[This is reprinted from an article in a 1978 issue of SkateBoarder Magazine. If you own the copyright to the text and/or any of these images and object to their being posted, please let me know, and they will be removed. Throughout you can click on the smaller images for a larger picture and caption. Special thanks are due to Tannis Watson, who had the smarts to hang on to his magazines all of these years and sent me color photocopies of this article, so that it could be posted here. Tannis, sorry it took so long, and thanks again, Chris]
In the hills above the picturesque beach city of Santa Barbara, California, a smooth asphalt road winds gradually downward between the tall eucalyptus and oaks like a lazy stream meandering toward the sea. The ocean below, of course, is the Pacific, so named by Magellan for it's generally tranquil nature. In 1971, Tom Sims, a surfer and art/geology major at U.C. Santa Barbara who occasionally betrayed a slight Jersey accent, lived an easy, counterculture-type existence in those hills along that road and at the edge of that majestic body of water.
Often with surfboards in hand, Tom and friends would begin the descent from his treehouse residence, weaving rhythmically along the asphalt on long skateboards of recycled waterskis or solid wood planks hand shaped by Tom. At first, board technology and riding technique improved slowly, later spurred on with more fervor by the advent of the urethane wheel. To better simulate the surfing sensation, hardwood tailplates were attached, making tail-dragging bottom turns and cutbacks genuine weighting maneuvers rather than "sort of a balancing act." Walking the nose and impressive bottom turn spinners were a direct carry-overs from a the all-but-extinct brand of "longboard surfing." Spearing the hills at Montecito and running cones in a giant slalom setup brought to play Tom's snow skiing background as well. At the First Annual Santa BuenaVentura contest (a few miles to the South) in 1975, Tom took first in the hotdog competition and third in slalom, while fellow longboard enthusiast, Richard Vanderwyck managed seconds in both--and the greater skateboard community was introduced to the potentail dynamism and style of longboard skating.
It seems almost ironic now that from such humble beginnings the Sims skateboard empire would be born. Yet, the greater irony is that, except for relatively small pockets of surfers in Australia, Florida, Texas, and elsewhere, the vehicle which launched that thriving enterprise would be lost on the masses. As travelling skaters like Wally Inouye (a sometime longboarder himself) will attest, longboard skating has generally has not progressed at a pace with riding conventional-sized boards. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule.
Wally's longtime friend from Monterey Park, Brad Stradlund, for example is the best-known such example, followed closely by his skate partner, Ed Economy, and another longboard duo from L.A. County, John Mather and Sam Smith. Perhaps Los Angeles was the most logical place to pickup and expand on the Santa Barbara/Ventura longboard experience. With L.A.'s abundance of skate locales (basically, Santa Barbara only had the Tea Bowl) and energy and an absence of good, consistent surf, it seems inevitable that at least a few surf-oriented local skaters would make the connection. By all acounts, Brad, Ed, John, and Sam have made that link so well, their skating is doing as much to promote longboarding, at least in Southern California, as Tom's did four years ago. If a local resurgence is on the horizon, it is most directly a result of their common efforts.
"The only reason I was riding a longboard (in 1970) was because it felt like surfing."--Tom Sims
"I can relate longboarding to surfing. . .you have to torque your body as if you are riding a wave."--Brad Stradlund
Most latter-day longboarders would agree that little has changed in the fundamental concept behind their style of riding: longer (surfing-type) lines, speed and flow. In 1975, Sims made intense carves on the "perfect" walls of Santa Barbara's Tea Bowl and on the monstrous banks of the Brea Spillway. Today, Ed does the same along the rim of Upland's 15' Pro Bowl, as does Sam in Paramount's 17' Vertibowl (where he, incidentally, holds the record for the highest track). The terrains may have changed, especially in the slope of the walls (the Tea Bowl had no vertical, Upland's big bowl has 3-4' and Paramount's Vertibowl, 8-9') but the idea of surfing concrete hasn't. As John is fond of saying, "Why skate it when you can surf it?"
