The Californians Spy Rabbit Kekai
In 1947, just as many Americans trickled back from their wartime postings in the Pacific, a small group of Californian surfers boarded a boat heading in the other direction. Their destination was surfing’s promised land, Oahu’s South Shore.
Among them was Joe Quigg, a 22-year-old fresh out the navy, who’d grown up part of the nascent Santa Monica surf scene in the inter-war years, riding home-made boards beneath the pier. Arriving in Waikiki, the group gathered to watch local standout Rabbit Kekai expertly navigate Queens on a finless 7-foot board, created by sawing an old-style redwood in half. It’s hard to overstate just how enamoured they were with his approach.
In a series of sketches and notes from the trip, Quigg rhapsodised about deliberate barrel rides and futuristic hang fives. While footage from the era and the inherent limits of Kekai’s equipment suggest these accounts may be a little exaggerated, there’s no doubt about the impact the experience had on the Californians. Quite simply, Quigg says watching Rabbit “taught him how to ride,” adding that the chance encounter formed “the start of a new transition, never to return to the old ways.”
When the crew got back to their native lineups they did their best to imitate what they’d seen, beginning the evolutionary arc that gave birth to longboarding as we know it.
The Birth of the Malibu
With dreams of new-fangled manoeuvres came the need for boards that would better facilitate them. However, the era’s biggest design breakthrough came not from this pursuit, but rather a teenage girl’s desire to get in on the action.
In the summer of ‘48, Quigg was asked by his best buddy Tommy Zahn to make a board for his 17-year-old girlfriend, Darrylin Zanuck. The brief stated it must be easy to ride, light enough for her to carry and short enough to fit in the back of her convertible. Quigg obliged, and began touring around lumber yards to find the lightest wood available. He settled on a 10’2, balsa-redwood mix, sealed with fibreglass and resin.
When the crew saw it, they all wanted a go. Soon, they were passing it around on small days with the same performative nonchalance with which a ‘serious’ surfer of today might grab a minimal or foamie “for a play”. However, all were secretly impressed by how amazingly loose it was. In fact, Tommy liked it so much that when he and Darrylin broke up the following year he tried to keep it for himself, forcing her to break into his garage to reclaim it.
Nowadays, the ‘Darrylin board’ is widely credited as the precursor to the raft of high-performance designs that followed.
Phil Edwards and the Drop Knee Cutty
Phil Edwards and his signature drop knee cutty. Photo: Bruce Brown. (2) Immortalised in bronze by Bill Limebrook in Dana Point. Photo: Danapoint.org (3) And rapidly adopted by Aussie Midget Farrelly. Photo: Australian National Surfing Museum.
First, there was stillness in trim. Then there was hotdogging; defined by aggressive stomps and rapid runs to the nose. But, it wasn’t until the late 50s that surfers began to blend moments of poise with radical manoeuvres, creating the blueprint for ‘good style’ that’s held true ever since (think Gerry Lopez, Tom Curren, Steph Gilmore et al.)
Among the first to add proper power surfing into the mix was Californian Phil Edwards. A media darling, who starred in many of the era’s most influential surf flicks and graced the cover of numerous magazines. Nowadays, he’s best remembered as the first person to charge Pipeline and the first to opine that “the best surfer is the one having the most fun.”
But his most notable contribution to longboarding was probably his drop knee carve, immortalised by Bruce Brown in this iconic image and later as a bronze figurine, which stands proudly in Dana Point. Edwards’ distinct take on the move was mimicked closely by fellow luminaries like Midget and refined by each subsequent generation. Sixty years on, it remains a cherished part of the longboarding repertoire.
Before the Boogie, Morey Rode the Nose
In July 1965 Tom Morey (he of future boogie board fame) cooked up plans for a unique surf event. Rather than subjective judging, points were to be awarded purely for nose rides, with the front 25% of each board marked by a colourful paint job.
The prize purse was a lofty $1500, with 22 of California’s best invited to compete. The goal was to inspire design innovation that would facilitate greater hang time and all the local shapers set to work creating special boards for the event. While most tinkered with bottom contour and rail profile, others were more audacious. A few loaded ballast onto the tail, including a barbell fastened with duct tape. One crafty craftsman added a length of timber stringer to the back of the board, in an attempt to increase the size of the proportionally calculated nose-scoring zone. Tom Morey wasn’t having any of that, and after a heated discussion demanded it be sawn off before the contestant paddled out. Another team added a foot strap to the nose, which was allowed, but proved no help at all.
The winning board was in the more subtle camp, carefully crafted by Phil Edwards of Hobie Surfboards and ridden to victory by Mickey Munoz. Coverage of the event and ads for the specialist nose rider designs it spawned filled Surfer Magazine in the months that followed, helping to cement the notion that tip time really was the pinnacle of surf performance.
However, it wasn’t to last. By the end of the decade, the shortboard revolution beckoned. Boards shrunk and fancy footwork fell quickly out of fashion as longboarding began its slide into obscurity.
Ageing Boomers Need Boards Too
Through the early 70s, big boards vanished from lineups, replaced largely by short narrow pintails. Even in logging’s cultural heartlands, only a few smouldering embers of the scene remained.
One of the brightest was Herbie Fletcher and in ‘76, he decided it was time to have a crack at re-ignition. Through ads in Surfer Magazine, he began hawking his modern take on the forgotten log, illustrated by shots of him hanging ten and underscored by the bold declaration that “The Thrill Is Back”.
