Kneeboard culture thrives in Huntington
Tony Alvarez calls it "the people's surfing."
"Knee riding has been around since the early Hawaiians started surfing," said Alvarez, of Huntington Beach. "When surfing was first seen, the common people were allowed to surf on their knees, and only the royalty were allowed to stand up."
Alvarez, also known as "Big Tony" and organizer of the Kneeboard Surfing USA Titles and Festival, gave me a bit of history as we stood at the south side of the Huntington Beach pier while the 10th annual Kneeboard Surfing Titles was going on last weekend.
But when it comes down to it, "it's all surfing, no matter what."
There was a great turnout for the event, with nearly 60 competitors. Organizers pushed it back a day – running Saturday and Sunday rather than starting on Friday – because of the lack of swell.
"We couldn't ask for better weather. It's the third year we've had 70-plus degree weather, and there's oil-glass conditions," Alvarez said as the semi-finals were underway. "We were watching the swell and models and tide and everything. It paid off, Saturday just kept getting bigger and bigger. With the tide push coming back in, we're going to see some good surf."
He was right, the waves started showing through the afternoon – a bit inconsistent, but improving as the afternoon progressed.
The contest is considered one of the premiere kneeboarding events in the world. Winners will have a chance to represent the United States in July at the World Kneeboard Championships. That event happens every two years, and this year will be held in Tahiti.
This style of surfing was popular decades ago and faded away from the scene, but in recent years has had a strong resurrection. Last year, a segment was added to the National Scholastics Surfing Association for the first time in nearly 30 years.
Big Tony, a 44-year-old who started kneeboarding when he was 8, says the sport is on the upswing again with a retro movement happening out in the water.
"In the past few years, guys are riding more alternative surf crafts, and guys are riding kneeboards again," he said. "It's kind of cool again."
Dana Point surfer Chris Linn is just one of the younger generation of surfers picking up this niche sport. His father was a kneeboarder, and the 20-year-old picked it up when he was about 12.
"I started surfing but I started kneeboarding and just loved it more," he said. "You're just closer to the wave -- it was just a better feeling, I thought. When I stand up, I feel like I'm looking down at the wave. But when you're kneeboarding, you feel like you're right on it."
It was Linn's eighth contest, and the first time he made it to the semi-finals. Just before the buzzer hit, he got a solid barrel on the inside section of the wave, coming out clean.
"It was a good one. I thought I'd go for it, it just bowled up," Linn said. "That was definitely worth it. And we're in Huntington and surfing with only four guys out, so it's awesome."
Huntington Beach kneeboarder Mike Fernandez, who made it to the finals in the AAA division, had a long hiatus from the sport before returning to his lost love.
The 53-year-old kneeboarder was on the NSSA National team – along with former ASP World Champion Tom Curren – traveling the world before quitting the following year to go to college. Life continued and somehow surfing became a thing of the past – until one day in 2007 he did an Internet search and came across the KSUSA website, seeing photos of his old friends.
He was living on the East Coast, and soon bought himself a kneeboard and looked up old friends, coming out to Huntington Beach to visit. After 25 years, he moved back to his hometown and became fully immersed in the sport and lifestyle once again.
"I'm just having a great time. There's so much kneeboarding history here in Huntington Beach," he said, noting that five NSSA kneeboarding champs have come out of Surf City. "Huntington is pretty famous for surf, but people don't know it's also a Mecca for kneeboarding also."
But really, it's all about catching waves and enjoying the water.
"At the end of the day, you can put a really good kneeboarder and a really good stand-up surfer together and you can see incredible surfing from both," Big Tony said. "It's all surfing."
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