Bodysurfing is an art unto itself, no board required. However, there was a time when the world’s pioneers of surf considered bodysurfing skills to be a prerequisite. When they paddled out to explore towering Makaha or bombing Waimea, there was no safety patrol to ski wipeouts to the sand. These guys had no choice, but to be complete watermen.
An early version of the surfboard leash was used by Tom Blake in the 1930s. He tried tying his belt to his surfboard using a cotton rope. Tom abandoned his invention, deciding it was too dangerous. Throughout the decades, others tried linking the fate of man and board. The French were early adopters of the ankle leash. In the early 1970s leashes were being marketed to the everyday surfer. Some of the old guard complained that leashes allow surfers who aren’t ready for bigger waves to take them on too early. Others claimed they made surfing more dangerous. Despite their protest, leashes have become almost universal with over 99% of surfers wearing leashes.
Surfing in the pre-leash days is hard to imagine for those of us who’ve grown up in the post-leash era. The sheer emptiness of breaks on overhead surf days would be startling. I try imagine what it must have been like to take a hard wipeout at big Makaha back then. Trying desperately to avoid hitting my own board, having no leash to climb for the surface and when the wave finally lets me rise for a breath the real nightmare begins. How lonely it must have felt, to be a speck in the torrent of the Sea without fins or a board to aid an escape. With the invention of the modern leash, surf companies essentially killed the surfer-waterman inevitability.
It means something different to be a surfer these days. What is lost? Those extraordinary riders who are still pushing the limits of paddle-in big wave surfing carry the torch. In their line of work the principles of understanding the Ocean’s energy and the ability to manage one’s own safety has infinite value. I would argue, those same principles should have never lost that value.
For more information about the history of the surf leash check out the Encyclopedia Of Surfing.