For some reason, kneeboarding has enthralled me of late so I’ve been on the hunt to find someone who still practices the art (all part of my investigation into the fringe surfing scene). During the search, I became acquainted with Mikey Ratt. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who can match Mikey’s knowledge and enthusiasm for alternative wave riding: you might recognize the popular Instagram account Lower Powered or the independent, alternative wave-craft zine by the same name.
Or perhaps you’ve been inside the core, San Diego fringe surf shop, Pack Ratt Records. Packed to the gills with retro shapes, vintage kneeboards, and even a shaping bay, it’s a floor-to-ceiling display of wave-riding history. Frequented by the likes of Joel Tudor and Lachie Lansdown, Pack Ratt isn’t just for the pros. It’s for the self-proclaimed weirdos, cult-like fringe surfers, and kids interested in shaping their own wave-riding vehicles.
And the man behind it all, Mikey Ratt, was kind enough to let us pick his brain about kneeboarding, fringe surf history, and San Diego wave riding, and about his own experience in the community: both in and out of the water.
How did you get into fringe surfing?
I got into knee boarding because I was really bad at going right, and a lot of the points I prefer to surf are right-handers, so I started kneeboarding because there is no right or left on a kneeboard. But before that, I was into paipos: I would build them myself, take them to a beach break and get close out barrels. Just having fun like a little kid!
What do you like most about riding alternative craft?
I dig the egoless side of alternative surf crafter: paipos, kneeboards, mats… It’s goofy in and of itself, walking down the beach with a blowup mattress or a little tiny kick board. People look at you like you’re strange and weird. It just drops your ego down and makes you goof around, have fun, and be stoked on just the sheer fact that you’re in the water playing.
Are there other fringe surfers near you?
I have a pretty big crew of friends who are into weird crafts. We build them, ride them, and try to turn other people on to them.
My buddy Justin, aka “the dingdonger,” makes beautiful spoons and weird boards. Also, my friend Scotty from Wildwood Surfboards makes amazing spoons, paipos, and kneeboards. I pretty much learned how to shape from him. We share a shaping bay in my shop in Pack Ratt Records. We built a little shaping bay for our friend Mike Griffin, he was a big influence on us. He was a kneeboarder who passed on recently and we keep the shaping bay going.
I’m making kneeboards and other crafts, and I help kids with these crafts, too. That room isn’t to shape for money, it’s to shape for fun. If kids hit me up and want to learn how to shape, I’ll help them. I can tell, right off the bat, the vibe of the kid: more artsy, quiet, wants to get into kneeboarding and make their own board.
Are you seeing more interest from the youth in alternative wave riding? Is this something you enjoy passing on to new generations?
Yes. If a kid comes to me and he’s serious about making a board, and it’s an obscure, weird board, I get stoked. Makes me think there’s hope for the future yet. I guess, if I’m trying to pass on anything, it’s keeping me going and keeping alternative surf craft alive with the youth. Making surfboards and testing them out is what it’s all about.
Anybody can go to the mall and buy a shitty surfboard, but making a board yourself and getting different reactions and different feelings from it is where it’s at. Paipo riding, knee boarding, and mat surfing is definitely making a comeback with younger kids these days. They’re seeing the value of just playing in the water and not taking surfing so seriously.
Favorite story about helping a kid shape?
My friend Hunter came to me asking if I could help him build a spoon, and I agreed to it. Hunter came to me at the right time: my good friend had just passed away and I needed something to get out of my head. He was a kneeboarder who encouraged me to shape and help kids.
Hunter and I spent about a month working on this spoon together, but first I made him clean the entire shaping room. That was fun. Right when we finished the board, there was a little swell, so we took out both our spoons, mine and his, and we went to this reef where it could get pretty hairy sometimes! And we both got waves on his spoon.
Do you think fringe surfing is growing or going more mainstream?
A little bit. It is starting to get more mainstream. People are catching on. They are realizing that standing up is not the only way to go. You can do all kinds of stuff: body surfing, ride mats and paipos… but I believe surfing will always have an ego.
People think standing up is the only cool way to surf. It’s been like that since I was a little kid. When I first started in the ’80s, you were considered a kook if you did anything but stand up. That ego is embedded in surfing. Only the true weirdos and outcasts find fringe surfing.
Best fringe surfing experience?
Oh, man. I can go on for hours on this one, but I’ll tell you a recent one. My buddy Scott, who I mentioned earlier, moved to Idaho and came back to San Diego recently just to hang out with his family. I swooped him up and dragged him down to a local reef that we used to surf a lot together. Mind you, he hasn’t been in the water for a while, so we took out our surf mats and it was the most magical session. There were three other guys on mats out, we all shared waves, did crossover’s landing on top of each other, got super-fun, long waves… it was amazing.
