Fifty Years of Boogie
The Boogie Board, invented on this day fifty years ago, was designed to democratise surfing, which it did by removing the long learning curve that was stand up surfing’s barrier to access. Because of this it was hugely popular. However, in the right hands, the Boogie Board became, not just a simple plaything, but a specialised craft for accessing parts of the wave surfboards couldn’t go, and later, for pioneering waves considered too extreme for foam and fibreglass.
You could mount an argument that, of all Tom Morey’s noted inventions, the boogie board was his least adventurous. Here was the guy who devised Slipcheck, an aerosol wax alternative, the Trisect, a three-piece surfboard complete with suitcase, and W.A.V.E Set, the first commercially successful removable fin system. Morey also had a hand in producing the first commercial asymmetrical board, the Blue Machine by Bob Cooper, and the paper surfboard, which, as you might expect, had slightly less commercial success.
Bodyboards, however, have a long history, with wooden versions having been surfed in Hawaii since surfing’s late 19th century revival, and a wooden bodyboard even appeared in the Wedge session of The Endless Summer. That Morey’s invention - similar shape yet made of different material - would have such a profound effect on surfing seems unlikely, and yet that’s just what happened.
The story goes that, in 1969, Morey saw a kid catching waves at Doheny Park on a crude polyethylene slab. Two years later, and by then living on the Big Island of Hawaii, Morey acted on what he’d earlier seen and on the 9th July 1971 he cut a nine-foot piece of closed-cell polyethylene packing foam in two. The board was 23’ wide, 4’6” long with leading edges curved and a square tail. It weighed approximately 1.5 kilograms.
Years later, Morey spoke to Surfer Today about this act of inspiration: “I found that I could shape the foam using an iron if I put a sheet of the Honolulu Advertiser down on it first.” The black and white newsprint is still evident on Boogie #1. “Later that night, I drew a few curves on the foam with a red marker pen and went to bed.”
The next day Morey took it down to Honels, on the Big Island’s west side, and though the surf was choppy and small the sensation of riding the as-yet unnamed board was immediately compelling. "I could actually feel the wave through the board,” said Morey. “On a surfboard, you're not feeling the nuance of the wave, but with my creation, I could feel everything."
His invention now a reality, Morey’s entrepreneurial spirit kicked in. “I was thinking, 'It turns, it's durable, it can be made cheaply, it's lightweight, it's sage,” mused Morey to himself, adding presciently. “God, this could be a really big thing."
Morey refined the design, reducing the length to 3’9” but increasing the width to 25’ - dimensions that remain broadly similar fifty years later. He also changed the name from his first choice of S.N.A.K.E - an acronym for Side, Navel, Arm, Knee, Elbow - to the simpler and more culturally right-on, Morey Boogie. By late ‘71, Morey had a deal with Larry Smith from G&S to sell Boogie Boards for $37 - chosen as Morey was then 37-years old.
The first boards were made by Morey himself, but when he began having allergic reactions to the glue he began selling mail order packages for $25. Cheaper as the buyer had to assemble the parts.
By 1977, the Morey Boogie board was enormously popular, selling 125,000 units in that year alone, which was also the year Morey cashed out, selling his invention to the Kransco toy company. Two things then happened that Morey couldn’t have foreseen: sales of Boogie boards, and Boogie imitators, sold by the millions, and also, Boogie boards found a natural home in waves of consequence.
Around the time Morey was cashing out, Jack ‘The Ripper’ Lindholm was making his first sorties into the Pipeline lineup after graduating from Town to Sandy Beach and onwards to the North Shore. The Boogie Boards’ lack of drive through flatter sections presented no problems in the power of North Shore waves, and the ability to make sudden changes to line was a distinct advantage in the warping face of Pipeline.
In early ads, Morey filled the copy with allusions to endless creativity, and Lindholm obliged, first by venturing into waves where a soft toy had no place, then by riding the board in ways even Morey couldn’t envisage. Though it’s often called drop knee, older bodyboarders will still refer to the ‘one leg up, the other down’ stance as Jack Stance, a homage to Lindholm who pioneered it.
In years to come, bodyboarders such as Danny Kim, Chris Won, and Cavin Yap would give further credence to the Boogie Board’s capacity for creativity by standing up on them. Standing upright on a finless board seemed incredulous, and it remained on surfing’s extreme fringes until twenty years later when Derek Hynd did the same thing to slightly more acclaim.
Riding Jack Stance at large Pipeline, Lindholm was the first bodyboarder to give serious credibility to Morey’s frivolous invention. He was also the first bodyboarder to challenge the surfing hierarchy.
