I remember my dad telling me that surfing was nothing like it had been in the ’40s when he began. He said that it had become so wimpy and easy that anybody, even girls, could do it. (His words, not mine.) He liked to remind me that in his day surfboards were made of redwood and weighed as much as 100 pounds.
Dad’s little talk made me feel wimpy all right. I mean, I had a sissified 30-pound double-glassed foam surfboard that most fully grown people could carry without any help.
But we were kind of tough, at least by today’s standards. We surfed through the winter without wetsuits, or sometimes used those zip front neoprene jackets with beaver tails that functioned kind of like speed indicators when they flapped in the breeze.
By the late ’60s surfboards went shorter and lighter, cutting a couple of feet in length and as much as two-thirds of their weight. Being shorter in length made them more difficult to paddle, so while surfing had become easier in one sense it was also more difficult in another. Wetsuits were also improving and by the early ’70s full suits opened up entire regions of coastline previously considered too cold to ride.
Depending on your point of view, the surf leash either made surfing better or worse. Better because you didn’t have to swim for your board when you lost it, and dings were no longer a major factor. Worse, because kooks, who had previously been cleared from the lineup before they could retrieve their lost boards, did not have to pay for their mistakes.
I once heard that legendary surf artist Rick Griffin would take scissors into the lineup and cut people’s cords without them knowing it. That may or may not have happened, but leases were definitely derided by many and called “zing strings,” “kook connectors,” or “goon cords” by many purists. “Leashes are for dogs,” was a popular saying at the time. Many despised them until they were embraced by the top surfers of the day. Even then, some never did use them, especially on longboards, where the aesthetic of the art is lost by the urethane umbilical cord.
Making surfing still easier are soft surfboards, which can be purchased for as little as a hundred bucks at discount stores. Prior to soft boards, anyone learning to surf had to consider that the fiberglass missile they were riding could be fired at them and leave a sizable gash in the skull. I have three such war wounds, all incurred during my first two years of surfing.
Other attempts to make surfing easier include paddles for stand-up boards, paddle gloves and motors, which thankfully have never caught on.
Still, if I am being honest with myself, I will admit that I can use all the help I can get with my surfing. It does not become easier with age, but I continue to do my best to ride with as little wetsuit as possible, without a leash, on a custom fiberglass surfboard. Okay, I do cheat once in a while. Anybody who saw me leashed up to that department store soft board in a full wetsuit realizes my hypocrisy. And Dad thought I was wimpy 60 years ago.