Even among surfers, longboarders are usually a very relaxed bunch. But tell them what surfboard they can and can’t ride, and even they will get a little peppery. That’s exactly what’s happening behind closed doors in the professional longboarding world, where the World Surf League is toying with the idea of mandating its surfers ride single fin longboards.
“You wouldn’t go to the shortboard tour and tell those guys they can’t ride quads anymore,” says two-time world longboarding champion Taylor Jensen. Jensen, along with other competitive longboarders interviewed for this article, doesn’t dig the idea of ditching his two-plus-ones, thrusters or quads in favor of single fins. “It would be so limiting to the sport if you told surfers which boards to ride,” concurs 2015 women’s world champion, Rachael Tilly.
Last week, the WSL sent a message to all of its longboarders telling them that this year the league was switching to single fin longboarding. To hear it from some of the surfers, the note came out of the blue. Within minutes, the league pulled a 180, informing surfers that the rule would not be implemented, explaining that, “we apologize that more extensive communication between WSL and the athletes was not had, as such we are tabling the proposed adjustment.”
The WSL has not responded to requests for comment and hasn’t offered an explanation of why it’s considering going single, either to the public or to its competitors. And while the notion of switching to single fin-only competition has some pro longboarders slightly perplexed and a little peeved, they have some ideas about why the league is eyeing the change: Can you name the last time WSL longboarding attracted much attention?
As those who do it will attest, longboarding is the neglected, nine-foot-tall child in the pro surfing family. Before the global financial crisis, the discipline enjoyed a global tour with multiple stops. Today, the longboard “tour” consists of just a sole championship event. The rest of the events on the schedule are qualifiers in which only surfers from the region where the event is held can earn points. By contrast, the men’s Championship Tour, known to longboarders alone as the “shortboard tour,” boasts 11 events, not to mention heaps more prize money.
This isn’t the first time the league has proposed changing the lengthy equipment: A couple of years ago, they suggested imposing a weight requirement to make the boards heavier, but didn’t implement it. The super light, responsive equipment the surfers ride now is partly responsible for the maneuvers done in competition: a repertoire critics might say looks too much like shortboarding on a longboard.
The surfers definitely want to see bigger prize purses, more exposure, and more opportunity. But they don’t view giving up their sidebites as the way to achieve that. “There’s kind of a lack of support in the longboarding industry,” Tilly says. “The WSL thinks they need to change something, maybe go more traditional, but the changes that need to be made aren’t based on the number of fins in the board.”
The location of this year’s championship event — Papua New Guinea — a contest slated for next month, makes the idea of going single fin even stranger. “They propose the change right as we’re going to this barreling reef break. Not exactly a single fin type of wave,” Jensen says.
“Everyone’s a little confused as to what they’re trying to accomplish,” says Tory Gilkerson, last year’s women’s world champ. “They’re picturing the Duct Tape,” the freewheeling, invitation-only single fin logging event organized by Joel Tudor.
Rather than the lip-smacking and spray-throwing that comprises much of WSL longboarding, the surfing in the Duct Tape Invitational is heavy on noseriding and trimming. It emphasizes positioning and subtlety over dramatic carving. However relaxed it is, the contest has been featured in the Vans U.S. Open of Surfing, a huge stage for competitive longboarding.
“The Duct Tape is great but ultimately it’s successful because Joel is such a respected surfer, he has a following, and Vans is backing his ideas,” Jensen says. “Trying to make traditional longboarding into a sport is the wrong way to go.”
If going old school is the aim, the surfers can deliver that with the same equipment they’re riding now, Tilly says. “Classic surfing can be done on a two-plus-one. You just have the option to do turns.”
Gilkerson herself prefers noseriding. “I’d rather see people hang 10 than waste a good section doing turns,” she says. But to her, or the other surfers we talked to, single fins aren’t the answer.
To improve its longboarding format, including prioritizing noseriding, the league should look to its judging criteria, Tilly, Gilkerson and Jensen all said. They applaud the WSL’s decision in 2015 to stress noseriding in the criteria. Noserides in critical sections are virtually mandatory to get scores upwards of 8, Tilly said. However, she sees the criteria as too grey. “If the WSL is looking to get even more traditional, they need to write it super clearly in the rule book,” she says.
What else? Add style as a criteria, Jensen says, and maybe this: The WSL does not have any one person whose job is overseeing longboarding; the longboard tour has the same commissioners and leadership as the shortboarders do. “There’s no one there to take care of the longboard tour. I think that’s a problem,” Jensen says.
“My dream would be to see a tour that goes to multiple locations, and you can ride the equipment that suits the conditions at those locations,” Jensen says. “Don’t tell me what I have to ride.”