Article

On Your Knees

| posted on October 10, 2012

Rob Gilley

Previously in denial about his photographic past, Rob Gilley now rummages through his trove of mediocrity.

As some of you know, California has had a nice little run of surf lately. Nothing huge, but consistent swell from both hemispheres coupled with warm conditions—super fun stuff. It was about three days into this wave barrage when it happened. Sitting on my own private peak down from the main crowd, I looked towards the beach and watched as a bodyboarder paddled from shore straight for me. I tried to Obi Wan him down the beach, but he somehow he remained impervious to my silent mind control, kept his line, and kicked his little rubber fins in my exact direction. Damn it.

As he got closer, though, I noticed something. This guy wasn’t a sponger…he was a kneeboarder. Holy shit.

My peak protectionism status went from full alert to at-ease. Suddenly I was excited to share this little corner with half a man.

Those old enough will understand the “half man” nostalgia. Like the dinosaurs, kneeboarders have pretty much disappeared from the face of the earth, and to see a live one is like excavating a fossil. And never, not in a million years, did think I would ever be this happy to see one again.

To understand this surprising endearment, let me take you back. Back to an era when longboarders hated shortboarders and shortboarders hated kneeboarders and kneeboarders hated bodysurfers.

Back to a time of peace and love.

In the 70s, lineups the world over were populated with kneeboarders, and nowhere was this more true than La Jolla, California. When I moved to the area in 1979, kneeboarders ruled the La Jolla slabs and were some of the best surfers at Black’s Beach.

And like mosquitoes, they were bothersome as hell.

Truthfully, La Jolla kneeboarders were pesky because they were really good. Like four-legged creatures on land, they could move faster and more tirelessly than you. They could make steeper drops, and fit into the tube more efficiently. This was especially true at Black’s, where they could chase down a canyon peak, fit earlier into the almond-shaped barrel, and then just sit in the tube until the cows came home.

It sucked.

As time went by, though, I got to know some of these guys and sadly, started liking them. Most of them were smart, and, almost without exception, were…well…let’s call it…quirky. I don’t know what it was, but for some reason kneeboarding had an uncanny knack for attracting eccentric, non-conformist personality types. Nut jobs and geek geniuses. Bow tie wearers.

Put it this way: if Ted Kaczynski or Orville Redenbacher rode waves, I’m pretty sure they’d be kneeboarders.

Then, right when I started liking these guys, they started disappearing. Some of them turned to stand-up surfing, some quit, but some of them turned to the darkest side of all—they became boogie boarders.

I think it’s pretty clear that the boogie board ultimately killed kneeboarding. When “esky lids” hit the scene, those quirky youth that might have become half men turned to sponging.

And nothing, absolutely nothing, can make you miss kneeboarders more than a pack of boogers kicking straight for you.

So I’d like you all to take a moment of silence and remember the half men. Think of guys like Bill Lerner, Rex Huffman, George Greenough, Peter Crawford, Tom Litton, Bob Gove, Grant Brittain, Ron Romanosky, Dave Markeby, Dale Kobetich, Wooly the Wandering Aussie, and ‘Blacks’ Jack with fondness.

In fact, in solidarity, get on your knees and pray for the universal dream. Assume a kneeboard stance, and ask a higher power for a more perfect world—a world without boogie boarders.

Ron Romanosky. Photo: Gilley

Wooly. Photo: Gilley

Unidentified. Photo: Gilley

Unidentified. Photo: Gilley

Bob Gove. Photo: Gilley

Bill Lerner. Photo: Gilley

  • Juan

    I am not a bodyboarder but the universal dream would be instead of a lineup without bodyboarders a lineup without Rob Gilley would be a dream.

    seems that he cant catch waves when bodyboarders are around…

  • Otto

    There is a small crew around Santa Cruz. Might be because John Mel, Freeline shop owner, has been a long time kneeboard shaper (and I hear a great rider as well). And it is true, I see those guys fit into and get out of the most “unaccomodating” looking barrels.

  • dash

    normally I like your posts but this one was a little hateful and not very entertaining… definitely gave off the grumpy old carp vibe. a perfect world would be enough waves for everyone, regardless of what they ride.

  • Finnie

    Great post, and how true your words are.
    Yes, I’m a kneelo. I have sixteen year old kids come upto me in the surf and ask “is that a kneeboard…. I’ve onlt ever read about them.”

