What a Drag

Just how much does your leash affect your surfing?

| posted on March 22, 2012

Ace Buchan's leg rope clearly doesn't hold him back. Photo: Childs

This article is from our April issue, themed “The Science of Surf.” Click here for more on our oceanic field studies, which include, but are not limited to, bathymetry, genealogy, hydrodynamics, wave pools, and stoke.

When it comes to surf equipment, the leash is usually an afterthought. To some it’s a tangled, bothersome kook-cord, to others it’s a lifesaver. Regardless of its pros and cons, the leash is 6 feet of cord trailing behind you, and it’s essentially dead weight. Dead weight produces drag, making the leash the only piece of surf equipment not designed to improve performance on a wave. But just how much does a leash affect your surfing?

According to Aaron Perry, a yacht design engineer for ORACLE Racing (winners of the 2010 America’s Cup), every surfer feels a different amount drag. “Drag goes up with the square of the speed, so the faster you go, the higher the drag,” says Perry. “But a really rough estimate of assuming 15 mph of board-speed and a 5mm cord dragging, with 3 feet of effective length, gives you roughly 5 pounds of drag, which compared to the overall drag when paddling or riding is a small amount.”

To get an idea of your leash’s drag, Perry gives these instructions: “Test this by dragging your leash over the surface of a swimming pool with a spring scale attached. Or next time you come in from a surf, just Velcro the leash to the end of the board, push it around in the shallows, and see if you notice a difference.”

Every surf leash manufacturer produces what we call “The Regular Leash”—some brands have even named models just that. It’s the standard urethane 6-foot leash that averages around 5/16th of an inch thick. Sister to the “The Regular Leash” is the skinnier and slightly sexier comp leash. It’s lighter and its dimensions are usually around 6 feet by 3/16th of an inch thick. Unsurprisingly, it’s a popular choice among professional surfers.

Regardless of size and model differentials, some feel the leash is a burden and prefer to go without it. “I just find it annoying a lot of the time if the surf’s not that big,” says pro surfer and shaper Ryan Burch. “It’s not necessary if you’re surfing somewhere you’re familiar with, and where you’re hopefully not going to fall a lot.”

ORACLE yacht design engineer Aaron Perry, doing some testing in the field of hydrodynamics.

However, when Burch is surfing bigger waves, he says he doesn’t feel the leash lagging behind him. Bob Nealy, from Surf More XM who has been engineering new leash designs for over 35 years, believes this is true for most surfers and that the concerns of drag are overstated.

“If you take a look at a lot of the leashes when someone is flying on a wave, it’s popping around on the surface of the water. The leash itself isn’t even in the water,” says Nealy. “It’s only on the takeoff that the leash is down in the water.”

World Tour veteran and longtime test pilot for OAM leashes, Taylor Knox, personally believes leashes don’t interfere with his surfing. “I’ve never thought about how a leash could be holding me back,” says Knox. “I think a big leash with a little bit of drag isn’t a bad thing—it could put you deeper in the barrel.”

While that may be true for someone of Knox’s caliber, the recreational surfer will probably see it differently. But Knox also points out that there are other, less tangible affects of wearing a leash.

“Not wearing a leash is mental freedom more than anything else, and for a lot of people it’s also a mental block, because they’re not worried about falling,” he reasons.

In spite of the cons of drag and the pros of it being attached to your board, Nealy believes a happy medium is the comp leash. “I almost always use a comp. Using a regular or big-wave thickness cord I think is warranted if you’re surfing really big days or are in Hawaii or something,” says Nealy. “But for the average everyday good surfer, and someone using a board under 7’, I’d recommend using a 6-foot comp leash.”

The reality, it seems, is that the amount of drag caused by a leash does not outweigh the convenience of being attached to your board. And while boards, fins, and wetsuits continue to reach new performance heights, the leash, after 41 years of slow evolution, is still a work in progress.

  • Vini

    I’d like to read something about the influence of the deck, like drag, water dynamics, etc. I see that professionals don’t use deck in competitions but use this for free surf…

  • Kyle

    I’d always find a little private spot with a friend in Sandbridge or OBX and would go without a leash, it always made me feel so free and definitely made me into a better surfer. I chose my waves carefully, how deep I was, and definitely manuevered accurately. If I didn’t I was swimming 100+ yards in strong current to fetch my board. Definitely shapes surfing in a positive way, just stay away from others that you could potentially spear.

  • Dash

    How come no mention of the ‘entanglement factor’ of leashes? Too me that is worse than the drag. Its the main reason I would never longboard with a kook cord on (plus it looks silly). Granted, leashes don’t get in the way as much when shortboarding but it still happens, especially if you whip around really quick to catch a wave…

  • Matt

    Leashes were not allowed when I started surfing. I learned board responsibility and the mental concept of not falling. The majority of surfers I see today have formed atrocious habits in relation to their dependancy on the leash. It also has magnified the crowd issues. Someone will catch a wave and attempt a maneuver well beyond their skill level and fall. Same person will then make the short paddle back to the take off zone and jockey for position.

