I remember, as a child, braced in a wide stance in knee-deep water, watching my father stroke into a crumbling wave and ride the churning white foam into the beach where I stood, amazed. He slid on his big belly, with a serious but elated countenance, shoulders set back and slightly arched, his arms flat against his sides. This, to me, was bodysurfing.
For most of my life, bodysurfing was an activity for impressing girls in the summer, for the odd beachie that only breaks right on the shore, something enjoyed as a creative interlude in Jack Johnson surf films—back when Jack Johnson was an artistic filmmaker, not your mini-van-driving mom’s favorite chill-pop superstar. And that’s it, pretty much, my conception and involvement with bodysurfing. Probably yours, too. That is, until at Surf Expo where I met Steve Watts, creator of Slyde Handboards, a man directly responsible for dramatically changing my conception of bodysurfing—and the number of times I’ve been barreled. Steve is a South African native with unclockable tube time and a soft spot for grunge rock. An extremely capable stand-up surfer in his own right, Steve’s fondness for handboarding came to fruition as a young grommet living blocks from the beach in Cape Town. A move to Durban fostered his ability in stand-up surfing, a lifestyle that led (as many of us know it does) to years of traveling the globe, surfing some of the best waves the world has to offer.
Now, from his new home, Venice, California, Steve and his business partner, Russ, are taking over the scene and starting to run the show. Handboarding, an evolution of natural bodysurfing, is known throughout the world by many other titles: handgunning, handplaning, planeboarding, and on and on. Whichever name you delegate, it’s clear that Slyde’s boards are the best crafts out there for a ride perfectly blended between the naturalness of regular bodysurfing and maneuverability of stand-up surfing. Not to mention, as Steve is quick to assure, “Dude, you get barreled off your ass on this thing.”
A selling point, this is no selling ploy. His words are the truth, and I, for one, can lay claim to their accuracy. My very first ride on one of these things resulted in a little (but perceptively big-ish) tube—on a one-foot day at Deerfield. Since then (and right up through literally just a couple hours ago), I’ve upped my barrel count, and downed my complaining of inadequate waves.
My eyes and mind suddenly wide open, I grew more and more curious about handboarding/bodysurfing/handplaning—whatever you choose to call it—and found that Slyde is a far cry from the standard handboards. Much larger than the standard plane, each model (with the exception of their seriously avant-garde shapes) resembles a surfboard. This is no accident, it’s physics: a bigger handboard increases the surface area of your hand, giving you more lift and more speed. Speaking of hands, Slyde employs the hand of four talented shapers, Donald Brink, Jason Hoffman, Tim Patterson, and Marius Jaubert, whose surfboards are highly reputed throughout Orange County. With surfboard-shaping precision, epoxy construction, and applied hydrodynamics, Steve and his team of shapers design and produce these handboards, the best you’re likely to come across. Holding one in your hand you feel the sharpness of the rails, the curve of rocker and concave, and it’s clear: these are to wave riding what metal is to mosh pits.
Like any solid product, feedback is the key to the success of these undersized surfboards. “[Everything’s] refined and tested by everyone and anyone who wants to throw their two cents into our design process. Even including our Fed-Ex guy!”
Still, it’s tough, adopting change that is. Especially here in Florida, where good waves are a rare thing, it’s hard committing to trying something new, beyond the comfort zone. For those stubborn shortboard-or-die-ers out there: quit your bitchin’ and branch out, bro. Or maybe, don’t. Maybe stay in your shell, atop the boardwalk railing, looking at “crap” waves, spitting, and jabbering about how much better the waves should be.
“We also have that attitude here a bit down in Orange County,” Steve told me when I confided that, as a shortboarder myself, I don’t feel that South Florida surfers are the most receptive to different forms of wave riding, “but handboards in general are finding their way into the break more and more often. It’s a bit like ‘busting down the door’—say ‘fuck it’ and hail to the rise of the “WATER MAN.” Ride everything and enjoy it.”
Growing up in Cape Town, Steve’s early grommetcy was spent harnessing the power of the southern Atlantic in any possible fashion. “From boogie board, skim board, to my flip-flop on the hand—whatever you could think of, or was available, whatever put a smile on your face. I think that’s where the appreciation for riding everything came from, and the idea that it’s not what you ride but how you enjoy it, no mater what craft or lack thereof you ride.
“Unfortunately,” Steve admits, “bodysurfing has taken a back seat to stand-up or regular surfing. I say it is unfortunate because bodysurfing is the best way to learn how the ocean works, to understand the dynamics of the wave and to become a better all round waterman/woman. I have been teaching stand up surfing for over five years, ninety percent of the students that I have taught would have been leaps ahead simply had they spent a few hours in the ocean before attempting stand-up surfing. It gives you that simple appreciation and understanding for the ocean.”
Again, he’s right. Different perspectives are important, arguably a mentality to a copasetic world, certainly to surfing. With a handboard, waves look different; you see the curl from a completely new angle, from the trough, and see from a different angle how waves bend. This undoubtedly helps your surfing, not just for beginners like Steve’s students, but advanced surfers, too.
Perusing the vast and extensive website of Slyde Handboards, it quickly becomes apparent that these guys really are in it for the love and the joy of riding on water, and to spread said love. They give very detailed pointers of everything from the how-to’s of handboarding, to proper and progressive breathing techniques, calf-cramp prevention, and fin selection. There are bios, and history lessons, and kick-ass art. Seriously, there’s a reason why we at Refraction are so into Slyde: they keep it real, and they keep it local. These guys are artsy—in an awesome way. They support and promote local musicians, photographers, surfers, shapers, peoples, artists. The artists. MY GOD! THEIR ARTISTS ARE SICK! The artist bio page features some of Venice’s most talented, whose work criss-crosses the spectrum: everything from the sexy surreal, to the disturbing and demonic, to chairs, to Frankenstein, to the artistically anarchic. They evoke the apathetic sounds of Nineties punk-grunge, and many are available as original pieces on one-of-a-kind handboards. Beyond that, Slyde is a huge supporter of the environment, doing what they can to keep what we still have.
At the end of the day, beyond the awesome artwork, beyond board design that is simply beyond, beyond even the sentiment of riding whatever you can for the pure enjoyment, Slyde’s ideology is about getting barreled, absolutely slotted, pitted, tubed, shacked. “In the end,” Steve says, “that’s what it’s all about! If you could get in that much quicker and get a split-second more green room time why the hell wouldn’t you?”
Buy, rent, or just be amazed here: www.slydehandboards.com