Like most experienced cyclists, Dan Matthies makes riding his "ocean bicycle" look easy. But as inexperienced riders soon learn, it isn't as easy as it looks.
Matthies' "bike" is a surf ski--the latest thing in ocean sports, lifeguards say.
"It's becoming more and more popular up and down the coast," said Lt. Bud Bohn of the Los Angeles County lifeguards. Most surf skiers are lifeguards or outrigger canoeists, he said. Lifeguards estimate that about 200 people in the South Bay know how to surf-ski.
It is easier than surfing, the lifeguards say, and gives the skier a good upper-body workout.
Most surf skiers are men, but women tend to handle the skis better on their first try, the guards say.
A surf ski is designed for only one rider who sits in a groove on the concave board and propels it with a kayak-type, double-bladed paddle.
"It's really fun when the wind is simply howling. . . . You get downwind and you go from swell to swell," said Matthies, a seasonal Los Angeles County lifeguard and surf ski importer and manufacturer. Matthies, who lives in Hermosa Beach and is also firefighter and paramedic in Santa Monica, said he is one of about 10 such dealers in Southern California. Since the demand for surf skis is small, most people buy direct from the manufacturer, he said.
There are two types of skis--wave-riding and racing.
The wave-riding skis, like surfboards, are generally custom-made and vary in size, but average about eight feet long and two feet wide. They are made of plastic, fiberglass, or foam and fiberglass and cost from $450 to $800. Most have seat belts and foot wells or straps.
The wave-riding ski is hard to stay on, Matthies said, and a seat belt enables the skier
to roll upright if the ski overturns. The wave-rider can take on the same waves as surfers and can do similar tricks and maneuvers.
The racing ski is a concave, usually hollow, fiberglass board about 19 feet long and 1 1/2 feet wide. It weighs about 35 pounds and costs upwards of $800. The ski is about a foot thick at the bow and half that at the stern. Steering on these skis is aided by two pedals, similar in appearance to automobile accelerator pedals--that control a rudder.
The racing ski can be used for paddling around, but does not fare well on waves breaking on shore. "It's like an ocean bicycle," Matthies said.
As in cycling, balancing is the most important skill in surf-skiing. If need be, beginners can use their legs as "training wheels" for the ski. When straddling the ski, Matthies said, it is "impossible to tip over--well, not impossible, but pretty difficult." When doing so, however, the skier cannot control the rudder and must rely solely on the paddle for steering.
Learn in Harbor
The best place to learn the sport is on flat water, such as in a harbor, said Michael Newman, a county lifeguard and surf ski manufacturer.
But the rougher the water, Matthies said, the better a surf ski works.
He can speak from experience. In 1983 he placed 15th among more than 100 contestants in a 150-mile race around the southern tip of Africa. His paddle broke on the first day, forcing him to race 42 miles with only half a paddle. The race also took him through hurricane-force winds and 20-foot swells.
"That's what's kind of neat about surf-skiing," he said. "It's not man against man or man against machine, it's more of a challenge, like man against the elements."
Australian lifeguards introduced the skis to their Southern California counterparts about 1965. The skis were first used in Australia in the early 1900s for rescues because of their quickness, Matthies said.
Bohn said lifeguards are in "the kind of a profession--a lifesaving profession--where you want to know as many techniques as you can. You may not use them all, but they're nice to know." About 50 Los Angeles County lifeguards know how to use surf skis, Bohn said.
Newman said the number of sport surf skiers in the South Bay has doubled each of the past few years. He said he sells skis mostly to people who have never tried the sport, and usually takes them out on the water for a demonstration. Although most do not fare too well, they buy a ski anyway, he said.
Surf skiing is easier than surfing, the lifeguards agree. Greater athletic ability and natural balance are needed in surfing, Newman said. Someone who is out of shape can effectively control a surf ski, he said, "but you get a guy that's 50 pounds overweight on a surfboard and it's pretty tragic."
South Bay lifeguards do not expect surf-skiing to become as popular as surfing in the United States. At about $280 for the average surf board, surfing is a lot less expensive.
Surfing also has quite a hold on the locals and has the attraction of a pro circuit, and the boards are more portable, Matthies said. Surf-skiing just offers "another avenue for the ocean athlete," he said.
Matthies expects that if the sport's popularity continues to increase, boating companies will soon take over the market and be able to reduce manufacturing costs.
Recently, Matthies and Lew Riffle, a part-time lifeguard in Santa Barbara, developed a "wee ski" for children and adults under 5 feet, 8 inches and 160 pounds. "This was part of the population that's been kind of ignored," Matthies said.
The smaller racing skis, about 13 feet, 8 inches long and about 20 inches wide, cost $750. The spacing of the seat and foot wells is altered to make them easier for small-framed people to maneuver, Matthies said.
"You can't make a living just selling surf skis," said Matthies. " . . . It would be nice to make money doing something you really like, but whether that day will come or not, we'll see."