Head Over Heels

Skimboarding’s acrobatic evolution

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Story by Tom Stevens | Photography by Bob Bangerter

maui skimboardingWalk any steep Maui beach and you’re liable to see three or four young friends clustered at the high-water mark, studying the wash of the waves as intently as golfers lining up putts. Propped upright at arm’s length beside them are sleek, finless mini-surfboards.

As a wave slides up the beach and starts to recede, one friend will peel off from the group and sprint downslope, dropping a board onto the foamy sand and jumping nimbly onto it.

Then the rider will streak down the beach, fly out over the water, crank off a radical turn, bust a couple of skateboard moves, and surf the next barreling wave back up onto the sand.

Welcome to “skimming.”

While not as venerable as surfing or as widespread as windsurfing, skimboarding has come into its own as a performance water sport, and Maui is a premier venue. From Makena to Napili and from Pa‘ia to Hana, Maui skimmers are carving their signatures into the shore break and doing acrobatic aerials overhead.

It wasn’t always so. When Maui Skimmers founder Brent Edwards moved to the island in 1980 as a teenager, the sport had not yet left wet sand. But it left an impression on him.

“What got me interested was seeing some local kids skimming across Polo Beach on homemade boards,” he says. “I was fascinated.”

Repairing to his family’s Kihei garage, Edwards drew a crude board shape on a square of plywood, fed the wood past a jigsaw, beveled and sanded the edges, and coated the whole thing with varnish. Soon he, too, was skimming across Polo Beach. He says it was like “running, jumping and sliding on ice.”

A woodworking class at Baldwin High School turned the hobby into an avocation. “I made several boards in class for my friends, and I realized I had a knack for it,” he recalls. “Finally the teacher told me I had to build something else before I could make another board. He made me build a little cabinet. I still have it.”

The plywood boards worked well on wet sand, but a chance encounter with a visionary West Side skimmer convinced Edwards the sport could get a lot wetter.

“One day I went to Ka‘anapali and saw a guy skimming really well on a broken surfboard,” he says. “That was my breakthrough moment.”

skimboard-shop

Soon Edwards was stripping the fiberglass off broken surfboards, then reshaping and reglassing the blanks into skimboards that had the speed and fluid lines of the best surfboards. As his designs improved, he and his friends found they could rocket off the beach with enough velocity to extend their rides out onto the water. That led to “surfing” the shore break, launching showy aerials, and busting out ollies, shove-its, and other skateboard-style tricks.

“The learning curve was pretty steep,” Edwards laughs. “We took our licks. Ankle injuries, road rash, cuts from the boards, occasional broken bones. Even the good guys were getting hammered.”

In 1988, Edwards pushed his own learning curve by taking out a business license and setting up a one-man shop. His first account was the former Lightning Bolt store in Kahului.

“I delivered three boards to them. As soon as I got back to Kihei , the manager called to say I needed to make more, because all three had already sold.” Edwards estimates he has turned out “several thousand” skimboards since then.

Based today in Kahului, Maui Skimmers markets a full line of foam and composite boards. At up to $500 fully outfitted, the top boards are far costlier than their plywood ancestors, but also far more versatile. Instead of just sliding across sand, today’s streamlined channel-bottom boards are surfing monster shore break, doubling as kiteboards, and being towed by Jet Skis into big offshore waves.

Maui skimmer Ian Padilla, twenty-four, notes a kinship with snowboarding. “Skimming is similar, because you’re leaning forward and riding your edges. In surfing, your weight’s usually back.”

And while performance surfing requires at least a waist-high swell, skimmers can enjoy their sport when the surf is virtually flat, as it is for long stretches during Maui summers.

Padilla started skimming when he was eleven and still feels passionate about the sport. “I grew up at the beginning of the episode,” he says. “There were just a select few of us skimming at Makena then. We’d be down there at sunset on this huge, empty beach in just mesmerizing conditions. That’s the experience I want to pass on to the next generation.”

Skimming has its own magazines and videos, its own  contest tours, even its own medical condition—“skimmer’s toe.”

 

Padilla says the entry-level skills for skimming include “good balance, and there’s a lot of running and cardiovascular. It’s also one of the hardest sports on your body. It’s real hard on your ankles and shins, from getting hit by the board.” What makes the risks worthwhile? “It’s fun being able to ride the energy of the ocean and harness its power,” he says.

Like the other board sports, skimming now has its own magazines and videos, its own pro and amateur contest tours, its own logo wear, even its own medical condition—“skimmer’s toe.” Leading marketers like Exile, Zap, and Laguna-based Victoria all sponsor team riders, as does Maui Skimmers.

Among the eight men and two women Brent Edwards currently sponsors is Kihei’s Kyle “Little Man” Olson, the 2010 champion of the three-island, five-event Hawai‘i Amateur Skimboard League.

Also on Edwards’s team roster, though presently on “injured reserve,” is fellow islander Keith Fowler, twenty-seven. Fowler started skimming in Kihei  on boogie boards because they were soft, safe and affordable. Later he moved up to production boards in quest of greater speed, showier tricks, and loftier aerials.

When he’s healthy, Fowler’s signature trick, the “rodeo 360” aerial, catapults him eight feet into the air. The hardest part, he says ruefully, is getting safely down. “One time I almost hit someone coming down. I landed face-first and put my teeth through my lip.”

Maui’s premier skimming competition, the Save Makena Skimboard Contest, has been held each summer since 2008 at Oneloa (“Big Beach”). Cosponsored by Save Makena and Maui Tomorrow, the popular event lets Maui skimmers perform for a large and appreciative audience.

“The best thing about skimming is it’s a really social sport,” muses Brent Edwards. “That Makena meet draws fifty or sixty contestants and several hundred spectators. People are sitting on the beach clapping and cheering. It’s a great fun day for the kids.”

While Makena’s steep, coarse sand and thumping shore break have made it the island’s top skimming spot, West Maui’s Ka‘anapali, Fleming and Napili Bay beaches also get high marks. Although rocky, Pa‘ia’s Baldwin Beach also can deliver clean, fast rides. Rounding out Edwards’s list is “any South Maui beach” from Ma‘alaea to Wailea.

“Maui is a hotbed of performance skimming,” Edwards says. “We have the largest population of skimmers in Hawai‘i and some of the state’s best spots. Besides, it’s one of the purest forms of wave riding. All you need is your suit, some wax and a board.”

So, does he still skim? “Nah, I’m working all the time,” Edwards laughs. “And I’m getting kinda old. I pushed it until I was forty-two or forty-three, but then one day I tried to do this really radical barrel roll maneuver. . . .”


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