Some time ago, shortly after watching old footage of Peter Crawford absolutely ripping on a kneeboard, I attempted my own entry into the world of alternative craft. Living on the North Shore, breaks are often crowded, and even on the most epic of days, the experience can feel… well… mainstream. All but save for one or two surfers in the lineups ride thrusters, and even those who experiment with fin configurations are still on their feet, surfing.
That was it. I wanted something different, so I put out a wanted ad for a kneeboard: if anyone on the entire island could sell me one, I’d take it. Who cares if it was old or weird or whatever. Alternative craft was meant to be a misfit activity, right?
People’s conceptions of alternative wave riding, also known as fringe surfing, is that these people are weird. For historical context, Matt Warshaw writes that “for awhile there, because of George Greenough, it was like you almost had to be a misfit to ride a kneeboard. Fish innovator Steve Lis was introduced to the surfing world in a magazine profile simply titled ‘Mysto Man’… Peter Crawford of Australia, who pranced around cackling and talking in riddles, like an Alice in Wonderland refugee. And then suddenly kneeboarders just . . . vanished. Raptured away from the rest of surfing, it seemed like. I lived in the Bay Area from 1991 to 2011, and except for a couple of deeply-bearded survivalists up in Mendocino County, rarely saw a kneeboarder.”
So, what happened? Why couldn’t I find a kneeboard on the entire island of Oahu? Why do you never see people on bellyboards or surf mats or anything other than bleach-white surfboards?
To gain insight, I turned to two experts in alternative craft: Steven Halpin, who’s 52, surfed 221 times last year, and runs Real Surfing Magazine in the UK; and Ryan Kleinert, who runs the account @fringesurfers_newengland with a goal of uniting fringies in the region.
Steven, can you tell me about Real Surfing Mag?
Real Surfing Magazine was created because I didn’t feel there was a magazine that I related to. I don’t care about contest results. I don’t want to see two thirds of a mag adverts, either. Sometimes mags can be too arty farty for my taste, so I just started my own printed magazine. I never thought it would actually take off.
It’s called ‘Real Surfing Magazine’ because it’s aimed at real-world surfers, not the one percent of rippers, contest junkies and full of the usual boat trips to places you probably won’t ever go. I also don’t allow industry advertising in there, and feature lots of big names, but everything is contributions based, it’s not for money, it’s for the love of it.
Last issue we connected with George Greenough and he gave us an incredible interview as he loves the mag. In the past we have had so many surfing legends give us their time, it’s very humbling. The next one has Bob McTavish, Mike Stewart, Paul Gross, Kevin Svarna, and another piece George has written for us.
Ryan, how are you uniting fringe surfers in New England?
In New England they’re generally hard to come by compared to Hawaii, the UK, and California. I was interested in finding folks who also enjoyed surfing waves differently and created the IG page @fringesurfers_newengland.
I am thankful to Steven Halpin (Real Surfing Magazine) for using his IG page (@fringesurfing) to get the word out early on. Slowly, New England fringe surfers started to connect!
The UK and California have a rad history of organizing fringe slide meet ups and ‘mat meets’ and I thought it would be super fun to try and bring a little bit of that to New England. I try to unite other bodysurfers/mat surfers, by announcing meetups so folks can get to know each other in person.
The Instagram page has also become a platform to make fringe surfing more visible, express and amplify important messages like diversity, inclusion, respect for the ocean, and, of course, highlight my love for mats.
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What was your introduction to fringe surfing?
Steven: I’ve always had a curious eye on mats, bodysurfing, and bellyboarding, but it wasn’t until the movie Come Hell or High Water that I actually acted upon it. It hyped me up. A guy from Holland gifted me a handplane and I had some crappy fins laying around so I thought I’d ditch the board for once and went for a bodysurf. I was terrible, and I ditched it again.
However, I was going on a surf trip to Sri Lanka and took a handplane, fins, and a wooden bellyboard with me as the waves can be crappy at times, and I’m glad I did as it saved my trip. I was hooked. I caught a beautiful hollow wave with my handplane and I got that ‘feeling’. It was intense and gave me a huge buzz of accomplishment and I never looked back. Since that trip, I’d say I ‘fringe’ surf eight out of 10 surfs now!
Ryan: I started surfing boards as a grom over 25 years ago in New Jersey, but before boards, I was bodysurfing. Experiencing the ocean’s energy at a young age, and from my perspective, in the most intimate and immersed way, was the catalyst that cultivated my deep passion for waves and surfing.
Bodysurfing established a strong foundation of wave knowledge and awareness that made the transition to board surfing easier and way more enjoyable. It also opened my mind to surfing waves differently.
