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Stoking the masses

The throng of tanned spectators at the U.S. Open throbs with standard surfer chic. Except these two guys. Their dyed black hair contrasts with their pasty skin -- a sheen they strive to protect with the highest SPF sunscreen. One wears oversized sunglasses from the 1980s that say “Wild Thing” across the lenses. The other has a stud in his lip and big metal bolts in his ears. Often when they’re out in public they wear girls’ pants because they are tight and weird, they say. But here at Huntington Beach, it takes only short-shorts to draw mortified stares from this crowd.

What really sets them apart in this sea of haute beach bitchenness, though, is their preferred wave-riding vehicles. The boards that lay beside them in the sand are not thrusters, fish or even nose-riders. They’re ... bodyboards.

“Surfing is for regular people,” says Mike Rasmeussen, 19. “We’re spongers.”

Cool vs. un

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In the annals of cool, there is a small entry:

“Boogie board (a.k.a. ‘sponge,’ ‘bodyboard’) noun: inferior step-brother of the surfboard; popular among awkward children and the infirm; worldwide sales of approximately 3 million per year, dwarfing surfboards (250,000), skim boards (20,000) surf kayaks (fewer than 10,000) and all other wave-riding devices. One of the most popular water sports on earth. Seriously uncool.”

But as seashores from New Jersey to New Zealand attest, the sponge has won. Bodyboarders outnumber surfers almost 6 to 1, according to a study compiled by a bodyboard manufacturer. At least 100 California beaches prohibit regular surfboards along certain stretches during certain hours in summer to protect floundering tourists and other swimmers. But their soft little cousin the bodyboard generally gets a free ride, and Target, Costco and even credible surf shops have capitulated to their popularity, offering various boards, fins and leashes.

When surfer and surf product pioneer Tom Morey created the first bodyboard in 1971, he just wanted something new to ride. In those days, surfers rode standing up or, for a small and eccentric group, kneeling on boards sculpted from blocks of white, high-density foam covered with fiberglass and resin. Then, as now, shapers cranked out an endless evolution of designs, but anyone with bad balance who was unwilling to risk a head ding was out of luck. The best alternative was to ride the waves on the overfilled canvas air mattresses rented at beaches.

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Morey dreamed of changing all that. He had spent all his money on foam surfboard blanks in a failed attempt to build the perfect big-wave gun, but the board didn’t work out, and surfing, he felt, was becoming too exclusive, too cooler-than-thou. So in frustration he cut a 4-foot block of the remaining material, softened the edges with an iron wrapped in newspaper, and hit the swells in front of his home on the Big Island of Hawaii.

The waves were decent, but because he had just invented the bodyboard, he was understandably inexperienced. It didn’t matter. He paddled surfer-style (use of swim fins came later) into a cresting swell, shot into the wave’s barrel and coasted out. A few days later he tried again. This time the waves were small but the board still worked. The fundamental law of the bodyboard was revealed: Anyone can learn how to ride in seconds, and it promises a good time as long as you’re wet.

Morey put an ad for his “Boogie board” in a surfing magazine. Four years later, he was filling 80,000 orders annually. It started as a product aimed at surfers’ kids but soon, Morey and a growing number of competitors realized that surfers were buying the things for themselves. Makers began experimenting with material and shapes. Today’s mid-level boards sell for about $40 and are made from extruded polystyrene, a high-density Styrofoam, with slick bottoms and veneers of treated foam attached by hand. For $250, top-end spongers get boards of durable propylene with a graphite core that holds the board’s hand-shaped curve even after it’s slammed by waves and car doors.

An industry is born

Demand for Morey’s boards eventually outpaced his ability to fill orders, and competitors began imitating his designs. So when a San Francisco company offered to buy his name and invention, he jumped at the chance. He won’t specify how much he was paid, except to say he spent it long ago. The San Franciscans, in turn, sold out to Wham-O, a company responsible for the Frisbee, Hula Hoop and SuperBall.

By the late 1980s, Boogie boarding (a name now owned by Wham-O) was becoming almost cool.

“Bodyboarders were the first to get air by launching off waves,” says Pat Dugan, an executive at Morey Bodyboards. “When surfers started seeing bodyboarders getting air, that’s when sales went psycho.”

