Bodyboarding’s Mid-Life Crisis.
Contrary to what the doomsday pedlars say (Drag etc), there isn’t a problem with bodyboarding’s popularity and participation, but there appears to be a shift in the sports demographic over recent years which could lead to the doomsday prophecies becoming reality. Dan Dob explores the topic in this insightful opinion piece.
An opinion piece by Dan Dob.
‘I ventured south from my North-Coast abode to the retirement haven of Forster-Tuncurry a few weeks ago. The place must have the highest ratio of Fish and Chip shops to residents in the country. If the joint had a smell it would be calamari.
A family holiday had coincided with the annual Jeff Wilcox comp. So, ten plus years removed from my last local club comp, with some disposable income in my pocket for the entry fee, I thought I’d pull the rashie on once again.
The first contest I ever entered was in Forster sometime in the mid to late 90’s. A mate was heading down and he suggested I joined him. Turns out it was the regional titles. I scrambled through a few heats and made the final of the juniors’ division. I felt pretty chuffed with the effort, because if you were around in the 90’s, you’ll remember bodyboarding was booming. And the junior division was jam-packed!
Comp day. Lucky me, I ended up in the very first heat of the day on a freezing winters morning with a south-wester blowing strongly up the beach. Inspiring. The previous 10 years of practicing a serviceable stand-up comedy routine on various fibreglass crafts at soft beachies and only riding a boog at reef-slabs had me feeling off the pace in these 3ft beachy wedges. The muscle memory was there, but not the fast-twitch reflexes and timing that come with constant practice and repetition. Still, I was in the mix until the last two waves of the heat. After my best wave, I watched on as the young bloke in yellow drained a long pit to invert for a 9-point ride, followed by the bloke in red - blast a big sky roll for an 8.5. Game over.
Still, I had a back up plan. Two bites at the apple. The Master division! 90’s me remembered six old blokes in a straight final. I was a 1/6th a chance at victory, right?
Wrong. The Masters division had 6 full heats, 24 other old bastards with the same idea. And not just nobodies. Former Pros like Adam Keegan, Johnny Cruickshank, Mick Daley, Dave Drews, Shane Chalker. Fuck me, these were the blokes I used to see in the mags. Hadn’t they had enough glory?
Trudging back to the car trying to digest the disappointment of a first round exit in the Open Division, the decreased statistical probability of doing well in the Masters, and lamenting my own rusty skill set, I noticed the thing that inspired this waffling piece of scribble.
Black SUV’s, efficient looking German vans, sensible family station wagons. In the recesses of my memories bodyboarding contests, carparks should be littered with piece of shit Corolla’s, Lasers and Datsun’s - bulging at the doors with the gear of 5 grommets. Now I could have been at the weekend netball courts… Where were all the kids?
So, I had a look at the number of Junior and Cadet heats. Four heats for the Juniors. Three for Cadets - Half of them with the last name Cruickshank.
Once I returned home, the little kernel of an idea refused to stop rattling around in my skull. So, I started using the power of the socials to do some digging. I reached out to competitive machine, District Five Bodyboardshop store owner, Aussie Science Bodyboards distributor and Newcastle stalwart Johnny Cruickshank for a snapshot of the competition situation in the ‘Steel City’. Roughly thirty competitors in the opens, the same in the masters and only a literal handful of juniors and cadets. Silas from Gold Coast Bodyboarders painted a similar picture. Decent numbers in the opens and masters, declining participation in juniors and cadets. Where are all the kids?
Ten years ago, when I moved back to my home town, there was a decent rat pack of 10 to 15 of my cousins’ mates filling up the reefs on their boogs. Fifteen years ago when a friend and I started Port Stephens Bodyboard Club, I was the oldest member at 25, and I’d have roughly 40 kids waiting on a cold winters morning, whilst my hung over mate tried to persuade me to call the day off from the comfort of his bed. Twenty-five years ago EVERYONE had a boog. Stand up surfing was so genuinely concerned they would lose a whole generation of talent and there was a concerted effort both exploit and undermine it. Now it feels like the opposite is true. We have a demographic problem.
