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Sea Notes

Rediscovering kneeboarder George Greenough

I had been surfing for a while in the mid-60s when Bruce Brown’s classic surf movie, “The Endless Summer” premiered. The entire movie was such a revelation for a land-locked gremmie that I barely noticed the kneeboarder flying across the screen. The wave peeled at Santa Barbara’s Sand Spit as the rider flew off into the sunset. His name, which made little impression at the time, was (and is) George Greenough.I guess the reason I paid so little attention to Greenough’s surfing at the time was because of my obsession with riding the nose, something impossible to accomplish on a kneeboard. Surfing for my generation was a bottom turn, walk to the nose; pose there for as long as possible and get back to the tail where you could, hopefully, cut back toward the whitewater. The idea of Greenough’s surfing was to stay near or in the curl at all times. His boards, which consisted of more fiberglass than foam demanded that the rider stay in the pocket.

I didn’t hear of Greenough again until later in the ‘60s when a group of Australian surfers led by Nat Young began cutting down their boards. The idea to us seemed strange, to ride boards that didn’t float well, in order to get closer to the curl, much as Greenough had done. These acts of violence against the formerly respected wave led to something called the “Shortboard Revolution,” where the baby with the bathwater mentality of the times caused surfers everywhere to completely abandon boards over eight feet in length. It seems shortsighted now, but all anybody wanted to do from 1968 to the mid-70s was ride the smallest boards possible. Like longboards before them, the shortboards of the time led to stagnation, as they were not good for small waves that we have most of the time.

The new surfing dictated by the new boards was exciting as surfers began exploring places on waves they had never been before, and the surfboard became more of a mind machine whose sole function was to get further back in the barrel and make harder turns.

The return of longboards in the mid-70s divided surfers into two distinct camps. As most of us aged, we looked to longer surfboards to keep us in the lineup. While accomplishing the most basic task, longer boards generally don’t fit as well in the tube as tiny ones, especially when the surf gets going.

Recently, my friend Allan Mitchell loaned me a short film called “State of S, Full Circle.” The film visually documents Greenough’s contributions to modern surfing and reveals George’s powerful influence on surfers like three time world champion, Tom Curren.

While decades younger than Greenough, Australian Mick Fanning’s surfing is about the closest I have ever seen to Greenough’s dream of boards that allow you to “ride the wave, not the board.” Fanning’s arks are fast and powerful and always directed back toward the power of the wave. Slater isn’t featured in Full Circle, but if he had been, Greenough’s influence on the 10-time world champion would be obvious.

The movie brought me back to a time in the late-60s when terms like “total involvement” were popular. By the end of the film I had decided to make a kneeboard. It seems to me that kneeboards are a practical method for older surfers to explore the interior of hollow waves. Hope to see you in the barrel. Thanks George.

1 comment

Jim Thomas October 11, 2013 at 2:43 pm

I hear you! Now 61, I came of age during the short-board revolution (exactly what we called it at the time) and owned three longboards before my 8 footer, followed by (a v-bottom (remember those!) a twin fin, a hard-railed minigun pintail design and a 7’2″ pop-out before geography and career interrupted my surfing career. Now, happily and surprisingly youthful for my age, I’ve re-entered surfing and have a quiver of three boards. And, right along those same lines you’re thinking, I’m adding a fourth, and am on the lookout for a kneeboard. I’ve always been more of a carver than a cruiser, but short boards, well, the arms ain’t what they used to be. I’m wondering if fighting the Texas chop will be easier with legs and swim fins. Hoping so. Anyway, thanks for remembering George Greenough. He did not go unnoticed by surfers at the time, we all wanted to do what he was doing, only standing up.
Best of luck with your board!

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