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Matafesto - The Delicate Wind
by Ken McKnight
posted 2008-03-04

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Slippery Fast

Watching from the point at Rincon you notice a solo rider lying face down, flying like gangbusters, zipping along the face of a wave going faster then anything you have ever seen. The rider is carving hard, linking up his off-the- bottom, off-the-top turns and generating an amazing amount of speed. It looks like he's on a track of some kind. While not a stand up surfer, not a boogie boarder, jet skier, not a bird or a plane the prone rider is moving at an accelerated speed almost Serpentine in movement. But what is it he is riding?

Photo courtesy of Lance Smith
Photo courtesy of Lance Smith

Historian/Author/Artist Craig Stecyk III says, "Mat Surfing is the Fly Fishing of Wave riding." What does that mean?

Dale Solomonson, who makes Neumatic Custom Surf Mats in Oregon says, "It's like jet propelled body surfing."

It's a mat surfer and he is riding a raft of sorts, a bag of air, and an adult pool toy without the martini. His chin is just over the front of the mat, hands holding the sides and legs dangling behind, covered with huge swim fins. The speed generated is incredible, Slippery Fast if you will, and anyone who witnesses it always says the same thing. "What is that?"

The only thing you can't see from your vantage point on the beach is the big smile on the riders face as he dials in the speed quotient and takes off even faster into the next section.

Just what is this mat surfing thing so many people are talking about? Is it a freak show or a novelty act? Wasn't it something you did years ago when you couldn't stand on a surfboard or before Body boards were even invented.

Rafts, surf mats, inflatables were what most of us started riding waves on. If you remember the Blue and Yellow air mats of the 60's then you must have ridden one. They weighed 7 or 8 pounds, were bulky, had a rope around it, but fun to ride over the falls. If you didn't own one most likely you rented one from a local shop or beach concession. The mats were very popular at summer beaches the world over. But then the mats pretty much disappeared. There were some built called Hodgemans and Rip Curl and O'Neill made some, but once the body boards showed up the mats went away.

Photo courtesy of Ken McKnight
Photo courtesy of Ken McKnight

Today's mats weigh in at less then two pounds, are mostly jet-black, have no ropes, no fins and it is hard not to ride one and smile. You need a fair amount of magic, a pinch of mumbo jumbo and Santeria to make it work but once you roll up on one of the pontoons after a hard bottom turn you'll understand the meaning of unbridled enthusiasm. I can't tell you how many people stop me on the beach or in the water and tell me how they started on a mat and how cool it is to see one today.

Surf Mats tend to work best in long lined up point waves but you can ride them on any wave. From Angourie to Malibu, the Outer Banks to Puerto Rico, Santa Cruz, Washington, El Segundo and Long Island mats are showing up in the best and worst of lineups. They are ridden on Kauai, at Honolua, in Indo and there are even some guys riding them on the Great Bores of England.

George Greenough, who showed us all how to ride surf mats (among other things), when asked on why does he ride an air mat, he says, "Mainly because they are really a lot of fun." George affectionately calls his mat, "The Magic Towel."

Paul Gross maker of 4th Gear Flyer surf mats and a pioneering figure in the mat world says, "There's something about mat surfing...tapping into the purest aspects of a wave's speed, power and texture that elevates you on a spiritual level. You can have the greatest ride of your life right in front of someone paddling out, and they might not have a clue what you just experienced. Even if they're on a mat themselves! It's so internal, it's hard to describe what it's like."

Photo courtesy of Sean Davey
Photo courtesy of Sean Davey

The Grateful Dead sing, "It's just like a Willy's in Four Wheel Drive!"

Mat Surfing may just be the most underground wave riding vehicle in the surf world and the most misunderstood. There are no logos, no events and very little press about them. There are rough estimates that only about 1000 mat riders exist today. Yet there is a buzz about these small bags of air that can't be denied. It's cool to ride a mat and some of the world's best wave riders either have one in their quiver or know there is something to it. They are faster then conventional surfboards, more lightweight, easier to transport and just plain fun to ride.

Just like board surfing the same basics to mat surfing still apply. See the wave, catch the wave, ride the wave, make the wave. Simple. Now add delicate degrees of lift, thrust, balance and air distribution in the mats chambers, aim it down the line, push in with super powerful swim fins and hold on for fun. However, Mats are hard to duck dive and seem to have a mind of their own. Oh yeah, last but not least, you don't wear a leash and you don't dare put the mat next to anything sharp. Get the point!

Photo courtesy of Ken McKnight Photo courtesy of Ken McKnight Photo courtesy of Lance Smith

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