    I explain “yes it is, I’ve borrowed it from the museum in town and have to return it by closing time….”

    But seriously, the amount of respect kneeboarders get now is remarkable, considering the planet is getting so small.

    And we all know t hat you are joking about esky lids – a guy around here has invented an organic substance that dissolves in sea water and if a boogie board comes into contact with it ….. well…. :)

  • Mark

    Rob,

    Get up to Newport and Huntington. There are 20-30 guys up that way that are killing it on new progressive equipment. Also take a look at KSUSA.ORG. The guys hosted the World KB Contest in Santa Cruz sometime back. They have an event each year where 60 + show up from all over the state and the world. More is happening than you see at your local. Love all your shots from the past!

  • Scott

    Rob, I think you’d enjoy pics that show the current state of kneeboarding and many of the best in the sport right now. Check out: http://legless.tv
    Both the pics and the videos are pretty amazing…

  • George

    Jeez, that’s a lotta hate for bodyborders. They’re pretty much dominating the reefs over here in cornwall

  • Karlos

    Loving pic #3 with those 3 about to cop it on the head while the kneelo’s hooking into a screamer.

  • http://www.FarawayEyes.org Scott Hartman

    Nice article. When I was a kid, I used to live just down the road from George Greenough. On my walk to the bus stop I’d pass him high on the hill, binoculars in hand, checkin’ the swell . . . spent lots of time in Santa Barbara Harbor too, much of it simply in awe of Georges boats . . . and the 35 footer he built in his back yard! The man was the bow of a boat whose hull wouldn’t )ever) catch up with him.

  • Dave

    Yes, I was one of those along with my amazing kneeboarding friend Bruce “Hydro” Hendricks, who inspired me to try it. I rode a Freeline Design and an El Paipo from 74′ to 80′ and still to this day remember some amazing tube rides from up in the Monterey area where we grew up. Moved on to stand up in 80′ and never looked back, but seeing someone ripping on a kneeboard always puts a smile on my face.

  • Michael Nisito

    I was around in the 70′s kneeboarding (inspired by George Greenough) and to this day – after a respite raising a family etc back in the 80′s-90′s. I just got back from an INDO boat trip and was very happy with my Robert’s kneeboard. Robert Weiner has been working w/ my on “my” kneeboard concepts along with his very innovative rail line, bottom contours and rocker. At 58, I am as stoked and ripping like back in the day. I do still see an occasional kneelo at certain isolated spots whenever there is swell and everyone comes out of the woodwork.
    Stay healthy and you will be able to rip on whatever you ride.
    Loving what I do.
    Michael
    ps back in ’73 I was in the U.S. Championship Men’s Kneeboarding finals with Rex Huffman, John Mel, Mark Hoffman, Bob Duboise and Dale Dobson. What a lil slice of nostalgia your article provided.

  • SF native

    Rob Gilley should stick to photgraphy and leave the journalism to Bo Lewis. He is way out of touch with the current state of surfing in the world. The “boogie boarding” I have seen in the south pacific is beyond futuristic. These guys are doing things that boggle the mind. The locals at said spots give heaps of respect to the boogers. Gilley needs to show a little more respect. I am a kneeboarder. We all love the ocean and we all have our own trip. Be it foot surfing, kneeboarding, body boarding, body surfing, sup’s etc. The current state of kneeboarding is alive and well. It’s one of the only pure forms of surfing not bastardized by the media.

  • Jake

    I was on a trip in south island new zealand and I was surfing a rather heavy right hand rivermouth break. On the biggest day of my trip, something like 2xOH, everyone was getting a proper beat down and not finding the exits from these bulbous chocolate barrels. Then out of nowhere one of the local farmers, a KNEEBOARDER, leisurely made his way out to the lineup and proceeded to take off deeper than everyone and make some of the longest barrels I have ever seen in person. It was pretty impressive. This guy was taking off under the lip straight into the barrel on every wave he caught and staying as deep as possible. Definitely earned my respect. That being said there are a few kneeboarders that are a bit kooky, but f you think about how many kook surfers there are (85% of us) they might be the most evolved wave riders out there…

  • Leo

    If your going to hate on a subclass. It should be SUPs Nothing funny about those stand up comedians or the jackasses that legitmize it as an aggressive or mainstream wave riding approach. Knee Riders are easy to respect because they are most always respectful and they shred.

