A few years ago, I taught kids how to surf for a few months at a surf camp. I was in the middle of a very strange summer interning at Surfer, living out of my truck, wandering aimlessly, and pretending I wasn’t living in a truck. One of the kids at the surf camp was a young kneeboarder.
He was about 12, just entering that weird pre-teen stage that precedes the bumbling, voice-cracking, acne-filled awkward years of teenagerdom. He was some kind of national champion, if I remember correctly, which I usually don’t, and surfed so much better than every other kid in that camp. He also took way more shit than every other kid because of the fact that he didn’t quite stand up, but that little kid could absolutely rip. That was the first time I’d really seen a decent kneelo in person and, despite the fact that he was a far better surfer than anyone else in the camp, he basically ostracized by everyone except his little sister, which kind of made it worse.
Kneeboarding, though, was an integral part of today’s surfing–from progression to design, stand up surfers wouldn’t be where they are today without their legless brothers. It really came into popularity back in the ’60s, but after nearly two decades of almost making it, it began to fade out. By the ’90s, kneeboarders were scarce, which is why seeing a little kneeboarder kid in a surf camp was so surprising.
Just like their prone brethren, bodyboarders, kneeboarders were a lot gnarlier than most surfers. There are a few reasons for this, I think, but the most obvious is simple: kneeboards and bodyboards are far more maneuverable than surfboards. Another vaguer reason is that those who are attracted to outlier facets of a sport already thought of as an outlier sport are more likely to do crazy shit. That little kid at the surf camp? He pulled into anything and everything with no hesitation. I saw him slam harder than every other kid in any surf camp I’ve ever been involved with. And always, without fail, he’d come up with a slightly crazed glint in his eye and a shit-eating grin plastered onto his face.
So how’d kneeboarding influence the way we all surf today? Well, as always, it only really takes a few to incite a riot. Among those few are names like Simon Farrer and Rex Huffman, not that you’ve heard of them. But you have heard of George Greenough and Steve Lis–both of whom played a very big role in surfing’s story. Both also happened to ride kneeboards. Greenough, in particular, rode them so well that he inspired “a five-year effort by stand-up surfers to try and ride waves the way [he] did,” according to Matt Warshaw and the Encylopedia of Surfing. That five-year period is also known as the shortboard revolution, and it all started from a guy who chose not to stand up.
Greenough’s vehicle of choice was a very strange craft. About five feet in length, it had a semi-flexible tail and a large single fin. Called the Spoon, Greenough made that board do things never-before-seen in surfing.
Then, of course, there was Steve Lis, who not only invented what is now known as a fish, also had a direct influence on the popularity of the thruster. Without Lis, Simon Anderson probably wouldn’t have added that all important center fin and turned the whole surfing world on its head at Bells Beach in 1981.
Anderson can’t take all the credit, though: in 1980, he noticed that a shaper from Narrabeen named Frank Williams had added a small crescent shaped mini fin at the back of his twin-fin, creating more stability on harder turns. Anderson took his idea and ran with it, building a square-tailed board with three fins, all the same size. He called it the thruster, for obvious reasons: the newfound thrust off of turns was unparalleled by anything before it. Although three finned surfboards were nothing new – bonzers, consisting of one large center fin and two smaller side fins, made their way into lineups in the early ‘70s – the simple development of identical-sized fins made all the difference. But it never would have happened without two kneelos who had the talent and the knowledge to not only shape strange boards–for the time, at least–but the future of surfing itself.
I didn’t really know any of kneeboarding’s history when I first met that little kid at the surf camp. The fact that he chose to ride a strange surfboard at a time in his life when being different is a very, very hard thing to do speaks volumes. Lis and Greenough’s inventiveness and willingness to simply try new things shaped what the masses are doing today. So next time you see someone doing something a little out of the ordinary, don’t be a sheep like those other kids at the surf camp. Be the kid on the kneeboard… you never know what effect you might be having on the future.