Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to test ride just a load of different surf craft—shortboards, logs, hulls, fish, mid-lengths, kneeboards, SUPs, Bonzers, guns, handplanes, foil boards, olos, paipos, alaias, and even a Kookbox. The only thing I hadn’t ridden was a surf mat, which is sort of ridiculous, since the mat has been around for nearly eight decades and is arguably the easiest of all surf craft to travel with.
Like just about everyone else with an Instagram account, I saw the clip of Andrew Buck, aka the world's best surf mat rider, flying down the line at Rincon a few months back, passing surfers like they were standing still, and was intrigued by the concept of low-friction flow. But as tends to happen, I got busy with life and other pursuits, and never made the time to blow up a mat and take it out for a spin. Plus, I justified to myself, short of travelling to a point break I didn’t really feel that I had access to the sort of waves that a mat really thrives on.
This past month, I finally found myself in the promised land of right-hand point breaks, and when photographer Sarah Lee wasn’t looking I grabbed the G-Mat RFT she’d picked from the crew at Bing and paddled it out for a Oaxacan test ride. Little did I realise that I’d spend the majority of my sessions for the rest of that two-week trip streaking down the line on a glorified pool toy, working out the nuances of mat riding.
By the end of my first wave on the mat, I fully understood the appeal of these half-inflated nylon mattresses—unbridled fun. For the first time in years, I was enjoying riding waves just for the sake of riding waves, not thinking about performance or appearance or anything else equally ridiculous. And I was going fast—crazy fast!
My first ride was over a minute long, and I was hooting and hollering the whole time, going twice as fast on the soft, mushy right-hander than I’d gone on any of the other boards we’d brought on the trip. When the wave finally ended in a backwashy closeout, I hit the section and landed the first invert of my life—something I never thought I’d be excited about doing, since I haven’t been on a bodyboard since I was 11. I straightened out in the soup, beached myself in the shorebreak, and ran back to the top of the point as fast as I could.
Over the course of the next two weeks, I rode that mat on a wide variety of waves, ranging from soft and small to gutted-out, top-to-bottom barrels. I had my ass handed to me while trying to paddle out, got sucked over more times than I could count, and learned how to bear hug the mat while getting pounded so as to save myself from long swims in.
I toyed with tube riding, learned to tighten up the rail by squeezing the opposite side of the mat, and explored the limits (well, my limits, at least) of cutbacks and rail turns. And through it all, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.
As it turns out, a lot of people have been wearing that same smile for a long time—since 1932, in fact. That’s when Ernest Smithers, a doctor from Sydney, Australia, invented the surf-o-plane. The invention quickly took off at Bondi Beach, and within five years there was a surf mat division in the Australian Surfing Titles event.
Surf mats quickly blew up all over the world—literally—and in many cases were young groms’ first introduction to surfing. They were extremely popular through the 1960s, being ridden in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the US, and just about anywhere else a surf culture had developed. But then, in 1971, Tom Morey invented the bodyboard, and virtually overnight the surf mat disappeared from beaches.
Bodyboards have a few natural advantages over an inflated air mattress, of course—not the least of which is a rigid rail. Over the past 40 years, bodyboarders have been at the vanguard of tuberiding and slab exploration, and there is arguably no better craft upon which to surf thick, ultra-hollow barrels. Teahupoo, Ours, Shark Island—virtually every slab that we surf today was pioneered by bodyboarders, and you could make a good argument for their dominance in these types of waves, even today.
But bodyboards aren’t very efficient when it comes to fast, down-the-line point breaks where you need your craft to match the speed of the wave. Have you ever seen a bodyboard dominating at J-Bay or Rincon? There’s a reason bodyboarders ride slabs instead of points, and it’s because boogs don’t generate a ton of speed on their own, and are pretty damned boring on a long, drawn out wall.
Fortunately, George Greenough never got sucked into the bodyboard movement. Based around the world-class points of Byron Bay and nearby Lennox Head, he stayed true to the surf mat throughout the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, leading a small army of throwbacks who kept the counter-culture alive. And when the Ride Everything renaissance of the 2000s finally put surfing back on track, Greenough and his acolytes were there to remind us all of how much fun a half-inflated nylon mattress can be.
The thing that Greenough (and modern mat disciples like Dave Rastovich) understood is that the less inflated a mat is, the lower the drag as it’s streaking across the surface of the water—and in waves that don’t provide a lot of speed (ie, soft to moderate point breaks), drag is the ultimate fun killer. But with the drag removed from the equation (or at least as much of it as possible), surf mats are able to thrive where other surf craft bog, riding at virtually inconceivable speeds through flat sections that would otherwise be boring as shit.
Obviously there are conditions where the mat isn’t ideal, and times when you simply want to ride a board instead. But that’s the whole point of having a quiver and an open mind—you always have options, depending on the conditions and your mood on any given day. In other words, I won’t be selling any of my other boards anytime soon—I still want to noseride a log and get barrelled on a step-up, to high-line a fish and get better at flying on a foil. But you can be damned sure that I won’t be leaving home without a surf mat in my bag ever again. Let the unbridled fun begin!