There is right now a group of Australian lawyers clamoring to make it illegal to surf popular spots without a leash attaching a surfer to their board. Through a series of personal injury lawsuits, they’re hoping to encourage local governments to ban surfing without leashes (Aussies, by the way, call them very matter-of-factly: “legropes” ). I read this story recently, totally appalled. If anything, leashes make surfing more dangerous, not less. At least, that’s how I’ve felt since I turned about 35 years old—your opinion about leashes in surfing seems to become more negative as you get older.
Here’s an anecdote. A few days ago I was surfing an unremarkable, though beautiful day at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. The waves were small and weak, but well-shaped, and the crowd was thin for a Saturday morning. It was sunny, a rarity in July, and the water warm, nearly 60 degrees. No reason for anybody out there to be upset about anything. A friend and I traded waves for an hour or so when a bit of drama struck, as so often does when ego-driven surfers compete over a finite resource, all while hilariously over-estimating their ability level.
Twenty yards away, the biggest wave of the morning reared to shoulder height and two surfers began paddling for it. Now, there are byzantine codebooks, unwritten of course, about which surfer is entitled to the wave in this situation. But it rather simply boils down to one thing: the surfer closest to breaking part of the wave gets the worm. But in this case, both surfers popped to their feet, the surfer furthest from the whitewater committing the cardinal sin of “dropping in.” There was a shout of angry disbelief from the surfer in back. Then, in a moment of uncontained frustration, the offended surfer kicked the pointy end of his board at the interloper in a rage, a fiberglass missile that sent both surfers tumbling into the wave’s trough.
When they surfaced, there was yelling of course, and the surfboard projectile emerged from the water broken at the nose. It had struck the fellow surfer’s board amidships, with enough force that it could easily have killed the guy riding it. The two surfers jawed at each other for ten minutes, then paddled to the beach to fight, maybe exchange money for the damage, I couldn’t tell.
This is more common than you’d think. The fighting over waves, yes, but also the disregard for how dangerous a surfboard is in a sea of breaking waves and soft, fleshy bodies.
I have a theory, and it’s that the surfboard leash is the cause.
I rarely use a leash anymore. The feeling of freedom is too great to sacrifice for the slight convenience of not having to swim for a lost board. A plastic leash gets tangled around your ankles, the tail of the board, the fins, kelp, sometimes rocks. Also, as you can imagine, you lose your board a whole lot less when not wearing a leash. It teaches a surfer to not to try stupid things they likely won’t pull. It also means a surfer is paying far more attention to the surf zone around them. If a wave big enough to separate me from my board looms, I’ll quickly glance around to be sure there isn’t anybody right behind me; I also grab onto that sucker as if my life depends on it, for fear that I’d lose my board like a total kook, sending it careening through a pack of surfers paddling out to join the fun.
It’s more elegant surfing without a leash too. Just a surfer and a board, no other medium in between. There’s, and I realize how hippy-dippy this sounds, a greater symbiosis between human and surfcraft.
Wearing a leash encourages, I think, a kind of disconnect between surfer and board. While inexperienced surfers will naturally wear a leash, and I think they should, for the competent surfer, a leash is a strange intrusion into the experience (there are circumstances in which the surf is so dangerous a board becomes a lifeline—I always wear a leash in those situations, it should be said). The board is a tool, can be discarded and retrieved so easily, it’s position isn’t constantly being considered. Rather than carefully thought out exits from a wave, surfers will launch the board in the air, kick it toward the beach in exuberance, or, as we saw above, launch it at a fellow surfer in anger, assuming the leash will collect the board before it hits the target.
Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.
Of course, surfing existed for decades without leashes. The urethane cords didn’t enter use until the 1970s, growing more common in the early 80s. As a kid, old-timers would grumble about leashes ruining surfing, encouraging crowds by making the sport feel easier. I’d guffaw while strapping on my leash, then proceed to kick my board into the heavens after a wave because I thought it looked cool. My first ever concussion came from the return of a board right to my dome after a particularly exuberant kickout.
Now, I suppose I’m the grumbler, though hopefully not the old-timer. There’s a movement, among the hipster, retro-facing surfer element, of which I am on the fringes, that eschews the modern, plasticky elements of the sport. No flashy neon. No mass-produced shortboards. One fin, maybe two. And, of course, no leash, unless absolutely necessary.
The Australian lawyers with their nanny laws may have it exactly backward. Outlawing leashes could potentially go further toward making surfing safer, although it’s not clear that’s a good thing in an of itself. Now then, here’s an incredibly fun little video of the surf world before the leash, courtesy of Matt Warshaw’s Encyclopedia of Surfing. If you’ll excuse me, I have some beach lecturing to do.