  • Daniel

    yeah Dash, you got a point here. Words can’t describe how “the entanglement factor” sucks, especially if you go for a quick take off and end up missing your your timing and you have to ride the wave as a kook.
    Differently from Knox, I don’t think that not wearing a leash means mental freedom once I’d keep my fullest concern as to how much I have to swim to catch my board again.
    Thanks for the creative article though.

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  • Chris

    Most places I learned to surf and grew up in like Cali and on Oahu were fine if you lost your board because it was just a swim in either to the beach or to the channel hoping the current didn’t suck your board out to sea (a la Sunset). Other places like here in BC you don’t want your board getting washed in to the shore unless you don’t mind your board getting worked on the rocks and rocky cliffs.

    20 years ago I started to worry about my leashes dragging me down, but I went back to a thicker leash years ago and big or small, I don’t notice it.

  • Jack

    Untill you fall and fuck someone else up Ryan and every 1 falls. Not wearing a leash is super dangerous for every 1 else did you see that clip of danes where his board turns in to a missile and nearly spears some guy.
    And dash you kook buy a better rope if your getting entanglements and not wearing a leggy with a mal is super fucking dumb a lost mal is like a boat coming at you with a sword on the bottom.
    Unless you can do kickflips were I can see ENTANGLEMENTS being a problem put a rope on.

  • alincolnlocal

    I prefer not to use a leash depending on conditions . Of course , I learned to surf in the pre leash era . Early leashes were quite different than what we have today . The first ones went on your wrist and were stuck to the nose with a suction cup ! Then came surgical tubing on your ankle . When you lost your board it would streeeeecth like 20 feet , sit there for an endless second or so and then come rocketing back at you ! One thing we learned pre leash was how to hold on to your board . And of course how to swim . Beginners these days depend on leashes WAY too much ! Instead of learning how to surf their way out of a given situation they just jump off – no matter who’s in their boards trajectory . My son is 14 and is probably the only kid around here who learned to surf with no leash . He’s got a good grip on his board and rarely loses it . When he does , I know he is capable of swimming in – a not insignificant consideration ! With that knowledge he’s now ready to use a leash .

  • Pete

    Who cares about the drag? Wearing a leash is the key of modern surfing, you can try 100 times a trick or a first big manouver without worriying of lost the board, if you don´t wear it, you will surf less, swim more and have problems with people if you hit them

  • Local Boy

    Although we presently have some great watermen there aren’t as many as back in the fifties and sixties prior to the advent of the leash. If you lost your board you swam. At spots like Lani’s, Sunset, Waimea, Avalanche, Himalaya’s e.t.c. you needed the greatest confidence in your swimming ability as well as the knowledge of the currents that exist at the spot you are surfing. Not having a leash back then, kept the lineups relaltively empty a lot of times as those who wiped out probably didn’t get back to the lineup as much as 20 plus minutes. The leash has unfortunately put a lot of people into the water who cannot swim. I’ve seen it a number of times and have assisted many who foolishly put themselves at the mercy of the ocean when their leashes break. Has it increased the performance level in the water? You betcha! These kids are doing things we dreamed of. They can get back out quickly after a fall. Repetitions make you better and not having to retrieve your board increases your wave count and skill level. Drag……..inconsequential!

  • http://none Tai Dawson

    Promoting the lack of a leash as freeing and fast is reprehensible .Most surf journalists besides Derek Hynd, Matt Warshaw , Nick Carroll and Sam George aren’t all that bright you seem to be no exception.Why do you think leashes were invented ?so we wouldn’t have to swim after our board every time we wipe out. Pros and experts can on occasion surf without, but you know damn well that if the general populace latched on to this idea ,that we’d have concussions from long boards and fin cuts from flying skegs of someone else’s board left and right! you should really think before putting forth nonsense like this.

  • lopez

    me too

  • joe surfer

    Everyone should surf without a leash. I have broken 4 of them on my 10′ nose rider. Almost drowned after the last break. I NEVER surf with a leash now unless it gets hurricane big and I use a brand new big wave leash with two cords on the leash plug. Beginning surfers should NOT be surfing anywhere near experienced surfers. If a leashless guy lose’s his board then only a complete asshole would not retrieve it for him if they have a chance.

    • big dog

      yo joe, shit happens when surfing and when you crush a guys face with your board you will be sorry….probably will sue you but i bet you don’t have shit to your name! do you know the meaning of negligence?

  • Surf Mat Rider

    There are clip on plastic attachments made in Australia that eliminate legrope drag. Looks like a small hockey puck. They float the leggy up.