A gnarly ride

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Westward Beach is considered one of the best in Malibu for skimboarding. Photo by Cathryn Sacks

Skimboarders bring new technology to an old ocean sport.

By Ward Lauren / Special to The Malibu Times

Running down the beach for all they’re worth, lugging what appear to be sawed-off but fully formed surfboards, a growing number of Malibu youngsters are bringing an old, but relatively little known, variation of the sport to local beaches.

Called skimboarding, it is somewhat similar to surfboarding but the action all takes place near the shore.

The skimboarder starts his “ride” on the beach about 20 feet from the water. He waits for a breaking wave to rush up the sloping beach, and then gallops toward it, board in hand. Reaching the wet sand he drops the board at full speed and jumps on it as quickly as possible, skimming out on the receding water toward the next forming wave where, if all goes well, he will carom, or “wrap,” off the curl and head back to shore, similar to a surfboard ride.

Although now an up-to-date sport with specialized equipment, professional riders, competitions, its own Web sites (www.skimonline.com) and monthly magazine, skimboarding dates back to the late 1920s. It was first practiced in Laguna Beach where lifeguards skimmed on flat, circular, wooden boards. Today, it is one of the most high-tech of all water sports, although still one of the smallest in numbers of fans, according to the Web site.

A modern skimboard, which can cost as much as $500, is made of fiberglass or carbon fiber, with a core of high-density foam, the same as a surfboard. The skimboard, however, is only about four feet long, about half the length of a surfboard, half the thickness and slightly wider. The bottom of the board has a slight curvature up to both nose and tail, in varying degrees for different performance effects. And unlike surfboards, skimboards have no fins, or skegs, on the bottom to maintain direction. This makes them much less stable, requiring a great deal of practice to learn control.

To help the rider do this, several rugged corrugated pads, with typically esoteric names, are glued to the top of the board. Those in the rear form the stomp pad. A long narrow pad running from the center to the nose of the board is called the arch bar. These pads help the rider keep his feet in place and apply pressure to the board to perform various maneuvers.

The hours of practice it takes even to learn to mount the moving board successfully, plus the plain physical exertion in the constant running to catch waves, makes it an extremely youth-oriented sport. When an 18-year-old complains of leg cramps, chafed thighs, sore muscles, cuts, scrapes and bruises to the extent that he’s often too tired and sore to do it two days in a row, you know it isn’t for non-athletes, or seniors.

“It’s really demanding,” said Shaun Lauren of Sycamore Park. “When I’m done I’m really tired. But it’s addictive. I like it because it’s not so popular, for one thing. And it’s gnarlier. When you fall, you don’t always go into the water. Sometimes you come down on the sand, or the edge of the board, or a rock. It’s always a challenge.”

There are different ways to mount the board at the start of a ride, Lauren explained, each with its own skimboarder’s unique terminology. The “drop and chase,” which pretty well defines itself, is used by beginners. It’s the easiest-a relative term-but the slowest, tending rapidly to lose the momentum necessary to continue a successful ride.

Proficiency leads to the “one-step,” in which the rider takes only one step after dropping the board before leaping onto it. The “Hawaiian” method, a rare, expert move, is similar to an “acid drop” in skateboarding, Lauren said. Running toward the receding wave, the rider jumps up and simultaneously throws the board under his feet, coming down on the board just as it hits the water.

The “perfect wave” for skimboarding is generally considered a shore break of a decent size, since the closer to shore the wave breaks, the easier it is to get to. High tide provides the best opportunity for this type of skimming. But a long ride on the sand is another way to go, and for this a low tide on a flat beach is best. Consequently, a current tide book is an essential part of a serious skimboarder’s gear.

According to the Web site, the waves in Laguna Beach are second only to those at Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Other major skimboarding areas listed include Santa Cruz and Newport Beach in California, Dewey Beach in Delaware and Vero Beach in Florida.

Several Malibu beaches are recommended for skimboarding. Among them are Zuma (specifically Westward Beach), Escondido, Deer Creek and PierView just in front of the closed restaurant. Topanga and Temescal beaches are also listed.

(By the way, just as for surfers, the cold winter weather doesn’t deter skimboarders from taking a ride.)

A glossary of

skimboarding terms

Aerial-As in surfboarding, this is when a skimboarder sails up into the air off a wave and lands back on the face of the wave, still on his board. (See “Fly Away.”)

Barrel or Tube-The wave surrounding the skimmer as it curls at the beginning of its break. The rider “gets barreled” when he achieves this.

Down the Line-A move that results when the skimboarder rides out to the wave and after turning off the wave continues skimming back down toward the beach in the same general direction.

Fly Away-A move at the top of the wave in which the skimmer sails into the air and comes down without the board. (Generally an inadvertent maneuver begun as an Aerial.)

Grom-A young skimboarder (also surfer) approximately 7 to 15 years old.

Rail-The side edge of the board.

Speed Wobble-A term borrowed from skateboarding, when the rider gets going so fast the board begins to wobble and he loses control. The skimboard usually won’t wobble but will fly out from under the rider if he attains too much speed.

Widdly or Westy Loop-A skimboarding maneuver in which the rider does a flip straight off the wave while holding the board under his feet by hand.

Wrap-The ride when a skimboarder glides out to the wave in one direction, turns off it at the top and skims back down to shore in the opposite direction, ending up in generally the same place he began.