Even as the world says ‘Bye Don!’, the culture wars look set to rage on. Surfing is no different really, as we look to amplify the rallying calls of our folk heroes and finger-in-ears at the fake news of the other side. Who’d have thought that your view the rights and responsibilities of a little piece of urethane cord with velcro attachments at each end could have you lining up at opposite ends of a moral battle that pits Joel Tudor on one side against ’93 ASP World Champ Pauline Menczer on the other?
What started all this off?
Once upon a time, all surfing was leashless surfing. The concept of a ‘kick out’ was to literally to kick your (long)board over the whitewater to avoid losing it and swimming in, rather than just jumping off at the end of a ride.
Pat O’Neill is attributed with coming up with the first modern leash in 1970, to avoid board damage on the cliffs and rocky shoreline at Santa Cruz, California. It wasn’t without its own dangers though; made from a suction cup and a length of elastic surgical tubing that attached to the wrist, the following year Pat’s father Jack, founder of the O’Neill brand, lost an eye when his leash pinged his board back into his face.
Joey ‘the Gazelle’ Cabell had tried a leash in the 60’s after a system he’d seen Tahitians used to tether their pigs, and Tom Blake experimented with attaching his board decades earlier than that, but nothing caught on until the NorCal entrepreneurs came up with their device… and that’s when the trouble started.
Are You Swimming While Others Are Trimming?
Went the title of an 1972 article by Corky Carroll in Surfing Magazine, on the then very hotly debated topic of whether leash use was an affront to taste and decency. Called the ‘kook chord’ by many, and seen as a shortcut around ocean knowledge, water skills and swimming ability, leash use was met with considerable resistance, with Carroll’s article stating many lineups were ‘violently opposed’ to them.
“I realized the evils of a cord before it was too late,” said one letter to the Editor of Surfer Mag. “I’ve invested in a knife, and now cut goons’ cords off.”
He might’ve been a 70’s version of a keyboard warrior, bark louder than bite, etc, but whether they really took a blade to fellow surfers or not, you have to respect a time gone by when haters knew where the apostrophe went on possessive plural nouns.
By late 70’s, ridiculous knife threats or not, the debate had all but disappeared from the mainstream. The only folk not using leashes were the Australians – who were using ‘leg ropes.’
“I’ve invested in a knife, and now cut goons’ cords off.”
Can A Leash Get You Into Trouble?
Getting dragged by your board in big waves isn’t ideal, but is generally regarded as being outweighed by the advantage of having a floatation device attached to you. That said, entanglement, while rare can be really serious. Mark Foo is believed to have had his leash tangled on the bottom on his fatal wipeout at Mav’s in 1994. Elsewhere, shallow reef shelves with fast currents can be treacherous, with incidents of surfers drowning in knee to waist deep water reported after their leash became entangled on a coral head.
At certain spots like Puerto, some surfers forgo the leash to avoid getting ‘recycled’ – kept in the impact zone by a churning rip, and to avoid breaking their board by it taking multiple drubbings. Certain core lords adopt the same approach at solid La Graviere, too. Lose it once; it washes up to the sand, collect, paddle back out.
“Surfing naked with no leash,” said Brad Gerlach in SurferMag in the mid-90’s, “is pretty liberating.” The Gerr joyously performed bare-buttocked, nude ankled reos in Hossegor summer beachbreaks, something that’s actually illegal today; if the lifeguards catch you, it’s a 55 euro fine. Not for surfing with your twig n’ berries or fufu out; for not having your board attached to your ankle.
And yet aside from occasional indulgences by pros or in tiny comp surf, the shunning of the leash on shortboards was but a minor quirk until the 21st century log revival.
Who’d have though a seemingly benign, cruisey return to trim aesthetics in soft, waist high peelers could get so… culture war-y?
For defenders of the log faith, the only thing worse than a leash around your ankle, is an ever bigger leash around your calf (to facilitate cross stepping).
Joel Tudor has been particularly outspoken about their use, and the proliferation of logging across much of the surf world has seen conflict in the form of riderless logs mowing through lineups.
Turns out, the exact same waves that are good for logging (soft 2ft peelers) are also ideal for beginners/kids/everyone and so make for some of the most crowded lineups on the planet, hence the danger.
“It’s mostly people riding longboards who seem to be having a love affair with times past”
Ground zero for such conflict is Byron Bay’s The Pass, where leashless loggers are either seen as a plague of irresponsible menaces, or just a menaces.
Local politicians, seeing leashlessness as a public health issue, haven’t been shy in weighing in. “It’s mostly people riding long boards who seem to be having a love affair with times past, but we also used to drive without seat belts and there were many fatalities,” said Byron Councillor Cate Coorey.
With some pretty horrific injuries being sustained by innocents taking errant logs to the head, including little kids, World Champs like Pauline Menczer & Layne Beachley have also lambasted the leashless. Now to be fair, your card carrying member of the hipster community is unlikely to pay too much mind to neither Menczer’s, nor Beachley’s opinions.
Meanwhile, along the pro longboard competition schism, where hi-perf longboarding school clashes with trad style log riding, leash use is one of the key battleground issues.
Tudor will take to his IG to berate ‘Training wheel (side bite fins) & knee leash’ users, while his support base echo with ‘leashes are for dogs’ comment rhetoric.
‘There’s No Arguing With The (Leashless 70 year old) Person In The Tube’
Take collision risk and knee high dribble log sensitivities out of the equation though, say at an offshore reef break with nobody standing in the whitewater, and leashless surfing, particularly tuberiding, becomes nothing less than surfing’s ultimate garner of respect, more so than any feat of athleticism or manoeuvring.
Tudor heaped this recent praise on septuagenarian James ‘Booby’ Jones, (first person to tube ride Waimea in the 70’s), leashless in a V-Land pit:
“Bless these ocean warriors for leading the way! James Booby Jones keeping the line steady ….70yrs young , no cord or fucks given!!!!! Awwwwooooooooo & respect legend!“
Cover image: Harry Roach, Spain. Photo: WSL/Poullenot