After a half-century of underdog obscurity, surfing’s sandy step-child is finally finding its sea-legs
By Ted Reckas
Laguna Beach is one of the surfiest towns in California. Except there isn’t much surf.
For all its hidden coves, rocky outcroppings, and wind-thwarting cliffs stacked with mega-mansions, the seven-mile coastline is shadowed from the northwest swells that light up California in winter. It’s the home of artists, Hollywood types, anti-corporate activists, a strong gay community, and more than a few ex-pro surfers.
But surf? Not much.
Laguna spots are either lurching, boil-filled foamers or shorepound. In a few rare corners, waves refract off rocks, turning closeouts into distended peaks just before they explode on the sand. Any surfer would be drawn to watch for a moment, before ruefully moving on.
A group of young men, however, stand atop the berm, studying the water like hunters. Like surfers. They hold squat, flat, carbon-fiber blades. A lanky character with a wild mop of blond hair sprints hell for leather toward the water. He drops his finless swallowtail on the wet sand and steps on, timing it to hit a wave at maximum mutation. He places a smooth under-the-lip gouge at full tilt, redirects some 270 degrees to surf the face of the wave, floaters over the end section, and free-falls several feet through the air, landing in a few inches of water, ending with a 360 shove-it. “Three-shuv,” in local parlance.
Skim City. And it’s pumping.
Blair Conklin, the 24-year-old guy with the hair and three skimboarding world titles, at the house his grandfather bought in the 1970s before Laguna became the preferred escape of Southern California’s growing elite class. Conklin grew up overlooking a secluded cove in South Laguna. Along this part of Coast Highway, you can’t see the beach, only the backs of the homes of the one percent intermingled with the odd 1930s bungalow still hanging on amid the gentrification.
Down Conklin’s private staircase, he reaches the sand and walks a few coves over to a spot that is the Pipeline of skimming. In summer it’s bursting with quasi-naked bodies, beachgoers from out of town, coolers and boomboxes, spearfishermen, frat boys, European tourists. Local skimboarders convene at the base of the cliffs like the cool kids in the back of the bus. With south swells in full swing the alpha skimmers take center stage.
Now it’s October and the beach is empty. The offshore breeze is slowed to a whisper by the cliffs, and the sun is just lighting up the crystal water. A late-season south swell mixes with an early north. Side waves bounce off the rocks like an electrified butcher knife, chopping up the surf and making it jump in amplitude. One or two waves of every set go ballistic in just the right way. Terrible surf, great skim.
Conklin politely asks a bystander to grab a few clips on his phone. (Dade Shields, Conklin’s filmer, is incapacitated with a new baby and a broken leg courtesy of his new dirt bike.) On his first wave Blair lofts a shockingly high backside air. To a pro skimmer, the clip is money in the bank. While many still compete, Conklin and his contemporaries are more focused on putting out videos. Blair’s YouTube channel, Skid Kids, has 60,000 subscribers. His Instagram has 95,000 followers. Whether you’re a skimmer or not, it’s entertaining viewing; slow motion, three-shuv’s across the roof of warped barrels dazzle the eye.
A lone figure approaches from a distance. Blair’s expectant look is the opposite of what you’d see from any crowd-hating surfer. It’s Johnny Weber, a stylish, lanky goofy foot with a James Dean squint. Weber hangs and chats for 10 minutes before even addressing the water. No rush. Unless you’re at Wedge in Newport, crowds aren’t usually an issue. This is what surfing in 1950s California must have been like: unpopulated beaches, boards supplied by a cottage industry, and sincere camaraderie in the lineup.
Weber moved out from Delaware for the skimming six years ago. While he’s one of the best skimmers in the world, he works as a deckhand on a charter boat and has a ninth of the Instagram followers of Conklin. He did compete for a time, but he’s more interested in traveling for waves now.
“I want to go to Peru, Chile--” he says.
“Just walk-on point break waves--” says Blair.
“We should go surf,” says Johnny, provocatively.
Both laugh, as though admitting they’d kissed their sister.
“Here,” explains Weber, “you can get 65 waves in an hour, if you just run your ass off. Surfing you get, like, four sometimes."
Billy Howie (1550 Instagram followers), a young Laguna local, arrives and the three friends share a dizzying session, each riding over 20 waves in an hour. They slide around like cats on acid, breakdancing under the lip. Skimboarding is highly improvisational. The whole thing takes place in the wave’s last notes a few feet from shore with the skimmer composing a ride out of last-second warbles, double-ups, and crazy closeouts. One moment they’re doing the cleanest of carves, the next, they’re ollieing off the roof like it’s a staircase. Spontaneous direction changes, alternating between supreme control and hanging on for dear life, is all standard in a ten-second ride. Each skimmer rides with an individualism that’s becoming rarer in the surf world. They push each other in a celebratory way, clapping a hand against their board for standout maneuvers like skaters at a pool session.
As the sun finally claims their shadows from the base of the cliff, and the wind switches, the three friends disperse, back to day jobs, or video editing in Conklin’s case.
