There’s been large swell running for the past week. Our trip to Santa Barbara Island was bumpy and dive conditions questionable. But what we found in light of this was a wonderful surprise: surfing sea lions! None of us had ever seen such sustained and enthusiastic wave riding from pinnipeds before. It was a joy to watch! 🎥 by @lawofthelandnsea
Video here ...
How Riding a Bag of my own Air Transformed my Surf Journey
By Julie Benn
It was the summer of 2020 and I was knee-deep into months of physical therapy following surgery in 2019 to replace a ruptured ACL, repair a torn meniscus, address a large piece of cartilage that had broken off and tend to a fractured femur. Whew! All from surfing big waves at Waimea. Yah, uh, in my dreams. It was actually from doing a “football move” of jumping over a pair of stray Birkenstocks that weren’t where they were supposed to be (read: the closet, not the middle of the bedroom) and landing wrong.
I’m a surfer who’s ridden longboards, egg boards, body boards and my favorite, knee boards. To be told by my surgeon that it would be a year before I could get back to surfing was a tough reality to face. But I did it, grinding through months of intense physical therapy and endless home exercises. One day, as I was watching surfers on YouTube (a frequent activity—living vicariously through others), a video popped up on something I’d never even heard of before: mat surfing.
I clicked on the link and watched (for hours) video after video of surfers riding an inflatable bag of air and just absolutely flying across the face of the wave at speeds I never thought were possible on a non-motorized watercraft, let alone a freaking raft!
I was mesmerized.
A trek down history lane reveals that it was 1934 when a physician from Sydney, Australia invented the first surf mat. They became incredibly popular and by 1938, the surf mat had already its own division at the Australian Surfing Titles. In the 1940’s mats made their way to American beaches (and New Zealand, Hawaii, the UK and South Africa) and thrived as the mainstay of wave hungry kids and even older folks who used to rent them at local beaches for like 50 cents a day. It wasn’t until the advent of Tom Morey’s Boogie Board in 1973 that signaled the (almost) obliteration of the surf mat. It faded from surf culture and line-ups until recently.
Today this “lost art” of wave riding is making a comeback in underground (or, underwater, more appropriately) pockets around the world. World-renowned surfer and inventor of the modern surfboard fin (as well as huge contributor to shortboard design, kneeboarder, cinematographer, and all-around amazing waterman) George Greenough has said that his wave-riding vehicle of choice is actually the surf mat.
“The funny thing about mats, is that they’re the easiest thing to ride on a beginner level, but the hardest thing to ride on an advanced level. I’ve been riding mats for over 40 years, and I’m still learning things,” says Greenough.
One of the most challenging things about transitioning to riding mats is that you almost have to forget what you know about board riding. The nuances, the way you position yourself on a wave, where you put your hands and even how you move your fingers can affect your trajectory. After all, it’s a bag of malleable air you’re on and it’s as changeable as it is the sea itself.
It seems like it would be just like body boarding, but it’s really not. You can feel every bump and ripple as you are intimately connected to the ocean, riding at eye level, in some ways learning the dance all over again from the perspective of a sea-foam bubble! I am on a steep learning curve myself, but I love being a student in the School of Ocean.
Some days I get clobbered, other days I find the sweet spot and just soar. Every paddle out is different, and, as is true with other kinds of surfing, it feels like freedom. Yet this time out, there are no tangled leashes and no cumbersome fiberglass, just a small mat filled with your own air bouncing around in the wild as you giggle your way onto shore. And, when you’re done, you simply deflate your surf craft and throw it in your backpack. Easy peasey.
Another thing that is missing from the surf mat experience is ego. Honestly, this is hard, but you really have to check that at the car door. You may be the best board surfer in the world and have all kinds of street-cred in your local line-up but when you paddle out on what is akin to a camping air mattress, that all fades away. You’re not competing against anyone anymore. You are risking looking like a kook (and you probably do), and you are simply having fun—riding the wave faster than you ever thought possible, making section after section and squeezing every last droplet of momentum out of what was possibly just the longest ride of your life. Epic!
As many surfers do, I got into riding mats due to an injury. However, as Paul Gross of Fourth Gear Flyers custom surf mats says, I will likely stay a mat surfer due to the pure joy of it. Plus, due to its convenience and lower injury risk factor, this is a form of surfing that I can likely continue into older age.
I am amassing a quiver of mats and happily getting others into it with me. I have extra fins and wetsuits to outfit my friends and am also looking forward to bonding with others who are much more experienced than I am. (I heard there is a 7 to 9 am bodysurfing and mat surfing group that convenes daily just north of the pier at San Diego’s Ocean Beach—planning on checking that out soon!)
There are a handful of surf mat makers out there. Some located in the UK and Australia, and there’s the aforementioned California local Paul Gross who handmakes each mat to order. Every builder has a distinct styling to their mats and it’s just a matter of trying them out to see which one feels best to you.
If any of this piques your interest, I encourage you to check out the list of videos and websites below. And, if it looks like something you’d like to try out, hit me up if you’re in the San Diego area. Would love to paddle out with you and am happy to share my mat collection with friends looking for another way to fall in love with the sea all over again.
This is the video that first stoked me out on surf mats: (245) SURF MAT TURBO TIME II : NEXT LEVEL - YouTube
Cool portraits of mat surfers: https://youtu.be/ocDDmYHLBU0
Fun mat surfing video at Huntington Beach: https://youtu.be/q40r69mDDp8
The ultimate magic carpet ride: https://youtu.be/wxx-ag8d6Lg
Nice POV angles from Imperial Beach surf mat session: https://youtu.be/rVXHbkVlKP4
Someone has a beef with surfmats!
Peter Steynberg sent me the image from Hawaii. He lives in Hilo now, but used to own the Steynberg Gallery in SLO. He is one of my surfmat recruits and you made a mat for him. He is ocean swimming daily and enjoying retirement.