The Connection of Surfing & Skateboarding

Updated: February 28, 2023 | Archive

Originally published in Concrete Wave Magazine Vol. 13 No. 4 (Winter 2015)

Sometime in the late 1940’s the skateboard evolved from the ocean like a tadpole, growing wheels and trucks where fins and rocker once lived. The act of riding that tiny oak plank with crappy metal wheels was called sidewalk surfing, however paltry an experience, it was compared to actually riding waves. And so it lived its early years, giving glide to surfers as they imagined water flowing under their wheeled boards.

Kent Nishiya. Photo – Lance Dalgart

Trends never get it right. What had started as an earnest attempt to surf the pavement soon grew into a massive pop culture phenomena, and the idea tarnished quickly. Cheesy outsiders jumped in with cliché toys that looked like little surfboards, so instead of technology advancing and feeding the nascent sport, it became a fad soon abandoned. For a time it languished, barely kept breathing by a loyal few. It wasn’t until a new generation of Venice surfers remembered the potential, which had been squandered on skate gymnastics, and incorporated the low-slung style of Hawaiian surfer Larry Bertlemann into their lines, that skateboarding got its second chance.

Once again surfing defined skateboarding, and this time advancements like the urethane wheel and the kick tail offered serious performance that drove progression. The street has a way of changing things, of hardening them so they can take a beating. Over time skateboarding got hardened too, tasked with confronting the stone features of architecture and demanding some kind of experience in return. The joy of flowing through the potential energy stored in the inclined surface gave way to flying over stairs, the carve ceding to the ollie as the new foundation for maneuvers.

The literal meaning of ‘flow’ is to move smoothly with an unbroken continuity in the manner of water. In psychology the Hungarian professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi theorized that a flow state was one in which we fully immersed ourselves in some activity, reaching a state of happiness, elation even, as a result. Bruce Lee famously said ‘Empty your mind, be formless. Water can flow or it can crash; be water, my friend’. It’s only fitting that this metaphor is made literal when riding waves in the ocean.

Taylor Knox. Photo By Jack English / Surf Images

Like the tides, skateboarding’s history is one of high and low points, a cycle of change every few generations. Each new group reinvents skateboarding for itself, in part as a revolt against the previous generation, and also as a revival of the past. Most sports are well defined, with rules and commissions and uniforms, so it’s not easy when such an activity changes so radically, splintered into factions that thrive on being proudly distinct from each other. In a way this is one of the elements that helps define skateboarding as not a sport but more as a creative lifestyle, able to bend to the wishes of each new generation.

Skateboarding continues to evolve into further hybrids, combining new tricks with its rich history of non-conformity. In the post-modern context of this mash up we find ourselves back at the beginning once more, mixing elements of surfing with what we learned from street skating and downhill racing into a hybrid that defies easy categorization. Even surfing has been changed by skating, as tricks developed on skateboards are now finding their way into the lineup, changing the way we look at waves.

Less ‘mystical ocean’, and more ‘booster ramp’, surfing’s delayed adoption of air tricks has put it out of sync with skate, which is now experiencing a return the ethos of setting a rail and committing to a carve. So we end up with many interrelated yet fiercely independent factions, each claiming some corner of authenticity. In classic power surfing, the concepts of speed, power and flow are the essential building blocks with which we create maneuvers. The cutback, for example, is not some fancy way to throw some spray, it’s a highly functional maneuver that keeps you from running out in front of the wave and bogging down. It returns you back into the power pocket where you can get the most speed, and sets you up for a deep-railed bottom turn on your way back up to the lip.

Joel Tudor. Photo By Jack English / Surf Images

This idea of finding flow on an incline, whether it’s a hill, bank, ditch, park, or wave, is about maintaining speed so you have the power to drive off the glide. In surfskate, unlike downhill racing, the line is not about how fast, but how to milk the incline for all it’s worth. The first seeks uninhibited speed, the other a measured control of it.

So yea, you can blaze past that bank on your way to the bottom, or you can carve up it, cut back, do a roundhouse, and hit that lip again; flowing back down the line to the next berm. In this way, style becomes paramount, the ergonomics of flow as interpreted by the artist’s personal vision. Those body dynamics are pure function; translating weight and torque from upper body to the gliding board, coiling through a turn, utilizing leg extension to push off the carve. There are textbook ways to execute a maneuver, but every rider finds a different way to interpret them. The way you stand, hold your arms, set up your hand positions; it all adds up to personal style.

Even in silhouette you can recognize Rob Machado, as he glides slightly hunched, along a fast line, down the face. It’s this silhouette, and how it is an adaptation of the textbook form, modified by the peculiarities of one’s own body, that blends the functional and the personal.

In the end, it remains a maneuver that is meant to modulate the way the energy of the incline is either maximized or controlled; whichever is needed in the moment. There are many ways to pump a board, some that look smooth and powerful, and some that look chaotic and dorky.

It’s a question of style, and the focus in both surfing and skateboarding is the power within good style. This process is greatly informed by the observation of those who have it, and the subsequent practice and internalization of the effects of those movements on our lines across the hardtop. And for references on stylish flow, there is hardly a better place to look than surfing, where the carve is the foundation of everything.

Taylor Knox. Photo – Lance Dalgart

More than ever, we live surrounded by the undulating hardpack of man-made waves, millions of square miles of artificial surfaces smoother than would seem reasonably possible. It’s only natural that we would want to roll on those inclines, find the fluid lines across their surfaces like we do on ocean waves.

Winds blow over the ocean, gathering ripples into waves that coalesce into swells that build and magnify until releasing that energy onto the shore. The asphalt incline is stored energy released to oiled bearings and urethane tires; like the hydrodynamic lift of a planning surfboard as it glides on the water.

So, no matter what you ride, the flow of surfing is at its core, and the lessons gleaned from the wave still apply directly to the concrete, even after all these years.

Neil Carver

Check Out Next