Suddenly, all those teams sponsored by surf product makers seemed to have at least one bodyboarder. Some surf shops began fighting over particularly good spongers. New companies popped up to meet demand. The head of production at the Morey plant, Bobby Zabad, defected to start his own company, named BZ, and lifelong enemies were made.

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And then, in the early ‘90s, it ended. Sales went flat, and the cachet of 4-foot foam evaporated. Team members were let go. Publications folded.

“When girls really started surfing, that’s when it began to end,” Dugan says. “When a chick paddles by you on a surfboard, all of a sudden you check yourself: Am I on the right thing here?”

This is the way the hope of cool ends, not with a bang, but a bikini.

But the threat of uncool was hardly enough to end sponging. Meanwhile, bodyboarders have redefined wave culture. Spongers now career across waves from Oahu’s Pipeline to Fiji.

“Bodyboarders are taking over the breaks,” says Bill Sharp, 43, a longtime surfer and former editor of Surfing magazine and the now-extinct Bodyboarding magazine. Surfers’ only revenge, Sharp says, is that “bodyboarders are considered at the bottom of the food chain. It’s almost heresy for a surfer to hold the average bodyboarder in high respect.”

“There are vocal and occasionally violent confrontations at lots of beaches,” Sharp says, “but after a while, it doesn’t matter what surfers do. There are so many bodyboarders, they just crowd everyone else out.”

Diversity on waves

Beaches’ summertime segregation of surfers and spongers hints at changes sponging has stirred.

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On a typical evening at Manhattan Beach, white surfers chase swells to the pier’s south. The waves north of the pier roil with a more diverse crew.

A Latino teen’s tattoo of a sultry woman dips in and out of the waves as he strokes his sponge into a wave that would be chest-high on a surfer. A black man’s dreadlocks dribble brine as he gives a friendly shout to a pod of riders -- white, Asian, old, young -- before all tumble beneath a wall of white water and thudding plastic.

“The people in the water are much more diverse than they were 30 years ago,” Sharp says. “Bodyboarding is a big part of why.”

Bodyboarding made the ocean inviting to everyone by becoming the opposite of surfing, say enthusiasts.

“Surfers are commercialized pretty boys,” says Chris Monroe, 26, one-time professional boarder and now marketing manager for Morey and BZ ProBoards, also owned by Wham-O. “Bodyboarders are the outcasts with dyed black hair and pentagrams on the bottom of their boards. Anyone can be a bodyboarder.”

Chris Taloa, a professional bodyboarder and the sport’s movie star -- he appeared in “Blue Crush” -- wrestles with the paradoxes of his sport’s undefinable tribe. “Bodyboarders don’t even know who they are, they’re just totally lost and they’re basically losers,” he says. “Bodyboarding is so pure that it’s totally wasted on bodyboarders. They don’t deserve it.”

Taloa is convinced that the surfing world is engaged in a vast conspiracy to undermine the bodyboarding industry because they “fear what we could become.” On the big screen, directors forced him to ride a regular surfboard. But he hasn’t lost his loyalty to the horizontal ride. “I’d still way rather sponge than surf,” he says.

Some sponge by design, others by default and zealotry because the sport doesn’t discriminate. Kyle Maligro, 34, a professional boarder who describes himself as a punk-Christian, bodyboards because “when you ride a wave, and you feel it carry you, it’s like, whoa, I can feel Jesus right there with me! God wants me to bodyboard, I can feel that. Both the sport and my religion teach me to be who am I, even if everyone else is pushing me to be someone else.”

That universal access to surfing’s coveted stoke is the real secret to how the sponge won, the thing that made Tom Morey realize he’d accidentally invented fire when he began cutting his foam into smaller chunks.

“I wanted something that everyone could do and feel like they were cool,” he says.

Three decades later, sponging has become at once more and less ambitious.

“We don’t try to make it cool,” says Petey Peterson of Wham-O, where marketers still have hopes of pushing Boogie from sport to lifestyle. “We just try and make it fun.”

Times staff writer Charles Duhigg can be reached at charles.duhigg@latimes.com.


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