  • Dickhaloren

    Yikes. Need a nap, Gilley? I used to boogie board because I couldn’t afford a surfboard, not to mention the bus driver wouldn’t allow surfboards on. Now that I make some decent change, I get to buy surfboards (and a yearly Surfer subscription) and walk to the beach. What is it about the middle-aged that they insist on only one way to have fun? But on a serious note, can we just rid ourselves of these intrusive HANDPLANERS?

  • PPK

    Mr. Gilley speaks of San Diego, kneeboarders / boogie boarders and yet, forgets to speak of Stevie LIs who is from the San Diego area, contributed to, the sport AND to many who surf today on the “Lis Fish”, in todays world. Well, lucky for us here on the Island of Kaua’i that Steve & his Family have taken up residence on the north shore and is appreciated for his shaping and humor. It seems dementia sets it’s place in all of us at some point in life. ~s~

  • http://www.thepaiposociety.com Glenn Sakamoto

    Hate boogers? Then you are in for a treat when one of us paipo riders come screaming out of the barrel toward you on a piece of wood!

    On your feet, knees, belly, toes – it’s all good in the green neighborhood.

  • Matthew Barker

    January 3rd 1983 Blacks Beach; Going Absolutely Richter
    1-Body Surfer
    1-Kneeboard Surfer (red board charges there all the time)
    1-Surfboard Surfer (me)
    All Surfers… Having the time of our lives. Will never forget that day.

  • Vox Populi

    When you start comparing anyone to Ted Kaczynski, I lose all respect for anything further written. To liken the quirkiness of a kneeboarder to a self-avowed hater and murderer either speaks to the writer’s lack of intelligence or the writer’s own in-bred hatred and mistrust of those who don’t need to stand up to be human.

  • http://jawkdna.com jawkDNA

    “Comments may be removed at an administrators discretion.”

    Does the same go for articles, if so Admins start with this one.

    Talk your shit in the lineup, not behind a computer screen for money…

  • mark

    Paul Weslich in Santa Cruz. Legend.

  • http://ukmatsurfers.org G

    I used to ride kneeboards. Now I’ve advanced to surfmats.

    I wonder how Rob sees that…

    Prick.

    G

  • http://www.legless.tv steeno

    come and have a look at kneeriding today

    http://www.legless.tv

    cheers

    steeno

  • http://www.legless.tv steen

    and if Rob has any pictures to contribute

    please email me

    steen

  • john

    Out of touch.

  • Robert

    Apparently, you hate your photo staff as well as many of them are bodyboarders as are many of the top surf photographers. Your writing skills are clearly deficient and I also wonder whether you would actually be able to take a decent surf shot if you embraced other forms of wave riding. You are a sad bitter old man.

  • Mike Blake

    Nice article and comments, I have ridden Knee Board since age 13 and represented South Africa in the 80′s and still was ripping a year ago (age 54) I have had some of the most amazing drops and barrel rides ever to envy of many surfers
    That was until one Saturday in the surf I tore my main artery and had a massive heart attack. If it was not for my younger stand up surfing friends who took me to hospital I would not be around today.That’s what I call surfing comradeship.
    I am on road to recover and if you still see this old geezer in the water in 20 years time you will understand he is still going for that perfect barrel.
    Snake

  • bowl me

    I see a similarity between the way spongers surf….. and troll.

  • coyote

    A good wave rider is a good wave rider, regardless of the board. Water etiquette, good or bad, is also regardless of which board you’re on. Your comments and tone about bodyboarding represent the epitome of what sucks most in southern California surf culture, grumpy blind hatred, ego, and all-encompassing scapegoating.

    Good photography, but why the hate and scapegoat peddling?

    What kind of weird high school-esque cool club bullshit is this?

  • Rank

    Typical middle aged surfer kook perspective. I bodyboard, surf, bodysurf, longboard, whatever suits the conditions best. If it wasn’t for bodyboarders 90% of the aussie slabs that feature on the cover on Surfer mag wouldn’t have been discovered. Maybe leave your safety net of fat, shitty California beachbreaks and you’ll realise bodyboarding is the most functional way of riding slabbing waves and hitting big sections.

