The Long and Short Of It

Summary of article by Peter Lalor – The Daily Telegraph Sat, Oct 16th 1999.

Remember when a surfboard was as long as a summer’s day? When the old Holden groaned under its incredible weight? Well, the longboard is back, carrying the dreams of old surfers and even the kids reckon they’re pretty cool.

For most of the baby boomers the surfing dream went to pot a long time ago. Those sandy haired boys and bikini clad girls had come of age on a beach and thought life could never change. They had danced to surf movies, sworn oaths to surf philosophy and lived a summer that never looked like ending. These bright eyed “beach bums” had straddled elongated Malibu boards and squinted back towards the shore, never imaging life would call them beyond the carpark.

Then it all began to go horribly wrong. Their surf dreams were wiped by the evil conspiracies of age offspring – often conceived in the dunes of a beach party or in the back of a rocking panel van – arrived and started to demand attention and time. Homes were bought and mortgages mounted. Lawns needed mowing on the weekend and that beloved big board began to take up too much space in the shed. And if over the years they did manage to get out among the new cold eyed generation of surfers, the boomers found their pot bellies strained with fabric of the old wettie and made it almost impossible to stand up on the ridiculously small boards the kids had taken to. The old 30kg, long as a Cadillac Malibu had been replaced by a toothpick sized thing that made surfing akin to having a threesome in a hammock. Bummer! But you can’t keep a good baby boomer down for too long. After all, the world was created to plot their return.

And the only way they could do it was by bringing aback a board capable of holding their generously accumulated frames. For Mark Rabbidge, 50, one of the pioneering world class Australian surfers, the longboard began to call again when his son took up the sport.

Rabbidge had begun surfing back in the summer of 1969, and he appreciated the value of a longboard “in my case my son started to surf and I didn’t want to surf a 6ft 2in twin fin in choppy, shitty waves, but I wanted to be in the water with him” he said ‘ thought, gee a longboard would be good’, but you couldn’t buy one – even though I was in the business I couldn’t even buy a blank (the raw board which has not been shaped or finished)” Rabbidge like a few others, started to manufacture his own – and over the years the demand just grew and grew.

The return is nothing short of a miracle. For many years those monstrosities from the past had been about as popular on beaches as an outflow sewage pipe and as common as a surfer with a job. The boomers have made sure that the boards are now a booming business. Some of the classic older models are fetching around US $20,000 and a good Australian balsa board can demand $10000. Man, you might even have to cash in a few shares to strap one of these on top of the BMW. Longboards are hip all over again and are doing huge business. World wide they now account for 60% of surfboard sales, less than 10 years ago it was just 5% and it’s just not the grey haired getting back onto them.

The world champion longboard surfer, Joel Tudor. An ultra cool sports star for the new millennium, he travels the world in one set of clothes and rides a board with a classic style and modern dexterity that amazes all who see him.

Watch the kid hanging five or throwing a 360-degree turn and you may be forgiven for pulling out that old Little Pattie record. Number two in the world is Beau Young – son of Australian legend Nat. the old man is proud of his son’s achievements and just pleases that people are again accepting the longboard. He says that he will never give up the big ones; they certainly were out of vogue for a long time and it didn’t make sense.

“In this one aspect surfing is similar to golf in that you don’t use a putter for hitting your long shots, just as you wouldn’t use a wood around the greens” said Nat “Essentially longboards are not made for quality tubing surf but are great for the smaller choppier stuff”.

The near extinction of the longboard was caused by the excesses of fashion. “In 1967 we realised that the Malibu was just too long and too bulky to fit inside the tube, so we cut the boards down and we took those to incredible extremes. By 1969 I was surfing a board that was 5ft 9in long, so it was almost half of what I started on. The thing about them was that they were really good for surfing the tube but they were absolutely useless for getting a bit of momentum and gliding across the flat parts of the wave, and that’s were a longboard is incredible.

A longboard is perfect on a small surf day, perfect for people who are heavier than those callow youths who have hogged our beaches for so long, and brilliant to learn on.

