”Surprised and scarified I saw that longboard heading for my head, I was just able to go under and could prevent getting my skull smashed.”
Slightly agitated, I continued my surf session at Byron Bay. When I came out of the water I noticed more people were not wearing leg ropes. In Australia it somehow also divided the Surf community in two groups, see recent press article in the Telegraph.
In this article Tim Jones, EASD Scout, ISA/SGB Surf trainer and assessor, Director of Surf School Lanzarote, will take us on a journey of the history, and the pros/cons of using leg ropes. Tim will be presenting and involved in the upcoming Conference and Academy in Ireland, check out his speaker profile here.
I remember the first surf leashes in the early 70’s arriving on the shores of Europe and the dismay and disregard we treated them with. In South Wales, for a good year ,we called them “sissy straps” until the eventful day we first saw one of our top Welsh surfers and also later Welsh and European Champion, Pete Bounds surfing the “The Esp” in Porthcawl wearing one. This spot had long been looked at but we knew the loss of the board would mean its sure destruction on the nearby sea wall. But there it was … the spot was being ridden and when Pete lost his board we all gasped as he easily kept it with him … not so “sissy” we thought.
And that’s why we had leashes, not really for convenience or the safety of others but to help us surf spots where the loss of a board would mean that board’s ultimate damage or destruction. But we paid a price! Firstly we needed to convert our leash less boards to the new system. My first was hand-held with a resin sucker on the nose … I hated it and in fact stopped using it. But then the tail leashes came in and our boards were converted by adding leash pugs to the tail (giant toilet bowl type things) or, like many, drilling holes in the fins. Quite an awful thing to do to a board but quick and easy. The best system was the fin roving’s , that’s the fiberglass that’s used to glass fins on, and this, glassed onto the deck at the tail in a small loop, worked very well. Some retro board makes are still using this system.
But the leashes themselves were deadly. Made of surgical tubing, or as we used in Europe, “bungee cord”. The board after a wipe out stretched to the end of the elasticity and then shot back at you at 100 km/hr, and for some reason it was always coming back at your head! I can’t remember how many close calls I had with my board flying across the surface of the water at my head and of course the irony of it all was that Jack O’Neill, of O’Neill wetsuit fame, lost his left eye when a board sprung back at him surfing the Hook in Santa Cruz. His son, Pat, had been the modern leashes’ inventor. Oh it’s not that new by the was, the late great Tom Blake invented them in the 30’s but got rid of the idea as he found it dangerous and better to swim.
Then in the mid 70’s, we went to surgical tubing with some nylon rope in it that limited the recoil and that did help quite a bit but it’s interesting to note that due to the leashes dangers many surfers chose not to use them in the first few years and nearly all of us still tried to grab at boards during wipe outs. You see we were used to doing that, but the bloody leashes scared us too. Hanging on was still a safe way to go and I wonder what the hospitals thought of those turning up with facial injuries due to these awful elastic things.
Slowly they evolved into the comfortable neoprene and urethane techno things they are these days. I love the fact I can choose the thickness of the urethane for the type of waves I ride and the different sizes for the different length boards I use, and yes … there are still tons of places I just can’t surf without using one and of course I can commit to moments on the wave where there is a good chance I will lose my board. Also there is that moment out in big waves where I just know that a duck dive will mean annihilation and if there is no one behind me then I will make like a sub with air to surface missiles coming in and chuck and DIVE DIVE DIVE!
So, I like leashes … and I hate them too! I know so many folks who are out there learning and some even with good surf experience who frankly would drown without that silly bit of urethane cord. They base their whole safety on the thing. My old friend of 72 did same a few years ago … leash broke ..he died. He never swam that well. We are swimmers and good ones too I hope. I watch surfers throw boards when frankly there is no need whatsoever to do so and a good bit of duck dive or turtle roll technique would have worked. Also the awful consequences when the don’t look behind them before they throw because they are panicking, and the boards fly at those trapped behind them. These days I take my coaching advice and try to never paddle behind others. Especially the ones I don’t know and I was totally shocked in the Maldives recently to have an experienced tow in surfer throw the board with a kitten of a 4 ft wave coming at him and me behind him. Has the jet-ski pick-up and the leash changed our survival psyche in some?
Swim swim swim, my first surf lesson given by a great surfer and lifeguard from Oz. He had me swimming and running on the beach before I even got the board in my hand. He had to know if I had the right water skills to start surfing. However, when I teach my clients, I coach that the leash is not a safety device; Certainly, never to be held in the hand, fingers can be lost, and will never replace good swimming ability.
But I also tell them if they find a quite stretch of beach one day with no one around … take that bloody leash off and surf . After about the 3rd or 4th swim in they will suddenly find their balance starts to improve and their last moment board grabbing skills too! Wonder why a pro at a beach break will often get rid of the leash in training? Well it makes you pull each maneuver with control and commitment knowing that one slip is not only a scoring ride lost but precious time in a heat. Swimming is the fitness part of that plan.
But back to our Australian article about retro boards and mals being used in crowded situation like the Pass in Byron. It’s just not sensible in my opinion to do so and injuries that could be avoided are far more ready to happen. I remember the late 60’s and the mals flying in on the British beaches into the swimmers. Bless them, they tried to help and be cool by stopping the board for you as you swam in. Always they seemed to be from Birmingham, Manchester or London, and always it seemed to smack them right between the eyes. Loose boards are dangerous not cool. I love to surf without a leash especially on mals but never do so with others around. Luckily I have 6 km of empty beach at times to use but that’s rare and normally the leash goes on. I do know it improves my board control skills to surf with no leash and feels nice and soulful but I am not going to please myself at the expense of others safety.
Bad uses of leashes can make boards as dangerous as no leash at all, but taking chances with others safety for me is a non-starter. Wear it with respect for others, your board, and lastly for yourself … in my opinion.