mat surfing

Type of surfing performed on a soft, inflatable, rectangular surf mat; wildly popular in the 1960s and early '70s with weekend beachgoers as well as preteen surfers-in-training. The all-rubber "surf-o-plane" was invented by a Sydney physician in 1934, and American-made surf mats—also called "surf rafts" or "floats"—were being used in Virginia Beach in the early '40s and in Southern California by the late '40s.

Mat rental stands were a common sight at popular beaches on both American coasts by the early '60s, each stand featuring a small fleet of matching, numbered rafts, usually made by tennis shoe giant Converse. Each mat was four and a half feet long, with a laminated rubber-and-canvas body segmented into five longitudinal pontoons, hard rubber "bumpers" on either end, and a nylon rope threaded loosely around the perimeter as a handle. Mats were safe and easy to ride, approved for use in areas where board-surfing was not allowed, and a big hit with beach tourists of all ages, who generally rode straight to beach in a prone position.

Meanwhile, as Surfer magazine noted in 1964, legions of school-age kids were "doing their surfing apprenticeship on the mats" by crouching on the raft deck and even angling across the wave face. Australian surfers were doing the same on their surf-o-planes. Most would graduate to surfboards by age 11 or 12, but a few continued to mat-ride, and discovered that the four- pontoon, red-white-and-blue Converse Hodgeman model outperformed the more expensive blue-yellow rental rafts. (California surf photographer Woody Woodworth, who bought his first Hodgeman for $14 in 1966, later noted that the price of mat riding could rise quickly. When the surf was up at Corona del Mar jetty, Woodworth said, "it wasn't unusual to see the remains of several rafts strewn along the seawall and beach [after being] popped on the barnacle-encrusted jetty.")

Mat riding's greatest supporter was California-born surfer and board designer George Greenough, best known as the creative force behind the late-'60s shortboard revolution. While Greenough was often filmed and photographed riding his hard-shell kneeboard, he preferred riding prone on a surf mat—partly because of the heightened sensation of speed that comes from riding so close to the water surface, and partly because mats, unlike surfboards, can be ridden in windy, choppy, ugly surf. "The funny thing about mats," Greenough said in 2000, "is that they're the easiest thing to ride on a beginner level, but the hardest thing to ride on an advanced level. I've been riding mats for over 40 years, and I'm still learning things." Rubber Duck Riders, Greenough's short film on mat-riding, was produced in 1971; Greenough and surf journalist Paul Gross were featured riding their mats in the 1978 surf film Fantasea.

The surf mat all but disappeared from most beaches not long after the introduction of the Morey Boogie bodyboard in 1973, which was not only soft, safe, and easy to ride, but didn't pop and deflate. Paul Gross, however, citing the development of a high-performance three-pontoon raft, nonetheless describes the mid-'80s as a "golden age of mat riding."

By 2000, Greenough estimated that there were fewer than a dozen dedicated mat-riders in California, and just a few more in Australia. But a renaissance in alternative surf craft designs in the mid-'00s has seen a small uptick in the amount of mat riders on beaches worldwide, with a handful of websites selling handmade mats to open-minded enthusiasts.