But while the basic thought has remained the same, what has evolved are specific, refined approaches within the greater framework of the art. The ever-vocal Ed Economy describes those stylistic nuances thusly: "To me Brad is the hottest longboarder for kickturning, wheelies, tail taps and stuff. He goes out an terrorizes and does things that people thought could only be done on little boards. I claim carving, flowing, because no one else can draw the lines I can on my 5' board . . . and John and Sam are like small wave attackers. You can always see them pop up and throw a mean carve or wild kickturn."
Part of the difference, as Ed suggests, lies in the equipment. Having changed from a 36" board to a 4 footer after reading Sims' "Who's Hot" three years ago, Ed, for example, is currently into 5" and above vehicles exclusively. In part, the reason for the extreme length has to do with a two-year-old knee injury which dictates fewer radical off-the-lips and more long carving and surf style footwork. And, curiously, part has to do with an apparent sense of exclusivity. Ed admits: "I made a 6' board recently because I saw somebody else with a five footer. If they get close to me again, I'm going to go so far up that they won't even be able to stand on it and turn." As crazy as it may sometimes seem, Ed can usually be held to his word.
John and Sam, by comparison, are riding the minimum length of what Ed would consider a true longboard--42". Sam who makes John's boards as well as his own, actually started off with a very narrow 48" board in 1972 (originally a poster stake with trucks and wheels nailed on). However, after riding Carlsbad for about a year and then moving on to Irvine (where he first inspired John to try a longboard), Sam eventually shaved off 6" for the sake of versatility in cramped spaces.
Brad, too, is aware of the limitations of excessive length, therefore settling comfortably at 44". It is at that approximate size, he says, that one has the best of both worlds--carving and whip turns. Still Brad concedes: "there's really more disadvantages than advantages when you're talking about the terrains people are skating now . . . like pools and tight parks, it's a lot harder."
Brad and Sam do attempt to minimize the disadvantages, however, by making their boards as light as possible. (Ed does not consider board weight a primary in his type of riding.) In both cases a lightweight wood is used--birch, ash or Douglas fir--and the bottom sides are routed thin, forming a bar down the middle. This usually allows adequate strength for usually a few months of hard skating, at which time the deck is either discarded or (as in the case of a board with some extraordinary inherent quality) a ritual taping process begins--with prayers to guard against an untimely (i.e. mid-run) breakbown.
If a longboard rennaissance is to occur in the near future, it will depend largely on the design of upcoming skate parks. At this point, most parks are too narrow and confining for skates over 36", let alone 4-5 footers. California does have Upland and Paramount. (Reportedly, Ed had a hand in the latter design.) And Florida has a few passable snake runs. Otherwise, a longboarder can get pretty frustrated . . . bottoming out just ain't no fun.
A hopeful sign, however, is that many skater/park designers are coming to the conclusion that the bigger, more simplistic contours are ultimately the most functional. A 22' wide half pipe may offer the longboarder two hundred possible lines and the short board rider, twice that many. If that philosophy means the new parks will have fewer runs, and, consequently, lower skater capacities, then that may be the necessary sacrifice for a good skate park.
According to Sam, such a facility might include a "three hundred yard long, perfecly round tube and a plexiglass top . . . then have that empty into a 20' vertical pool bowl." Plus for the sake of variety, "a good snake run that carries momentum so you can keep building speed through each turn." And that's it. The plan is essentially uncomplicated and the real creativity is left to the skater.
When and if skate environments become more accommodating and longboard interest surges, attention will undoubtedly return to the basics--the longboard itself. Board weight could be further reduced, for instance, through the use of plastics and honeycomb construction. A line of lonboard trucks might also be developed, although there is little consensus as to what sould constitute an improved system. (Group preferences presently include BFC's, Lazer Slalom, Midtracks, and Halftracks.) Or, then again, it could be that new vehicle design will be the impetus for longboardable parks. Ed speculates: "Someday someone will come up with such a hot, functional longboard that everybody will get into it. Even if they ride a little board, they'll want a longboard on the side. Like with surfing, you have your fish (a small, wide shape with two fins) for small waves and your gun for big waves."
And Ed just may be right. After all, longboarding is surfing, even if the waves are concrete.