  • Ken Cook

    As a kid in the 50′s & early 60′s I body surfed Newport & graduated on red flag days at the Wedge. In my teens in the later 60′s I longboarded wherever the breaks were breaking best. Made the transition to short boards at Salt Creek then moved to North Shore Kauai in the early 70′s. In grad school I was fortunate to rent a cheap spot with a great view to check out the WindnSea and Big Rock breaks. Even then, WindnSea was always crowded with aggressive locals so I took up knee boarding outside the slab at Big Rock. We kneeboarders almost always could take off deeper and make barrels that short boarders wiped out on. Surfers enjoy the Sea and there are many creative ways to enjoy her.

  • Dang3rtown

    Why is everyone hating on Rob for telling the truth? The last thing a surfer wats to see in the lineup is a boogie boarder! While some boogers are good watermen, there are a whole bunch who are clueless and screw everything up. I think a big reason for this is that the learning curve is a lot easier on a boogie board. This allows people who are relatively inexperienced and naive to the etiquette of surfing to get pout there in the line up. I can’t count the number of times a clueless booger has gone right on a left (or vice versa) on a wave I’ve paddled into and I’ve had to dive over them because I don’t feel like making a filet out of their back! Don’t get me wrong, there are clueless surfers out there too but nowhere close to the number of boogers.

  • http://charter schredd

    surfing`s a mess these days

  • Fredo Antonio

    I disagree. The last thing a surfer wants to see in the water is a Kelp Farmer (SUP). At least most body boarders know their not the top of the food chain… but these janitors guys think their Alii or something.

  • scott north carolina

    Why would you take the time to write an article that talks so much shit about people who love riding waves as much as you do?

  • Ron Frederico

    Rob as i recall in the early 70′s a surfer by the name of Chuck Dent had that same mind set that kneeboarders were “half man”until one stood up on the beach and gave him a most embarrassing beating in front of a number of people that were lined up on the huntington pier and all along the beach.Only to end with Chuck walking away wth his bloody face hung down and everybody cheering in support of the kneeboarder he made the mistake of picking on. Rob what matters is that if anyone is in the water on anything or just in the water we all have the same common denomenator and we are all brothers.So if everyone were to leave their ego on the beach and have the mind set that we are going out to have fun with our best friends That in it’s self would create the perfect inviroment for surfing.We all started surfing to have FUN,so lets drop this EGO shit,who cares how someone is having their fun,give them a hoot of support and leave the ATTITUDE along with the EGO so everyone can have their moment with mother nature.I can see you are trying to awaken n stop being a pin head so hang in there because all things are possible threw JESUS CHRIST.

  • zeech

    Paul Weslich as Mark stated is a legend.
    Not many can claim to have ridden as many different waves in california as him.

  • Hunter

    Fantastically written article. Well done.

  • jk

    Let’s assume Rob Gilley meant the “distainful” sounding comments about other wave riding disciplines in gest. Even so we must remember we are all hostage to the message, not the media when we speak publicly. Look at what the 47% comment cost one dude’s attempt to run the country!
    Previously a California native, I learned to surf at Blacks in the 70s as was very fortunate to have learned from and surfed with the Knee-rider Icons you have acknowledged in your recent article. May I add a couple more knee-ledgends to the list?
    Dr Terry Hendrix, Eric Jensen, Richard Gomez. There are more but these guys deserve thier names in the hall of fame. As a grommet trying to find my way in the line up in the 70s I was fortunate to have been taken in by the masters of the break at that time, Hendrix, Gove, Jensen and was invited to sit with them in the South Canyon vortex on the very big days, encouraged to charge and coached on how to survive, We had a cool pad on the cliff at Blacks and lived for the epic days, which were many back then. My wave knoledge and ocean awareness was enhanced by these guys. It has paid off as I have lived in Hawaii since then.
    Hats of to the old gaurd.

  • John DiNardo

    I remember it well. Living in the La Jolla area during the 70′s I got to see a bit of Huffman at Big Rock, actually, a lot of Huffman at Big Rock.

    Good piece, brought back lots of memories, especially picture #3. How fun are those sneaker sets at Blacks?

  • Q

    Fuck You! Let people choose what they want to ride, a perfect world would be a world without douchebags like this old Rob dinossaur that want all the line ups to himself.