Laguna wasn’t always so expensive. Once a Paleo-Indian campsite, then a Spanish Land Grant, it later attracted outsiders and creatives. Then came the landslide. Pioneering surf filmmaker and longtime Laguna local Greg MacGillivray—who went on to make multi-million dollar IMAX films—explains: “Fifty years ago, the money was all up in LA. Then the population of California went from 15 million to 45 million, and a lot of those very wealthy people thought Laguna was cool, so they moved down and made it their own.”
Protected by steep mountains and limited access, property values soared. Conklin’s family home was a smart investment by his grandfather several decades earlier. Laguna native Ryah Arthur, a skimmer turned surfer, reckons, “You could still be a teacher and live here in the 1980s.” In the ‘70s, the Brotherhood of Eternal love based their drug smuggling, acid guzzling surf commune here. LSD guru Timothy Leary had a beach house on Gaviota Drive. Spiritual huckster Osho, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh established a meditation center in Laguna Canyon. And Tex Haines and Peter Prietto started laminating plywood skimboards in Haines’ garage.
The friends had spent their childhood summers at Victoria Beach watching locals like Greg Taylor, Happ Griggs, and Mike Buxton sliding around on homemade “skid-boards,” and soon took up the sport. Seeking better boards, Haines and Prietto created Victoria Skimboards, which almost single-handedly kept the sport alive for a few decades.
Today, Haine’s humble storefront in Laguna Canyon feels more like the living room of the extended skim family than a business, with a comfy couch and skim vids on TV. On the walls hang the evolution of skimboards, from the first plywood disc “skidboards” to the modern carbon fiber blades of today. Haines—both grizzly and affable—doesn’t push an agenda. Like old friends over a beer, he tells how his grandfather was part of the original Waikiki Outrigger Club. He gets chicken skin remembering the time he met Duke Kahanamuko when he was a young boy. And he still goes to Aliso Creek every Saturday morning with coffee, donuts, and demo boards for all comers. Victoria boards are still made in a small factory in San Clemente’s surf ghetto, alongside some of the best surfboards in the industry.
While Haines was building Victoria, Bill and George Bryan were growing up in a small apartment near Victoria Beach with a single mom working several jobs. In the 1970s, Victoria Beach seemed like non-stop a beach-volleyball, surf/skim, party zone, and it was literally the Bryan brothers’ sandbox. They watched the progression from Prietto and Haines bashing the shorebreak, to Chris Henderson doing the first wraps to turn and ride with the waves. By middle school, the Bryan brothers were the next evolution.
“At first, people kinda hated on skimboarders,” says perennial Wedge acolyte Robbie Crawford. “But then, with what they were doing, you couldn’t deny it. They were basically street skating on the wave.”
Bill “Beaker” Bryan became the Kelly Slater of skimming, the GOAT. He won ten skimboarding world titles. He and George put out a new skim movie every year for 20 years. Bill was a hustler, simultaneously competing in the Quiksilver Cup surf/snow tour, the Swatch flowboard tour, and the pro skim tour. He won most of the contests, filmed everything, hosted his own premieres, hand-sold the movies, and taught skim lessons too. Even today, Bryan sells his entire 20 movie catalog on a thumb drive so he can spend half the year in mainland Mexico. He rarely skims Wedge anymore, claiming he’s found a half-dozen better spots south of the border. At certain pointbreaks, he’s been seen launching his skimboard from a Wave Storm and performing a mad array of shoves, slides and carves down the line. And always with a mad grin on his face.
Austin Keen has competitive success: a skimboarding world title and a win at the Vic -- the longest-running, most prestigious skim contest. But with 50,000 YouTube subscribers, a million+ Instagram followers, and GoPro Million Dollar Challenge awards in 2018 and 2019, what the Tybee Island, Georgia native is really winning is the internet.
You’ve seen him online. Lean muscular build, hawkish face, waist-long dreadlocks pinwheeling cinematically when he throws a rotation above the lip. In his social feeds, he’s foiling behind a 200-ft superyacht in Cannes, teaching DJ Diplo to wake surf in Jamaica, being towed underwater with dolphins in Turks and Caicos, skimming Kelly’s wave in Lemoore, and delivering skateboards to Mexican orphans. “Pro athletes, country music stars, Formula One and Nascar drivers, they’re all getting into wake surfing,” says Keen, whose most lucrative endorsements—Clarion Marine Sound Systems, Malibu Waterski Boats, cbdMD—come from outside skimboarding. For Keen, skimboarding was a key that opened a dozen different doors, and he’s walking through all of them at once.
Another online presence that transcended the skim world is Floridian Brad Domke. His 2015 XXL Award contender—ridden on a skimboard -- has 1.5 million views. Domke (83k on Insta) grew up surfing and skimming, so he’d always throw a skimboard in his boardbag on surf trips. While towing in Mexico, he realized he could do it on his skimboard. He soon whipped into a game-changer at Puerto Escondido. Watching him skitter into that slow-motion, finless bottom turn on a 20-foot sand-barrel with nothing but toenails for traction is a study in faith. While Domke was on Maui to tow Jaws the following year, his friends Francisco and Niccolo Porcella were paddling so Domke gave it a go. On the same day that Aaron Gold caught what many consider the biggest wave ever paddled. Domke caught a set wave on a 10’2” gun, got barreled, and came out with the spit, notching a more traditional XXL Awards entry.