“At first glance, the Boogie looked like a toy for first-time beachgoers,” wrote Matt Warshaw in the History of Surfing, “But within two or three years of the Boogie’s debut, a handful of prodigiously skilled bodyboarders emerged, and they were out there mixing it up with the regular surfers—who generally viewed this new phenomenon not as a form of democratisation but as a huge annoyance.
The growth of bodyboarding surged through the 1980s, both in America and Australia, with surfers and the surf industry not exactly sure how to deal with the demands of the bodyboarders who took their surfing every bit as serious as stand up surfers did. Without endemic magazines or industry, bodyboarders began to appear in traditional surf magazines and the bigger companies would sponsor a token bodyboarder to attract the custom of the emerging market.
However, none of this was done without resistance. When Surfer magazine ran an article titled ‘Is Mike Stewart the Best Surfer in the World?’, the letters page of the next issue ran hot. Amongst many earnest and angry replies was this short but typical rebuff: "To answer your question. No, Mike Stewart is not the best surfer in the world. He's a boogie fag."
More than any other bodyboarder, Mike Stewart was a pioneering surveyor of deep tubes. With a low centre of gravity, he could ride deeper with less chance of getting bucked off, and owing to his low vision, Stewart was allowed intimate observations of the innermost limits.
“One thing I learned is to ride just inside the lip,” Stewart said to journalist Bruce Jenkins in 1988. “At Pipeline it hits so hard, it creates a trough and sends shock waves up the face, trying to push you out of there. That knocks off just about any surfer trying to ride anywhere near there. Plus, when you’re standing, you have to look straight down and you have only your peripheral vision; it’s not your focal point. But there’s a little zone, and if you’re deep enough on a bodyboard, you can get up on that thing and it can squirt you forward.” In time, ‘teasing the shocky’ became bodyboarding shorthand for ultra-deep tube riding.
In Australia, peak enmity towards bodyboarders was reached in 1990 when Tracks ran an article titled ‘Will the Next Generation of Australian Surfers Please Stand Up’, which blamed bodyboarding for Australia’s flagging fortunes in stand up surfing. The article ran with a sidebar listing the many derogatory names surfers called bodyboarders. These days you could replace bodyboarders for SUPs, foils, and softboard beginners.
The animus did little to kerb bodyboarding’s popularity, which in Australia peaked in the early-90s. Much like Hawaii, Australian bodyboarding found a natural home in waves of consequence, with Shark Island becoming the down home version of Pipe. Beginning with pioneers like Chaz McCall and Steve Doney, then through to the next generation of Doug Robson, Warren Feinbeer, Matt Percy, and Dave Ballard, Cronulla became the epicentre of Australian bodyboarding with smaller outposts scattered around the country.
The uneven uptake of bodyboarding ran contrary to Morey’s vision of democratising the surf. Sure, anyone could ride a Boogie Board in small beachbreaks, but that tires quickly. If you wished to pursue the sensation then certain waves had to be sought out - think, short, bowly and shallow. If a town had at least one wave like this then chances were a small but dedicated band of BBers also existed there and they devoted themselves to that wave, surfing it with brash commitment whenever it broke.
This natural gravitation towards heavy waves preceded a more voluntary pursuit towards waves of an ever more dangerous disposition. Stand up wisdom says the hunt for slabs started around the turn of the century with the Bra Boys discovery of Cape Solander. The footnote to that discovery, however, is that Solander was already being ridden by a bunch of Cronulla bodyboarders.
Throughout The Endless Summer there’s a running joke about surfers missing the best conditions. “You guys really missed it,” says Bruce Brown in his Californian drawl, “you shoulda been here yesterday.” The very same joke underscores many of the stand up ‘discoveries’ of the nineties and noughties - the surfers missed it, the bodyboarders were there yesterday.
Teahupoo? Raimana van Bastolaer first surfed it on a BB. The Right? BBers Chad Jackson, Brad Hughes, Sean Virtue claimed that scalp. Likewise lidders at Lunas, Cyclops, and Konys. The same is true for almost every slab discovery made after 2000 with bodyboarders staking the claim.
“When I was growing up,” says photographer and sometime bodyboarder Ray Collins, “there was a bodyboarding movie by Tom Boyle called ‘The Ultimate Waveriding Vehicle for Waves That Don’t Want to be Ridden.’”
“That title always stuck with me,” says Collins. “For me, it’s the most perfect description of the craft.” Though it was made before the slab chase began, the movie’s title sums up the test pilot mentality of the modern slab-chasing bodyboarder.
Not averse to chasing slabs himself - he broke four ribs doing just that in February - Collins now divides his water time across a selection of craft. “When it’s down the line, then I’ll ride a hard-railed surfboard,” explains Collins, “but when it’s thick and it’s heavy and it’s breaking right onto cunji or coral, then I’ll get my bodyboard. It’s still the ultimate vehicle for those waves.”