KneeBoarding In the US of A
Mediocrity has brought the demise of many great empires, history makes that resoundingly clear. Unfortunately KneeBoarding in the USA has chosen to follow along the same path. Jason Foster's article in the Surfer's journal a few years back hinted that it was in it's death throws, where Rex Huffman stated it is an extinct life form that couldn't pass the rigors of survival; and the Spongemen have eliminated the once transitional position kneeboards had in the progressive evolution of surfing in general. These issues should cause alarm as Jason is one of the youngest, Rex has a high profile, and the Spongemen are well established, having grown outrageously due to the marketability of an accelerated learning curve and less expensive equipment. Even the current contest frontman, Simon Farrar from AUS, has made some candid and disturbing comments regarding US KneeBoarders and US KneeBoarding in general based on the limited information made available to himself, and frankly, to all those other KneeMen worldwide as well. Considering what came before, and where it is today, the big question is: What has US KneeBoarding offered as an incentive to join it's ranks since Rex blew minds at Pipe more than two decades ago?
Tube Riding? HA!
This was the mainstay for the swollen ranks during the seventies, but not for the reasons one may assume. The mags were pushing barrel rides in the early seventies, especially after the Lopez footage from Five Summer Stories. It was the thing. Pull in, get deep, doesn't matter if you come out. This was the prevalent mindset and the ridiculous byproduct of their marketing strategy. KneeMen were found to have a higher percentage ratio of getting deep and getting out than the standup surfers. Thus they became a conceptual high profile lure in a brilliant marketing ploy to sell mags and advertising space. This tactic in turn was mistakenly perceived by most KneeMen as having achieved an equal stature in the surfing world. Here we have the first error of misconception made within the then growing ranks of KneeMen.
The majority of the high profile KMen who gained exposure in the mags during the early '70's were comfortable in their new found illusion but failed to capitalize upon this well earned building block. They didn't much venture beyond their familiar home breaks where they were the dominant players. If they had taken these high profile talents and commited themselves to riding large Hawaiian surf on a regular basis while they had the spotlight, then perhaps KneeBoarding as a whole would haved carved itself a more prominant niche within surfing's rank and file, rather than where it currently resides at this juncture in time. Thru default most of this era's KneeBoarders elected not to harness or channel that early momentum towards bigger realms where just being out in those lineups, keeping pace with their standup contemporaries, was a statement in and of itself to the rest of the surfing community at large. The few who are still doing it since this time have done this in obscurity, with no recognition other the respect and the equal peer status given them by their standup brothers who have witnessed theirability to meet the demands of the occasion. Until recently.
By the mid '70's the Australian contingent exploded on the North Shore and the editors again moved on to the next marketing direction; high performance maneuvering in large surf. Subtly the emphasis moved to big turns and hard carves on huge walls led by Michael Peterson followed with Cairns, Townend, and Rabbit. This era was cemented by Richards and his highly evolved twinfin. His four titles are a testament to Steve Lis and the doors he opened with his legendary Fish design. Occasionally photos of KneeMen deep in a hole appeared from time to time as there was still money to be made, but by '80 it was pretty much a bad marketing strategy to continue coverage of yesterdays heroes. Like lemmings, KneeBoarders fell away, disillusioned that star recognition had slipped from their grasp. With the media attention focused elsewhere, many of them continued the evolutionary pattern of standing up, error number two.
The occasional photos of Romanosky or Sharp at the Wedge ran more as a novelty for the subscription list rather than documenting individuals following the current parameters of meeting the newly established standards. Why was this particular big wave chosen? More than likely it's close proximity to the corporate HQ and a decision making position within the particular magazine's staff. Although it does get huge, it is in no way an equivalent performance wave on a par with Sunset, Rincon, or even Black's on a mediocre day. It is a man made freak of a wave where the underlying assocoative innuendo generated through these pics further encapsulated KneeBoarding as an abnormal mutation of surfing, pushing it further into the shadows, snuggling in next to all those cheap carnival acts used for quick entertainment. Those who followed the new trend of big wave performance in the Islands did so quietly, and discretely, for no apparent reason other than the challenge of large surf. However the numbers doing this had no real significance in the marketing sense thus leaving the media with no other resolution than to find new posterboys.
The down hill slide of visibility accelerated as the Spongemen moved into our void where guys like Lindholm and Stewart were fearlessly attacking big surf with their radical moves. The start of big money began pouring into both Pro and Amateur surfing; with Morey and Scott bodyboards hot on their heels. KneeBoarding was slowly becoming a sideshow event in the amateur contests where those of us entering these associations were catalogued a a mere kneecap above the sponges. Eventually the Spongemen gained prominence over us as their corporate money influx gave their demands a much stronger negotiating position. Animosity ran rampant in the surf ranks as KneeMen began to voice their objection to continually being assigned the end of the day sun-in-your-eyes slop surf. Considering everyone entering a conyest paid the same entry fee a few of us fought to have heats structured in more fairness to all, rather than the darlings who had the media attention. We achieved this goal only to have the parent organization slowly attempt to phase the KneeBoard division out of it's structure. Their argument being "no one wants to watch a bunch of guys thrashing around on their knees" and this point was true due to their relegating our heats to the worst possible conditions. Not to mention mother nature's own fickleness in delivering quality surf. Case closed, the SpongeMen were more appealing to watch. They had the right equipment to perform for the judges, so they not only ushered in the next media fixation, they initiated it.
