In many indigenous cultures as well as modern world religions, time is viewed not as a linear phenomena but as cyclical, with events and evolutions repeating themselves as the wheel of time slowly turns. Evidence for this is hard to come by as revolutions of the wheel are said to occur at a rate of aeons. But perhaps the evolution of longboarding can be looked to as evidence of the non-linear nature of time?
This was the topic which was being broached on a misty morning of September this year at the third and final event of the British Longboard Union tour. Elliot Dudley, Sam Bleakley and myself looked out at the North Fistral lineup (almost entirely populated by single fin longboards) and discussed, as all longboarders will eventually discuss over the course of a contest weekend, the future of longboarding. Any discussion of the future of longboarding requires participants to look both forwards and backwards simultaneously, to accept the inherent circularity of our nostalgia soaked sport.
While our conversation was cut short by the familiar clipped bark of long-time contest director Robert ‘Minnow’ Green as he announced upcoming heats (heats which would eventually lead to both Elliot and Sam picking up British titles that day), I was left intrigued by the subject and so reached out to Elliot for more of his thoughts.
Before we dive into Elliot’s thoughts on the current trajectory of surfing it seems wise to present a brief and potted history of longboarding (and thus surfing itself), starting not from the ancient beginnings of the sport of kings, but rather from what is now referred to as the ‘shortboard revolution’, a point in time which arguably marks the beginning of our current spiral away from linearity.
The 1966 World Championships, held in San Diego, California, was billed as a showdown between two favourites who represented the two main surfing approaches of the time. The noseriding prowess of David Nuuhiwa (up to that point noseriding was seen as the zenith of the sport), versus the hard turning or ‘involvement’ approach of Nat Young and his new, more refined, Australian 9’4 dubbed ‘Magic Sam’. Nat’s dominant victory signalled the start of a seismic shift in surfing, it heralded the beginning of the shortboard era, while simultaneously bringing longboarding into being and relegating it to a decade-long purgatory. When longboarding eventually reemerged in the 1980’s, it did so pumped full of shortboarding energy and showmanship. It wasn’t until the late 1990’s, accompanied by the films of Thomas Campbell, that longboarding began to rediscover its pre-1966 roots. Single fin longboarding first existed as a sub-culture (while performance longboarding held onto centre stage in the competitive arena), then grew in popularity to where it is today where it is once again the dominant form of longboard surfing. But where does it go from here? Does it have to progress anywhere at all? Elliot Dudley had this to say.
‘I think we can see today that there is a limit to how far longboarding can go. When you look at Nat in ’66, I honestly don’t think longboarding has moved on that far from what he was doing then. The only thing that has happened is the ability to turn and noseride on the same board, in a way fusing what Nat and David were doing at that point in time. This is down to innovation in traditional longboards and shapers that have taken the various features of period boards and refined them over a much longer period. The post D-fin longboard era where surfers refined turns and noserides literally lasted a handful of years. We’re now 30+ years into the longboard revival so even traditional logs have become highly refined. The only reason performance longboarding ever came about was thanks to the knowledge obtained from shortboarding, not only in terms of manoeuvres but also board design. That aside I think the shortboard era was inevitable. As much as noseriding is the centre of much of logging presently, it was the turns that really got guys amped, even in the 60s, so shorter more manoeuvrable boards were always going to be the end result.’
Elliot’s view of present-day longboarding imagines it existing somewhere towards the pinnacle of what is possible, at the end of its arc. Without the size restraints which define longboarding, both in a competitive and a linguistic sense, the only direction for the sport to progress in would be towards shortboarding. Within the constraints of the 9ft rule, is a redirection towards hi-performance longboarding inevitable for those wanting to progress the sport? Elliot doesn’t exactly think so.
‘I think that the modern incarnation of longboarding really just needs to accept what it is, to own its identity. I always thought that performance longboarding took away the identity of longboarding by doing shortboard manoeuvres, just not as well. Longboarding needs to accept the nostalgia that is at its heart, we ARE trying to copy Nat Young, Ocean Beach 1966. We’re not training on trampolines trying to work on rotation. We’re not trying to make lightweight boards out of space age materials. We WANT heavy boards, volan, isothalic resin, Greenough 4a fins designed in the mid 60s. We need to accept this. The ONLY issue with longboarding, and the thing that drives the ‘progression’, is competition. Once you add the somewhat subjective competitive element and the rewards that come with it, the need for improvements, however marginal, come in. I can see it happening again now, logs getting lightweight, the sole focus on limited aspects of longboarding, formulaic surfing. Whereas HP longboarding was focused on turns with a token noseride thrown in, we are now in a situation where the focus is on hanging 10 with a token turn thrown in. The problem being that good longboarding is way too subtle to be scored by a judge, the small tweaks, the trim, the hand movements. Competition needs certainty but this breeds robotic surfing and I feel like we are destined to end up with a new version of performance logging.’
So the discussion boils down, as many discussions in surfing do, to longboarding’s relationship with competition. As it was a contest in 1966 which shaped the surfing landscape, so contests now seem to be at the crux of how longboarding and longboarders define what it is they do. On a personal level I feel content with the position that longboarding occupies in my own surfing practice. Joel Tudor once said longboarding is a ‘below head-high trip’, and I have to agree. But surfing is greater than the sum of its parts, we don’t know for sure what progression in longboarding looks like, or whether it is even necessary, but perhaps, as wheel of time slowly turns, it won’t be entirely unfamiliar…
Thanks to Elliot for his insight on the matter, I know there are other opinions out there and look forward to hearing them and continuing the discussion. For the sake of this article I’ll leave the final word with Elliot. ‘We’ve got guys on lightweight single fins doing slow hang tens and laybacks. It’s about as far from Phil, Miki, David and Nat as you can get and for me that’s just wrong.’