, at least among the Greenough-cognoscenti. But they were fragile, and didn’t inspire confidence in larger surf. You always had to travel with a couple of spares in the trunk to make sure you got through a session.
While the Peeler-era was percolating, George had been talking on the phone with Dale Solomonson up in Oregon. Dale was into building tri-plane ethafoam body boards. George, predictably, urged him to get into mat riding. Dale got a hold of some of the new Rip Curls – which were similar to the Merrins -- but they were a hassle to source, and ended up being costly due to his location. So he started building his own mats.

Somewhere in the mix of his early mats, Dale built a mat out of naugahyde vinyl. It was the first attempt to build a mat from scratch based on George’s belief that softer was better. The report filtered back to us that the naugahyde mat went well in the beginning, but quickly lost its structural integrity with use…vinyl being vinyl and all. Still, it was a step into the future.

At that point, we started talking about making our own mats, since the commercial supply was quixotic at best, and Dale had proven that building them was a viable option.  
Here’s where it started to get tricky…

Greenough's spoon kneeboards were the most demanding surf craft on the planet to build. They took over 100 hours of work, spread over a month, to build.

Here's an example of a spoon I made for Spencer Kellogg back in 2001. You can plainly see how many glass layups there were to provide the right combination of stiffness, flex and strength...

The fin alone took days to craft. A 75 layer, hand laid glass panel to start with...
Followed by endless hours of itchy grinding...

Adding to their massive build time, spoons demanded both size and quality surf to get them rolling. Big, hollow, offshore, and empty...good luck finding that combination more than a few times a year!

So...mats had always been George’s “no-brainer” fall-back for everyday surf. There was purity to the pursuit that resonated with George. “Just buy one, blow it up, and go surfing!” was his mantra.  

All these factors made George -- in spite of his status as the seminal creative force in the surfing world -- reticent to start building mats himself. It contradicted everything he believed in, mat-wise. Plus, he was now stuck into designing sailboards that were even more complex and time consuming to build than his spoon kneeboards...  

But mat surfing’s hoi-polloi (that would be the rest of us) started to look around and wonder…is there a better path to inflatable Valhalla,beyond George’s simple 'buy-and-surf' approach?

In late 1982, Dale began talking about welding up a mat with some light, heat sealable nylon fabric he had sourced. My immediate response was, “Copy the old Stripes-Down Converse Hodgman shape!” In spite of its weight and out-of-date stiffness, that particular Hodgman had been the most potent design in the long history of mat surfing. The newer, lighter, softer mats like the Merrin ‘Peelers’ had taken mat surfing to a new level…but because of their pliable material, not necessarily because of their shape. The long, lean Hodgman that George rode in the footage in Rubber Duck Riders (later seen in Crystal Voyager) was still the most desirable mat when the surf was clean and hollow. 

I drove over to George’s home one afternoon, let him know what was brewing, and pulled out one his old Hodgmans for some reverse engineering. I was surprised how much variation there was from one pontoon dimension to the next. That mat was nowhere near being symmetrical. I mentioned this to George as I was measuring it, and he broke out laughing. “It’s a surf mat, not an F-14! They aren’t supposed to be perfect!”

Yes, F-14's are more complex than surf mats!

I averaged out the wild variations of the Hodgman’s interior dimensions, and forwarded the numbers to Dale.

February 1983 saw a string of big, sloppy, rainy El Nino swells hit the West Coast. The day the first nylon mat arrived at our door, the surf was pumping. There was no non-skid on the deck of the Dale's new mat, and it was obvious that it would be too slick and slippery to ride. I had a case of Slipcheck in my garage left over from the 60’s, so George and I cracked open a can, hit the deck with a quick coat of the stuff, and headed out to find some waves to ride. 

The surf was sloppy, but head higher or better. It was threatening rain. The sea was brownish but not chocolate water. No one was out. It seemed like the end of the world. In retrospect, there couldn’t have been a better scenario for the mat riding world to take a giant leap forward.
George snagged the first wave on the new mat, and disappeared down into the cove of the off-the-beaten-path point we were riding. I could see his track coming over the back of the wave, and it was like a white slit in the water...as opposed to the snowplow wake a conventional surf mat carves. And the track was really long and straight. He was flying! George came paddling back a few minutes later and was speechless…which, if you know George, is a momentous occasion.  
He finally blurted out, “This thing isn’t a little bit faster, it’s a lot faster!”

Over the course of that afternoon, George and I rode dozens of waves, head high or bigger, with the new nylon mat. The uncured Slipcheck on the deck wore off quickly, and that made it hard to ride. But the mat never hit terminal velocity. Every looming section, however distant, got eaten up. The other mat we had out, a 'cutting edge' Merrin Peeler, suddenly seemed crude and slow.
So George’s belief that a more pliable mat would go faster was now proven beyond any doubt. The nylon fabric was light and flexible, but had enough integrity so it didn’t get saggy or mushy. The combination of “soft but crisp” material was obviously going to be the ticket.

Phase 5 of The Slow Leak Revolution had begun!

As we got more water time in on the nylon version of the old Hodgman shape, it became obvious that the superb handling of the old Hodgman had been, at least in part, due to its weight and roughly-textured canvas fabric. Dale’s slicker and lighter version had problems holding into steep sections, even when it was inflated to a nearly full level.

So our take-away was this: The new material was a resounding success...but future nylon mats would have to break new ground, design-wise, to exploit the speed of next-gen fabric without any loss of handling.

No one could have imagined how much time and money -- and fun -- it would take to sort it all out!


Anonymous said...

Fantastic post PG!

Unknown said...


Brian McKie said...

One word, Awesome!

pranaglider said...

Great Stuff Paul!

Unknown said...

Great post PG. The history of our craft can very quickly be forgotten/re-written.



tuskedbeast said...

You wrote a cliffhanger this time- brilliant!

harmless neighborhood eccentric said...

Fantastic, just great. Thanks Paul.

Henry Hester said...

Brilliant PG!

tuskedbeast said...

And... that fin foiling is awesome.