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ORANGE COUNTY ON THE GO

The LONG & SHORT of it

Longboards Making Comeback; Aging Surfing Population Finds Them Easier to Ride

July 15, 1999|ERIK HAMILTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

While growing up in Kansas City, Mo., in the '60s, the closest Walt Skyler came to surfing was watching beach party movies on television.

For Skyler, 43, it wasn't the bikini-clad dancers that kept him glued to the tube. Instead, it was the big-wave footage those films would squeeze in between shots of Frankie and Annette.

"The movies were terrible," Skyler said. "But when those surfers would ride their boards at Waimea Bay, it was worth every agonizing minute. I remember telling my mom and dad that I wanted a surfboard for my birthday.

"My dad would say, 'Son, we don't have waves in K.C.' "

It wasn't until 1995, when Skyler moved to Montebello, that he purchased his first board--a 12-footer--at a garage sale. "The board felt like it weighed 100 pounds," he said. "There were dings everywhere imaginable."

Now, he's a twice-a-week regular at Seal Beach or Blackies in Newport Beach. He has long since ditched his first board. And while his new board is 10 feet 5 inches long and looks similar to the ones he saw in those old movies, it's narrower and much lighter.

Perfect for someone just learning to surf.

Besides, Skyler said, he's "too old and too fat" to ride a shortboard.

"It was the accessibility of the longboard," Skyler explained as the reason for his choice. "I was able to catch a wave, and by the end of my first day out, I was able to stand up on the board.

"If it was a shortboard, I would have given up my first time."

*

Longboards grew out of fashion in the late '60s, when surfers began to feel the need for speed.

According to surf journalist Guy Motil of San Clemente, shortboarding began in Santa Barbara in 1966, when Australians Nat Young and Bob McTavish watched local George Greenough race across the face of a wave on his kneeboard.

"It had to do with speed, something the longboard wasn't providing them," Motil said. "So they basically lopped off a couple of feet from their boards and did some design changes in collaboration with Greenough."

Since then, the shortboard has remained the board of choice, but the longboard has made a remarkable comeback among baby boomers and their children over the last five years.

"Surfing lost a whole generation of participants in the '70s and '80s as the sport embraced the shortboard revolution," said Randy Rarick executive director of Vans Triple Crown of Surfing. "There was a lack of longboards being produced. That's changed dramatically in the '90s, since some 50% of the board blanks being produced are longboards."

At Rusty Surfboards in Carlsbad, where shortboards are primarily produced, General Manager Peter Johnson said he disagrees with the Rarick's numbers, but agrees longboard use is on the rise.

"I think 50% is an optimistic outlook," Johnson said. "But whatever the figure is, it's still a big chunk. I know from our end, longboard manufacturing was about 10%-15% of our business 10 years ago. Today, it's about 35%-40%."

Johnson said many of those surfers who were part of the shortboard revolution during the late '60s through early '80s now have 9-to-5 jobs or have settled down with families. As a result, they have less time for surfing, so when they do get into the water, their board of choice tends to be a longboard.

"Everybody gets old," said Bill Steward, 47, founder of Stewart Surf Boards in San Clemente. "Someday, Kelly Slater will be paddling a nine-foot board. Everybody can ride a longboard, you don't have to be young and aggressive. Which is why a lot of baby-boomers are coming back to the sport. You don't have to be in top condition to ride one."

Stewart, whose company is one of the world's largest manufacturers and dealers of longboards, said new longboard designs have also contributed to their resurgence.

"You can have your cake and eat it too with the boards being made today," said Stewart, who rides a nine-foot Hydrohull. "These high-performance boards are light and can go fast. And since they're narrower, you can do tricks on them, from aerials to 360s. They're fun to ride."

*

Alan Seymour has been surfing for 45 years and has witnessed all the fads.

Seymour, from San Clemente, sponsors the annual San Onofre Longboard Classic surf contest.

"The longboard is here forever. It's never really gone away," said Seymour, who also auctions vintage surfboards. "It's the mountain bike of surfing in that it got the masses back into surfing. It's not skinny tires and narrow bike seats, but big thick tires and comfortable seats."

While Seymour acknowledges the longboard's popularity has been largely due to first-time surfers and renewed interest of former surfers, such as Skyler, he said the longboard's biggest fans are adolescent girls.

"It's the '90s. You have just as many girls playing sports as boys," Seymour said. "The girls are tired of going to the beach with their friends or boyfriends and sitting on the beach watching the guys surf. They want to surf. And they are."

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