"When I took my designs to Australia, the reaction was huge, in fact bigger than here. All the Australian surfers immediately started making and riding shortboards, and then the movement came to the States."
If George Greenough's feet could talk, they'd tell stories of innovation, invention, travel, and trailblazing. They've only been confined by shoes but a few times in their 75-year lifetime, so they've seen everything Greenough's seen. They started their journey in Santa Barbara, where George first fell in love with all things ocean.
I had heard his name long before I came to know what a surf icon George Greenough truly was. The revolutionary surfboard designer, gifted filmmaker, and all-around renaissance eccentric pioneered many of his famous innovations in the waters off Hammond's Beach near his parents' Montecito estate. Growing up during the '50s and '60s, the golden days of Santa Barbara surfing, Greenough embraced the laid-back lifestyle while pursuing, with an obsessional focus, any method, however strange, that would enhance his experience of the waves. Eventually his experiments spawned a surfboard design movement that has turned Greenough into a living legend.
As an early member of the Santa Barbara County Surf Club, Greenough was able to test his radical designs in the challenging waves of Hollister Ranch, then still owned by the Hollister family. Except for this privileged handful of Santa Barbara surfers, no one was allowed access to the beach, which was often patrolled by gun-toting cowboys.
Many other surf icons came out of that early club, but probably not one was as unique as Greenough.
Greenough is widely credited with convincing an entire generation to abandon their longboards and join the shortboard revolution. Now at 74, Greenough continues to live a reclusive and eccentric life - in three decades he's never held a job and has rarely worn shoes.
By his early teens, Greenough (pronounced green·o) himself had already abandoned traditional surfing in place of kneeboarding and soft mat-riding, two sports few others were participating in at that time. "I really never liked the longboard, it had no flexibility or spontaneity," recalled Greenough from his home near Byron Bay, Australia. "You couldn't really do anything with it, and the boards were heavy and hard to handle. So, I made what I needed to help me fit tighter into the pocket of the wave."
Greenough's parents' expansive Romero Canyon home and lawns provided him with the space — as well as financial and family support — to fulfill his creative drive, and to produce a board to fit his unique style. His experimentation and love affair with the water led him to create boards that challenged riders and were, in fact, more fun to ride. During this time, most surfers were using cumbersome longboards (9'6" in length, weighing 25 pounds), which lacked flexibility and allowed a surfer to do little more than ride straight down the face of a wave.
While in wood shop at Santa Barbara High School, Greenough completed a rough kneeboard design made from balsa wood, launching the "spoon" kneeboard. "I needed a project for wood shop, and everyone else was making birdhouses and such," said Greenough. "I needed a board that would fit deeper into the wave's tube, so I created the spoon. It was a great project, and the teacher gave me an A."
The spoon was a short board — just under 5 feet and weighing only 6 pounds — made of an all-fiberglass kneeling area with foam on the nose and sides. "A few versions later, I shaped a spoon with a fin design that I borrowed from a tuna. It made the board easy to maneuver in the water," added Greenough.
For surfers, the difference between the spoon and the longboard was immediate. Both the spoon and Greenough's ultra-modern fin design were groundbreaking movements in the evolution of surfing. With the spoon's intuitive steering attributes, and some good surf, Greenough was not only able to turn, but to completely change direction with his board, float on the whitewater, and perform other maneuvers considered progressive - maneuvers that had never before been done.
Eventually, Greenough's fins moved from home experiment to retail item when Morey-Pope Surfboards, a San Diego shop spearheaded by Boogie Board creator Tom Morey, started manufacturing Greenough's fins. The most popular design, and Greenough's favorite, was the Greenough Stage IV, shaped for power turning, and now readily available to every surfer, not just Greenough's friends.
In 1962 Greenough shaped the Baby, a 7¢8≤ board designed for shortboard surfing. It boasted technical attributes never before seen in board design: It was short, its deck was slightly curved, its sides - or rails - were thick and round, and it had one of Greenough's innovative fins, all of which gave it more responsiveness and maneuverability. Now surfers could carve up the face of a wave standing on a surfboard rather than kneeling on a spoon or other kneeboard. What added to the board's distinctiveness was that Greenough borrowed a pint of color from fellow Surf Club member and surfboard shaping genius Renny Yater, and tinted his Baby the color of the sky. "I hardly ever rode that board," Greenough said. "My friends loved it, so they'd take it out at Rincon and have a lot of fun."
By the time the 1966 World Surfing Championship rolled around, the event's champion, Australian Nat Young, won the contest by riding his winning wave on a surfboard featuring a Greenough-shaped fin, and later credited Greenough for his success.
"When I took my designs to Australia, the reaction was huge, in fact bigger than here," said Greenough. "All the Australian surfers immediately started making and riding shortboards, and then the movement came to the States."
While others in Santa Barbara and Australia, where Greenough now calls home, rode his boards, he continued his passion and devotion to kneeboarding, leading the kneeboard craze in the late 1960s and 1970s. Still, what really turns on Greenough is a truly obscure obsession - inflatable mat-riding.
"I love mat-riding. The mats are very easy to transport, and you don't need high-quality surf to catch waves and have fun. And with mats, it's all about the fun," said Greenough. "The mats let you get closer to a wave than a board does. You're laying flat, right on the water, and you can feel every movement of the wave."
Greenough's experimentation and design didn't stop at surfboards and kneeboards. There was also his homemade boat, The Coupe de Ville, fashioned from fiberglass and the hull of a 16-foot Boston Whaler. Its crowning glory: a rear window lifted from a 1957 Plymouth that functioned as its windshield.
"The Coupe was a great boat to take out to the [Channel] islands," said Greenough. "Hardly anyone went out there at that time, but we'd go out there as often as we could." The boat was featured in a documentary (eponymously titled The Coupe) Greenough made about a trip to Santa Rosa Island on what appears to be a quintessential California day: glassy waters, head-high surf, abalone hunting, and wreck scavenging.
Greenough also broke boundaries in surf filmmaking. His only full-length feature film, The Innermost Limits of Pure Fun (which opened in 1969 at the Lobero Theatre), offers a nostalgic look at Santa Barbara during the late 1960s with familiar scenes from Montecito to the Channel Islands, including Greenough shaping boards in his parents' backyard. But the film's surf sequences laid the groundwork for generations of surf filmmakers. To capture tube shots from in the water, Greenough outfitted himself with a shoulder-mounted waterproof camera that weighed 28 pounds, donned a diver's full-length wetsuit, and waited patiently. He had begun developing this cinematic technique for still photography several years earlier when he was the first person to shoot a surfer inside the wave's tube.
In Echoes, a 23-minute short filmed in 1972, Greenough fine-tuned his water photography skills by primarily focusing on underwater "in-tube" shots. His 1971 short film Rubber Duck Riders was his tribute to mat-riders, by then a vanishing sport. His expert filmmaking and intuitive eye landed him several assignments on feature films including Big Wednesday and Rip Girls. In 1973, Greenough himself was a subject of documentary short Crystal Voyager, filmed entirely in Santa Barbara to record the making of The Coupe.
Today Greenough can be found where I found him: at his home on Australia's east coast. His filmmaking, surfing, and beach lifestyle keep him busy, with little time for pontificating about the past. "I'm busy with two more films that document the making of Dolphin Glide, and I have to get into the water every day," said Greenough. "But someday, I need to get back to Santa Barbara. The surf is crowded there, but I have a lot of friends that I'd love to see. Y'know sometimes I miss the place."