Surf Mat Shenanigans: What, How and Why?

Words by Justin Coffey
Photos by Kyra Sacdalan

Some of the best ideas are born after many beers. Like when your father spots an inflatable surf mat at a shop on Sunset Boulevard – shortly after pouring back a few pints at Mohawk Bend, I might add – and then pulls the trigger, suggesting you pack it onto your motorcycle and ride up the coast looking for waves to surf along the way. Great idea, dad! And so just like that a trip was born, two actually. The first was as mentioned, from San Diego to Seattle on big American cruiser machines. Kyra and I stopped to surf in San Clemente, again in Santa Cruz and then a third and final time on the coast of Oregon. The second trip, though, was into Baja on our Indian Scouts. And unlike our first little adventure, which had us riding well-known roads and surfing even better-known spots, our surf mat shenanigans south of the border were a bit more off the beaten path. That trip was the focal point of ‘Baja Norte,’ the first episode of our new moto-travel show, Perpetual Motion. So, I’ll let you watch that, and save the story. And instead of waxing on about what we did, I’d like to explain a bit more about the mat itself, how to surf one and why they’re so awesome.

What the hell is a surf mat?

A surf mat is nothing more than an inflatable device that, in this case, measures 3ft 6in x 20in x 5 in. They come in many different shapes and sizes and are manufactured by a variety of companies, most of which are thin plastic play toys meant to keep the kids occupied during a Summer vacation. However, the one I borrowed – a Krypt Surf MT5 – is made from “military grade fabrics” and features a “Dolphin Skin Non-Skid Deck, Double Coated Ultra Slick Bottom, Parabolic Front End for No Catch Surfing, Fluid Amplification Rocker and Precision Engineered Concave Design for Dynamic Lift.” What the hell does all that mean? No, I’m asking you… I have no idea! What I do know, is since their inception, something like 25 years ago, the surf mat has never really caught on. Perhaps it has to do with its similarity to the sponge [see: Boogie Board] and the negative attention those often draw. Or maybe it’s because people that surf irregularly (the vast majority of us) are afraid to spend their time and money on something niche or kitschy. Whatever the reason, the inflatable surf mat is a device that anyone interested in harnessing the power of the ocean should own, in my opinion. And like all things in life, if you’re going to own one, own a good one.

How do I ride one?

My experience thus far is limited. Having ridden a surf mat maybe a half-a-dozen times so far, I’m certainly no expert. That said, I’ve been surfing since I was sixteen and playing in the ocean on all sorts of curated crafts since I was in diapers. So, my ability to judge swell patterns and to time when, or when not, to take off for a wave will be different than most. But this is not to say you need to be some sort of surfing enthusiast in order to take on this activity. Quite the opposite. Swim fins are something that come fairly naturally to anyone who has spent time in the sea. And the mat itself, if inflated appropriately, will provide enough buoyancy that you should feel fine your first time out.

What I’ve learned, though, is that timing is everything. The mat itself doesn’t move easily through the water, but powered by your pair of swim fins, you can go for a swell a lot later than you might on a traditional surfboard. This allows you to pick and choose your waves a bit better than a standard surfer, taking the scraps from those who failed to catch one, or those that simply didn’t try. When you catch some surf – dropping down the face, the first thing you’ll want to do is rotate your upper body in the direction you’d like to go. I noticed that pulling up the upper-outside corner of the mat allowed me to bury myself into the face, creating what I would consider an edge. Staying out ahead is essential. If you get caught in the white water of a crashing wave, you’ll be redirected toward the shore, perhaps ending your ride prematurely. To avoid this, again, timing is crucial. If you enter a wave too early you might not be able to decipher which direction it wants to go (assuming you’re not surfing a point break, where the waves break only one direction. Exhibit A: Malibu). If you enter too late, you’ll be swept up by the white water and pushed whichever direction the wave wants to go.

Unlike both the Boogie board and body surfing techniques, the surf mat can move quickly while also generating drag in different situations. But because of its metamorphic shape – changing with more or less inflation and underneath varying sizes of people, as well as after you’ve been riding it a bit and squeezed some of the air out – the surf mat is an ever-evolving piece of equipment. This allows you to be fluid at times, generating speed across the face of a wave, releasing your grip on one side in order to allow water to flow freely, while also slowing yourself at certain times by leaning back and tugging on the front of the mat which will create a snow-plow effect. It is far more dynamic than anything else I’ve tried to surf.

How is a surfing a mat different than a proper surfboard? 

This is sort of a complicated question… Every wave-riding apparatus I’ve tried is different from the next. No two surfboards are alike, unless of course they come from some kind of pop-out facility in Thailand. But even then, slight variations can cause a board to act differently than one shaped (seemingly) exactly like it. My friend Mike wrote a wonderful piece about ‘choosing the right board.’ His conclusion? Whichever you have the most fun on! People overthink these things. They study shapes, look at the numbers and compare one to another in a shopping experience akin to purchasing a new PC. What they forget, however, is that until they’ve ridden one in the water, they have no idea how it’s going to act, even if they already own something similar. And so, the surf mat – with its infinitely differing dynamics, changing in shape and size throughout the day, floating different people in very different ways, and being the kind of device which is unlike anything you’ve likely ridden – is tough to define. I can’t say it’s easy. But I can say you will walk away with a smile. And that’s something I can’t say with certainty when it comes to a traditional surfboard. Some leaving you feeling elated, the perfect combination of ingredients, while others will undoubtedly leave you feeling frustrated and ready to quit. The surf mat, though, is just pure joy. So maybe that’s the difference? You can paddle out on whatever you want. You can overthink, analyze, critique and curate your collection, but a mat will never be the same, it will always just be fun.

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