To leash or not to leash, that is the question. Albeit a relatively new question—for much of surfing’s history there was no option. You blundered, you swam. In 1970, Santa Cruz’s Pat O’Neill, son of wetsuit kingpin Jack O’Neill, fastened a loop of surgical tubing to the nose of his board with a suction cup, and looped the other end to his wrist. So began the leash.
It was a polarizing invention. The leash made it easy. No longer did you have to swim through icy water, crawl over sharp rocks, and possibly slice open your foot to retrieve your board. As a result, surf breaks got more crowded. But it definitely encouraged high-performance wave riding. There was way less at stake. Why not attempt that carving 360 you dreamed of last night?
Today, the leash is ubiquitous. There are even some who deem it irresponsible not to wear a leash, what with the danger of loose boards in crowded lineups. But there are also the holdouts, the purists, the naysayers.
On a recent road trip up the California coast I met a few of them.
“I like the challenge. I want the swims. Look at old surf photos—the dudes are so much more ripped than the lazy, sleepwalking surfers of today,” a longhaired, longboard-riding UCSB student told me at Rincon.
“It’s about stripping away the unessential and getting rid of all that drag,” said a guy I met in the Jalama parking lot. “Imagine an Olympian swimmer who wears baggy shorts to swim the 100-meter freestyle.”
My favorite comment came from a 60-ish man I met out in the water at Pleasant Point in Santa Cruz. He was bearded, rail thin, and rode a maroon-colored Fish.
“My parents hung out in nudist colonies, my grandfather used to call condoms ‘the Berlin Wall of the ebb and flow of procreation.’ I guess freedom runs in my blood,” he told me.
When a glassy, head-high wave loomed he spun around and took off. A regular foot with a kabuki flair to his style, he raced down the line, pulled a couple of smooth cutbacks. He paddled back out, sat up on his board, and continued.
“Remember when Madonna started wearing those cordless headset microphone things, and how that allowed her to run all over the stage and do all kinds of crazy stuff with her hands? Well, the history of the leash was the reverse of that. In the beginning we were naked wave dancers in the Garden of Eden. The leash was like the apple, man. It was an obstruction; it was just another thing to trip over. I haven’t worn a leash in about 20 years. I still live in the Garden.”