It allows a surfer to look far ahead, to anticipate those moments of speed and step forward on the board, then the moments in between and to carve back into the pocket.
Ryan Burch was standing, languidly, anticipating a stretched-out section somewhere around the halfway point of the wave. He approached the nose fluidly, six steps to a close hang 5 at which point the wave steepened, the power in the pocket intensifying. Ryan spun swiftly round, at the same time sliding his back foot to meet his front, heels hanging over the nose. He perched for an elongated second, time writhing under the weight of the moment, before raising his hands in the air and arching his back, time seemed to give up, the beach erupted.
I also remember thinking that while it felt amazing to have done it, I didn’t need to do it.
I’d never seen a noseride as impressive as the one Burch performed at the Mexilogfest in 2017, and I’ve not seen one since. It is still fiercely imprinted in my mind as the pinnacle of technical longboarding, the flag planted at the top of the mountain of difficulty. But despite its obvious spectacle, its implausibility, the hang heels itself is still disputed as a manoeuvre of merit. In some camps it is labelled not a manoeuvre but a trick, a thing to be cheered but not to be taken too seriously, like a through-the-legs return in tennis. And up to a point, I get it.
Though the hang heels have existed as long as noseriding has existed (think David Nuuhiwa, Gary Propper, Drew Harrison etc), I too once regarded it as a trick. I grew up under the outstretched wing of James Parry, often watching in awe as he would not only hang heels but dangle a foot as well, and for years couldn’t master the sensation of noseriding backwards. I remember the day it clicked, the pastel blue sea and warbled, high tide sections, I remember running back from the nose and elatedly swinging the board back into trim.
I also remember thinking that while it felt amazing to have done it, I didn’t need to do it. That it was somehow an added extra to the proper surfing of the wave (as if there is a proper way to surf a wave at all). Feeling very pleased with myself for ticking it off the list, it would be years before my opinion of the heels shifted.
Talking of ‘proper ways of doing things’ is dodgy territory, impossible even, in an art as fluid and individual as surfing. But If I had to, and for the sake of this piece, I would define it as listening to a wave, reacting to its quirks and shifts in pace, its uniqueness, and navigating your board in response to the way in which you are spoken to. This is where my own relationship with hanging heels changed. As I became more confident with the manoeuvre, I began to feel it called for on a wave, feel a hang 10 or hang 5 drifting too high in the pocket and understand the swinging momentum of a hang heels as the correct response.
While the trick vs manoeuvre conversation will no doubt continue (who doesn’t love a healthy dose of meaningless debate), all I know is that hanging heels for a moment longer than a second, just long enough for time to hint at standing still, feels about as good as anything in surfing, and surely that’s all that really matters.
Respect of course to the modern-day masters, CJ Nelson, Joel, Jai Lee, Andy Neiblas, Erin ‘Worm’ Ashley, Lola Mignot, James Parry, Dane Peterson, et al.