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Stoking the masses

Once upon a time, folks rode waves on surfboards or air mattresses. Then Tom Morey put an iron to a hunk of foam. Charles Duhigg tracks Boogie boarding's triumph and surfers' grudge against the 'sponge.'

August 03, 2004|Charles Duhigg

The throng of tanned spectators at the U.S. Open throbs with standard surfer chic. Except these two guys. Their dyed black hair contrasts with their pasty skin -- a sheen they strive to protect with the highest SPF sunscreen. One wears oversized sunglasses from the 1980s that say "Wild Thing" across the lenses. The other has a stud in his lip and big metal bolts in his ears. Often when they're out in public they wear girls' pants because they are tight and weird, they say. But here at Huntington Beach, it takes only short-shorts to draw mortified stares from this crowd.

What really sets them apart in this sea of haute beach bitchenness, though, is their preferred wave-riding vehicles. The boards that lay beside them in the sand are not thrusters, fish or even nose-riders. They're ... bodyboards.

"Surfing is for regular people," says Mike Rasmeussen, 19. "We're spongers."

Cool vs. un

In the annals of cool, there is a small entry:

"Boogie board (a.k.a. 'sponge,' 'bodyboard') noun: inferior step-brother of the surfboard; popular among awkward children and the infirm; worldwide sales of approximately 3 million per year, dwarfing surfboards (250,000), skim boards (20,000) surf kayaks (fewer than 10,000) and all other wave-riding devices. One of the most popular water sports on earth. Seriously uncool."

But as seashores from New Jersey to New Zealand attest, the sponge has won. Bodyboarders outnumber surfers almost 6 to 1, according to a study compiled by a bodyboard manufacturer. At least 100 California beaches prohibit regular surfboards along certain stretches during certain hours in summer to protect floundering tourists and other swimmers. But their soft little cousin the bodyboard generally gets a free ride, and Target, Costco and even credible surf shops have capitulated to their popularity, offering various boards, fins and leashes.

When surfer and surf product pioneer Tom Morey created the first bodyboard in 1971, he just wanted something new to ride. In those days, surfers rode standing up or, for a small and eccentric group, kneeling on boards sculpted from blocks of white, high-density foam covered with fiberglass and resin. Then, as now, shapers cranked out an endless evolution of designs, but anyone with bad balance who was unwilling to risk a head ding was out of luck. The best alternative was to ride the waves on the overfilled canvas air mattresses rented at beaches.

Morey dreamed of changing all that. He had spent all his money on foam surfboard blanks in a failed attempt to build the perfect big-wave gun, but the board didn't work out, and surfing, he felt, was becoming too exclusive, too cooler-than-thou. So in frustration he cut a 4-foot block of the remaining material, softened the edges with an iron wrapped in newspaper, and hit the swells in front of his home on the Big Island of Hawaii.

The waves were decent, but because he had just invented the bodyboard, he was understandably inexperienced. It didn't matter. He paddled surfer-style (use of swim fins came later) into a cresting swell, shot into the wave's barrel and coasted out. A few days later he tried again. This time the waves were small but the board still worked. The fundamental law of the bodyboard was revealed: Anyone can learn how to ride in seconds, and it promises a good time as long as you're wet.

Morey put an ad for his "Boogie board" in a surfing magazine. Four years later, he was filling 80,000 orders annually. It started as a product aimed at surfers' kids but soon, Morey and a growing number of competitors realized that surfers were buying the things for themselves. Makers began experimenting with material and shapes. Today's mid-level boards sell for about $40 and are made from extruded polystyrene, a high-density Styrofoam, with slick bottoms and veneers of treated foam attached by hand. For $250, top-end spongers get boards of durable propylene with a graphite core that holds the board's hand-shaped curve even after it's slammed by waves and car doors.

An industry is born

Demand for Morey's boards eventually outpaced his ability to fill orders, and competitors began imitating his designs. So when a San Francisco company offered to buy his name and invention, he jumped at the chance. He won't specify how much he was paid, except to say he spent it long ago. The San Franciscans, in turn, sold out to Wham-O, a company responsible for the Frisbee, Hula Hoop and SuperBall.

By the late 1980s, Boogie boarding (a name now owned by Wham-O) was becoming almost cool.

"Bodyboarders were the first to get air by launching off waves," says Pat Dugan, an executive at Morey Bodyboards. "When surfers started seeing bodyboarders getting air, that's when sales went psycho."

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