In recent years, the glut of longboards and midlengths has brought about a new class of surfers: those who may be tempted to free up their footwork and honor tradition by sliding sans cord. Going leashless can improve one’s connection to the board and demonstrate a mastery of the craft. All that goes out the window, however, when an errant board careens through the lineup like a Trident missile.
To learn more about the finer points of where, when, and how to go cordless, we caught up with the demigoddess of alternative equipment herself, Leah Dawson. “It’s a tricky thing in our world. As our lineups become more crowded, it also increases the risk of not wearing a leash — it’s scary,” Dawson says. “Sometimes you see people that shouldn’t be out without a leash, or people that have all the skill in the world that still endanger people. There’s always a time and a place for it.”
Leashless Surfing is a Game Unto Itself
First off, Dawson says her primary concern is always the safety of others. If anyone’s out, you better be damn sure you’re not going to let go of that heavily glassed craft and its 6-inch kukri knife. “Definitely make sure there’s no keiki around,” says the native Floridian who is presently located on the North Shore.
“When you go leashless, the whole session becomes a game in itself of being connected. You have to decide if you want a session solely focused on staying with your board, or if you just want to be free to ride waves.”
Dawson always uses a leash with shortboards unless the waves are minuscule and uncrowded and she can’t be bothered to Velcro up. “The only reason to not wear a leash is if you’re doing footwork the leash inhibits.”
Work Up To It
Dawson first started riding leashless after sustaining a bad fin cut. While riding a heavy shortboard, she dove over the back of a wave, only to have the leash go taut and the board slingshot toward her foot, lacerating the webbing between two toes. Around the same time, she found a rad old single fin with no leash plug. “It got me in really good shape, because I’d lose the board and swim so much. I felt really confident and comfortable in the water.”
She suggests finding a mellow time and place to go cordless — steer clear of the best peaks and paddle away from anyone else. “Get comfortable staying connected and kicking out with your board. Have entire sessions where you don’t engage your leash,” she says.
Leashless Surfing Requires Superior Skills To Get Out the Back
Surfers should always strive to avoid bailing. That’s never truer — or harder — than when riding fat fishes, mid-lengths, and logs. Make a point of timing your exit out the back to minimize taking waves on the dome, Dawson advises.
When busting through set waves is unavoidable, employ these techniques:
Sit Back on the Board
On longer boards, sit back near the tail. “Right before the wave hits you, throw your board against the wave and try to pop over it,” Dawson says. “I take a deep breath when I do that, which helps to stay above the water.” That technique will work in surf up to head high, after the wave has already broken and is rolling inside.
Dip the Nose
On bigger and wider boards, duck diving is a struggle. For some added leverage, dip the nose at an angle. With a scooping motion, press it as deeply as possible and focus all of your bodyweight over the front half of the board, Dawson advises.
Turtle rolls work better with longer equipment; the shortest board Dawson can roll is a 7’3”, for example. “Grab close to the nose and try to keep your toes connected to the board for stabilization. Pull the board down as the wave hits,” she says.
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Is There Ever a Wrong Time to Wear a Leash?
If the local ethic at a given break dictates going cordless, go cordless, Dawson says. And if you can safely surf sans leash, either because the break is empty or you have the skill to navigate the waves and keep your board close, use the opportunity to grow as a surfer.
“I’m a huge supporter of people wearing leashes, but I’m also a big fan of the challenge of leashless surfing when the time and place are right,” she says. “I do my best not to let a leash make a difference in what I do with my feet. But I had more success spinning around, riding backward and going switchfoot when I took my leash off.”