Sometimes they say it. Sometimes they don’t. Most of the time, I know what they’re thinking: “What the fuck is that thing?” Mat riders all over the world have seen this look. Those of us who surf crowded lineups know it well. It’s the moment when the other surfers realize you’re lying prone on something inflatable and that you’ve obviously lost your mind by thinking you can actually do something other than get in the way.
Surf mats aren’t for the faint of heart.
I don’t say this because mats are so fast and, therefore, guaranteed to blow your mind. No, I say this because I’m well aware that those of us who ride surf mats are on the fringe of a culture that practically demands conformity. Mats don’t conform to any notions the surf world might hold about what is cool, what’s trendy, what’s cutting edge or what’s certain to get the hot girls (or, in my case, hot men) to look your way. Most surfers have never heard of a surf mat, let alone seen one in action. And if your peers are unable to quickly size you up, easily identifying the group to which you belong—for example, longboard hipster, aggro shortboard guy, crust old-timer, beginner—you are immediately labeled a kook. Immediately. It’s that quick. Seriously.
You remain a kook until you catch that first good wave, the one that sends you hurtling across its face at a speed that others in the lineup could not have fathomed. It’s at this point that the beauty of the mat—its contours, its ability to mold itself to both the wave and the rider, its willingness to find fourth gear and beyond—becomes clear to the onlookers. The session that began with people snickering in your direction quickly evolves into one where people want to know what exactly a mat is and where they can find one.
My initial attempts at riding a mat were not pretty. In fact, I flopped around on the mat in an ugly way for about a year (although part of that year was interrupted by the knee replacement surgery), not understanding how I would ever figure the damned thing out. And then a funny thing happened on one day in particular. It all just clicked. My brain understood what my body and mat were supposed to be doing. Once that happened, my ability to ride the mat improved each time I paddled and kicked out to the lineup. In fact, I continue to improve; I’m comfortable enough to now take the mat in waves I would hesitate to tackle on a surfboard. My time in the water is now that much more enjoyable because I have so many figurative arrows in my quiver of surf craft.
Yes, I drank the mat riding Kool-Aid. And it still tastes good!aggro shortboard guy, longboard hipster, Mat riders