Barrel of Fun on the Beach

Patrick Bristow knew it was only a matter of time before his mother discovered that the 35-foot, U-shaped skateboard ramp he built in the back yard was not a "toolshed."

"She kind of believed me until she heard some noise in the back and I had all my friends over," said Bristow, 22, who had told his mother the shed was sloped to allow rainwater to drain. The secret was out.

So, to salvage his mother's nerves and to quell complaints from neighbors, he decided to channel his aerial aspirations away from La Canada and pursue skimboarding.

Skimboarding, no less harrowing than skateboarding, is a sport more akin to surfing. The board has evolved from a round sheet of plywood, used in the 1970s, to a shorter, wider version of a foam-core fiberglass surfboard.

A skimboarder sprints toward a receding wave, tosses the board onto the thin layer of water which has not been completely absorbed by the sand, jumps on the board and skids across the beach into deeper water. Practiced skimboarders can turn in the water and ride a wave back to shore.

Bristow scoffs at manufactured skimboards, which range in price from $150-$300, and has set up shop in his back yard. He and a friend, Kevin Callahan, design, shape and glass their own boards. Bristow says selling to the public probably would not be lucrative, however, because the activity is outlawed on most California beaches. Also, on good skimming beaches, which sport steep slopes leading down to shore, breaking waves are hard to find. The two area beaches popular among skimboarders are Aliso Beach in Laguna and The Wedge at Newport Beach.

Bristow remembers watching a few rides at Newport which lasted more than 45 seconds. But, he says, duration is not as important as the quality of the ride.

"The ultimate goal is to have fun and the ultimate fun is to get barreled," he said. "Getting barreled," or "riding in the blue room," means skimming inside of the wave as it forms a tube.

"It's the most intense feeling I've ever experienced," said Bristow, adding that the tube ride lasts little longer than a second. "Picture a wall of water around you a foot or 2 feet thick. It's silent. You're in there by yourself. It's almost an artificial feeling."

The experience, Bristow adds, is worth the risk.

"There's no fear," he said. "At that point you don't care what happens to you as long as you're getting barreled. For that one second of exhilaration you don't care if you're hurting for days afterward.

"You do pay the consequences when the tube closes out and you're tumbling in there with a hard-surfaced board."

Pain is no stranger to the average skimboarder. Beginning skimmers suffer gashes called "shark bites," which are usually notched in the area around the Achilles' tendon. The wounds come when a rider overestimates the speed of the board, leaps in front of it and is struck in the heel by the edge.

Ironically, as a rider gains experience, the possibility of serious injury increases. Skimmers have been struck on the head by flying boards which have been launched off waves.

Dangerous skimmers, Bristow says, are dubbed "911's."

"A 911 is someone who's causing problems and is like an accident waiting to happen," he said. "You're ready to call 911 because you know somebody's going to get hurt."

Craig Badger, a friend of Bristow's, shattered his right shoulder in a skimboarding fall five years ago. "I was trying to do a flip and I came down on my shoulder in about six inches of water," Badger said. But one year, a nasty scar and a few pins later he was back at it.

Bristow, who sometimes spends eight hours a day skimming, said that the activity is more convenient and far less taxing than surfing.

"First of all you're not in the water all the time," said Bristow, who surfed for four years before he discovered his new passion. "If you're surfing in the winter, you definitely need a full suit because you're constantly cold. If the sets aren't coming in fast enough, you're just waiting and waiting.

"When you're skimming, you can be sitting with all your friends in the sand and when a set comes in you run out and take a few waves. Sometimes you don't even get your hair wet."

Staying near the water's edge is also advantageous for spotting potential problems.

"You're always on the shore. You can always see what's going on," he said. "You can see a problem like little kids having a hard time getting back."

Another perk to staying close to shore, Bristow says, is the crowds good skimboarders draw.

"If you know somebody's watching you, you'll give that extra effort," he said. "Make that spray a little higher. Catch more air."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World