Author Christopher J. Lynch with a Converse-Hodgeman mat
If you grew up in the South Bay during the ‘60s and early‘70s, you can’t help but remember the venerable Surf-mat, those ubiquitous blue and yellow inflatables that blanketed the water on warm summer days. About four feet in length and about half as wide, these canvas and rubber devices were the forerunner of the modern boogie board and represented for many of us the waterborne vehicle upon which we caught our first wave. They were wickedly fast, kept you high up in the water, and could be ridden prone, up on your knees, or if you were really a hotdog and grabbed onto the thick rope leash, standing upright.
My own recollections of mat riding revived many fond memories of heading down to the Hermosa Beach Pier and to the Tropic Shoppe, a veritable hole in the wall establishment that anchored a row of shops on the site now occupied by the Beach-House Hotel. The Tropic Shoppe was run by an elderly couple by the names of “Broadway” Joe and Beverly Young. They rented mats for the princely sum of 50 cents an hour. You were not only guaranteed innumerable thrills and spills, but also a nice titty rash from the coarse canvas.
But whatever happened to the surf-mat? Once a fixture and part of the whole South Bay beach-going experience, by the late seventies they seemed to have disappeared overnight, never to return. And where had they come from? Had the air mattress of some early beach camper blown into the water and upon retrieval revealed the thrill of mat riding?
To answer these questions, I turned to Dale Solmonson, owner of Neumatic Surfmats in Newport, Oregon (www.Surfmat.com) and a dedicated “bag-rider.” Dale designs and manufactures some of the highest performance surf-mats available today.
Birth of the surf-mat
The first mats were the Surf-o-planes, Solomonson said. They were created by a doctor in Australia in the early 1930s. The doctor spent eight long years perfecting the vulcanization technique that was used to bond the seams of the air filled channels together. This was no small feat because the rubber at the time was so gummy and sticky that the mats had to remain inflated or they would essentially bond themselves together internally. For this reason, no mats from this era are known to exist today.
The Surf-o-plane caught on in a big way and it wasn’t long before they became a fixture at popular beaches. The idea was patented in July 1937 with the Australian Patent Office and many companies soon jumped into the market to produce them. Surfers rode them as did mere mortals. They rapidly gained a reputation as the number one cause of ocean rescues because hapless bathers would be blown off or separated from their Surf-o-planes one way or another. This dubious distinction was offset by the fact that the lifeguards themselves used the Surf-o-plane as the vehicle of choice for ocean rescues.
Riding mats at the San Clemente Pier, Circa 1953. Photo courtesy John Severson
The sport quickly spread to the United States and through the forties and fifties many a renowned surfer “cut his ocean-riding teeth” on the surf-mat, which was commonly known as the “surf-rider” among the locals.
“There isn’t a surfer of note here in the South Bay who doesn’t credit his knowledge of the waves and surf-riding to the mat,” said Stan Page, a long-time South Bay resident who worked renting mats at the Tropic Shoppe from 1963 to 1968.
The Converse-Hodgeman mat
Surf mats reached their peak popularity in the sixties, particularly in the rental market with its mainstay, the workhorse Converse-Hodgeman. The rugged mat was made for the rigors of the rental market by the Converse Rubber Company – think Chuck Taylor All-Stars sneakers – who had purchased Hodgeman, a renowned manufacturer of fishing waders, in 1956.
In the mid-sixties a Converse-Hodgeman mat would cost $30 and last the rental proprietor several seasons. They were heavy – about eight pounds dry – extremely well constructed, and typically filled with so much air that they were as stiff as a board when you rode them.
The mat rental business was hot in the South Bay as evidenced by the number of shops that dotted the coast from Manhattan to Redondo Beach. But nowhere was the rental market more brisk than at the Mecca of the mat world, Hermosa Beach, where no fewer than three shops existed within a stones throw from one another.
“It was nothing on a big summer day for us to rent over 200 mats,” recalled Mike Allen who worked at various times for The Tropic Shoppe and Juicy James before having his own shop.
With such a huge market at stake it didn’t take long before a full-fledged price war erupted between the shops.
“We started our renting mats for 50 cents an hour,” Stan Page remembers. “But then it started ratcheting down further and further until finally we got down to 50 cents for a the whole day!”
The battle got bloody when Willard “Juicy” James, proprietor of “Juicy James,” a hamburger stand on the strand who also rented surf-mats delivered his Coup de’ Gras with the ridiculous rate of thirty-five cents a day and a free hamburger!
“That’s when I said ‘Enough is enough’ and put my foot down,” his wife Imogene James said in a recent interview. “This has gotten ridiculous!”
A peace agreement was finally brokered and prices returned to their pre-war levels.
End of the ride
The surf mat’s decline in popularity and eventual disappearance from the South Bay is attributed to different culprits, depending on whom you talk to. One theory, the one this author initially bought into, holds that they were driven out by a ban on inflatable devices by the Los Angeles County Lifeguards. This is not strictly true. While all Los Angeles City beaches – Santa Monica, Venice, Dockweiller, and Cabrillo – had long banned inflatable devices, this restriction was lifted when Los Angeles City lifeguards merged with Los Angeles County lifeguards in 1974. Los Angeles did enact regulations on inflatable devices in 1969 to minimize the risks associated with inflatable devices. The regulations effectively ended the days when you can paddle out in an automobile inner-tube or a camping air-mattress. They did not; however, preclude the rugged Converse-Hodgeman mat from being used. In fact, this mat was probably the “Gold-Standard” on which the regulations were based.
Blame is also heaped on the introduction of the Morey Boogie-Board in the mid-seventies. While they reached widespread popularity, and almost certainly ate a part of the surf-mats lunch, they were often carried side by side with the mats at rental shops.
Mike Allen explained, “Many families rented Boogie-Boards for the older kids, but stuck with mats for the young ones.
In the end, it appears several forces conspired to end the mats wide-spread use in the South Bay. At the beginning of the 1970s, LA County lifeguards were under increasing pressure from surfers to open up more surfing areas around the pier. In the old days of the ’60s, when the yellow and black “blackball” flag went up at 10 a.m. Surfers were forced to go home for the day or rent a mat to stay in the water. All day surf areas guaranteed surfers at least one side of the pier where they could continue to shred. During this period, surfboards became shorter and lighter, enabling kids to take up the sport at an earlier age. Those who didn’t ride surfboards would often opt for a Boogie board, leaving only the smallest and the youngest to ride mats.
Roller-blades also came on the scene during this period and many rental shops began concentrating on Roller-blade rentals. The remaining shops that continued to carry mats had trouble getting replacements and were forced to patch up the old ones as they developed leaks.
The final nail was driven into the coffin when the Converse Company decided to sell off the Hodgman Company in 1979. After the split, Hodgman decided to focus on its core market – fishing waders. This effectively ended the days of the Converse-Hodgman surf-mat.
The mat returns
While mat riding has been essentially non-existent in the South Bay for several decades, it still exists elsewhere in the world and has its own subculture of hardcore enthusiasts. A Google search will reveal numerous websites devoted to them.
Today’s mats are as far a cry from the old ones as the computer I composed this on is from the Univac. They are lighter – 26 ounces compared to eight pounds – and have speed and maneuverability that was only the stuff of dreams years ago. Prices range from $300-400 and many are custom made, taking into account the riders length, weight, experience level and even the type and size of waves to be surfed.
Acknowledgements: The author would like to thank the following people. They are, in alphabetical order: Mike Allen, Imogene James, Los Angeles County Lifeguards, Stan Page, Jeff Pendleton and Dale Solomonson. Cl