“I’ve just been rolling dice and having faith in my roll,” he says.
Clearly, he can surf. So why skim?
“It was an elite sense of fun,” says Domke, “jumping off jet skis and getting huge barrels on a board that’s not supposed to do that. I’m always looking for what isn’t going on, what I can do with my own style.”
Domke was there when three-time world surfing champion Tom Curren (0 Youtube subscribers) showed up in Mexico with little more than roller skates and boogie boards. Domke told him, “I’ve got something that’s way faster and more cutting edge for someone of your skills.”
Curren spent the next month riding skimboards at the righthand points with Domke. “He was like a little kid,” says Domke. “With the thruster, he already knows how to play that instrument. Sometimes it’s good to play something else just so you can get back to your normal instrument with a new way of thinking.”
Afterwards, Domke introduced Curren to his board sponsor Exile, and they developed the SkimFin together. But even with a domed deck for added volume, paddling the board remained a limiting factor. Curren glued extra foam to the deck, added some S-Wing fins, and covered the rails in silicone gel to reduce injuries. The innovations didn’t stop there. He stapled socks to his visor, covering his ears, and surfed in slacks with pockets sewn shut, for sun protection. On a big day at Puerto Escondido, he emptied a two-liter Coke bottle and cinched it under his rashguard for an impromptu flotation vest.
“It’s almost like God was throwing us a bone,” said Domke, “like, ‘All these people are hating, but I’m going to make the best surfer ever love skimming.’”
Clearly there’s a coterie of skimmers taking skimboards way beyond the shorebreak. But will Curren find a design that paddles like a surfboard and surfs like a skimboard—something really different?
Blair Conklin has given the topic considerable thought. “I think he already has created something different. He’s mastered everything else and wants to try this. It’s not really him trying to perfect a new board that’s going to be great for everyone, it’s just him trying something new he gets enjoyment out of. And I think that’s really cool.”
Back in South Laguna, Conklin and Johnny Weber are waiting out a downbeat between sets. A six-inch wave approaches.
“You want this one?”
Weber shrugs. Conklin runs.
The ripple hits the rocks, rebounds, and jumps in size. Waist high. Blair flattens his board to preserve speed as he heads out to sea. A set materializes. He connects with the side wonk just as it convulses the main wave into an overhead peak. He applies a scalpel-like backside hook, wraps back toward the beach, ducks into a quick barrel and skids back onto the sand, almost without touching the water at all. Baffling. These guys see waves like dogs hear other frequencies.
While none of them are getting rich, skimmers are decidedly more sober and sponsor-aware than their predecessors. Pre-internet skimboarding was focused on a handful of competitions attended by a dedicated, underground crew. The scene was so concentrated that Skim Magazine listed competitors origins as Laguna or SoLag (South Laguna), as though they were two distinct worlds. Contests were followed by raging celebrations, immortalized with photos of young men, beer, and girls with Skim stickers across their breasts, in the pages of Skim Magazine. Prize money was slim, and fame rarely extended beyond city limits.
While South Laguna remains skimboarding’s center of gravity, the scene has become postmodern, decentralized and digital; Instagram and YouTube are proxies of skim culture now. Brazilian phenom and 2019 world champ Lucas Fink (44k on Insta) described the diverse brotherhood of skimmers that travel internationally, "we know each other from Instagram, and hanging at the beach."
Only after Fink was riding for Red Bull for a few years, did they suggest he get a world title under his belt. Making videos isn’t something you do on your way to winning a world title anymore. Winning the title is something you do to legitimize your content.
After an impressive showing in last year’s Stab High airshow, Conklin was recently invited to BSR surf park in Waco, Texas with Mason Ho to help design new waves for their menu. In the subsequent video, Blair soars on his skimboard and Mason’s surfboards interchangeably. In an Instagram post from the session, he is crouching through a normal-looking tube ride, but he’s surfing a boogie board...backward. His sponsor, Catch Surf—purveyor of popular soft boards—prefers him riding their product, and he acquiesces. “I want to push soft boards where they’ve never been,” says Conklin. “I want to do airs that would be proper even on a regular surfboard.”
Clearly, skimboarding is expanding to a newer, bigger stage. “I feel like right now there are more skimboarders in the world than ever. In the Philippines, Brazil, Africa, the places where it’s good, there are little communities doing it,” says Conklin, adding, “Sununga (home to arguably the best skim wave in the world) has a sick little community that kind of reminds me of the Brazilian version of Laguna.”
Later that night, there’s a premiere for the film of Conklin and Mason Ho in Waco. Packed house at Laguna Beach Beer Company. Groms running wild, dads having beers, a handful of adventurous girls from the high school milling about. Conklin and crew, clad in kitschy Catch Surf attire, are holding court at the foosball table. He’s a star. You can see it in how the groms look at Conklin: pro skimming is a career path now.
And the night is still young.