  • http://lancesmithphotography.com Lance Smith

    Great article. I too, I am proud to say, I was among them. Your right, we are a little quirtky, but we get shacked so much, it makes us that way. Thanks for the memory.

  • Tony Jeffreys

    Gilley, You cant’ write this article without mentioning what was happening down south at the cliffs with Steve Lis, John Brockway, Mark Skinner, Bobby Ward…

    Stevie Lis revoluntionized kneeboarding with his “Fish” design and most of the kneeboarders who were any good at all in San Diego County rode his boards. That included Rex, Skinner and all the guys you forgot to mention above.

    I know most of the guys you mentioned personally, and we travelled back & forth between the Cliffs, Big Rock and Blacks.

    Some of the best surfing whether it was on your knees or standing up took place south of La Jolla and you should give credit where credit is due…

  • Torta

    You can still see one of the oldest and saltiest at Bolsa Chica every big swell named “Ler” aka Mike Butler. When you see him yell “BOOOOOOOLLLLLLSSSSSAAAAAA!”

  • http://jgrantbrittain.com Grant Brittain

    Still alive and “kicking”!
    Thanks for the mention.

  • Bill Billing

    I too was a “Half Man” back in the 70′s! Grant Brittain and I would always seek out the hollowest pits we could find because we knew we could get in behind the peak, deeper than most surfers of the time. Suckouts, Blacks, I.B. DMJ’s, the early Ponto before 82, if it was shallow and hollow, we were deep. For me, it ended when I was teaching someone to surf at Swami’s and I stood up with my church hills on to show them how, and pumped all the way to the beach. I never looked back but I can still totally apriciate a good knee boarder!

  • Ned Flanders

    You have kicked a hornets nest Rob. Sad that a few comments about “boogie boarders” detracts for some from your photos and story about the half men. I still surf regularly with Bob Gove, Bill Lerner, Count Jackula aka Black Jack, Yamo and a bunch of other half men too many to name. I do have to share that when people who don’t surf with these guys regularly show up, I see them get stuffed in barrels and dropped in on frequently. Inexperienced surfers don’t realize how far back and often late these guys can make it up on all four. So when you see them out, show a little respect for them. PS… Rob if you get out in the dark at your home break you will find Russel out on his kneeboard most mornings, exiting as the sun rises over the lagoon. A perspective from a surfer, windsurfer, kiteboarder, paddleboarder (not SUP), body surfer, water photographer…but never boogie boarder!

  • Frog

    Great artical,
    I started kneeboardering back in the earty 70′s and to this day I still enjoy getting so deep in the barrel and coming out most surfier at my home break “County Line” can only dream about. For many years I would go surfing and never see a fellow kneeboarder. Also I too would get these strange look as I would walking up to the line up. Who is this strange man with a short surfbioard and fins? Many times I would be ask what is that pointing to my board? A kneeboard they would look at me not umderstanding what that was. I can only laugh inside and still due. And sometime after I get out of water I get kids coming to me Wow you were gettting so deep and making it. Check out KSUSA>ORG I found out about these guysa few years back. And even enter thier World Surf Contest each at Steamer and in Huntington and been a member ever scent great people and great waterman and women!!!

    Frog

  • Roberto

    People don’t need all this s***.
    Last time to read Rob Gilley.

  • jmac

    Personally, one thing I DO NOT want to see in the line up are goat boaters, those along with SUP riders. Just…no.

  • David

    Great Article and yes finally Kneeboarder’s get the respect they Deserve, but you did leave out a few Stevie Lis #1 in San Diego should have been it for sure, as the Creator/Designer of the Fish a board that was sooo fast you always could take off behind the Peak under the Lip and Scream all the way thru the Tube, hoping that you wouldn’t get dropped in on becsuse the Standups didn’t think you could make it, but boy they learned fast that we could make, from way way back!! There are alot of the young gun’s don’t even know who created the Fish to this day still..

