What is longboarding?

Hanging heels at malibu? Pulling in at backdoor? or both. I’ Last November, during a Hawaiian Triple Crown event at Haliewa, Bonga Perkins engineered a decimation of the notorious, shifty walls of A’lii Beach Park. On his way to a championship victory, the stocky Hawaiian put on a jaw-dropping display as he buried powerful, full-rail bottom turns, carved full-speed hook turns under the lip and fearlessly floated over thick, folding sections that resembled concrete slabs.

Perkins rode a longboard. But was he longboarding?

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With the modern longboard era now into its third decade, a contentious debate that’s been percolating for just as long brims over in sandy parking lots from Leucadia to Lennox Head to Laniakea.

At the ideological extremes of this debate sit two distinct camps: traditional and modern. But this division goes way beyond mere contrasting elements of style. The rift that currently divides what many surfers view as a single genre actually exists on a deeper, more conceptual level. Forsome, the discipline involves simply surfing on a longboard,” the modern display which Perkins so effectively presented that day at Haliewa. Others, meanwhile, champion “longboarding,” the traditional version we romantically link with the mid-1960s and First Point Malibu.

 

Surfing is a sport that likes to measure, categorize and departmentalize virtually every aspect. Degrees of swell direction, fractions of tail rocker, minute differences in wave height; thruster versus single, big-wave versus small, tow-in versus paddle-in, sell-out versus soul. So then it’s even more surprising that one of the sport’s most obvious questions has never even been asked: What is longboarding?

But before addressing the question, it is first necessary to clarify what constitutes a longboard. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. The very definition of “longboard” reeks with ambiguity. Is it any board over nine feet? That would make a 9′ 6″ Maverick’s gun a longboard. Any board which measures three feet over your head? If so, then if you’re a 5′ 2″ grom your 8′ 2″ is a longboard.

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Conventional wisdom asserts that a longboard is any board over nine feet with a full nose template. But how this arbitrary dimension was arrived at has never been fully examined. There are no “template police” out there storming from factory to factory, throwing down a Takayama outline on each shaped blank and stamping “approved” or “denied.” It’s not as though surfing anthropologists found the number nine etched in lava somewhere in the caves of Diamond Head. And how anyone decided on what exactly constitutes a full nose template is anybody’s guess.

Surprisingly, we found some of the only hard-and-fast rules ever put down on paper, but in a format no recreational surfer would ever think to look, let alone possess: the 2001 ASP Pro Tour rule book. It declares a longboard to be “a minimum of nine feet in length, with width dimensions of 47 inches aggregate. This is the total of the widest point, plus the width 12 inches up from the tail and 12 inches back from the nose.”

But an aggregate of only 47 inches turns out to be relatively narrow. Running the ASP dimensions past a number of respected manufacturers, including legendary longboard shaper Bill Stewart and Rusty’s Pete Johnson, we got a unanimous response: each said no, it wasn’t a longboard. These dimensions could be applied to a number of different designs, among them the “fun gun” and the Desert Island” model. Therefore for realistic, non-competitive purposes, we can probably dismiss the ASP’s 47-inch rule. But why nine feet?

What really comes into play here is the dramatic change in surfboard length during the shortboard revolution of the late 60s. In 1966, surfboards were virtually all 9′ 6″ or bigger. But by ’68, enlightened shapers were literally sawing an entire foot off of their boards. Then the next day they’d cut off another foot. A revolution it was. Boards dropped from 9′ 6″ to 7′ 6″, in some cases overnight. There was never a slow, incremental adaptation, and this is probably why the nine-foot mark still holds true, it being the very first major cut-off point, so to speak, between longboards and short.

A full, rounded nose, however, is arguably more of a defining attribute than length. Ask a guy who owns a 10′, pointy-nosed Maverick’s gun if his board is a longboard and he’ll laugh in your face. Again we have to fall back on conventional wisdom which tells us that the wide, full nose–and the act of riding on that nose–is a vital characteristic of longboarding. But then what about the “funboard,” the “mini-mal,” or the Steve Lis Fish, for that matter? If the width of a board’s nose is the determining factor then the very term “longboard” becomes irrelevant. Which brings the issue right back around to the application: It’s not what you ride but how you ride it.

This obscurity directly fuels the style debate. Both sides have their point. You cannot longboard ala Joel Tudor, arguably the sport’s smoothest, cleanest and most advanced traditional longboard rider, on a 47-inch aggregate surfboard. And you cannot surf ala Bonga Perkins riding the 30-pound log that Tudor frequently glides upon. It seems clear that you either “go longboarding” or you “surf on your longboard.”

The traditionalists argue that “modern” longboarding isn’t longboard surfing at all. As a litmus test, some purists point to Kelly Slater. They argue that Slater can, on his 6′ 1″ Al Merrick, more effectively do the same hard rail surfing as Perkins, so therefore the carving approach doesn’t qualify as longboarding. However, they argue, Slater cannot, on his equipment, do the type of surfing that Tudor and other traditionalists do, and that’s why what traditionalists do is longboarding.

“If you’re going to surf it like a shortboard,” Tudor states flatly, lust get a shortboard.” Tudor, with not only the best reputation in the sport but an unbeatable competitive longboarding record–including the 1998 World Longboard Championship–certainly has the chops to make this statement. And a valid point it may be, especially if the standard is radical, vertical surfing. But this argument assumes that, in some fashion or another, modern longboarders are simply approximating shortboard maneuvers on longer, more restrictive equipment, rather than searching for some sensation unique to the form itself. By directly comparing riding a longboard in any fashion to contemporary shortboard surfing, the longer equipment can only be seen as a drawback. But a growing number of surfers, for whom longboards have been the norm rather than the exception, riding the longer board is simply their preferred mode of expression.

