Amid the typical throng of summer surfers, there’s an unusual group of wave riders paddling alongside the Pismo pier.
As fishers cast their lines from above and a humpback whale spouts in the distance, Bob Liepman and his small posse form a circle in the water, their bodies floating on inflatable mats.
“I had ridden a surf mat in Redondo Beach as a kid,” said Liepman, 66, of San Luis Obispo. “You used to rent them at beaches.” Liepman is best known locally for his musical endeavors. He’s one half of the duo Bob & Wendy and a member of the band Shadowlands. But when he sent me an email asking if I’d be interested in writing about mat surfing, I didn’t blink.
You don’t have to twist my arm to get me into the water.
However, for the past 14 years, I’ve ridden waves on a surfboard. And usually pretty big ones. My knowledge of surf mats primarily came from a scene in Thomas Campbell’s artsy surf film “Sprout” in 2004. But mat surfing seemed like a novelty, much like guys who rode doors or other odd objects in the surf to be silly.
But mat surfing does have a history.
“You used to buy them with green stamps,” Liepman said. “I was walking down the beach with my surf mat, and some old guy said, ‘So how many green stamps did that cost you?’”
According to Matt Warshaw’s Encyclopedia of Surfing, mat surfing was invented by an Australian physician in 1934 and made its way to America first by way of Virginia Beach in the early ’40s, catching on in Southern California later that decade. The mats — inflatable rubber that looks more like something you’d sleep on in a tent — became wildly popular in the 1960s and ’70s, Warshaw wrote, when mat rental stands were a common sight at popular beaches on both American coasts.
Mat surfing does have its advantages: Being inflatable, you can let the air out of a mat and store it anywhere — even in the cabin of a plane, Liepman said. It skims over kelpy water nicely (surfboard fins get snagged), its buoyancy makes it easy to catch waves, and it navigates well in choppy surf.
But the advent of the solid boogie board in 1973 would take the air out of the surf mat trend. And by 2000, Warshaw wrote, there were perhaps fewer than a dozen dedicated mat riders in California.
A little more than three years ago, Liepman was reminiscing about the mats when he did an Internet search and discovered that Paul Gross, maker of both surfboards and surf mats, lived in the county. Liepman soon ordered a mat from Gross’s 4th Gear Flyer.
His 8-foot-6 surfboard now has cobwebs between the fins, he said.
“The surf mat is so much fun, I don’t have time for the board any more,” he said.
It’s always fun to share waves with friends, however. So Liepman began recruiting.
“I was so enthusiastic about it,” he said. “So I talked a whole bunch of people into coming down and trying it. And out of all those people, about five actually bought their own mats and come out with me on a regular basis.”
One of those friends, Paul Teixeira, tried mat surfing when he was a child in South Africa. But he gave it up in favor of surfboards.
“And then never tried it again until two years ago,” said Teixeira, a physical therapist in San Luis Obispo and former competitive swimmer.
Now back on mat surfing, he likes the fact that you can ride mats on choppy and small days.
“You can ride in conditions you couldn’t normally surf in,” said Teixeira, who still rides surfboards as well.
Before my first attempt on a mat, I was a little doubtful. I’ve tried boogie boards before and found it was more difficult to catch waves on such a smaller craft that relies more on kicking than paddling with your arms. But since the mat is filled with air, it’s more buoyant, which makes it easier to move.
“It kind of feels like I’m on an air bubble,” said Robin Liepman, 25, who bonds with his father over mat surfing. “I’m just out there floating on the water, and when a wave comes, it’s just really easy to paddle and catch a wave.”
A surf mat might draw a few curious stares. But other surfers seem to welcome them in the water, Teixeira said.
“Nobody ever says, ‘Leave, kook!’” he said. “You’re not really intimidating on these things. Nobody’s threatened by you getting waves, and if you bump rails with them, it’s not going to be an issue.”
You will need help, though. Like boogie boarders, mat surfers need to wear fins on their feet to keep up with oncoming waves.
My first attempts at this were pretty awkward. The surf mat, after all, is pliable, so any little movement is dramatically magnified in the water.
“This could take a while,” I said.
As I floundered in the water, a couple of waves left me behind. Once, I accidentally hit the air valve, deflating the mat.
But I made a few adjustments — I moved my chin forward and added a little more air to the mat — and found that the mat was easy to turn when a wave approached. Then I clutched the front of the mat with both hands and began kicking. Surprisingly, I was riding a wave.
Then a second and a third.
“The first time I tried it, it was kind of like trying to ride a bicycle,” Robin Liepman said. “But I caught on really fast. It’s pretty intuitive because all you need to do is lie down on the mat and paddle.”
Because it floats so much, guiding the surf mat is a little tough. But whatever.
“It doesn’t have a fin so you learn how to use your hands or your fins or elbows to stay on the wave,” Bob Liepman said. “Even if you’re spinning out of control and going sideways, what can be more fun than that?”