  • Efren

    Its called “surfer” magazine, not “boogie boarding” magazine. F**k off spongers

  • john ramuno

    Rob,

    Nice post. My two cents. I was both a kneeboarder (team rider for Greek Surfboards), and freelance surf photographer and writer for Surfer and Intl Surfing during the era when bellyboarding morphed into “kneeboarding,” “Knee-machining,”Knee-riding,” and my favorite, “reduced-medium surfing” – at which time Kneebording became the arch enemy of “real” surfers, you know, those who actually “stood up” on their boards. Surfer published an article of mine entitled, “Kneeriders and Board Surfers, Someday Brothers?” (Volume Twelve Number Five, 1971). The cover photo of this issue was also shot by me and was the first and only bodysurfing cover photo ever to appear in surfer – and received the MOST complaints about any cover photo Surfer published because the photo was NOT of a (stand up) “Surfer.” Trust me, I know about the bitter relationships that existed between stand-up surfers and kneeboarders (or ANYONE who didn’t stand up while “surfing”).

    As for some of the old time kneeboarders the group has commented on, I was completely surprised to find no mention of some of the true pioneers of kneeboarding who lived and surfed in Newport Beach and Huntington from 1968-1972) – Ron Romanosky, Bob Wrighton, Bob Gammill, and Doug Wampler – all true innovators in both kneedboard (surfing) style and board design. Each worked for or were team riders for both El Paipo and Greek Kneeboards, and GREATLY contributed to the rapid growth of kneeboarding during this era. Each would be testing a new board design almost weekly at Newport spots from the Wedge to the Santa Ana River Jetties. In fact, 56th St. in Newport was pretty much “discovered” by and popularized by these guys, as evidenced by photos I took of them surfing there when the giant jetty boulders were being dropped in place by a jetty-walking overhead crane. Today, 54th – 56th St. is the premiere spot in Newport, and I doubt few remember the beginnings of the spot when half of the line-up was populated by kneeboarders – very GOOD “surfers!!!”

    As for Steve Lis (who I interviewed at Wind and Sea for one of my kneeboarding articles), he did way more for surfing than “invent” the fish, he also had many experimental kneeboard designs, and was indeed a great kneeboarder himself. However, both the manufacturing hub and popularization of kneeboards and kneeborders occurred in Newport and Huntington not San Diego. Bob the Greek Bolen was popping out kneeboards faster than anyone, and Bud Hulst at El Paipo was never far behind and sometimes ahead in boards produced. These two manufacturing pioneers will never get enough credit for championing the growth of Kneeboarding.

    I have fond memories of the kneeboard scene in Newport, and of the players who helped grow the “sport.” Unless you were there, everyday, you will never know how rooted kneeboarding was in Newport, nor will you understand how and why it took off so quickly.

    I’ve truly enjoed all the posts, and thank you for letting me have my two-cents worth.

    John Ramuno

  • Ed Corn

    All this is from people ,who didn’t know the real truth,it is about foam chunks blowing behind you when you look at the hair pin and get shot out of the room with toilette bowl sound. Ed corn a bird man ,who saw all and went over the falls at la moids in the seventies ,you guys just yak ! Had to be there.

  • ian

    I kneeboard – most kneeboarders just got old – a few went to long boards – no kneeboarders I know would EVER consider a sponge

  • Woolly

    Rob I haven’t disappeared I just wandered home.
    Cheers Woolly

    • kneedog6

      Home of the east coast desperado

  • Wyatt Henry

    “Don’t be hatin’ on body boarding.”

  • João Branco

    Were i can find a boar like this?

    • RandeF

      I’ve been kneeboarding since 70′s and the best board I’ve ever ridden is my last board made by ronromanoskykneeboards.com last year. It’s like magic!

      • waveskiboy

        Link didn’t work, at first, but now it does! Thanks.

  • Craig Jacobs

    Have just been to the Kneeboard Festival Cantabria in Somo, Spain. 42 quirky, young and old knee boarders came together from Spain, Canary Islands, france, USA, Australia, NZ and Ireland. No dinosaurs, just dedicated surfers looking to share the waves. A great weekend. Craig from South Oz.

  • http://www.hawaiianline.com Darren K Akana

    Great Article: I really think that Kneeboarding will allways be around! The Ozzies are keeping it going also the Americans too.. Internationally theirs probably 100 left: in Hawaii maybe 30 max! Still we are alive and well.. Just like the (White Tiger)…Rare but still alive! My best boards: Ron Romanosky, Wing Swallows…Legend.also My brother Marshall Crum Booster Pockets..Hawaii and the man “Bruce Hart” FlashPoints..and of course Buddy M Blast the best Boards on the Planet… thank u guys for your dedication and innovation! aloha