The criteria for surfing again changed in the '80's as it became more move oriented with Curren, Occilupo, and Potter setting the pace. The general standard became the "maneuver" oriented styles. Spongers ate this up. That's what they're all about. Kneeboard designs unfortunately still needed size and power to utilize their concepts efficiently. This new focus took the media further away from monitoring KneeBoard development. Meanwhile those silent few who were truly rising to the challenge of sharing the lineup with Elkerton, Carrol, and the Ho brothers, along with the new board designs that put them there during this time, again went undocumented outside their home breaks and the isolated surf camps on the edges of civilization. The failure of the media to give us new images of progressive KneeBoarding was largely due to most KneeBoarders missing the bus and crying over spilt milk. The majority of US KneeBoarders had finally capitulated through default the leading roles in design and theory which had been carved out by Greenough and Lis years before. They had lost sight of the pioneering principles which ultimately gave KneeBoarding definition and instead got lured into pursuing the media grandeur of becoming a star; error number three.
The marketing focus for the media had become competition driven by the late '80's; surf stars and titles. The last wave of young KneeBoarders jumped on this bandwagon with a vengeance. Board designs finally began to allow the maneuvering necessary to advance in a contest format due to Australian influences; but it only solidified itself as a another dog and pony act on the escalating contest circuit. Now KneeMen were trying to imitate standups, who in turn were being inspired by the Spongemen and importantly by the skaters. forlornly taking the last seat in the rear of the bus with a complete reversal of roles. In their misguided quest for recognition they had opted to emulate those they had once led, unknowingly becoming a mockery of themselves within the surfing populace; error number four.
By the '90's the competition frenzy was well grounded and in full swing with money flowing everywhere. Sadly this last influx of fledgling KneeBoarders from the '80's chased the allusive brass ring of media recognition with the naieve hopes of cashing in on this bonanza. They aren't alone in wanting recognition, but for the majority of KneeMen most of this desire for prominence has been specific to an individual's home break. For some it is still sometimes a daily chore to establish a position in a lineup that one has surfed for decades due to the huge influx of more incompetent surfers arriving every year who don't have a clue regarding established protocol in the water. Some of these KneeBoarders have relegated themselves to having viscous confrontations in the water which only exacerbate, not resolve the ongoing issue. This self defeating behavior only carries it's merits through the immediate session at hand, with the so called "enlightenment" forgotten about as quickly as a drying pair of trunks. There are still the lamenting wails of not getting respect in the water, or in the mags, without any comprehension as to the why's and where for's for their situation. Error number five.
The fact is that coverage doesn't exist because it's right there on the mag's covers; Surfer and Surfing. As one editor's response made it all very clear to a recent crybaby champion from the US team , " It's our mag." These juvenile exchanges further exemplify mainstream surfing's priorities, mentality, and the current state of it's affairs. However, even though US KneeBoarding has apparently sold it's soul to conformity, there is still the possibility that changes can be made to bring it back to it's former status in the next decade. With the wide spread exposure offered through the web, a larger variety of skills, equipment, people, and common frustrations inherent to KneeBoarding at large, is currently under way as a huge think tank of R & D. I feel this can only help support the Brotherhood in a much stronger fashion than that found in a commercial environment based on subscriptions and advertising space as the #1 priority.
Historically, surfing is extremely well documented down to the buttons and ties. Progressive innovations are the things which have curried legends and inspiration. Greenough opened a huge door and Lis made sure it wasn't going to slam shut. These initial designs were refined and refined again in different ways, in different countries. Since turning the reins over to the standup industry, the past twenty years have seen shapers refining these early concepts to make their equipment more efficient. However to the observant, these latest designs are mere cosmetics on old theories. Confirming once again that there really is nothing new under the sun........
Just cold leftovers.
So in this light KneeBoarding, especially in California, has failed to live up to it's heritage. Instead it has gotten in line like the three blind mice going down a well trodden and all too familiar circular path of redundancy. For some this decision to follow and not lead is not beyond comprehension..... it is the path of least resistance, where these constituants cloak it under the guise of being progressive, as defined by the surf media. But the question I put forth is: Does this "progressive" surfing really explore new frontiers in comparison to the historical innovations of our predecessors, or, does it merely fall under the contemporary definitions of competitive surfing?
Then there are those who have protected their reclusive innovations and will quickly merge into opaque shadows when they perceive to see a glance pointing in their direction. Somehow the universal surf community feels shortchanged by KneeBoarding's failure to live up to the expectations it has created for itself when reviewed in this manner. No wonder they are put out with us. I think they are tired of the current loop and have become intolerant of the stagnation we KneeBoarders have allowed to creep upon ourselves. They, more than we, realize that we all need a new direction.
The brief synopsis I've presented paints a very bleak picture as well it should. I may be very cynical and a bit jaded on issues, but I've removed myself from this state of mind to garner a glimpse of what those outside our circle are viewing. My conclusion is that US KneeBoarders need to disentangle themselves from the commercialized mainstream mentality they have embraced for well over a decade now. We need to rekindle our creative brilliance, then break away from this mediocracy by once again exploring new horizons.
And it won't be accomplished applying yet another coat of polish on an otherwise run down circus act as some still believe.