Today was the first time that other people, not just me, tried surf mats on Okinawa (as far as I and they know). It was small today- waist high on the sets and weak. The smallest, weakest day of the year so far. Which makes me realize that it’s been pretty good for surf this year. The sun was shining bright on this late morning surf session, and as usual when we don’t have killer waves to keep us alert, there was more room for conversation.
My friend asked something about the surf mat I was riding, and though he’s seen it before, for some reason today I asked if he wanted to try it. To my surprise, he said he did. I passed my fins and surf mat over to him and he floated his surfboard over. It was the first time in months that I’ve surfed anything but a mat, much less a short board! Surf mats are generally about 36″ long and perhaps 20″ or so wide. They feel very different to paddle and ride because they’re not solid rigid like a surfboard. What you have in a surf mat is a flexy bag of air that is pretty ideally suited to catching the energy of a wave with minimal friction and maximum malleability, which means it is SUPER fast.
Getting back on a short board, I was surprised at how floaty it felt. I thought it would be harder to paddle a surfboard since with a mat wear fins on your feet and can kick too, but it felt easier than the mat!
We each commented on the new sensations that come with switching surf craft, and soon a decent wave came upon us and we both took off. I got up and looked back to see my friend gliding down the line, struggling a bit with the bag of air but looking like he was doing fine. I didn’t get far on the short board and paddled back to the peak. But I could see that my friend had ridden the wave pretty far down the line- that’s one of the things that a mat is great at doing.
He paddles back, and wouldn’t you know it, he’s got a big smile on his face. Having ridden mats for a year now, it makes me laugh to think how everything they say about mat riding is true- it’s addictive, it’s super fun, and it’s guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Consider also that I can’t recall seeing my friend smile after catching a wave…
After catching another one, we switched back. By now our other friend was asking questions, and I asked if he would like to give the mat a go as well. He didn’t say anything at first, and I said “maybe another day” to make it easy for him to back out without hurting my feelings. But surprise again, he enthusiatically replied in the affirmative. We made the switch, and I watched as he paddled for and caught a set wave, smiling with mouth open as he flew down the face of the peak. I sat on his new Al Merrick shortboard, watching him gain some distance. When he came back, he was still smiling, as was I.
One thing you have to understand is that most surfers in Okinawa just ride shortboards. Shortboards are great sometimes when the waves get good, but really good waves are pretty rare down in the Southern part of the island where I usually surf. Perhaps because all they see in the magazines is shortboards, most guys here don’t even think about trying some other kind of ride. Which makes me feel kind of sorry for them, because I know what they’re missing. Give any one of these guys an alaia on a chest high day, let them get a good ride flying down the line, and I think a light will go on in their minds. There’s so much more than shortboards.
The manufacture of a surfmat does not involve as many petroleum derived ingredients as the conventional surfboard, and it will probably outlast most surfboards. Having no hard edges, the surf mat is also safer for the rider as well as other surfers in the water. And the surfmat is ideal for travel as it can be deflated and rolled up to fit in a backpack- contrast this with even the shortest short board.
Not too many. The materials used to make surfmats are synthetic, so they’re not as eco-friendly as an alaia made of wood. You certainly look rather silly riding a surf mat, though.
Summary: My surf mats are an integral part of my sanity and life in general. I love them and will ride them as long as I surf, which will hopefully be until the day I die (though I’d rather not die IN the surf).