The debate over leashes and surfboards is a long and convoluted one. Across its many twists and turns boards have been lost, egos bruised, surfers injured and line ups crowded. In the 1950’s and 1960’s things were much more simple; surfers did not wear leashes, as leashes did not exist.

Early iterations had come and gone (Tom Blake with a waist mounted version in the 1930’s, Frenchman George Hennebutte in 1958, and surely other undocumented versions here and there), but, as Matt Warshaw in the excellent Encyclopedia of Surfing explains, it was in Santa Cruz that the leash finally caught on with none other than, ‘Pat O’Neill, son of wetsuit kingpin Jack O’Neill, who in 1970 fastened a length of surgical tubing to the nose of his board with a suction cup, and looped the other end to his wrist. Aside from the leash keeping the board nearby after a wipeout, it was initially thought that the surfer could use the new handheld product to leverage turns and cutbacks; by late 1971, however, the leash was much more sensibly connected to the ankle and the board’s tail section.’

After this stuttering start, the 1970’s saw the leash beginning to reach the surfing masses, but it wasn’t doing so without controversy. Warshaw again explains, ‘”To Leash or Not to Leash, That is the Question” was the title of a 1972 Surfing magazine article, and for two or three years the question divided the surf world. Purists correctly noted that leashes encouraged less-skilled riders to try spots they would have otherwise avoided (board-damaging rocky breaks in particular), and that by removing the swim time from the surfing experience, lineups were more crowded than ever. Also, by relying on their leashes, surfers in general were becoming less water-savvy. “Leashes are for dogs” was the unofficial motto of the no-leash group. Leash advocates said it was more fun to surf than swim, and that leashes promoted a freer, more progressive brand of surfing. By 1975 the pro-leash group had won the debate (although it was a few more years before leashes would be used in large waves), and by 1980 it was rare to find a surfer not using a leash.’

And so here we are today, pretty much everyone wearing leashes, pretty much all of the time… except for pretty much everybody I have recently interviewed for this magazine and except for myself (in certain circumstances). The traditional longboarding renaissance of the late 90’s and early 00’s saw a small number of longboarders eschewing the trappings of modern, lightweight longboards, side fins, tails pads, extreme rockers, and, indeed, leashes. After all, and as Joel Tudor put it in the the 1999 classic The Seedling, ‘longboarding is an under-head-high trip’.



The waves most suited to traditional longboarding are also waves of least consequence, arguably most suitable for not wearing a leash, and with the focus returning to intricate and smooth footwork, what surfer would want to equip themselves with a trip line? For a decade or so, with logging still very much a niche pursuit, the issue seemed relatively insignificant, but signs of the trouble to come were brewing.

Perhaps the earliest example of legal action being threatened against leash-less surfers actually happened at my home beach of Sennen in the late 00’s. In the UK as a whole at the time, Anti Social Behavioural Orders (ASBO’s) were in vogue as a snappy, soundbite-happy, solution to an apparent issue with delinquent youths. Wikipedia provides an example list of the possible infractions for which a person might be issued an ASBO; ‘abandoning cars, arson, begging, casteism, dangerous driving, defecating/urinating in public, dogging (exhibitionistic public sex), drug dealing/consumption of controlled recreational drugs, drunken behaviour, fare evasion, intimidation, littering, noise pollution, paedophilic activity, racism and xenophobia, rioting, rudeness, spitting, stealing/mugging/shoplifting, urban exploration, vandalism/criminal damage/graffiti. And for a few fractious months one summer in West Cornwall, you could add ‘surfing without a leash’ to that bizarre and wildly inequitable list.

A combination of over-zealous lifeguards and a group of aspirational yet intermediately talented longboarders led to the situation which saw police called to the beach on more that one occasion. Happily, Sennen no longer suffers from such unpleasant infighting, and ASBO’s are no more. Instead it is in Byron Bay where the issue has come to a head.



Logging as a niche pursuit is dead, now a widely practiced surfing subgenre, the under-head-high sand bottom pointbreaks of the world are busier than ever. And therein lies the issue, these pointbreaks, while perfect for logging, are also perfect for kids and learners, and at certain times of the year, in certain places, can become phenomenally busy. The Pass is a perfect example of this, the playful wave combined with the, borderline self destructive, tourist hype of the town of Byron Bay have created a perfect storm of leash-less disgruntlement. Indeed, given logging’s relatively low barrier for entry, sometimes even learner surfers are taking their first fumbled steps atop heavy single fins and without leashes…

While I fully understand the plethora of intermediate loggers without leashes as a very real risk, surely allowing the the litigious hand of the law to interfere with the lives of surfers is the wrong route to take. As a lifeguard myself of 14 years (how the previous generations of Cornish guards might squirm seeing a leash-less, flight-footed longboarder such as myself at the helm of some of the area’s premier beaches), I will always call out surfers who aren’t using leashes when their ability isn’t up to standard, or the beach is particularly busy, but equally, I never wear a leash myself when longboarding. Education from the established longboarding community seems the best route to solve this problem. With my third interested-party hat on, that of surf writer and magazine editor, it would be a mighty shame to lose the important cultural experience of leash-less surfing to the broad brush of the law. Similar laws in South West France have contributed to Cote de Basque, the literal birthplace of French surfing, being reduced to nothing more than a nightmarish soup of surf schools on garish, safe, soft tops during the summer months.

After all, a significant appeal of surfing is it’s side orders of freedom and risk. While I absolutely agree that risks should be mitigated when they get out of hand, I feel any mitigation should be done from within the surfing community (a process that can be done fairly but firmly), not at the expense of the freedom of thousands. That being said, a small part of me does yearn after the truly counter-cultural elements of 50’s and early 60’s surfing, perhaps this new law offers a shortcut to subversiveness that many surfers have been searching for in the modern era of saccharine surf ads and mainstream appeal…

One final word with my lifeguard hat on, if you’re anything but a highly experienced/professional longboarder, please wear a leash, especially when surfing at busy beaches in the summer. By all means, indulge in leash-less sessions if you’re an intermediate longboarder who still loses their board, but do so when there’s nobody else around. For my own part, I promise to be more mindful of others when surfing in the height of the summer, I may even look to have a leash plug added to my longboards… Let’s take personal responsibility before our collective hands are forced.