Rabbidge who owns Retro Longboards deals with the newcomers and those making a

re-entry “The longboard craze means people who’ve only ever been on a body board can now stand up easily on a surfboard. And then there’s the other lot who are coming back into the water. I get hits on my email address and these are from people who say they haven’t surfed for 25 years. They have all the old stories and a head full of dreams and they want you to make these things for them and I say “look, I’m only a surfboard shaper, not a dream weaver, I can make you a board but I can’t take you back there”.

Ron Rudder, 53, of Newcastle surf company Pacific Dreams says he and his mates have been reliving their youth for the past 10 years thanks to longboards. “On them I can get out and pick up a wave, whereas if I had a short board I wouldn’t last long. They’re harder to paddle and catch waves” Rudder says he knows of one old longboard rider who is 75 and making the most of the “new” fad. The boomers returned to the longboard out of necessity and nostalgia, but the conversation of youth took everybody by surprise Matt Kay, 17 year old Newcastle local, was always intrigued by the monstrous boards his father kept in the garage. He and his mates would take them out for a laugh and then it just stuck.

Rabbidge has a keen eye for the social history of surfing and has watched the kids pick up on the old ways with some satisfaction “The rebirth has happened more from the older guys who’ve got the mortgage and the wife and kids all in order and now can go back to it and grab his Malibu, but that sort of syndrome is now being taken over by the youth. “The longboard thing has only recently become trendier because they are associated with California and a lot of youth are looking for more fun in surfing than just the straight battling board under conditions that aren’t always available”. Of course the new boards are not exactly like the old ones The Mexican Government recently sponsored a tube riding competition for longboards. Nat Young was amused by the concept “It’s almost a contradiction in terms by my standards, but these kids have got so much talent they can make a longboard surf inside a tube. A lot of the new longboards are hybrids – they have a lot of short board elements, the rail lines, fin configuration and weight are about the same as a short board “I ride traditional longboards and that’s the difference from what Beau rides”.

Bennett Surfboards of Brookvale have been making boards since 1956. Barry Bennett started the company and now sons Greg and John are helping to run the show. It wasn’t that long ago they weren’t making any longboards at all, but these days they are the bulk of their output. Greg says that some of their customers are more than 60 years old, but the boards they are buying are not the same as the ones ridden 30 years ago “They’re fully polished and they have all the traditional spray designs and full length stripes, and so they have a bottom curve of a modern day surfboard and usually have three fins for manoeuvrability. They have the best of everything these days they’re not as strong, but they’re lighter just like modern cars. If they were too heavy and built like they were 30 years ago, no one would buy them” Greg says longboards are part of a cycle like the yo yo, but this one has brought so many more people back into the sport they thought was gone forever. “We have customers who have come here weighing 17 stone and they’re puffing from the stairs, but some of these boards could handle a sumo wrestler. They are a real good business now because these people are flushed with cash, unlike the kids who traditionally surf and have little to spend”.

With the boomers has come the big buck. Sponsors such as European clothing company Oxbow are flinging around huge amounts of money to be associated with longboard competitions. Mark Rabbidge is happy to see the business booming “The difference now and even ten years ago is that companies are automatically making and selling longboards as part of their range. Clothing companies also want to be associated with the longboards, whereas before they would shy away so they didn’t lose their image – it was considered to be a bad look.”

The boomers are keen to get their hands on some of the old equipment. Like other areas of sports memorabilia, the historical surfing gear is demanding big bucks. “If the boards have a history and are associated with a well known shaper or brand they are worth money” Rabbidge says “That area is getting huge. I’ve got a heap that are worth a lot of money and my daughter is going to get them one day. I’ve got one in a museum in Victoria and I’m lending some more to another. All the paraphernalia is starting to attract attention and value because it’s a real cult, it’s recognizable with the baby boomer image or baby boomer time”.

However, while the big board is back Rabbidge says of lot of longboarders are asking for shorter boards for days when the swell’s up “I don’t think the future of surfing is long or short boarding. But I think people are just determined to make sure it is fun. I am finding now that more people who like longboards find they need another board for boisterous days when the longs are a pain in the arse. So they come back to a seven footer, which is the size a board should be”.