Saturday, 6 November 2010

a lost identity?

I must admit to being almost childishly excited to see my words in print in a paper magazine for the first time. Corduroy Lines issue 12 is the august publication responsible for my excitement. The magazine is still available from their website

I've held off publishing the full text on here for over a month as a courtesy to them but for those unlucky enough or too far overseas to have a copy here it is now. Ironically, since i wrote the piece we have had a single event "world longboard tour" in Makaha take place. Once again sponsored by Oxbow, shockingly they couldn't manage to provide a live video feed like the other major asp events. Once again a clear illustration that longboarding is the poor relation. It's almost a chicken and egg situation. Lack of decent coverage leads to lack of exposure for the surfers and their sponsors, which makes the surfers less valuable to the brands and the brands less likely to invest in longboarding. 

That said, i did make the effort to follow the scores and watch the heats on demand and from a personal point of view came away saddened by what i saw. It's probably well known i'm not a big fan of progressive longboarding and to my eyes many of the waves looked like pedestrian shortboarding. Noseriding, which is surely the thing that defines longboarding as being different from other areas of our sport, was almost an afterthought on many of the waves. Yes i know it's hard in bigger waves but from my viewpoint maybe that questions the relevance of running a longboard contest in such conditions. Several "world class" competitors seemed to struggle to hang five with toes properly over the nose, let alone ten. Worse was the shock realisation that you can make the semi finals of the world title event shuffling to the nose and back rather than cross stepping. It's a world away from the surfing i fell in love with.

Style it seems, at least in contests, is dead!

Right, step away from the soapbox!


Are we longboarders?

Are we surfers?

Does it matter?

Up until the late 60's, all surfers were longboarders. Before Greenough, Mctavish and friends, the average board length sat around ten feet, so surfing was longboarding and vice versa. In the years following the shortboard revoloution, longboards all but disappeared, ridden only by eccentrics and old men. The big name shapers of the era moved on to fresh pastures and board design underwent an intense period of change and experimentation, almost on a weekly basis.

It wasn't until the late eighties when shapers like Bill Stewart started to apply the concepts of high performance shortboards to longboard blanks that riding a longboard became cool again. For a short few years there was something of a "longboard" revolution. Many old shapers picked up the planer again and many youngsters pulled dads old board out of the shed. Nat Young, with backing from Oxbow, established a bona fide multi stop tour to crown an ASP sanctioned world champion. Along with the buzz came money for sponsorship and contests. The future looked bright..

As we sit here, fifteen or so years later, it almost looks as though things have gone backwards. Few longboard professionals actually manage to survive on surfing alone, prize money often barely covers the cost of travel to the contests and the ASP struggles year on year to find a backer to run even a single world title event. In contrast, the shortboard tour is awash with money, with the elite on salaries with many zeroes, some with the clout to cross into the mainstream and transcend their surfing origins to be seen as true athletes on a par with those who top more conventional sports. Despite this longboard sales regularly account for over 50% of board sales worldwide.

Shortboarding, for it's part, is easy to understand, easy to draw comparisons between surfers, in some ways easier to package. Longboarding is more multifaceted with a wider range of approaches and this lack of cohesion in it's identity may be one of the reasons for the differences. Even the participants themselves find it hard to agree. In competition terms there has always been an uneasy compromise in the judging (which is subjective anyway) between traditional and progressive approaches. In Nat Young's tour, the points were supposedly split 50-50 in rewarding the contrasting styles but as time has gone on there has been a shift.
Whatever the rulebook says, most top sufers agree that progressive surfing is presently rewarded more highly, with boards becoming ever lighter and noserides with the back foot in the middle of the board commonplace. At the cutting edge it's about trying to take to the air, something i personally think you have no business attempting on a board bigger than 6'2!
This group, who would most robustly classify themselves as longboarders in the true sense, have their "spiritual" home in the waves of Hawaii, Australia and Brazil and conforming to this model gives the only hope of progressing in the contest scene.

At the other end of the spectrum lies a different group. One that has it's roots in the point breaks of places like Malibu and Noosa and Joel Tudor's rejection of three fins and pink wetsuits in the mid nineties. For them, style is everything, aggression is replaced by smooth flow, noseriding is paramount and longboarding (or logging if you prefer) is an "under head high trip". Perhaps ironically it is the limitations of of this approach and it's heavier equipment in larger, faster waves that has pushed it's proponents to become more well rounded surfers with more open minds, pushing the riding of things like eggs and fish into the mainstream. Most would label themselves just "surfers" as a result, riding the right tool for the conditions at hand, maximising the fun in any given session and liberated from the restrictions of practicing to fit a contest format.