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“My 9′ 0″ is my shortboard,” explains Scott “Soupman” Campbell, a respected north San Diego County surfer who shapes his own boards, “I’m close to 40, 6′ 1″ and 210 pounds. Most guys who question what I ride don’t have a clue how much faster I’m going, how much more area I’m covering and how much fun I’m having. If I was on a shortboard more often than not, I’d be bogging, It’s not like I’m surfing Gland everyday. I surfed on a shortboard for 15 years–I was on the cover of your magazine in 1986 on a shortboard. I can still surf; I just do it on a nine-footer now.”

The contemporary camp also argues that when done properly, you get the best of both worlds.

“My boards are part Porsche, part pickup,” says San Clemente’s Bill Stewart, a top surfer/shaper and one of the prime architects of the modern shortboard revolution. “Just because you ride a longboard doesn’t automatically mean you want to relive the 60s. The long board revival gained steam because the newer boards allowed surfers to get radical. All of a sudden they’re drifting fins, doing helicopters, carving and hanging ten. You can do it all, not just noseriding. And that’s exciting.”

There are plenty of other surfers, though, who feel that longboarding’s proper headspace lies somewhere in the mid-60s–figuratively, if not literally. This mindset is perhaps best examined under the microscope of the ASP’s World Longboard Tour (WLT), where a slow-brewing debate has erupted into a philosophical division of Hatfield-McCoy proportions. If there is a valid middle ground, as Stewart suggests, you’d think the WLT would be the breeding ground. But according to traditionalists like Joel Tudor, applying shortboard technique to longboarding is self-defeating, and just plain dumb.

“For the most part, [the WLT] is just a bunch of guys doing shitty shortboarding on longboards,” says Joel Tudor, who has won just about every contest going, and from both on the nose and off the tail. “Most of the competitors shortboard off the tail for most of the wave, and then, just to adhere to the criteria, quickly run to the nose for some crappy cheater five. And believe me, they wouldn’t be up there if they didn’t have to, It’s disgusting.”

Characteristically, there’s an opposite opinion, and from within the sub-subculture.

“I think the ASP’s 50/50 criteria [half on the tail, half on the nose] is a good one,” says Bill Stewart, who as a competitor in the 1980s built up a respectable trophy collection of his own. “Judging an event solely on traditional longboarding is boring, and that’s because only Joel can pull it off. The rest of the guys would spend their whole ride just setting up the noseride. Noseriding is their ace-in-the-hole, but four-of-a-kind always beats an ace. If all you do is noseride or waste the wave setting up the noseride, you deserve to lose.”

According to Renato Hickel, former ASP judge and now the World Longboard Tour (WLT) manager, Tudor’s rather vocal complaints have been falling on deaf ears. “The major problem is how we will change something that the majority of the competitors don’t want to change,” says Hickel, not to mention the challenge of establishing a judging criteria for an aspect of the sport that can’t even describe itself.

“It’s gotten so bad that I’m taking a leave of absence. An early retirement,” says Tudor. “Since Nat Young pulled back from the whole thing in ’96, the whole ASP pro longboard circuit started going downhill. I’ve carried the torch for what I believe is right, what I believe is good for longboarding, but this wasn’t the vision I had in mind-people who don’t understand the nuances, subtlety or beauty in good longboarding.”

“Good longboarding” is obviously one of surfing’s most subjective phrases. But it’s not just method that fans the flames of debate, it’s the medium as well.

“If I was told to make a choice,” says San Clemente’s Colin McPhillips, 2001-02 WLT World Champion, “I would rather ride my noserider in small surf than ride my high-performance longboard in conditions that aren’t for longboarding. Riding big waves on a longboard doesn’t make sense to me because it’s not conducive to good longboarding.”

Once again, there’s that qualification hanging out there in space. If we can’t agree on what a longboard is, can we at least agree on what makes up a good longboard wave? Apparently not.

“At a contest in Portugal, I’m standing on the beach watching three-foot lefts peel, and guys are saying it’s too small,” says Tudor. “And I’m like, ‘We’re f-ing longboarders, it can’t be too small!’ The WTL is a sinking ship and I’m getting off.”

To little fanfare. One WTL competitor, who wishes to remain anonymous, was told by an ASP judge, “the Joel Tudor School of surfing is coming to an end.”

Granted, most everyday, recreational surfers–riding longboards or short–don’t give a crap about the ASP’s judging criteria. Nevertheless the division within the WLT ranks is a handy test case, accurately mirroring the divisive perception of longboarding as a whole. Evidently, longboarding’s elite is asking themselves the very same questions as the proletariat proponents of length and width. To some, the answer is clear: Malibu abounds these days with teenage towheads hanging heels in their all-black long johns and faux beavertail jackets. Check Swami’s or Sunset Beach on a big northwest swell and you’ll find a decidedly mixed generation of surfers, none of whom have any problem power-surfing the big boards.

So which is the real thing? Perhaps both, say some of those surfers who’ve experienced it all.

“Just let me do my dance,” says Bill Stewart. “Don’t put me in a box and tell me how and what I have to do. Let the artist paint the picture, be it classic or progressive.”

Or perhaps the very question of what longboarding actually is has become irrelevant, suggests Mickey Munoz, who over the past half-century has hot-dogged his way from redwood to Styrofoam/epoxy, from balsa pigs to ultra-modern, hybrid fish and literally everything between.

“I think with longboarding you need to pull yourself out of the criteria and just ask yourself who’s surfing best,” says Munoz. “Modern surfing of any sort is great so long as the dance stays true–and pleasing. Ideally, all surfing should be measured in increments of smile,”

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