The leader of the kamikaze pack, wiry, tousle-haired Bill Bryan, 32, studies the incoming ridges, then bolts for the surf as if chased by an enraged rhino. In mid-sprint he tosses the board ahead of him on the wet sand, leaps on and glides into the teeth of a 4-foot shore break. He zooms up the face of the wave to the lip, where he flips the board about-face and carves back down toward shore. He gets a second or two in the barrel before it closes out and crunches him in barely 2 feet of water.
And sometimes a few other things. Bryan has four screws and a metal plate in one ankle and gets dinged up most days because there's not much of a net in the high-wire act of wave skimming, which is done in the shallow water of shore breaks.
His moves are something you'd expect on a skateboard, not a plywood disk for ferrying rug rats, the image most have of skimboards and one that Bryan does his wave-walking best to dispel. "That's what most people think it is," says Bryan. He's topped the world skim championships 12 out of the last 15 years, but his exploits haven't won him the recognition or big bucks of his peers in the surf scene because his field gets all the deference of shuffleboard.
"Sliding along on the sand on a piece of plywood isn't very respectable," he adds. "But if you come down here and the sidewash is working, it's more exciting than surfing. It takes skateboarding into the water."
Skimboards aren't your dad's stray chunk of lumber anymore and haven't been for a couple of decades, since foam-core boards allowed wave skimmers to launch acrobatics the equal of anything in the skate- or snowboard realm. Yet skimming has remained a fringe pursuit, making it a rare breed in the hypercommercial surf and X Game era: a board sport that's still owned by the kids who do it.
On a postcard summer afternoon, Bryan and the second-place finisher at this year's world championships, Tyler Lopez, 21, and a posse of other hard-core skimmers, several seen on MTV's reality show "Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County," dish out a jaw-dropping series of spins, midair board grabs and floaters (balancing atop the crest of the wave) for an audience that's pretty much just themselves. Fixated on the next set, they don't seem to mind that they're running with surfing's poor cousin.
"It's still grass roots," says Bryan. "That's part of the reason we do it and don't surf. It's more fun and rewarding to be a part of than what a lot of the forces of culture are telling me to do with my body and my life."
But Bryan and his friends may have company soon. Skimboarding shows signs of shaking off the sand-squirt image and catching a breakout from obscurity. In the last few years a handful of companies, including surf and mass-market firms, have entered the market; production of boards in China is lowering costs; a boating market has opened up for skimming on wakes; and "Laguna Beach" has put skimming, and several of the kids who carve with Bryan, in the national spotlight.
That could mean bigger paydays for skim pioneers who have labored long in the trenches, like Bryan, who makes skim DVDs to help supplement his contest winnings. And especially for Tex Haines, a Laguna skimmer who founded Victoria Skimboards, the first bona fide company in the field, 29 hair-raising years ago and has been waiting for the sport to take off ever since.
But as much as Bryan and Haines want the higher profile, they're wary of the price of acceptance — cutthroat competition, an invasion of the neighborhood. Bryan worries about the "bro factor" slipping away as it did in surfing when the megabucks hit, while Haines admits he's "never been in a hurry to get big overnight."
There's no choice now. Skimboards are coming to a big-box store near you.
The disk evolves
HUMANS have been devising ways to get out from under the yoke of gravity for years, with sliding — on snow, mud, water or wet sand — a favorite antidote to biped boredom. So it was only a matter of time before skimming freed the species from lock step.
Laguna lifeguards came up with the first prototypes in the 1920s, putting a glide in their strides with 20-pound wooden disks. That became the standard shape into the '60s, when boards began to evolve from oblong to sled-like and shield-style to today's sleek high-performance models, which resemble smaller, wider surfboards without fins. Laguna has remained the epicenter of the skim universe, thanks to the configuration of its shoreline, where a drop-off brings waves nearly to the sand before they break. The formation makes Laguna lousy for surfing but great for skimming.
Haines spent summer weekends as a kid at Laguna's Victoria Beach, where his parents (who both surfed, his mom getting lessons from surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku) shared a beach cottage with other families. He started "skidboarding," as it was called then, and quickly found himself under the spell of the slide.
"It's frictionless, it's cool, it's wet, and you'd just do that all day long in between bouts of eating," he recalls. He was supposed to be a doctor, like everyone in his family. But after graduating from Stanford with a degree in biology, he heard the call, instead, to minister to stationary beachgoers. He and a friend launched Victoria Skimboards in 1976 in a garage above the beach of his youth.