Why are you drawn to alternative craft?
Steven: I was initially drawn with the new feelings and seeing different lines and being on different parts of the wave. I’ve surfed for almost 40 years and even in surfing I liked to surf ‘alternative’ boards like twinnies and single fins, bonzers, etc., when no one would be seen dead on them. Then I found there were others just like me and the sense of community that comes from meeting others into the same thing is just like surfing used to be before its mass marketing and industry takeover.
It feels punk, radical, and I’ve always been drawn to that, but without exception, everyone I’ve ever met on the fringe of surfing are super stoked and so happy to see others into the same thing as them.
It’s so refreshing from surfing where everyone is so damn selfish, grumpy and entitled these days. I still love surfing with all my heart, but I don’t love surfers. It really opened my eyes and I wish I’d found it years ago but hey, no regrets.
Ryan: To answer that, I think I need to dive into why I surf. For me, surfing is a spiritual pursuit that connects me with the wildness of the ocean. I surf to experience the energy of waves. Alternative surf craft, especially mats, harnesses and transfers energy in a way that boards are not capable of.
For me, surfing is about dancing with the wave and experiencing the magic from flying at warp speed on a mat while holding a high line or dropping down the face of a wave with just my body and a pair of fins. On rare occasions, I still surf boards, but the sensation and feeling that I spent a long time searching for on a board is found on a mat over and over again.
What has been your best fringe surfing experience?
Steven: I’d say it’s the community ‘slides’ that we hold here in Cornwall, UK. I put the shout out on my socials and word of mouth and sometimes just 10 turn up, sometimes 40 fringe surfers arrive, and we surf together, hooting, sharing waves and swallow a lot of water due to laughing so much. The total opposite to when I jump back on my surfboard.
When we meet up, it’s always party waves and everyone knows it, it’s so liberating. It’s for fun and there have never been ill feelings. The waves don’t have to be particularly good for us to have a blast.
Thinking about it, I don’t believe I’ve ever had a bad surf on the fringe, the right craft for the conditions is key. Always grabbing the surfboard no matter what is a recipe for many failed surfs.
Ryan: Fringe culture is about deep stoke, camaraderie, creativity, and abandoning ego, so my favorite experiences revolve around that. Many of us hadn’t had the opportunity to surf with others who enjoy alternative surf craft until the first fringe meet up.
The quiver included mats, hand planes, paipos, trays – many of which were handcrafted and all of which were shared and swapped amongst us. Party waves were encouraged, and the surfing complimented the waves and one another’s lines.
I also absolutely love mat surfing while my partner is bodysurfing. Sharing waves with her while holding a high line is probably one of my favorite experiences. At the moment, there are very few year-round/winter bodysurfers in New England and even fewer that are women. I’m always super stoked to see her charge set waves and call off the resin heads.
And the best type of fringe surfing?
Steven: I’d say no way is better than another, it’s down to personal taste and the conditions. I think mat surfing is the most difficult despite people thinking it looks easy. It’s the most challenging and frustrating surf craft but when it comes alive, it buries itself into your soul and blows your mind.
Bodysurfing I love in bigger surf, personally, and get barreled a crazy amount. Don’t make it out of many, but on your body, you get the mat barrel vision a lot and the connection with the water is different, too, as you’re actually in the water and there’s something about swimming that really appeals.
Bellyboarding or paipos are my go-to in small clean surf or crappy onshores. You can get the best surf from awful conditions with low expectations and again, get a lot of tube time being so low down. It’s always overhead in the prone zone and the speed is insane on a simple plank of wood. I love it.
Do you think fringe surfing is growing in popularity?
Steven: I would definitely say ‘fringe’ surfing is growing. There are pockets of rad individuals all over the world and obviously more so in surfer-populated areas. Mainstream? I very much doubt it. Everyone wants to surf ‘footboards’: they’ve been sold the dream. If you look at any populated surf area, how many are on alternative surfcraft? One in a 100? One in a 1,000?
There’s way too much ego and blinkered thinking for surfers to turn to other ways of sliding waves and that’s just fine. Plus, there’s not much money to be made from it, so it’ll remain purer.
Ryan: I’m not sure! If fringe surfing does grow in popularity, I hope it happens independently of big industry and in a way that subverts the commercialized, mainstream, bro-surf culture.
People have been bodysurfing, surfing paipos, and playing in waves on a variety of surfcraft for a very, very long time. I think a lot of folks care too much about what other people think for fringe surfing to take off. Jonathan Steinberg said it best, “If it looked half as cool as it felt everyone would be doing it.”