Across the Pacific, Hawaiian surfer and innovator Ben Aipa never really stopped building or riding big boards either. As the 80s beckoned, he spotted a gap in the market. “I was targeting the guys who were getting married and had less time to surf and weren’t in the best of shape,” he told Longboard Magazine, “they needed a board that could catch waves.” As well as ageing boomers, keen to recapture the thrill of their surfing youth, a broader cultural nostalgia also played its role. In ‘78 Big Wednesday hit the big screen and a few years later The Endless Summer came out on VHS, each offering a pair of rose-tinted specs with which to relive the 60s surfing boom.
Nat’s Back and That’s That
Soon even some of the crew who buried logging in the first place were rediscovering its thrills. For Bob McTavish, the catalyst was “perfect mini-point days”, which had apparently “peeled off empty for six or seven years”. For Nat Young, it was the chance to ride a classic ‘57 Hobie, shaped by none other than Joe Quigg. Described in his book as “by far the best I’ve ever ridden,” the experience convinced him to start making longboards again, using the Hobie as his template.
When a longboard division was added to a few events around Australia, Nat started flying down in his private plane to compete. After one at Bells in ‘85 he was invited to come on board as the architect of the new ASP Longboarding World Tour, due to kick off the following year. Around the dinner table, he and the ASP team hashed out the judging criteria, settling on an even split between traditional and progressive, that sought to emphasise nose riding while leaving plenty of room for the new-fangled moves that were starting to become popular.
For the rest of the 80s, Nat dominated the tour he helped conceive, winning the title every year but ‘87 (when he finished third, after missing an event for a glitzy modelling gig). Although it all sounds a little suspect, his fellow competitors were quick to concede that in fact, the old dog really was just still the best.
The Rise of High Pro
In the early 90s, the ‘high-performance’ movement began to gather pace, utilising feather-light boards, with three fins, hard rails and more rocker. Riding mostly off the tail, the approach combined the odd quick nose ride with progressive moves like roundhouse cutbacks, vert re-entries and even aerial attempts. Some of the limit-pushing was undeniably impressive, like Takuji Masuda at Pipeline or Bonga Perkins at Makaha. But overall, many worried that the traditional values of style, grace and the sanctity of trim had fallen by the wayside and the end result was just shortboarding on a longboard. As the ‘90s wore on and ASP competition leaned evermore towards the high-pro approach, a small group of purists set out to repopularise the lost art of logging.
Thomas Campbell’s Quiet Coup
In 1999, the film ‘The Seedling’ lit the touchpaper on traditional longboarding’s global renaissance. Created by artist and filmmaker Thomas Campbell, it featured a crew of Californian log riders, who, according to the voice-over, were “drawing out a beautiful line that was dropped off in the late 60s,” and, in a quick jab at the high-pro camp “leaving the butt wiggling and chop hopping in the dust.”
Crucially, the film combined the old and the new. On the one hand, indulging heavily in the nostalgia at the heart of the scene with profile segments on 60s icons, while on the other, eulogising the young, lightfooted Californians dead set on rescuing them from obscurity.
Five years later, Campbell followed up with ‘Sprout’, which branched out from traditional logs to include all manner of ‘alternative’ craft. Among the most memorable segments was ‘Lady Slide’, which starred a host of female talent including Belinda Baggs and Kassia Meador. At the time it was a rarity for surf films to feature both men and women, let alone treat them with equal reverence as Campbell did. It was an artistic decision that set a tone of inclusivity within longboard culture that continues to pervade.
Even before it was released, The Surfer’s Journal gave Sprout “strong odds of becoming a new reference point in surf cinema.” And they were right. The impact was profound. For the first time since the ‘60s, longboarding no longer looked like an old boys club. Style and grace were front and centre and women were an integral part. Simply put, thanks to Campbell and his subjects, longboarding was cool again.
Joel Tudor’s Duct Tape Invitational
Joel Tudor grew up under the wing of the 60s most influential surfers, including Nat Young and Donald Takayama: a visionary shaper who made boards for almost everyone mentioned here, from Rabbit Kekai to Bonga Perkins. With all that worldliness in his ear, it is no surprise that Tudor became the leading ambassador for the traditional approach. Despite competing on the ASP throughout the 90s and early naughts – and winning two world titles in the process – he was outspoken in his contempt for it all. Specifically, what he saw as a disregard for the fun and artistry that he felt should define this corner of surf culture.
In 2010, he got to work on the antidote, teaming up with his sponsor Vans to launch the Duct Tape Invitational. The idea was to create a platform for the emerging crop of traditional-minded talent who didn’t fit into the ASP mould. A loosely-run, roving event underpinned by the irreverence that Tudor remembered from the club competitions of his youth.
The judging criteria prioritised style above all else, with generous prize money awarded for sharing waves. The first few iterations – held in Florida, Biarritz, Salinas and Noosa – were such a roaring success, that by the mid-2010s there were similar log invitationals popping up everywhere from Portugal to New Zealand.
Logging Goes Viral
Nothing since Gidget has had a greater impact on the visibility of longboarding than the birth of online video-sharing platforms.
While for decades magazines, filmmakers and brands got to decide what the global surf audience saw, Instagram and Youtube cut out the arbiters and put curating directly in the hands of viewers. Almost immediately, footage of traditional logging soared to the top of the feed.
As well as the beautiful blues of Waikiki and enviable SoCal peelers, the platforms became a wash with places and people previously missed by the media spotlight. Talented surfers, who might not have hit the brand’s ‘marketability’ criteria, suddenly had a platform to form huge global fan bases and, in turn, make a career from the thing they loved.
While logging’s meteoric rise may have taken some by surprise, Joel Tudor had no doubt about why the aesthetic resonated so far and wide. “Style outlasts everything,” he told Surfer Magazine. “Art too. And rhythm, and we’ve sort of got all three things right here.”