While the path for these "lifestyle" pro's is not necessarily easier, their scene is linked with pop culture with a degree of crossover into art, music and fashion allowing a multi factorial approach to their career as well as their quiver. Surfing is less an athletic endeavor, more a lifestyle to aspire to. While naysayers would dismiss them as "artfers" their influence on both longboarding and surf culture as a whole cannot be ignored.

Sitting in the middle is a group, probably the majority, for whom the distinctions are somewhat academic, irrelevant musings in magazines such as this one. They are the dads, the weekend warriors, those who would love to be fit enough/ young enough/ talented enough or time rich enough to ride a high performance shortboard. People who's surfing references are still Kelly, Bruce an Mick, who think little about the surfing they actually partake in and more about the "dream tour" that the mainstream surf media cover. For them, riding a longboard is less of a considered stylistic choice and more a way to maximise wavecount and enjoyment.

Sadly their existence is a big reason for the state of professional longboarding. Their lack of interest in longboard specific media or surf media in general and their willingness to be influenced by the shortboard world means there is no need for quiksilver and co. to target their demographic with their advertising money. The big brands figure they will buy the stuff anyway and concentrate on influencing their children in the more fickle teenage market. As a result, the big brands see no need to waste their money on sponsoring longboarders or longboard competition and longboarding stays the poor relation.

The situation has been like this for the last few years and, especially in the current climate, is unlikely to change. Whether that actually matters to you as much as it does to those attempting to make surfing their career is unclear. Despite being partially ignored by the mainstream surf industry, our niche of surfing is alive and kicking, relevant to multitudes worldwide. longboarding may have not quite decided what it wants to be when it grows up, perhaps it may never decide but holding on to the joy we felt in pure play as children is part of what draws us in. When you reach the bottom line, it's all surfing and we are all surfers.

Discuss! :-)


Anonymous said...

The one issue you didn't cover here is that a progressive 'longboard' is actually only a 'longboard' because it's 9'0" (or over).
It's the argument about the right equipment for any given swell.
Progressive longboards have there place,..only call them what they are,...'Midlengths'. Once this shift happens the competitions will hopefully catch up and the riders can take 12 inches off (or even more), ride them in hollower waves than one would want to take a log into and score points with even more progressive maneouvers. Less swing weight.

Seems to me the riders need to take control of the competition rules.

Here's my hypothesis: First you have the tour style events. Thruster driven. Zoom.

Then,...An 'everything else' catagory,..or an 'open' type competition that has enough flexibility to allow the riders and judges to decide the length parameters at the beach on any given swell.

Riders,..bring your quiver and be prepared to be judged over a season riding different categories of board. Surely this would reward the best a 'surfer' over the year?

This 'open' approach would probably come down to Surfboards in three categories::
A. For chest high conditions and over.
A. 6'6" to 7'6"
B. 7'6" to 9'0". Fin set up; Optional?
C. 9' and over. Fin set up; Single fin.

(You could even expand this set up to include shorter boards although this might be a tad controversial???)

Nose orientated maneuvers could still count in the midlength categories,..we all throw a few cheater fives from time to time, but for the days when there's a small swell we could see the doors open again to the Style and grace of 'the dance' on the type of equipment that gave birth to it.

After all, isn't this is why we have quivers and love riding different boards.

It makes sense.

CP said...

Interesting points!

playing devil's advocate though, if you're going below 9 feet and judging on turns in heavier waves, surely you could argue that the regular shortboard scene displays the most radical turn based surfing in the heaviest waves. That would make the midlength genre akin to monster racing trucks....slightly pointless!

Anonymous said...

The basic premise that you you should be able to walk to the nose, and walk back from the nose ought at least to count for a 'point' in a longboard contest.
Putting your arms in the air, with one foot in front of the other somewhere near the nose, shouldn't count as a 'hang five' or a move of any sort.
I agree with Chris, if you want to see radical surfing - tune into the WCT and see how it's done properly with style & grace.
'Longboarding' is just one form of surfing & it doesn't need to ape what people on other types of equipment are doing. Period.

kaka said...

It's not just the nose, it's pretty much the entire front half that's narrower.
Gutted for you, Deal or No DealKirk Sanford

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