Under-Inflated

Words: Chris Nelson

If you were pushed to pick one man who had single handedly redefined the art of surfing who would you choose? Kelly Slater? Tom Blake? Duke Kahanamoku? There are a lot of candidates – but for sheer revolutionary impact there is only one person; a man who changed the game before anyone knew the whistle had blown, who broke down the walls across the waveriding world. That man is George Greenough. While the surfing icons we revere today were trimming across the faces of Malibu peelers on huge logs, Greenough was riding in the pocket, getting barrelled and carving out smooth cutbacks. He shaped the first shortboard, re-defined the fin and invented the water camera. He was a lateral thinker, not confined by the limitations of what the cats on the beach thought was cool. He kept away from the crowds, riding perfect empty points on the Hollister Ranch. His vehicle of choice? A radical kneeboard or the heavy canvas surfmats of the day, which George and his compadres would customise by peeling the canvas from the bottom to reveal the more pliable thin rubber skin (these mats were affectionately known as “peelers”). With these tools he charged hollow waves, scoping the landscape ahead and encouraging surfing’s leading experimentalists to follow. Many of George’s innovations have gone on to be absorbed by the mainstream – short stubby boards now litter the line-up, Go-Pro’s glisten in the summer sun and the curved fin is a defacto part of the modern set-up. Even the spoon has seen a resurgence. But what of the surfmat – George’s chariot of choice? When was the last time you saw one of those in the line-up?

“The emergence of Tom Morey’s bodyboard dealt an almost mortal blow to the previously popular airmat,” explains Graeme Webster, the UK slyder behind G-Mat custom surfmats. “Virtually  overnight, the boogey craze swept the surfing globe and surfmats slipped into such obscurity that the mainstream completely forgot what they were. But they weren’t quite dead. Those ‘Peelers’ would eventually pick up leaks leading to an interesting discovery: mats work best when they are made from pliable fabrics and run at low inflation. While the rest of the prone world were pushing the boundaries on foam, a small band of mat builders were exploring the possibilities of inflation or, more accurately, deflation and pliability. One of the most significant break-throughs came when Oregon’s Dale Solomonson began using high grade, lightweight, weldable nylon. At this point the direction and definition of the surfmat was changed forever. Dale, Paul Gross and George worked closely together, quickly blowing their way through hundreds of yards of fabric perfecting the modern mat. Dale went on to create custom surfmats under the Neumatic label and Paul launched Fourth Gear Flyer. Their ongoing hard work saw a core group of mat riders take their art onto a completely new level, finding previously un-explored levels of speed and performance.”

Today, surfmats might have a low profile but the truth is they definitely are out there, and the crew that ride them have a refreshingly simple attitude – you could say their ego’s are like their mats, under-inflated.

We caught up with Graeme Webster to find out about his journey into mat building and the UK surfmat scene:

I’ve been riding surfmats here in the UK since 2008. Having been a kneelo previously, I was aware of mats through watching the likes of (Greenough’s film) Crystal Voyager and had always fancied a go. It was a twist of fate that actually led to me finding the way though. I had to downsize from a van to a car and, having always kept a bodyboard in the van, and figured a mat would be more practical…

People think they’re just inflatable bodyboards. I quickly discovered that that could not be farther from the truth.

Mat surfing seems to be going through something of a boom at the moment, largely due to the growing interest in alternative ways to ride waves. Another benefit of the Clark Foam collapse? Perhaps indirectly… There is a refreshing willingness within surfing at the moment to look backwards to find the way forwards and that helps too. Most people seem to be willing to explore new things and the people who create surfcraft are going in all sorts of directions. Certainly over the last few years I’ve noticed that more people in the line-up know that the thing I’m on is called a surfmat. That said, it often takes a couple of waves before the line-up as a whole clock that you’re not just going to straight line it to the beach. Generally, most people are interested and ask a lot of questions. Most are very surprised by the speed.

An increasing number of people are buying them and riding them. To be honest, I would have to say that the majority of mats bought probably go the way of the majority of handplanes: in the quiver and get an occasional airing in waves which the surfer deems to be sub-surfboard-standard. That’s understandable because mats can turn junk into fun, but it’s a real shame because a surfmat on a good clean wave offers the most amazing experience. The speed is breath-taking and the sensations of the frictionless glide across the wave face whilst simultaneously hovering above it can’t be put into words. No hard board can offer that in the same way, simply because it is hard. Bodysurfing connects you to the ocean but you are in it, not on (or over) it. Anyone who has looked at a seabird riding the updraft on an offshore wave has asked themselves the same question… What does that feel like? A decent nylon surfmat at low inflation gets you pretty close to the answer.

Surfmats are hard to ride. The magic is in low inflation, but low inflation feels like wrestling a reluctant jellyfish, so we all start out with mats pumped rock solid so that they feel like boards [sometimes affectionately called ‘matboarding’]. My mentor, Dale Solomonson [Neumatic Surfmats] always said that when you get a mat you should ride it for a ten sessions, whatever the conditions. Over that time you will start to notice that you desire less and less air and then it happens… Warp speed!!! And then you’re hooked. In reality, there is probably a pretty high attrition rate on the way but those who stick it out tend to stay with it. Interestingly, we’ve found that people coming straight to mats have picked them up much more quickly than people coming from other forms of surfing to begin with as they have less to ‘un-learn’. Obviously that evens out over time and wave knowledge is certainly a big help. That said, when I was still riding kneeboards I noticed that I discovered lines which I was completely unaware of prior to riding mats.

I quickly started making my own mats, with instruction from Dale Solomonson who sent me well over a thousand detailed emails. Latterly Paul Gross of Fourth Gear Flyer has been really supportive and I can’t thank them enough for the wisdom they have shared. Two unsung greats.  I have always been dedicated to custom surfcraft and am committed to producing lightweight, pliable surfmats. Having developed a few solid base-line designs, it seems to be the right time to get the G-Mat ball rolling. I have built custom mats for a number of talented and experienced mat surfers all over the globe whose feedback has been invaluable and very positive.

We have quite a tight community within the UK, via the UK Mat Surfers website and new-comers are always welcomed with open arms. The global community is also really close, linked via various social media. The Internet has been invaluable in hooking mat surfers up in a way that would never have been possible before.  There are some amazing mat riders out there, particularly in parts of the world where mat surfing is more established (such as California where most of my mats go).

As for G-Mats, well it’s onward and upward. I am certainly not looking at churning out high volumes. I really enjoy the close relationship with customers, collaborating to create the right mat for them. My role in the equation is to offer some structure to the bubble of air under the mat surfer. His/her job is to be the shaper… second by second… ripple by ripple. Jeez, mats are amazing!

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For more info, or to order a custom G-Mat bubble of your own, contact Graeme: customsurfmats.com