After a half-century of underdog obscurity, surfing’s sandy stepchild is finally finding its sea legs
By Ted Reckas
Light / Dark
Laguna beach is one of the surfiest towns in California. Except there isn’t much surf. For all its hidden coves, rocky outcroppings, and wind-thwarting cliffs frosted in mega-mansions, this seven-mile stretch of coastline is blocked from the northwest swells that light up California in winter. It’s home to artists, Hollywood power players, anti-corporate activists, a strong gay community, and more than a few ex-professional surfers. But surf? Not much.
Laguna surf spots are either lurching, boil-filled foamers or shorepound. In a few rare corners, waves refract off rocks and turn closeouts into distended peaks just before they explode onto the sand. Any surfer would be drawn to watch for a moment before ruefully moving on.
At Aliso Creek Beach, however, a group of young men stand atop the berm, studying the water like hunters. Like surfers. They hold squat, flat, carbon-fiber blades. One of them, a lanky character with a wild mop of blond hair, sprints hell for leather toward the water. He drops his finless swallowtail on the wet sand and steps on, timing it to hit a wave as it reaches maximum mutation. He places a smooth under-the-lip gouge at full tilt, redirects some 270 degrees to surf the face of the wave, floaters over the end section, and free-falls several feet through the air. He lands in a few inches of water, then ends his ride with a 360 shove-it. “Three-shuv,” in local parlance.
This is Skim City. And it’s pumping.
Twenty-four-year-old Blair Conklin, the lanky one with the wild blond hair who owns three skimboarding world titles, lives at the house his grandfather bought in the 1970s before the town became an escape for Southern California’s growing elite class, which overlooks a secluded cove in South Laguna. From this part of Pacific Coast Highway, you can’t see the beach, only the backs of the homes of the one percent, intermingled with the odd 1930s bungalow still hanging on amid the gentrification.
Conklin heads down his private staircase to the sand and walks a few coves over to a spot that is considered the Pipeline of skimming. In summer, it bursts with quasi-naked bodies, beachgoers from out of town, coolers and boomboxes, spearfishermen, frat boys, European tourists. At that time of the year, the local skimboarders convene at the base of the cliffs like the cool kids in the back of the bus. With south swells in full swing, the alpha skimmers take center stage.
But it’s October now and the beach is empty. The offshore breeze is slowed to a whisper by the cliffs, and the sun is just lighting up the crystal-like water. A late-season south swell mixes with an early north. Side waves bounce off the rocks like an electrified butcher knife, chopping up the surf and making it jump in amplitude. One or two waves of every set go ballistic in just the right way. Terrible surf makes great skim.
Conklin politely asks a bystander to grab a few clips on his phone. On his first wave, he lofts a shockingly high backside air. To a pro skimmer, the clip is money in the bank. While many still compete, Conklin and his contemporaries are more focused on putting out videos. His YouTube channel, Skid Kids, has 60,000 subscribers. His Instagram has 95,000 followers. Don’t care? Whether you’re click-baitable or not, it’s entertaining viewing. Slow motion three-shuvs across the roof of warped barrels dazzle the eye.
A lone figure approaches in the distance. Conklin’s expectant look is the opposite of what you’d expect from any crowd-hating surfer. It’s Johnny Weber, a stylish goofyfoot with a James Dean squint. Weber hangs and chats for ten minutes before even addressing the water. There’s no rush. Unless you’re at Wedge in Newport, crowds aren’t usually an issue. It’s what surfing in 1950s California must have been like: unpopulated beaches, boards supplied by a cottage industry, and sincere camaraderie in the lineup.
Weber moved to Laguna from Delaware six years ago, for the skimming. While he’s one of the best skimmers in the world, he works as a deckhand on a charter boat and has a fraction of the Instagram followers that Conklin does. He competed for a time, but says he’s now more interested in traveling for waves.
“I want to go to Peru and Chile,” he says.
“Just walk-on pointbreak waves,” says Conklin.
“We should go surf,” says Weber, provocatively.
