Eccentric and innovative kneeboarder-designer-filmmaker from Montecito, California; known as the "barefoot genius," and regarded by many as the most influential surfer of his generation. Greenough was the mid-1960s originator of full-speed, banked-turn, high-performance surfing, a leading figure in the shortboard revolution, and the producer of 1969's The Innermost Limits of Pure Fun, with its groundbreaking in-the-tube photography.
Greenough was born (1941) into a wealthy Santa Barbara railroad family, a direct descendant to famed 19th-century American sculptor Horatio Greenough, and he grew up in a sprawling Spanish hacienda in nearby Montecito. Open-heart surgery at age 10 made Greenough something of an outsider among his peers, and helped direct his attention to the ocean; he rode briefly as a stand-up surfer in the mid-'50s, then switched to kneeboarding and mat-riding, in part because he liked being closer to the water surface. Greenough made balsa kneeboards in his high school wood-shop classes—soon adding a narrow-based, swept-back fin that he patterned after a tuna tail fin—and also began shooting film with his father's movie camera.
In 1964, Greenough made the first of many visits to Australia, where he was befriended by a group of top surfers including Bob McTavish and Nat Young. A year later, Greenough developed his sub-five-foot flexible "spoon" kneeboard (consisting of an all-fiberglass kneeling area edged in foam on the nose and rails), on which he was able to perform water-gouging turns and cutbacks; direction changes made by stand-up surfers, on their bulky 10-foot boards, were slow and clunky by comparison. Greenough's riding was a revelation to McTavish. "Look at that thrust!" he later wrote, recalling the first time he watched the round-shouldered, straw-haired Californian surf. "Carve off the top, drive back down the face, repeat. That's it!"
Young won the 1966 World Surfing Championships using a Greenough-made fin, and in early 1967 McTavish developed the vee-bottom surfboard—the opening move in what would soon be called the shortboard revolution—in order to try and make a stand-up board that performed like Greenough's kneeboard. "George's fantastic little invention," McTavish said in 1966, talking about the spoon design, "is a revolution."
A clip of Greenough surfing was included in Bruce Brown's 1966 crossover hit The Endless Summer; jaw-dropping footage of him was included in The Hot Generation (1968), Evolution (1969), Splashdown (1969), and Fantastic Plastic Machine (1969). Greenough was single-handedly responsible for the kneeboarding boom in the late '60s and '70s; Nat Young, in 1968, flatly declared Greenough to be "the greatest surfer in the world today." (Greenough meanwhile continued to ride an inflatable mat—his favorite wave-riding vehicle—and a long sequence of him mat-surfing was used in the 1978 surf film Fantasea.)
Greenough also developed as a photographer. His 1966 image of Australian Russell Hughes was billed as the first water-shot to show a surfer completely inside the tube. Two years later Greenough began work on The Innermost Limits of Pure Fun (1970), his only full-length surf movie, which built up to a spectacular sequence—shot with a shoulder-mounted waterproof camera rig weighing 28 pounds—that took the viewer deeply and hypnotically inside the tube. Nothing like it had been seen before. Members of British rock band Pink Floyd were so impressed with Greenough's movie that they donated music to his next work, Echoes (1972), a 21-minute short, filmed at 200 frames per second, that further explored the textures and patterns of the breaking wave from deep inside the tube and below the water surface.
Greenough later worked on a small number of big-budget surf movies and TV movies, including Big Wednesday (1978) and Rip Girls (2000). Greenough himself was the subject of 1973's Crystal Voyager, a surf movie-documentary that was screened at the Cannes Film Festival.
The slightly built Greenough (5' 9", 135 pounds), regarded for decades as the surf world's most beloved eccentric, will go for months without wearing shoes, and sometimes uses a length of rope for a belt. Often monosyllabic, Greenough can also launch into droning and highly technical one-sided conversations. He's also earned a reputation for being guileless and altruistic. "George will spend months finding the solution to a design problem," surf journalist and fellow mat-rider Paul Gross wrote in 1994, "then share it with whoever happens to be on the phone the next morning."
Greenough and his surfboards were the subjects of a 1969 feature article in Popular Science; in 1997 he was profiled in 50 Years of Surfing in Film, a cable TV series produced by Opper Films. His short-subject films include Rincon '71 (on kneeboarding) and Rubber Duck Rider (on mat-riding, also released in 1971); in 2003 he finished production on the long-awaited yet rarely seen Dolphin Glide, a 35-millimeter short that gives a dolphin's-eye view of water travel.
George Greenough: Beyond Surfing, a retrospective art exhibit debuted at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum in 2004. Surfer magazine ranked Greenough #19 on their 2009 list of the "50 Greatest Surfers of All Time." The never-married Greenough lives in Byron Bay, New South Wales, Australia.