YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Dune Devils

On the Shifting Hills of the Desert, Sandboarders Dare to Shred


"Sandboarding?" repeats the 20-something employee at the tidy Newport Beach surf and ski shop. "You mean skimboarding, don't you?"

He leans forward, waiting for confirmation of his interpretation. After all, skimboarding is performed on wet sand. Maybe this customer is just new to the area.

When the answer is rejected, the bewildered employee straightens up, tugs on his goatee and excitedly replies, "Ohhhh, OK. I know what you're talking about now. I've seen that on the X Games or something like that. It's like some once-in-a-lifetime obscure sport."

You'll get a similar reaction at most shops that sell surfboards, skateboards and snowboards in Orange County.

The wave just hasn't come in yet.

Perhaps it's the quantity and quality of other board sports available that keeps this one--gliding down sand dunes--little known here. The fact is, if someone in the county has the urge to slice down a hill, it's going to be on concrete, not a pile of sand.

But that wasn't the case for dozens of enthusiasts who traveled from as far as Peru last month to compete in the Sand Master Jam at a secluded spot in the Mojave Desert, about 30 miles from Baker, halfway between Barstow and Las Vegas.

Participants included several seasoned snowboarders from the Lake Tahoe area, other more social, less daring enthusiasts from Southern California's high desert and a few weathered pioneers of the sport.

They competed in events such as slalom, big air and drag racing on 700-foot high mounds of sand, performing tricks usually seen on snow-covered terrain.

Josh Tenge, a 20-year-old Tahoe City resident, is one of those who has found the transition from snowboarding rather natural.

A snowboard instructor at Diamond Peak in Incline Village, Nev., Tenge tried sandboarding for the first time at Dumont Dunes a few months earlier. On his second attempt, he became the first to pull off a successful front flip.

"What's cool is it's different," Tenge said. "And you're not like freezing and you don't have eight layers on."

Tenge said the biggest difference between sand and snow is the amount of displacement. Sand doesn't move out of the way as easily as snow, so you can't gain speed as quickly and it's harder to catch an edge and carve turns. A reliable dune buggy or sand rail makes up for the absence of chair lifts.

The windward side of a dune usually produces bowls and cornices that create natural banks and jumps. The smoother leeward side is ideal for slalom or drag racing. At the Sand Master Jam, a ramp and a rail for sliding were placed on the slope for the freestyle and big air competitions.

"I haven't seen too many sports myself start out this way," said Justin Iannalfo, a 24-year-old from Lancaster. "The first time snowboarding came around I wasn't there to witness how much positivity it had."

Iannalfo, who sells motorcycle parts, moved to the high desert from Simi Valley to be near other sandboarding die-hards he had met through Sandboarding magazine, an Internet publication that sponsors the annual Sand Master Jam.

"A lot of people, like the little kids, they really flip out over [the sport]," Iannalfo said.

Jack Smith, 42, is considered a sandboarding pioneer. The San Luis Obispo resident first tried sandboarding in 1973 after moving to Morro Bay and began building boards specifically for sand.

"The guys I rode with in the '70s and '80s were more surf influenced than snowboard influenced because people didn't know how to snowboard back then," Smith said. "We had to make it up as we went along. We had to figure out how to make boards; we had to figure out how to ride them."

In the early 1980s, snowboarding began to take hold and Smith began focusing his attention on that market.

"We were making sandboards and people were using them as snowboards," Smith said. "We had one of the first three snowboards in existence back then. There was Sims, Burton and a little company I had called A.J.'s."

Not long after, Smith turned his attention to skateboarding and then toward raising a family, but because of the Internet, Smith had the opportunity to find out if anybody was still out there.

He typed "sandboarding" into a search engine and came up with the Sandboarding magazine site. He sent an e-mail to the publisher and within an hour was back in touch with the sandboarding community.

Smith is making sandboards again. He works full time for a sports video distributor, then comes home and checks his e-mail for business.

"We're doing anywhere from 15 to 20 boards a month, maybe more in certain months," Smith said. "Every month it's rising and it's great because it's international."

Smith has made shipments to Scotland, Australia, Dubai, Michigan and Wyoming. "I never knew there were dunes in Wyoming until this guy ordered boards from me," he said.

The boards typically sell for $80 to $90, which is affordable compared to high-performance snowboards that go for $300.

Limited to the slalom competition these days, Smith gets a kick out of watching guys like Tenge perform aerial maneuvers previously reserved for the snow.

"This is like history repeating itself," Smith said. "Just to see everything happening that we thought about 20 years ago. These guys are just taking it to a whole new level."

Los Angeles Times Articles