Both laugh, as though admitting they’d kissed their sister.
“Here,” explains Weber, “you can get 65 waves in an hour, if you just run your ass off. If you’re surfing, sometimes you get, like, four.”
Billy Howie (1,550 Instagram followers), a young Laguna local, arrives and the three friends share a dizzying session, each riding over 20 waves in an hour. They slide around like cats on acid, breakdancing under the lip. Skimboarding is highly improvisational. The whole thing takes place in the wave’s final notes, a few feet from shore. The skimmer composes a ride out of those last-second warbles, double-ups, and crazy closeouts. One moment they’re doing clean carves, and the next they’re ollieing off the roof like it’s a staircase. Spontaneous direction changes, alternating between supreme control and hanging on for dear life, is all standard in a ten-second ride. Each skimmer rides with an individualism that’s become rare in surfing. And they push each other in a celebratory way, clapping a hand against their board for standout maneuvers like skaters at a pool session.
Laguna wasn’t always so highbrow. Protected by steep mountains and limited access, it was once a Paleo-Indian campsite, then a Spanish Land Grant. It later became a bohemian residence to outsiders and creatives.
“You could still be a teacher and live here in the 1980s,” says Laguna native Ryah Arthur, a skimmer turned surfer.
Then came the landslide.
“Fifty years ago, the money was all up in LA,” says longtime Laguna local and pioneer surf filmmaker Greg MacGillivray, who went on to make multimillion-dollar IMAX films. “Then the population of California went from 15 million to 45 million, and a lot of the very wealthy people thought Laguna was cool, so they moved down and made it their own.”
Skimming, though, rose out of Laguna’s pre-elite past. In the 70s, the Brotherhood of Eternal Love based their drug-smuggling, acid-guzzling surf commune here. LSD guru Timothy Leary had a beach house on Gaviota Drive. Spiritual huckster Osho Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh established a meditation center in Laguna Canyon. And Tex Haines and Peter Prietto started laminating plywood skimboards in Haines’ garage.
The two friends had spent their childhood summers at Victoria Beach watching locals like Greg Taylor, Happ Griggs, and Mike Buxton sliding around on homemade “skid-boards,” and soon took up the activity themselves. Seeking better equipment, Haines and Prietto started Victoria Skimboards, which almost single-handedly kept skimming alive for decades.
Today, Haines’ humble storefront in Laguna Canyon feels more like the living room of the extended skim family than a business, with a comfy couch and skim videos on the television. On the walls hang the evolution of skimboards, from the first plywood-disc “skid-boards” to the modern carbon-fiber blades of today.
Haines, at once grizzly and affable, doesn’t push an agenda. Like old friends over a beer, he explains how his grandfather was part of the original Waikiki Outrigger Club. He gets chicken skin remembering the time he met Duke Kahanamoku when he was a young boy. And he still goes to Aliso Creek every Saturday morning with coffee, donuts, and demo boards for all comers. Victoria boards are still made in a small factory in San Clemente’s surf ghetto, alongside some of the best surfboards in the industry.
While Haines was building Victoria Skimboards, Bill and George Bryan were growing up in a small apartment near Victoria Beach with a single mom working several jobs. In the 1970s, Victoria Beach seemed like a nonstop party zone for beach volleyball, surf, and skim, and it was literally the Bryan brothers’ sandbox. They watched the progression from Prietto and Haines bashing the shorebreak, to Chris Henderson doing the first wraps to turn and ride with the waves. By middle school, the Bryan brothers were the next chapter in skimming’s evolution.
“At first, people kinda hated on skimboarders,” says perennial Wedge acolyte Robbie Crawford. “But then, with what [the Bryans] were doing, you couldn’t deny it. They were basically street skating on the wave.”