On one particular wave, Scott dropped in a little further down the line, and I was really deep. I planked out to go as fast as I possibly could and caught up to him. He highlined the wave and ended up airdropping onto my back, grabbed my wetsuit, and rode me all the way into the beach. We laughed our asses off. It was such a good day.
By the way, that’s what fringe surfing is about: having fun with your friends! There is no burning each other. Mat surfing in general, they’re like bumper cars in the water. That’s where it’s at! And it’s slowly starting to become a thing with people who don’t want to deal with the bro culture of surfing. Riding alternative craft, no one can even say anything, and you’re having a blast! All the surfers in the water are all stuffy, and you’re smiling, going as fast as you can.
It seems like fringe surfing is both an individual and a group activity?
Anywhere you go, at any break in the world – especially in this country – there’s a lone kneeboarder. I’ve been all over. I’ve run into kneeboarders in the middle of nowhere who walk up to you and say, “how old are you?” and freak out! My shop has brought some of the most underground kneeboarders out of the woodworks, they talk to me for hours and bring me old photos of them and just get so stoked someone is actually into knee boarding still! It’s a dying breed of surfers, but more and more young kids are getting into it, starting to dig it again.
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You mentioned that kneeboarding is a lost or dying art. What do you mean by that?
Well, kneeboarding is considered “not cool” to the typical, mainstream, everyday surfer. A lot of the older guys grew up and started standing up surfing because you got shit from other surfers. “Stand up, half-man!” was a common insult used in the lineup. And, the old school kneeboarders just got old and quit, so kneeboarding got more underground. But there’s no denying it: kneeboarding was the template for modern shortboard surfing. Well, it started with George Greenough and took off from there.
Your shop is packed full of wave riding history. What’s the San Diego kneeboarding scene like currently? Is there a deep history of kneeboarding in SD?
San Diego is one of the birthplaces of kneeboard riding and has a deep underground kneeboard scene. I mean, Steve Lis was from here, he built the first keel fish here in Ocean Beach, and his kneeboard style is what I consider to be the best. Low grab rail fast down the line, super late air drops and tube rides, which is the true San Diego kneeboard style.
What is the process of making your Lower Powered magazine? Has it been well received?
Well, the zine is something I’ve been talking about for years. I basically found this old T-shirt and wanted to reproduce it to make it say “lower powered” instead of higher powered. When I finally got the zine going, it was because of that: my birthday present from my girlfriend. She dedicated the entire day to going through my crazy collection of old photos, historical facts on kneeboarding, and stuff I’ve collected over the years. We spent the day busting the first zine out in Desert Hot Springs, at her house. It was amazing and super fun, and it came out really cool. Now, it’s a thing. I basically just hit up old kneeboarders, do my research, and find fun things to write about. We did a kneeboard, paipo, and mat issue. That was the first one. The second one was all about mat surfing. It was in correlation to the mat meet up we did in Ocean Beach, San Diego. Over 100 people showed up, girls and guys.
In what ways is fringe surfing an individual pursuit? In what ways is it a community?
Alternative surfing is a weird little community. Anywhere you go, on any beach, there’s going to be an old guy who’s going to walk up to you because you have your flippers and your kneeboard, or a mat, or even a paipo. They’re going to say, “Hey, what do you know about that?” or give you some kind of funny story. I just went out to the mountains, to go take this board I cut up and made a new kneeboard out of. While walking through the parking lot, an old gentleman said, “is that a kneeboard?” I laughed. I said, “yes, I made it myself for the snow,” and of course he said he was an old kneeboarder from Pacific Beach. He was Rod Knee Boards in the 70’s. We totally struck up a conversation just because I had some beautiful kneeboard in my hand at the snow. Pretty funny, it’s like a fraternity. An underground cult of weirdos on the same pursuit for lower powered surfing.
What advice would you give people interested in trying other types of wave riding besides surfing?
Well, my advice would just be to go do it! Go find a spot that’s not too crowded, take a mat out or a kick board and just go have fun. It’s all about the feeling, it’s not about what you look like doing it or what the actual craft is. It’s about the feeling you get out of it.
I’ve been out in two-foot, tiny, little surf on my kickboard, and gotten perfect, hollow barrels – laughing my ass off, right there on the shore, in the shallows, with a little kid’s toy. People look at me like I’m crazy, but I was the one having the most fun, and that’s truly what it’s about.