American ex-pat George Greenough is not the inventor of the surf mat but is certainly its patron saint.
I’m not sure who first stitched together some strips of waterproof canvas, coated the ends with rubber and inflated the contraption to the consistency of diamond, but I first became aware of that surf craft in the 1950s as a kid who couldn’t afford a surfboard.
In those days you could find surf mats for rent at the local liquor store for a quarter. It seemed like a bargain until you spent twice that amount on lotion to soothe the rash they left.
By the mid ’80s, surf mats were rarely seen in the lineup except when surf photographers used them to snap water shots of their favorite subjects.
By then only a few people were riding surf mats, the most notable among them being the aforementioned Greenough, the man largely responsible for the “shortboard revolution” of the late ’60s. Greenough, who ranks highly among surfing’s smartest participants, employed counterintuitive design concepts by letting much of the air from his mat until it barely floated.
One of Greenough’s main disciples, Paul Gross, began building surf mats called 4th Gear Flyers around 35 years ago.
Made with a nylon canvas deck and a soft nylon twill bottom, the mats when rolled up take up no more room than a beach towel while offering many times the fun.
It’s been about 15 years since I watched local surfer Ken McKnight ride a mat in the Encinitas area. When he let me try it, I found the exercise a lot more complicated than it appeared. I politely thanked him and returned to my good old foam and fiberglass Fish.
It wasn’t until years later that I noticed Henry Hester riding a surf mat. Henry, one of La Jolla’s hottest imports, was touting the merits of the mat and suggested I give it another try.
I tried it again and, again, I failed, this time writing off mat riders as some weird cultists under the influence of the Greenough genius.
I bought my first mat at a trade show and proceeded to learn to ride it without much success. Then I bought a used 4th Gear Flyer from Hester and began the process of learning to ride it in earnest.
Most everything I ever learned as a surfer had to be unlearned.
I quickly learned that you don’t adjust the nose of a mat’s rocker or push it into a turn. Instead, you basically let the thing surf itself.
Still, I kept trying to jam turns, and bend the tip up or down, with little to show for it but frustration.
I decided to give it one more try at Oceanside Harbor. An outside wave rolled past the surfers outside, jacked up on an inside sandbar and located me in its crosshairs.
One kick and I was in, pressing the outside rail perfectly, squirting into a turn before lying flat while feeling the lines in the wave come up through the nylon. Once the wave released me, I was hooked, and I knew what everyone was talking about.
I was on it until my mat got a hole in it that nobody knew how to fix, and I returned to other forms of riding waves.
Yesterday, I purchased a few strips of Flex Tape and applied them to the mat that has been waiting like a coiled spring for release into spring surf. I hear the harbor calling.