Jordy Smith with the textbook backside tube riding style: weight forward and centered, body positioned strongly to avoid any potential chandeliers. His harsh but honest instructional advice proved confusing but ultimately very helpful.
Technique: Your Backside Tuberiding Is Likely All Wrong
Jordy Smith’s (and Andy Iron’s) simple but powerful upgrade will take your pigdog from Microsoft to Apple.
A few years back, I was lucky enough to travel to Namibia to surf Skeleton Bay. I went with lifelong friend, Navrin Fox, on a tip-off. After 36 hours of travel, we were met with the waves of our lives, the same well-documented swell that hit late April, which featured the Koas Smith and Rothman, Benji Brand, a host of South Africans, and it turned out to be the best day Skeleton saw all of 2016.
After a day of impossibly long, four-to-six foot square tubes, we were driving back across the dunes in the dark when Navrin asked me: “Hey, you still do the old school pig dog, eh?”
I immediately went into defense mode. “Yeah, nah, I drag, you know, I drag my butt and leg in the water. Nah. Yeah. Uh. It’s not old school. I do the new one.”
It didn’t come out as nonchalant as I’d hoped. Nav caught the awkwardness and left the subject alone.
The next day, I reckon I witnessed him in 20 tubes, perfectly utilising what I now know to be the modern style. I got my fair share as well, managing to slow with my thigh and knee. I was making tubes. I figured I had it nailed. How wrong I was. Scrolling through photos from the day, I realised my stance was a confused and awkward hotpot of old and new.
I was the Microsoft of backside tuberiding; I was getting it done, but it wasn’t sexy. This was not the contemporary stance favoured by the best surfers in the world.
And, to be honest, I didn’t really know where to start changing it.
Front foot too far back on the board, arm flailing behind instead of ahead. This is the Microsoft tube style that Navrin Fox spoke of that had to change.
During the Stab in the Dark trip to the Mentawais last year, Jordy Smith was the lone surfer in the lineup at slightly onshore, four-ish feet HTs. In between swapping boards, we happened onto the subject of pig dogging. He was number two in the world at that point, and Jordy’s an expert at all aspects of riding waves, has probably lapped his 10,000 hours a few times over... Personally, I figured significant breakthroughs at this point in my life would be rare, if not impossible. But when he broke down the newer, simpler, and so goddamned obvious technique for improved backside tuberiding, I listened intently.
“I grew up on rights, so backside tuberiding is the weakest and most neglected part of my surfing,” Jordy said. “It’s an art, and I’ve always wanted to improve it. It’s a balance of having your feet on the side of the stringer closest to the wave and dealing with the ocean, while essentially having your back to the wave. If John John or Kelly’s backside tuberiding get scores out of 100, they’re at 100. Me? I was about a 20. But with this technique, I may have moved to a 40, maybe a 50.”
Like most, I was taught (or learned from others) that to pig dog, you stick your arm behind you, into the face of the wave. Like, directly across into the face of the wave, as you square up into the tube. But what this so often does is draw you up into the lip, and over the falls. I was dying to know the secret. To break the old habit. So, enough infomercial build up. How do you do it?
“Chris Gallagher, my coach, is like the Yoda of surfing and brought me something profound,” says Jordy. “We watched Kelly and John John and Bruce and they all did the same thing: Their leading arm was always forward. Always! Their leading arm is a guide. It reaches forward, never placed into the wall. The old school way, with your arm back, was a way to stall. But the most efficient way to slow down now is using your butt and leg.
“This technique means you’re not being dragged up the face by your arm in the lip, and also that you’re being guided out of the tube by your front arm. I know it sounds ridiculous, but if you’re not already doing this, you have no idea how much easier this is. The arm in the wall slows you and puts too much weight on the back foot. It’s difficult to drive. You make less tubes.”
Navrin Fox in his 164th tube at Skeleton Bay in Namibia. According to Jordy, when you’re running and gunning in a fast tube, the back arm can still drift back. The arm forward is more for control and slowing down.
Luckily for me, being in the Mentawais, I soon had the chance to put the technique to work. The next day we pulled up at four-to-six foot Macaronis, with a morning sickness wobble to it, but still barreling. So I went out to try. Each time I’d take off, my arm would naturally move into the wall and I’d square up (everything I’d ever learnt of tuberiding was about squaring up). But I’d force my inside arm forward. I must admit, it felt kinda awkward. And the spray ricocheting from my elbow in the face of the wave wasn’t pleasant. But I’d lost that slipping and sliding feeling you get when your fins release over the foamball in the tube. No matter what, I was determined to put my arm forward.
And, my enthusiasm must’ve shown. I felt like I’d broken some ground. But when I got back to the boat, Jordy had been watching. “Bru, what was with that arrow!” he laughed. “You had your arm pointed forward like an arrow! It can just chill next to you. You gotta watch John and Kelly. Or Andy. They hold their arm lower in the wall. It’s not necessarily up high.”
Jordy ordered us to watch the best available example: Billabong’s 2005 film, Freeway. We spent the next 40 minutes watching every section and every surfer, from Dylan Longbottom to Laurie Towner to Brendan Margieson*. And in this dated film, every single one of them had their arm archaically back in the wall.
All except one: Andy Irons.
“Bru, watch how much more control Andy has than everyone else,” said Jordy. “He’s toying with it. He’s in control. And, the main thing to watch is his arm. It sits by his side, just guiding him beside the water… only used when it’s needed.”
The next day was spent working on technique. And it wasn’t just Jordy who had this approach nailed. I was watching competent (but not great) surfers slide late down the wall, sit their folded arm just off the wall and thread tube after tube. They had a better completion rate and it looked significantly better than the technique traditionally adopted by most surfers. Then our water cinematographer, Paul Daniel, grabbed one of Jordy's boards to demonstrate. Paul's a fantastic surfer but he exaggerated the foot and arm forward style with aplomb (as you'll see in the video). For me there are still many kinks, like putting too much elbow into the water and spraying yourself in the face, but I’m determined to break the habit. That’s for the next session in barreling lefts.
Right after I call Navrin to apologise.
*Please note: These gents have all since become experts of this tuberiding style.