The initial reaction when someone pulls out their deflated surf mat and starts to puff it full of air might be to laugh at them. Be honest, your first thought wouldn’t be “wow, I want to have a go with that”.
The surf mat looks like a design reject, a prototype for a baby air mattress that accidentally got released to the public.
But then, that surf mat rider heads out onto the waves. And they don’t just hang near the shore, flopping around in the dribblers. These surf mats are tackling the thickest waves on offer – and they’re more than up to the task. Maybe now you start to take them seriously.
The surf mat might not be the most common sight on the waves, but they’re definitely gaining in popularity.
The speed and feedback they provide is unmatched, and you’re able to get right down to the water. If you’re thinking of giving the surf mat a go, you won’t regret it. This guide can tell you everything you need to know to get you started.
What Is A Surf Mat?
At first glance, the surf mat looks just like an inflatable body board. Small and rectangular, this strange air mattress probably won’t immediately grab your attention. Especially if you’re pretty happy on a bodyboard already.
But then you take the surf mat onto the waves, and it feels like something entirely new. The close water thrill is incredible, with an unexpected speed and a control the bodyboard can’t match.
The surf mat is small and rectangular, designed to be inflated part way so that it remains flexible.
They’ve actually been around for a while, and have only fallen out of favor in recent decades. The old surf mat was fantastic, but even a slight knock might send the air rushing out. No wonder it lost popularity – no one wants a surf craft that can’t stand up to a wave.
The modern surf mat is made of lightweight TPU coated nylon, a strong and durable fabric that’s less likely to puncture. The seams are welded rather than glued, giving the modern surf mat a much greater strength than the old variety.
The topside material tends to be textured, to give the body some grip on the mat. The underside is smooth, allowing you to glide on the top of the waves. Nowadays, a ding to a surf mat will barely slow you down.
The surf mat is fun if you fancy a splash around on a gentle current, but it really comes into its own when you tackle a proper wave. The bend and give allows you to react to each wave, and this surprisingly versatile piece of equipment can handle almost anything you throw yourself at.
So much more than just an inflatable bodyboard.
The History Of The Surf Mat
The original surf mat was invented in 1934 by an Australian doctor, and named the “surf-o-plane” — yes, we’re glad they changed the name as well.
The crowds of Bondi Beach soon fell in love, and the “surf-o-plane” went from being a rented novelty to a beach necessity. With the thrill of the waves so close, it was like nothing the Australian surf scene had experienced before.
By the 1940s, the surf mat had made its way to America. It all started on Virginia Beach, but quickly spread across California. Both enthusiasts and casual beach goers enjoyed the feel of the surf mat, and by the 1950s they were a summer staple.
Whether you were learning a feel for the waves, or just hoping for some time on the water, there was always a need for a surf mat.
The surf mat was popularized even further by surf pioneer George Greenough. With his backing, the surf mat became a worldwide sensation. Particularly the Converse Hodgman.
Decorated red, white, and blue, relatively inexpensive, and incredibly cool – this was the surf mat everybody wanted. When the 1960s came crashing in, the surf mat was the perfect expression of freedom and enjoyment.
So, what happened? Why aren’t surf mats still the sensation they once were? It all came to an end in 1973, when Tom Morey invented the bodyboard. Similar in size and shape, the bodyboard had one major advantage over the surf mat — it couldn’t puncture. The bodyboard took off, and the surf mat became a historical quirk.
But that wasn’t the end of the surf mat. Nothing that’s this fun can ever truly be forgotten, and the surf mat’s popularity simmered with enthusiasts. The modern-day surf mat is stronger, better, and making a comeback.
Getting Started With A Surf Mat
As soon as you start using a surf mat, you’ll discover just how different it feels to anything else.
That means there can be quite a bit of a learning curve. Which is the nice way of saying there’s a massive learning curve, and you should expect to spend more than a small amount of time getting thrown into the waves.
But don’t let this put you off! After the first few goes being tossed off the board, you’ll start to understand why the surf mat is so addictive to use.
The very first thing you need to do with a surf mat is inflate i. Lots of newbies make the mistake of assuming that they need to fill the mat to the brim, and end up with a firm and unyielding board that’s impossible to use.
Instead, the surf mat only needs to be filled to around 60 percent — and possibly even less than that.
How much the mat is inflated correlates to the kind of performance you can expect on the waves. The less inflated the mat, the quicker you go. When inflated further, the mat becomes firmer, making it easier to control.