The biggest growth area in bodyboarding at the moment seems to be happening in “Retro” board designs and memberships to the Vintage Bodyboard Club. Guys of my generation scouring E-bay and Gumtree for old boards in various states of disrepair. Guys looking back with rose coloured glasses at nostalgic old boards. Let’s be honest here, they were mostly rockered-out pieces of shit, that barely lasted 3 months of decent riding.
Much has been made of what the clever fellows at Drag have called the ‘bodyboard financial crisis’. The decline of the magazines, the collapse of the most professional and well-presented world tour we’ve had in the I.B.A, the rise of hipsterism and the penchant for mid-lengths and soft boards as the alternative for those who don’t want to ride a high performance short board. All coalesced to pull the rug from under the feet of the always shaky bodyboarding industry as interest and sales declined.
But if what I think I’m seeing is correct, we’re facing something more serious than a financial dip.
Bodyboarding now has almost everything we were always told was needed to make it successful. Passionate, dedicated bodyboarders in charge of our governing bodies, clubs, companies and industry. When I was a teenager, the resounding message that was hammered into us was “support those who support you”. To this day I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a “surf” brand even if half the time I’m in the water I’m riding a stand-up board. We coped the shit, pioneered new waves, moves and gained respect, acknowledgement and control of our own destiny. The problem seems to be that that we are missing a following generation to pass the benefits on to.
In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s the transformative lines of the knee boarding community inspired the shortboard revolution in surfing. With refined equipment surfing absorbed and expanded the lines, angles and rail work pioneered by kneeboarders. In its wake, it left a leaving a few kooky old devotes and the occasional ironic hipster to carry on as the remnants of this once cutting-edge piece of wave riding.
I doubt you’ll ever get an acknowledgment from anyone in the surfing industry, but the heavy wave riding and aerial moves that professional surfing now hangs its hat on have their D.N.A. in bodyboarding. The company line is that surfing is influenced by snowboarding and skateboarding, but it’s been a long time since either of those sports was about a single rotation on a single plane. No stand-up surfer is doing kickflips (except that weird Zoltan bloke) or darkslides, or different grabs with any seriousness, no one’s doing Haakon flips or off axis corkscrews.
The rotations and the sections the manoeuvres are performed off where pioneered by bodyboarders. The “Alley-oop” is an air-forward, Joe Turpell’s favourite “tail high reverse” is an air-reverse. The “rodeo clown” is a straight up A.R.S. The waves that Bodyboarders pioneered, Teahupo’o, The Right, The Box, Ours (with a nod to early bodysurfers) are now splashed to the masses to show surfing’s dare devil side. Hell, the cool Aussie “air guys” that my mates teenage surfing sons idolise have even hitched their trains to the knowledge, attitude and promotional talent of South Coast booging brains. It’s appropriation all over again. Stand up surfing has taken the niche that bodyboarding used to occupy and made it their own. They ride heavy waves and launch big airs. And if we’re not careful we may end up the new kneeboarding.
Stand up surfing likes to aggrandise from time to time and refer to itself as the sport of kings, because only Hawaiian royalty rode big boards, standing up. But the everyday folk did their wave sliding, prone. The Morey Boogie was a modern take on an ancient theme. Tom Morey’s original brief was a board that would democratise the ocean. The bodyboard was to be, and is, an accessible wave riding tool for the masses. Surfing for the people. For you, your kid, your nan.
So, forget the ‘bodyboarding financial crisis’, we might be seeing the start of the demographic apocalypse. From a personal stand point, less bodyboarders in the water means less competition at my favourite waves. But bodyboarding has given me so much. Almost all of my close friends, a sense of identity and purpose, confidence, motivation, inspiration, perspective. From an altruistic perspective then, surely, we need to keep something that can be such a powerful force of good for people powering along. Continue Morey’s original vision for the boogie and bring the joy of the ocean to others on the most accessible wave riding craft in the world. So, what’s the answer? I don’t know, but it’s a conversation we need to start seriously having.’