A couple years ago I traveled to the Maldives with Aussie surfers Creed McTaggart, Ellis Ericson, Beau Foster, and Ari Browne. These guys are experimenters and innovators, and the quivers they brought reflected this: single fins, twinnies, finless boards, and surf mats.
On several occasions, usually when the waves were steep and barreling and the wind was slightly onshore, they pulled out the mats, and proceeded to fly across the wave face at mach speed, with lots of drift and slide. There was a certain bar-of-soap-squirming-out-the-hands quality about it. And my whoops, too, were childishly giddy. I had flashes of being tickled to hysterics by my older brothers when I was six. And I was merely a spectator.
Paul Gross is a former editor of Surfer magazine, an accomplished surfboard shaper, and perhaps the world’s greatest proponent of surf mat riding. His baby, Fourth Gear Flyer Surfmats, dates back to 1984, when he transformed a bedroom in his Carpenteria home into a mat building shop. I’ve long been a fan, and I was curious about the surf mat love, and all the rest of it.
What drew you to riding mats as opposed to traditional surfboards?
As a kid in the early ‘60s, mats were the only alternative to bodysurfing, other than conventional longboards. And longboards were too big, too heavy, and too expensive to even consider when I was nine or ten years old. So I rode mats when I didn’t want to bodysurf. As I got older and starting riding longboards (mid-’60s), mats kind of fell by the wayside for a few years. But I would see George Greenough out at Rincon on a mat on small, windy days just flying across the point. So it wasn’t a big leap of logic to start riding mats again, with fresh eyes. I’ve ridden boards consistently since the mid-’60s, but mats were always a viable alternative depending on my mood and the wave conditions.
What differentiates them from traditional bodyboards?
There are so many differences between mats and bodyboards—the list is almost too long to discuss. They are almost polar opposites in a lot of ways. Proof of that is the reality that bodyboarders tend to take the longest to learn how to ride a mat. The way you use your body and relate to the wave is very different. Again, it’s hard to verbalize in a few sentences.
Describe one of your best rides on a mat.
Mats have a reputation as being small wave vehicles, but really they shine brightest in larger waves. You’re skimming over the surface at breakneck speed, with your face just inches off the water. You can directly feel every lump, bump, and building section…more than any other form of surfing. So to answer your question, any wave over six feet I ride on a mat is equally exciting and memorable.
I’ve noticed that a lot of the more interesting minds in surfing ride mats—Greenough, Craig Stecyk, etc. Any thoughts on this?
Mat surfing, serious mat surfing, takes a lot of courage once you get past a certain age, say 13 or 14. You are so far outside the norm, socially, that it takes a unique person to stick with it. So that would be why I think so many interesting characters ride mats.
Where geographically and what kind of people are most into it?
The area with organized point waves tend to generate the most mat surfers, since mats really scream across point walls. As far as the kind of people, it tends to relate more to where they are from than any demographic.
What should the newcomer to mat riding know if they want to get into it?
They have to know that they’re going to have to relearn some surfing truths they thought they had down cold years, or even decades, ago. Sometime the most talented, experienced surfers have the longest learning curve, because you have to approach it objectively. Most people figure it out, and a lot of them end up being serious mat surfers, even if they started just as a lark. Leave your ego at home, and it’s a life-altering experience.