To start with, you probably want to fill the surf mat until it’s quite hard. That gives you an opportunity to learn to control the mat, and get used to the feel of it. It will also feel more secure in your arms, and less likely to fly away with the waves. As you start to improve, you can let out more and more air.
Typically, the surf mat should have a bend of 45 to 90 degrees. That bend is essential for reacting to each wave as it comes. A firmer surf mat may have more control, but if it’s too hard you won’t get the feedback needed.
Skilled surf mat users need barely any air at all. You might see them folding their mats completely in half, and they flop about so much you’ll wonder how they survive a line.
George Greenough used to call the surf mat “the magic towel”, because at this point it was so flexible it felt like surfing on wet fabric.
When inflating your surf mat for the first time, fill until it has firmness but can still move. Don’t get too caught up in the angles and percentages, because you’ll learn along the way how your mat reacts to the waves.
With time, you’ll learn to find the balance between glide, and tracking. This will change for each wave you encounter, and eventually you should know by feel what’s going to be right.
Inflating a surf mat doesn’t take much time at all. It’s easy, when you’re waiting for the next break, to let out a little air, or blow a bit more in.
You’re going to want a set of fins if you’re thinking of trying a surf mat, and you’ll quickly understand the reason why. Without fins, the mat has a tendency to drift, and it’s difficult to control the movement when that awesome speed has started.
When you get a good glide, lift your fins out of the water. This improves the speed, and you’ll get that incredible flying effect that makes the surf mat so special.
If the mat starts to drift, or you need to navigate, then dipping the fins into the water can give you some control over the movement, without disturbing the mat.
In terms of kit, the fins are the only thing that really stands out. Other than that, you’ll need wetsuits, rash guards etc. to suit your needs. And the mat can be inflated by hand in most cases, so you won’t need to bring along a pump.
The kit is small and easy to pack away, which is part of the reason why surf mats are gaining popularity. But if you’re looking to lighten the load even further, don’t leave the fins at home.
Actually getting out to the waves is one of the first challenges you’ll face, just because the surf mat isn’t the most steerable of crafts. Give your legs a rest and let the arms do the work (the legs come back into it later).
For most of the way, you’ll find the surf mat does a good job gliding over some fairly major bumps. Eventually, however, you will need to start duck-diving.
Duck-diving on a surf mat isn’t a difficult skill to master, but it might take some work to nail the timings. The best way to duck-dive is with a firm board, so inflate your mat until it’s pretty full.
You can always let out the air again later. As the wave or white water approaches, lie with your nose down and paddle fast, using all your limbs. Grab the front two corners of the mat and squeeze the rails together.
This will push the air back, and firm up the surf mat. Push the mat down hard by extending both your arms, and dive in after it. Lift the legs to go deeper. Push the mat forward while arching your back. The mat will move upward, pulling you back into position. Then, you can get back to paddling.
The first few attempts might be messy, but it’s the kind of skill that comes naturally after a while.
If you really hate duck-diving a surf mat, you might want to leave it deflated until you’ve made your way out. Beginners will probably find this technique more annoying than paddling, but once you’ve got some experience filling and deflating the mat it can be preferable.
By the time you’ve made it all the way out, you should start to get a feel for the mat under you. You’ll have seen how it reacts to small bumps and even some bigger waves, and understand a bit more about how to control it.
Paddle out with the mat stiff, because you don’t need the speed at this point. Then, when you get into position, you can let out enough air for a better ride.
Catching Waves On A Surf Mat
Okay, so you’ve made it out to the break, and now you’re waiting and wondering what to do. Honestly, the first few waves you catch are probably not going to go well.
The learning curve for using a surf mat is steep, and the initial feeling of it is very different to a standard surfboard. But it’s worth sticking with, because the experience is completely unparalleled.
First, don’t try to fight your mat. If a wave starts cresting and you’re busy fighting with your surf mat, it will pass you by before you have a chance to kick. The surf mat provides a lot of feedback, and you need to listen to what it’s saying.
When you start to react to the feedback, you should naturally begin to adjust how you use the mat. But at first, you’re probably going to try pushing back. The surf mat isn’t firm like a board — if you push down, the mat’s going down with you.
To successfully catch a wave, work with the mat. Begin by hanging off the back of it, grasping the front corners. The best body position is arms flat, body flat, and head down.
Wait until the wave is steep, and then kick forward hard. You want to avoid as much splash as possible, but use your legs to get into the wave. Keep your body stiff throughout.
