I’m black, I’m female and I surf. When I paddle out at a spot where people don’t know me, I’m met with stares, silent curiosity, whispering and, ultimately, smiles. Those reactions used to unnerve me when I first started surfing. Over the years, I’ve gotten to the place where I don’t always notice the reactions of others when I enter the water.
Then I started riding a mat. (Cue every surfer within a 200 yard radius turning to see who I am and what exactly I think I’m doing out there on that inflatable pool toy.)
It’s difficult to know where to begin a conversation about mats. Does one continue to invoke the name of George Greenough, only to be met with blank stares from those who don’t know their surf history? Or does one just tell it like it is, knowing that those ubiquitous blank stares will always accompany the allure of the “magic towel”?
Simply put, I find riding the mat experientially more engaging than riding a surfboard. It’s difficult to explain, but I will make a feeble attempt at enlightening the uninitiated. (Yes, I know my education is showing. I’ll put it away now.)
Whenever I’m on a mat, I can’t help but think, “This shit is so much fun!” The mat is a game-changer. When my favorite winter spot decided that it wanted to fill itself with thick beds of kelp that prevented anyone from going left at all (which is a nightmare when you’re a goofy who had always celebrated collecting all of the lefts since most people who surfed there felt the right was a better wave), I was heartbroken. The rights soon became a crowded mess; paddle battles became the norm for a right that was surfable, but littered with kelp nonetheless.
It was that spot that turned me into a bona fide rider of surf mats. After trying to surf a board at this spot a few times this winter, I publicly lamented the situation there (“publicly” meaning on Facebook, of course). A very smart man said, “Ride your mat.” Ride my mat? But the lineup is too far from the shore. I’ll never make it out there. And I don’t even know how to really ride this thing. People will laugh. My excuses were many.
Finally, a day came when I arrived at this break only to spy one person in the water. I could take a board into the small takeoff zone and go right for a couple of hours. Then again, I could take my mat into the kelp and go whichever way I chose, knowing all of those waves would be mine regardless of how many people with boards eventually showed up. The decision was an easy one, and my life as a rider of waves changed for the better after that session. My mind was blown. I likened the way I felt after that session to how Timothy Leary must have felt after his first acid trip.
That was the day when I finally got what riding a mat was all about. That was the day when I was blessed with the time and the space to ride prone on waves with wide open faces. That was the day I saw the ocean like I’d never seen it before.
These days, I ride the mat at any spot that looks good to me. It’s not uncommon for me to begin my sessions on a surfboard, but finish them on a mat. This seems to amuse people. Well, I’m amused by it myself. I seem to easily divide my loyalties between my surfboards and my mats. When I’m standing on a surfboard, I am the queen of all I survey. I am surfer, hear me roar as I (usually) stand above the waves that do my bidding. On a mat, though, I am almost a part of that wave. I’m neither looking down nor looking up. I’m looking straight ahead, watching the wave form, feeling it contort, picking up speed and grinning from ear to ear.
I’m not trying to convert anyone to our almost secretive society of mat riders. I ride mats for reasons that I still can’t fully explain with the spoken or written word. The one thing I can say unequivocally is that riding a mat is the closest I’ve come to having a transcendent experience while surfing a wave. The experience is one that a surfboard can’t replicate. Ever. So, please, don’t laugh at me and my mat, and I won’t laugh at you and your surfboard.