Bill “Beaker” Bryan became the Kelly Slater of skimming, winning ten skimboarding world titles. The brothers put out a new skim movie every year for 20 years. Bill was a hustler, simultaneously competing in the Quiksilver Cup surf/snow tour, the Swatch flowboard tour, and the pro skim tour. He won most of the contests, filmed everything, hosted his own premieres, hand-sold the movies, and taught skim lessons, too. Even today, Bryan sells his entire 20 movie catalog on a thumb drive so he can spend half the year in Mainland Mexico. He rarely skims Wedge anymore, claiming he’s found a half-dozen better spots south of the border. At certain pointbreaks, he’s been seen launching his skimboard from a Wave Storm and performing an eclectic array of shoves, slides, and carves as he skims down the line with a mad grin on his face.
The ripple hits the rocks, rebounds, and jumps in size. Conklin connects with theside wonk just as it convulses the main wave into an overhead peak. He applies a scalpel-like backside hook, wraps back toward the beach, ducks into a quick barrel, and skids back onto the sand almost without touching the water at all.
Austin Keen has seen competitive success: a skimboarding world title and a win at The Vic, the longest-running, most prestigious skim contest. But the native of Georgia’s Tybee Island—with 50,000 YouTube subscribers, over a million Instagram followers, and GoPro Million Dollar Challenge awards in 2018 and 2019—is really winning on the Internet.
You’ve seen him online. Lean, muscular build, hawkish face, with waist-long dreadlocks pinwheeling cinematically when he throws a rotation above the lip. In his social feeds, he’s foiling behind a 200-foot superyacht in Cannes, teaching Diplo to wake surf in Jamaica, being towed underwater with dolphins in Turks and Caicos, skimming Kelly Slater’s wave in Lemoore, and delivering skateboards to Mexican orphans.
“Pro athletes, country music stars, Formula One and NASCAR drivers, they’re all getting into wake surfing,” says Keen, whose most lucrative endorsements—Clarion Marine Sound Systems, Malibu Waterski Boats, cbdMD—come from outside skimboarding. For Keen, skimboarding was a key that opened a dozen different doors. And he’s walking through all of them at once.
Another online presence that has transcended the skim world is Floridian Brad Domke. His 2015 XXL Award contender—ridden on a skimboard—has north of 1.5 million views on YouTube. Domke (83k on Insta) grew up surfing and skimming, and would always throw a skimboard in his boardbag on surf trips. While tow-surfing on a trip to Mexico, he realized he could do it on his skimboard. He soon whipped into a game-changer at Puerto Escondido. Watching him skitter into that slow-motion, finless bottom turn on a 20-foot sand-bottom barrel with nothing but toenails for traction is a study in faith. The following year, Domke found himself on Maui getting ready to tow-in at Jaws. His friends Francisco and Niccolo Porcella were paddling, so Domke decided to give that a go. On the same day that Aaron Gold caught what many consider the biggest wave ever paddled, Domke caught a set wave on a 10’2″ gun, got barreled, and came out with the spit, notching himself a more traditional XXL Awards entry.
“I’ve just been rolling dice and having faith in my roll,” he says.
Clearly, he can surf. So why skim?
“It was an elite sense of fun,” says Domke, “jumping off jet skis and getting huge barrels on a board that’s not supposed to do that. I’m always looking for what isn’t going on and what I can do with my own style.”
Domke was in Mexico when three-time world surfing champion Tom Curren (0 YouTube subscribers) showed up with little more than roller skates and boogie boards. Domke told him, “I’ve got something that’s way faster and more cutting-edge for someone of your ability.”
Curren spent the next month riding skimboards at the righthand points with Domke. “He was like a little kid,” says Domke. “With the thruster, he already knows how to play that instrument. Sometimes it’s good to play something else just so you can get back to your normal instrument with a new way of thinking.”
Afterward, Domke introduced Curren to his board sponsor, Exile. They developed Curren’s signature model, the SkimFin, together. But even with a domed deck for added volume, paddling the board remained a limiting factor. Curren then glued extra foam to the deck, added S-Wing fins, and covered the rails in silicone gel to reduce injuries. And the innovations didn’t stop there. He stapled socks to his visor, covering his ears, and surfed in slacks with pockets sewn shut, for sun protection. On a big day at Puerto Escondido, he emptied a 2-liter Coke bottle and cinched it under his rashguard for an impromptu flotation vest.
