If you're interested in a surf craft you can pack on a bike, a ‘surfmat’ might be the answer. Surfmats are inflatable floaties made from heavy duty TPU-coated nylon, with welded seams, a rough/sticky side facing up toward your body, and a smooth underside for gliding through the water.
Surfmats have a long and interesting history. The original surfmat was the ‘Surf-o-Plane,’ invented in Australia in 1933. In the days before bodyboards, the Surf-o-Plane was a huge hit. It was the main alternative to surfboards until the 1960s, when bodyboards took over.
You can read about the history of surfmats here: What Is A Surf Mat?
Eventually people started paddling into larger surf, where they discovered that surfmats really shine on a proper wave. A surfmat is actually one of the fastest-moving crafts in the lineup.
Here are a few pics from the Fourth Gear Flyers website:
Without a doubt, to people who don’t understand what makes the surfmat such a special wave riding device, and who aren't aware of the long and interesting history, they look like the kookiest thing ever. And maybe they are. But check out some of these videos before passing judgement:
George Greenough – a famous surf pioneer from the 60s and 70s - calls the surfmat “one of the most fun vehicles I’ve ever surfed on.” You'll see surfmats featured in many of his vintage surf movies from that era.
I challenge anyone to catch a decent wave on a surfmat and not crack a smile. It is an absolute blast. You’re flying across the wave with your face a few inches from the surface. The mat absorbs the small ripples and bumps, creating an ‘air ride’ feel. It’s outrageously fun, and quite unlike anything I’ve ever ridden. Ash and I just returned from a trip to Costa Rica, and I was surprised how often I opted for a mat instead of a board.
Anyone can play around in small surf or whitewater and have a good time, but to really ride the waves takes skill. It's similar to bodysurfing in that way. Beginners and experienced surfers alike might find it frustrating at first. Do yourself a favor and check out the many instructional videos and posts online before paddling out.
Also: remember not to inflate the mat all the way. It should be floppy and soft, not firm like a Thermarest.
Catching a wave on a surfmat is similar to bodysurfing. Wait till the wave is steep and cresting, hold the mat out in front of you (at this point your body should be in the water, not on the mat), hold your body and stomach stiff, and kick until you feel the wave’s momentum take over. Quickly and smoothly pull yourself onto the mat and hang on!! You'll take off like a rocket, and probably either laugh or scream for the rest of the ride.
To stay on the face of the wave, turn and take the highline early before the curl overtakes you. Otherwise just take the drop and enjoy the roller coaster. Either way it’s a blast.
To get out through the surf, you can duck-dive by pushing the corners together and shoving the leading edge under the wave. Hang on tight, because there’s no leash. If you lose the mat it’ll be a long swim in to shore. I’ve also had luck getting under waves by kicking along on my back, holding the mat tightly with both fists, and doing a reverse duck dive under the wave while kicking hard. I read online that in big surf, some people deflate the mat entirely to get under waves.
There are only a handful of companies making serious surf mats. We bought ours from Fourth Gear Flyers, which has been around since 1984. I have the ‘Fatty’ and Ash has the ‘Tracker.’
You won’t catch waves without fins. We use DaFin.
The best thing about surfmats is how small they pack up on your bike. I can fit a cold water 5/4 wetsuit, a hooded rashguard, 6mm gloves and booties, fins, and a surfmat, all in a 20L drybag. Here's what my surfmat kit looks like at the Oregon coast.
I like to keep my wet stuff in a separate drybag so it doesn't get all my normal clothes and camping gear wet. I strap it over the passenger seat like this:
In warmer climates where you don’t need a wetsuit, the entire kit takes up less than 10L of space. If you’re already packing a spearfishing kit (like in this other Braaap Chat post) then you can combine the two for a surf/dive/fish/moto trip. The same wetsuit and fins will work for both. Ash and I hope to do trip like that in Baja or mainland Mexico soon.
If you arrive at a beach on a moto trip, and have to choose between a boogie board, a rental soft topper, or your very own surfmat, the surfmat wins every time. Embrace your inner kook!
Good luck, let us know how it goes. And please send pics.
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