Date: Late 1960s and Early 1970s
Location: Santa Cruz, California
Moment: Pat O’Neill introduces the earliest form of the surfboard leash, setting a course for innovative design that would eventually lead to the urethane and Velcro setup of today.
“I’m just a surfer who wanted to build something that would allow me to surf longer.” – Jack O’Neill
There are a lot of surfing families, and many that are viewed and revered as surf royalty, but rarely have they been as innovative and influential as the O’Neill clan from California. The patriarch, Jack O’Neill, brought the wetsuit into our community’s lexicon. His son, Pat, went on to introduce the earliest form of the surfboard leash. These are two now near-essentials that belong in a range of setups from beginner to shredder, and without the implementation of them into our shared practices, the sport wouldn’t have evolved to what it currently is. However, the leash wasn’t always as widely accepted as it is today.
In fact, at the 1971 Malibu Invitational, Pat was laughed out of the event for wearing what his peers deemed a “kook cord.” At the time, the earliest predecessor to the urethane and Velcro setup we utilize now was a questionable contraption of surgical tubing wrapped around the wrist, attached to the board by a suction cup. From the infamous Santa Cruz breaks with their rocky waterways the surfboard leash rose as an insurance policy of sorts, protecting us from the costly breakage and occasional loss of the boards themselves. Yet many believed that a surfer needed to learn lessons from mistakes, lessons often taught by swimming massive lengths in chase, or collecting sizable dings and even straight breaks on their board.
And as much as these kook cords were disapproved by a majority of these surfers, the devices also proved to be a danger to the people wearing them, including none other than Jack O’Neill. On a gnarly fall, this early setup snapped and whipped towards Jack’s face, costing him his left eye. He has worn an eye patch ever since.
But soon enough, with a little tweaking, an iteration of the surfboard leash began slipping their way into lineups… and magazines. Larry Block of Block Enterprises was among the first to sell them. The first advertisement, in Surfing magazine, had them wholesaled for $5. Block used a bungee cord in place of the surgical tubing, decreasing the stretch (and potential for snapping and whipping), and decided that it would be much less obstructive to his actual surfing if he wrapped it around his ankle. And instead of a suction cup, it was attached to the board by a hole in the fin. These bungee cords were safer than surgical tubing, but still did its fair share of damage. The cords would pull tight around the ankle, cutting off blood flow. And the coarse ropes would not only damage the surfer but the board, rubbing into the fiberglass and resin. Therefore the next step was a leather or webbing strap to wrap around the ankle. And rather than poking holes in fins and subsequently putting unnecessary stress on the fiberglass and resin build, people began experimenting with leash cups and resin/fiberglass bridges on the decks.
It wasn’t until 1977 that the current urethane design as patented. In 1972, David Hattrick, an Australian surfer, built a prototype for what he would eventually patent in order to surf the isolated Cactus break in the Great Australian Bight. This prototype would evolve when he moved to and settled in the Margaret River area. Australian Patent 505,451 would be developed under Pipe Lines surfing products, and the final design would go on to win the Australian Design Award in 1979. Also during the late seventies, companies like Cadillac Surf Company (arguably the first to produce urethane surfboard leashes) and Control Products and Balin were similarly making forward-thinking leashes, replacing leather and webbing straps with Velcro. And thus came about the urethane and Velcro setup.
Despite the more common use of surfboard leashes, there are many people who are opposed to them, namely purists and more specifically longboarders who complain that it impedes their abilities to ride the wave and walk the board. There are also those who also that leashes encourage less-skilled surfers to paddle out to breaks they wouldn’t have before. And danger still looms: a small number of surfers have drowned after their leashes became tangled on an underwater rock or reef, and although advances have been made, recoil remains as issue. In contrast, there are less stray boards flying uncontrollably towards other surfers, and big-wave riders have claimed that “climbing” the leash has saved their own lives on a number of nasty wipeouts.
The leash continues to evolve — quick-release, rail-savers, etc. — as many surf products do. And whatever side of the conversation you find yourself on, it is impossible to deny the innovative and influential role it has had in surf. With this insurance policy, surfers are able to push the limits, taking surf higher, bigger, and ultimately further.