“It’s almost like God was throwing skimmers a bone,” said Domke. “Like, ‘All these people are hating, but I’m going to make the best surfer ever love skimming.’”
Clearly there’s a coterie of skimmers taking skimboards way beyond the shorebreak. But will Curren find a design that paddles like a surfboard and surfs like a skimboard—something truly different?
Blair Conklin has given the topic considerable thought:
“I think he already has created something different. He’s mastered everything else and wants to try this. It’s not really him trying to perfect a new board that’s going to be great for everyone. He’s just trying something new that he gets enjoyment out of. And I think that’s really the point.”
Back at the session in South Laguna, Conklin, Weber, and Howie are waiting out a downbeat between sets. A 6-inch wave approaches.
“You want this one?”
Weber and Howie shrug, so Conklin runs.
The ripple hits the rocks, rebounds, and jumps in size. Waist-high. Conklin flattens his board to preserve speed as he heads out to sea. He connects with the side wonk just as it convulses the main wave into an overhead peak. He applies a scalpel-like backside hook, wraps back toward the beach, ducks into a quick barrel, and skids back onto the sand almost without touching the water at all. It’s baffling. These guys see waves like dogs hear frequencies.
As the sun finally claims their shadows from the base of the cliff, the wind switches. The three friends disperse back to their day jobs, or, in Conklin’s case, video editing.
While none of them are making the kind of money that could buy Laguna cliffside property, skimmers today are decidedly more sober and sponsor-aware than their predecessors. Pre-internet skimboarding was centered around a handful of competitions attended by a dedicated, underground crew. The scene was so concentrated that Skim magazine listed competitor origins as Laguna or SoLag (South Laguna), as though they were two distinct worlds. Contests led to raging celebrations, immortalized in Skim by photos of young men, beer, and girls with Skim stickers across their breasts. Prize money was slim and fame rarely extended beyond city limits.
Though South Laguna remains skimboarding’s center of gravity—with The Vic at Aliso Creek holding strong in its 44th year running—the larger scene has become postmodern, decentralized, and digital. New board-makers have entered the market, most notably Exile—which currently sponsors every United Skim Tour champion including Conklin, Keen, Sam Stinnett, and Lucas Fink (as well as Tom Curren). Instagram and YouTube have replaced Skim as the voice of the culture. As Brazilian phenom and 2019 world champ Fink (44k on Instagram) describes the diversity of skimmers that travel internationally, “We know each other first from Instagram, then later from hanging at the beach.”
It was only after Fink had been riding for Red Bull for a few years that the company suggested he get a world title under his belt. Content first. Contests second.
After an impressive showing in last year’s Stab High airshow, Conklin was recently invited back to BSR surf park in Waco, Texas, with Mason Ho to help design new waves for their menu. In the subsequent video, Conklin soars interchangeably on his skimboard and Ho’s surfboards. In an Instagram post from the session, he is seen crouching through a normal-looking tube, but he’s surfing a boogie board, backward.
Clearly, skimboarding is expanding to a newer, bigger, weirder stage. “I feel like right now there are more skimboarders in the world than ever,” says Conklin. “In the Philippines, Brazil, Africa, the places where it’s good, there are little communities doing it. Sununga (home to arguably the best skim wave in the world) has a sick little community that reminds me of a Brazilian version of Laguna.”
But while the international community is just taking shape, the Skim City scene remains stronger than ever. At the beach, kids ask Conklin for his autograph. His web clips go viral on a weekly basis. And his movie showings, well, they bring the town together.
At the premiere for the film Conklin and Ho made in Waco, it’s a packed house at Laguna Beach Beer Company. Groms running wild, dads having beers, a handful of teenagers from the high school milling about. Conklin, Weber, and Howie are holding court at the foosball table. Conklin is a star. You can see it in how the kids look at him. Professional skimming is almost a career path now.