Joe Surf: Skimming the surface for a different kind of ride

Yes, I know, the blockbuster event of the summer — the US Open of Surfing — is just a little more than two weeks from getting underway on the south side of the Huntington Beach Pier. But the biggest surfing event in the world isn't all that's taking place on our beaches these days.

Before we watch to find out if Huntington Beach local Brett Simpson can be the first in the men's pro division to win the US Open title three consecutive years, we have the 35th annual Victoria Skimboards World Championship of Skimboarding at Aliso Beach Park in Laguna Beach on Saturday and Sunday.

Some of the best skimboarders in the world will be at Aliso Beach showing off some sick tricks that you probably have never seen — unless you've watched a lot of skimming lately.

Granted, that's not a lot of you.

But skimboarding has been around a while and has its roots in surfing. In fact, Tex Haines, a pioneer in skimboarding who owns Victoria Skimboards in Laguna Beach, said the sport's relative obscurity is not necessarily a bad thing and not necessarily something that can be overcome.

One side of Haines would love to see the sport grow, simply to help his business and businesses like his. He and his buddy Peter Prietto began making skimboards in the mid-1970s, with help from legendary surfboard designer Hobie Alter.

"Hobie bought 'em on the spot," Haines said. "He just said, 'Get me more.' He was so open-minded about it. There was none of this, 'Let's see how things go.'"

The business has grown to where they ship their boards to more than 20 countries worldwide, but the last couple of years have been tough, with sales dropping by 50% since 2009.

There is also the side of Haines that doesn't want the sport to become "exploited," as he put it. It's kind of like that secret surf spot you want kept secret.

Haines will be at Aliso Beach this weekend watching some of the world's best skimboarders, including many from Victoria Skimboards' own professional team — like Matthieu Thibaud, Morgan Just, Brandon Rothe, Jon Howell, Tony Bianchi, Chris Splendore, Michael Brickle and Teddy Vlasis.

Haines, 58, used to get out there himself quite a bit, but now prefers the "safer" sport of surfing. His journey to get where he is today is worthy of a book, and in fact is something Haines has been contemplating for a while now.

Haines has a connection with legendary waterman Duke Kahanamoku, an Olympic swimmer who came from Hawaii to introduce surfing to the American mainland. Haines tells the story relayed to him by his father, who attended the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, about how after the swimming competition was completed, Duke emerged from the locker room with a long wooden board and threw it into the pool, drawing a gasp from the crowd that had no idea what it was seeing.

Haines' mother, Marion, was born and raised in Hawaii and surfed with Duke. When Haines was 14, he went to Hawaii with his family for Christmas.

"My mom took us to the Outrigger Canoe Club and Duke was sitting there at a table," Haines said. "We walked up and my mom said to Duke, 'You remember me?' And Duke says, 'Hi, Marion!' And I shook his hand."

Haines got emotional when telling that story, a memorable moment in his life and even more meaningful now that Marion passed away just a few weeks ago.

Marion was 16 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and was evacuated to the mainland, where she "started college a little early," Haines said. She attended Stanford, from which Haines himself graduated years later.

Haines first discovered skimboarding when his family's surfing excursions from their Pasadena home to San Onofre would include overnight stops at a friend's place in Laguna Beach, which, it turns out, is widely recognized as the skimboard capital of the world.

Haines says there are two primary reasons for this: the town's culture and its unique topography.

"I've pondered that a lot," Haines said. "It has a lot to do with the community. It's artsy. Artsy people will trying anything, do anything. There is no compunction with trying something new."

And Laguna's landscape provides the necessarily physical elements that make it ideal for skimming.

"Our wave is in the shadow of Catalina Island, so we don't get big surf. We're plagued with small surf," Haines said. "And it's steep. There's no continental shelf off our shore."

Skimboarding actually dates back to the 1920s, when Laguna Beach lifeguards used thin pieces of wood. The sport picked up in the 1960s and really took off in the '70s, when the first skimboard contests were held, and then into the early '80s, when a picture of a skimboarder made the cover ofSports Illustrated.

There was a lull in the late '80s and early '90s before skimboarding publications like SkimOnline and Skim Magazine helped fuel a revival.

The visuals with skimboarding can be even better than surfing for those who witness it live, simply because the action takes place so close to shore. And these guys do more than "skim" across the sand.

Ideally, you drop your board on wet sand, glide into a wave and then ride into the wave's barrel parallel to the shore.

"I was just at San Onofre last weekend and you look at these guys getting these really long rides (surfing)," Haines said. "Our rides are short, but they're still indescribably fun. You throw down your board, the little shorebreak picks you up and moves you so fast it throws your hair back.

"You have all the elements of surfing, but in a different place and with a different ride."

Skimboarding isn't really big in Southern California outside of Laguna and parts of Newport. But it's big on the East Coast, where the waves are small, and other places around the world.

"It's still 25 years behind surfing and probably never will catch up," Haines said. "It's a small niche in some places, but out here, little kids are not growing up with skimboards under their arms in Huntington like they are in Laguna.

"It's all over the world now, and growing in places like Europe, Canada and Mexico. The Mexicans are really getting good. There are some guys with amazing skills in Cabo. I wish more surfers here would take it up."

Either way, Haines feels fortunate to be "in the right place at the right time," to be a part of an industry with a lifestyle that is the envy of many throughout the world. But he won't call it dumb luck.

"What's that line from the movie 'Signs'?" Haines asked. "'Is it possible that there are no coincidences?'"

JOE HAAKENSON is an Orange County-based sports writer and editor. He may be reached at joe@juvecreative.com.

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