The Coast News Group
A 5’6’’ Rusty kneeboard, an early Christmas gift from a close friend, Mark Lauman. Photo by Chris Ahrens

The gift of kneeboarding

No surfers ever paid much attention to kneeboarding until Santa Barbara-born George Greenough slid into a long, hollow wave in Bruce Brown’s epic film, “The Endless Summer.”

But even George’s full-speed-ahead charge onto the big screen did little to dissuade anyone to abandon those stiff, 10-foot boards we rode in an upright position. Hynson, August, Strauch and Carson all saw to that, riding tall and elegant into the warmth of Bruce’s endless waves.

It would require a disturbance in the force known as the “Shortboard Revolution” to bring the kneeboard to prominence.

It was 1967 when Greenough once again made waves by leading the way into shorter surfboards. By then George was living in Australia, where the country’s top surfers at that time — Nat Young, Wayne Lynch and Bob McTavish  were being influenced by him in riding those beautiful Queensland point waves.

What the succeeding revolution brought in maneuverability and the ability to stuff yourself more easily into the tube, it lost by discarding longer boards. Longboards had reached a peak before they were mutilated, stripped of their glass and reshaped into shortboards.

I followed along with the herd until the mid-’70s, when I again jumped onto a nine-six, eventually abandoning a board of that length again for one that would fit in the passenger seat of my car.

The first time I tried riding a kneeboard was in Maui, when my friend Chris loaned me the Greenough-style spoon he had built in his garage. With no float or fins to propel me into a wave, I quickly abandoned the quest in favor of my 6’10” pintail that was destined for the insatiable jaws of Honolua Bay.

Even watching kneeboarders Akio (don’t know his last name) and Buzz Blodgett get barreled at low-tide Swami’s did nothing to  convince me to try kneeboarding again.

That all changed when Artic Foam/Rubber Soul owner Marty Gilchrest made me a 5’8” single fin that brought me to my knees. (I did manage to stand on it once, although my effort was far from pretty.) Instead, I enjoyed endless hours of pure joy, kneeboarding on waves too steep for this old man to stand up on.

A month ago, my friend Mark Lauman gifted me a Steve Lis-style (Lis is the inventor of the Fish) kneeboard.  The board, built under the “Rusty” label, has many evident high notes built into it. Aside from the Fish tail, it is light, narrow, concaved and features four fins.

On Thanksgiving morning, I patched a few holes, refinished the tips on the tail and prepared myself for the next time the waves showed themselves steep and hollow in my neighborhood.

That board will certainly offer me more joy than any gift I am likely to get this holiday season. So, how do I thank Mark and Marty for what they have done for me? Maybe by fulfilling the one condition Mark insisted upon before handing it over.

“You have to ride it,” he said, before passing it into my anxious hands. I’ll tell you how it goes.

Check out Chris Ahrens’ latest passion project, GodnGangsters: