Some leashes even (claim to) protect us from sharks.
An Ode To The Surf Leash
Where would we be without the old ball n chain?
Today is a slow news day. Since 9 AM I’ve been bouncing around the internet in search of something, anything, that could pass as semi-interesting surf editorial. Outside of that whole Pornhub thing (which seemed right up Morgan’s alley and will be coming tomorrow), I found nothing.
Around 2 PM I went back to Google for one last search. If I didn’t find anything, I told myself, it was time for a well-earned nap. Before I could even hit “I’m feeling lucky” on my intended search, the solution jumped right out at me. According to the Google homepage, today is the 131st anniversary of the hole puncher.
A hole puncher, for those of you who didn’t attend kindergarten, is a contraption designed to perforate micro-circles from pieces of paper, so that the paper can be stored in a ringed binder or something of the sort. As I came to learn, the hole puncher was designed by Friedrich Soennecken, a German office supplier, in 1886.
And I thought, "Wow, could there be a simpler but more effective invention than the hole puncher?" And then I thought, "Hmm, what is surfing’s hole puncher equivalent?"
After a thorough contemplation, I’ve decided the surf leash most aptly fills this role.
Let's use deductive reasoning. Fins are too derivative a concept (from a boat’s rudder), the wetsuit is too climate specific, and wax is too… I don’t know, sticky. The leash, however, is simple in concept, highly effective in practice, and shares certain qualities with the hole puncher, like the drilling of a small cavity (i.e. leash plug) and having an attachment to something as the ultimate goal (i.e. surfboard/binder).
So I did some research on the surf leash, which led me to the Encyclopedia of Surfing, a treasure trove of surfing’s oft-forgotten past. Due to a recent split from Surfer Mag, the EOS has erected a paywall so small that it could be aired over by Taylor Knox. A mere three dollars a month gets you in the door which, in my experience, is well worth the twelve-gumball-loss.
But for those of you who can’t stand spending an extra 10 cents per day, here’s a free snippet from the EOS’s surf leash page:
An early version of the leash was invented in the mid-1930s when American surfboard designer Tom Blake attached a 10-foot length of cotton rope from a belt on his waist to his board; he gave the device up as too dangerous. Other homemade rope-constructed surf leashes were occasionally tried in the '50s and '60s. A French surfer named George Hennebutte invented a double-velcro-strapped "footline," with elastic line and a double-velcro ankle strap, in 1958, but it didn't catch on.
Credit for the invention of the surf leash is usually given to Santa Cruz's Pat O'Neill, son of wetsuit kingpin Jack O'Neill, who in 1970 fastened a length of surgical tubing to the nose of his board with a suction cup, and looped the other end to his wrist. Aside from the leash keeping the board nearby after a wipeout, it was initially thought that the surfer could use the new handheld product to leverage turns and cutbacks; by late 1971, however, the leash was much more sensibly connected to the ankle and the board's tail section (as the Frenchman Hennebutte had done years earlier), and was being sold—first by Control Products and Block Enterprises, both from Southern California, then by dozens of companies world- wide—simply as a board saver. Advertised as safe, the prototype rubber versions were in fact dangerous: Jack O'Neill permanently lost the sight in his left eye in 1971, after his leashed board snapped back and hit his face. Surfers by the thousands were meanwhile making their own leashes from lengths of marine surplus bungee cord.
EOS founder and curator, Matt Warshaw, goes onto explain that leashes were once a polarizing aspect of the sport, much in the way that inflatable vests are today. Leashes, like vests, allowed lesser-skilled individuals to ride waves outside of their comfort zone without fear of falling off. This led to a noticeable crowd increase in most lineups and made surfing less “pure” in the eyes of many. However, by 1980, Warshaw notes that the vast majority of surfers were using leashes.
Because leashes make surfing better. Mostly.
I thought about this the other day when, while surfing a wedgy beach break, my leash allowed me to surf a stupid amount of waves with reckless abandon. I tried flyaway airs, impossible laybacks, packed the odd closeout tube and all of it without the annoyance of swimming after my board or fixing a million little dings thereafter.
If I were to guess, I’d say my leash is used on 40% of the waves I surf. I guess that means I fall a lot, but it also means I’m doing my best to improve. An average surfer could go a whole session without losing their board if they wanted, but to do so, they’d have to surf at 50-75% of their ability. Who the fuck wants to surf like that? This ain’t the WSL.
Now, it’s true there are benefits to no-leashing it. You feel faster, looser, and ironically more connected to your craft. Surfing without a leash is great every once in awhile, because it reminds you to stay over your board and commit to landing maneuvers. It also makes you surf more stylishly, for some unknown reason.
But the leash, I believe, is one of surfing’s most progression-enabling inventions and for that I am grateful. Where would we be without it? Not landing double-rotation airs -- of that I'm sure.