The Naked Flight
I looked across the table at my girlfriend Sarah, regal in a borrowed $3000 Prada dress. She drank a pricy riesling, the crystal stem sparkling quietly in the low light of the marble dining room.
“And for you sir?”
The server looked at me expectantly, his wine pairing already picked for whatever I might order. Kid-glove service makes me uncomfortable, but I suffered the niceties for the food.
“I’ll have the braised lamb please.”
“Excellent. The chef recommends it medium-mid rare. He also makes no guarantee it will be hot, or taste very good by the time we get it to your table. Oh, and the price has been raised from $43 to $92. We have a lovely petite syrah with nice structure for that lamb,” he went on.
That’s what airlines do with surfboards. They’ll get it there, but there’s no guarantee they won’t break it. I haven’t been on a surf trip for a while, but was surprised to learn Delta had bumped their surfboard charge to $200.
Per board. (No explanation for why they don’t charge golfers per club.)
We all know the average baggage handler didn’t go to cotillion, and doesn’t give a damn about your board. I remember showing up at Mundaka with a buckled board thanks to Iberia Airlines. I’ve arrived on the North Shore with broken fins (pre-FCS) thanks to United. And airlines take zero responsibility for the wreckage, so I get a small pleasure from signing their release of liability form Mickey Mouse.
I was in Hawaii a few days ago, and my friend Aamion couldn’t fit one of his boards – a beautiful 6’6” Tokoro – in his board bag so he generously gave it to me a few hours before my flight. Amazing how the universe provides; I needed a good step-up this winter. All I had to do was get it home. I didn’t have a board bag because I hadn’t brought any boards; I opted to borrow from friends instead. It would have cost me $400 per board – I’ve had days in Hawaii that would set me back $1200 at that rate.
So I stuck the board on the plane as is – no bag, no padding, nothing.
“Don’t worry,” said the ticket agent with a grin, as I failed to talk my way out of the charges, “they’ll load it on top. Mahalo.”
I could see the scene on the tarmac: “On your toes everybody! We have a surfer from California who wants us to be extra careful with his board,” they would laugh as they ribbed each other and crushed my board under the wheels of their luggage cart.
I was skeptical I would have a board come Los Angeles, but I wasn’t the first to do this. The California surfers who pioneered the North Shore in the 1950’s must have flown with boards, sans protection. They were among early surf air-travelers, and I don’t think board bags existed then. Bruce Brown cemented the minimalist packing practice into the collective surf psyche as Hynson and August flew to Africa in The Endless Summer. But glass jobs were a bit heavier in 1966, boards were a lot thicker than the modern pro’s Pipe cleaner, and I can imagine baggage handlers were so shocked by what they thought were extra airplane wings, according to Brown, they probably treated them with care. So I could see it working out, forty-five years ago.
The thinking is that if the baggage handlers actually see the object they are dealing with, they will realize how breakable it is and be more careful with it.
Others have done it since – Thomas Campbell paid homage to Brown in The Present, with Knost and Junod putting their boards straight on the conveyor belt, and even sporting suits on their trans-Atlantic jaunt like the Endless Summer stars. But it still seemed like a small miracle that my board would survive air turbulence at 37,000 feet, in a cold, hard cargo bay loaded with tons of suitcases bursting with plastic leis and mugs engraved with native sayings. Mahalo indeed.
A friend in college told me he did it once, but I kind of didn’t believe it. Maybe Bruce Brown even faked it for his movie; it certainly added a quaint touch to the innocents abroad story. Maybe the whole thing was an urban myth of the surfing world.
So here was an opportunity to test the lore. What did I have to lose beside $200? I have had my boards damaged by the airlines six of the eighteen times I’ve taken them on a plane. A 33% loss rate isn’t the greatest bet, but what the hell, it was probably better than going to Vegas, and at worst it would give me a story.
As we waited at the specialty baggage claim after the flight, I watched the baggage handler casually grab pairs of skis off the belt and toss them on the floor. My jaw hardened. The guy clearly didn’t give a shit, and I was ready to lay into him. But as the Tokoro emerged from the bowels of LAX, he gently picked it up, looking it over like a weathered ding repairman, and set it down next to snowboards and furniture boxes without a scratch. Scuffed and dirty, yes, but fiberglass integrity unharmed.
As I watched the baggage guy continue unloading items, my teetering faith in humankind was slightly strengthened. He definitely didn’t surf, yet identified this item as special.
Thanks Aamion, and thank you baggage guy.