Skimboarding is a sport in search of its big break. Unfortunately, it came 16 years ago.
That was the summer of 1987, when lifeguard/skimboard savant Tom Trager of Laguna Beach—the sport's Cooperstown and Yankee Stadium—graced the cover of Sports Illustrated skimming back on a wave, cutting a spectacular plume of water. At last, skimboarding would get its due, would ride the rising swell of mainstream interest in surfing, skateboarding, snowboarding and wakeboarding—virtually every other "boarding" not proceeded by the word skim.
But Sports Illustrated, the country's most popular sports magazine, also has a reputation for breaking things in the bad way, and those who've graced its cover have experienced the SI curse. They've gone into immediate slumps, incurred immediate injuries or, in the case of Trager, been identified on the cover as "surfing," not skimming.
"That pretty much sums up the situation right there," says Tex Haines, skimming pioneer and co-owner/co-founder of Victoria Skimboards, the sport's acknowledged Louisville Slugger. Yes, even when skimboarding got its due, it didn't. And the reason for the confusion sums up everything that is right and wrong about the sport—that at first glance one would assume that someone riding a wave was surfing shows that a lot of people still believe skimmers get no further than a few inches of water at the ocean's edge; that they're content to run, drop their wood ("Did you drop your wood or are you just happy to see me?" Sorry) disk and skim a few feet before making with the face plant.
Actually, shore skimming is only the beginning of the ride for even an intermediate skimmer. The action in skimboarding is farther out. Skimboarders use that inch or two of water to shoot them through a broken wave onto an oncoming breaking wave, quickly whip into it and ride. At that point, they look every bit the part of today's acrobatic surfer, performing barrels, cutting back, riding rails—tricks all the more extravagant because skimboards are unencumbered by the drag of a skag.
"If you're into tricks, a skimboard really opens things up for you," said Trigg Garner, who does a bunch of things at Victoria, including trying to get reporters to write stories about skimboarding. "You're not limited. You can do things you could only dream of on a surfboard."
They even look like surfers in what they ride, since, except for the wood models made for beginners, most skimboarders use foam/fiberglass models that look every bit like a demi-potato chip version of a surfboard.
Victoria Skimboards is located amid Laguna's art galleries, wood sculptures and trawling lunch wagons; the manufacturing plant/showroom is a stew of craftsmen shaping boards, ranchera music and enthusiasts hanging around the showroom to check out the latest board or DVD. It'd be difficult to find a company more entwined with its sport. Consider that Victoria not only sponsors most of the sport's top riders—including Bill Bryan, its Barry Bonds—but Victoria is so central to skimboarding that its annual contest is the sport's world championship. The 2003 Victoria Pro/Am takes place July 19-20 at Aliso Beach in Laguna.
Okay, okay, why Laguna?
"The beach is steep, you've got shore break, it's just perfect," Trigg says. A steep beach allows riders to build enough speed to break through to the oncoming wave. That being said, Haines says that almost any beach in Orange County will do—"except the Wedge. That's like falling on a tennis court"—that the beauty of skimboarding is that you don't even need an ocean. "We sell a lot of boards in Scottsdale, Arizona," Haines says. Apparently, they flood the plains around that city and the kids take their skimboards and ride them, sometimes on their own and sometimes towed behind vehicles. Tex can recite example after example of similar circumstances: people skimming rivers, canals, drainage ditches, golf courses after a good rain.
"My sister was in St. George, Utah [located on the Virgin River], and was wearing a Victoria T-shirt, and she went into this little general store and someone there said that Victoria had saved the town," Tex says. "They said the town was dying and then kids discovered skimboarding and suddenly people were coming to town to skimboard the river and it turned things around."
Now St. George hosts the annual Virgin River Skimboarding Classic, which is nice for the fine people of Utah, but how does it get skimboarding laid? Here we have a sport with gushing adherents—Bryan, a one-time professional surfer, claims he got bored with surfing because he could catch so many more waves skimming—that isn't limited by proximity to an ocean and yet couldn't get arrested at the X Games. Tex figures that about 300,000 people skimboard worldwide—Japan and Australia are particularly hot—but how do you kick that number up? Is it as hackneyed as putting a face on the sport? Surfing had its Gidget and then its Slater. Skateboarding had Hawk. Skimboarding has Bryan, who is so dominant that when the boys in the showroom are asked how many times he's won the world championship they can't decide whether it's seven, eight or nine. (It's nine.)
Trigg is pushing a young gun named Brendan "Noogie" Stevens, who we're just going to assume is from Laguna Beach. Maybe that'll work. Then again …
"You know," Tex says, a bit of what's-it in his eyes. "Tony Hawk does skimboard."
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