Once you’ve been picked up by a wave, push your body forward and onto the mat, using a dolphin kick for power. Tuck your elbows in, and keep your chest low.
Now that you’ve caught the wave, you’re ready to let it take you places.
If you have experience with a bodyboard, then you need to forget it all before you try riding a wave on a surf mat. If you try and sit up on your elbows, you’ll stall the movement. The great benefit of surf mats is their flying speed, so stopping movement is the last thing you want.
To successfully ride the wave, you want to keep your body as low as possible. Avoid arching your back, or you’ll start pushing down on the mat. Lifting your head won’t hinder the movement, but be sure not to let the body follow.
Keep your elbow tucked in low, back from the shoulder, and keep your hips square on the mat. This gives the floppy mat some structure.
Use your outer hand to grip the rail near the shoulder, and hold your other hand near the valve. To begin with, you don’t want to be squeezing the rails too hard, as you steer from further down the body.
However, you probably do want to keep a tight hold with one hand. There’s no lead on a surf mat, so if you let go, it might go zooming off without you.
If you really want speed, then lift your fins out of the water. Otherwise, they add drag. When it comes to turning, use the fins and hips — don’t try and wrangle the mat. Dipping the fins can help with turns and trim.
Finding the balance between lifting your fins from the water for speed and using them to steer can take some time.
Rolling onto the inside rail can help to keep a line. Don’t just pull on the surf mat, instead guide turns with your hips. Movements should be smooth, and as you advance you can use the outside rail to execute some neat tricks.
Techniques To Try
Now that you’ve mastered catching and riding a wave, you’re ready to push your surf mat to the next level.
Banked Bottom Turns
Roll onto your inside hip, grabbing and lifting the outer rail with your hand. This pushes the air back, increasing the inflation of the mat. Tuck the inner elbow in close to the water, without touching, and dip the inside fin. Banked bottom turns generate a huge amount of speed.
Unbanked Bottom Turns
Instead of banking off the bottom, with an unbanked bottom turn the nose is lifted up the face by several degrees. The new shape reduces water displacement, propelling the mat forward with more energy.
For a hard carving cut back, roll your weight onto the outside rail, while dipping the outside fin. Grasp the inner rail and lift, while pressing down with the outside hand.
This can get you back into the pocket high, and crank the speed. Use your fins in and out of the water to either aid control, or increase speed.
To get into the tube while riding a surf mat, keep your head low and push forward. Move your head and weight over the inside rail, and squeeze the outside rail with your hand.
Pick a spot further down the line to focus on, and you’ll naturally move towards it. Increase the speed by loosening your grip on the outer rail, and feel as the mat starts to glide.
The learning Curve
The reason why so many struggle to get to grips with the surf mat is because the learning curve is pretty steep. At first, it’s not about learning new techniques, but forgetting the old ones.
If you’ve spent a lot of time on a bodyboard, then the movements you make naturally are going to hold you back. As you push down on the mat, your speed stalls, and you give up, disheartened.
But when you stick with it, the experience is like no other. It feels almost like you’re directly on top of the wave, gliding at a speed with the thrill of feedback. Just make sure you listen to the mat, rather than forcing your movements on it.
Why Use A Surf Mat Instead Of A Bodyboard?
There are three reasons why you should use a surf mat instead of a bodyboard: the portability, the feedback, and the versatility.
First, the portability. A deflated surf mat is small enough to be tucked into your wetsuit, and takes up almost no room. Carry it on your bike, in the back of your car, or just slip it into a backpack. You never have to worry about space-saving with a surf mat.
Once you’re used to the feedback of a surf mat, every other type of board just seems dead. With a surf mat, you can feel every movement of the waves, and you feel close to the water like never before. The experience of it is unmatched.
Finally, the versatility. Fully inflated, the stiff and controllable surf mat is good for learning the ropes and catching smaller waves. Loose, and you can ride a line through the thickest waves. And because squeezing and adjusting changes the shape of the mat, you can make these changes in a heartbeat.
The surf mat went from must-have craft to laughingstock, but it’s making its way back. The feeling of flying over the waves with a surf mat is addictive, and once you’ve nailed the technique, you’ll struggle to understand why they ever lost popularity.
This is a surf craft to have fun on, and you’ll find yourself either screaming or laughing as you fly across a wave. Ignore any strange looks from other beach goers — they’ll be trying to buy their own surf mat in no time at all.