Paul Gross is a former editor of Surfer Magazine, a renowned surfboard designer and shaper, and the creator of the 4th Gear Flyer surf mat. Paul started mat surfing as a youngster in 1960, and his passion for the sport continues to this day. In our second interview with Paul, we ask him more about his deep involvement with matting.
Many surfers are extremely enthusiastic about the mat riding experience. How do you explain that response?
I truly believe that mats put surfers in touch with the deepest, most honest aspects of surfing. And surfing, even at its worst, is an incredible experience. So mats give the purest taste of something that’s already amazing.
Obviously, there are a lot of social barriers to mat surfing, since mats don’t come off as cool to a lot of people. So surfers who are willing to try mats already have an element of adventure and individuality. They’re predisposed to accepting the experience for what it is, then following their hearts from there. The result is a relatively small, but seriously chuffed society of mat junkies.
Who are your influences in surfing, shaping and mat riding?
When it comes to shaping and surfing, obviously George Greenough and Greg Liddle. But Skip Frye, Reynolds Yater, Tony Staples and Spencer Kellogg are people I look up to as well. They’ve all been hull shapers at some point, so I guess that’s at the root of it.
I learned to surf riding a mat, so flat rocker and round rails were a natural board design genre for me to fall into. The style of riding between mats and hulls is so similar. Letting the rails do most of the work. Controlled drift. Lots and lots of fun. And most people don’t notice it even if they’re sitting in the water right next to you!
As far as mat riding, what’s really neat is to see a generation of younger riders take what’s out there – the new mat designs and all the instructional footage of great mat riders – then go out and do it on their own. But George’s paradigm as a mat surfer is truly all-encompassing. The universe of potential has already been unearthed.
How long have you been making mats?
I started making mats in the summer of 1983. We had a little house in Carpinteria, and I cleared out the second bedroom and converted it into a mat building shop.
What advice do you have for someone thinking about getting a mat or someone who has just gotten one and is looking to add mat riding to their quiver of long boards, short boards, Alaia, Paipos and handplanes?
The thing that I continually harp on when talking with surfers who ask about mats is that there’s going to be a learning curve. And the more experienced and talented they are as surfers, the harder the learning curve can be. Often times, someone who’s never even been in the ocean will connect with mats faster than someone who has been surfing at a high level for 30 years. Newbies have less to unlearn.
The most satisfying experiences I’ve had is with surfers who transition to mats after 30 plus years of riding conventional boards. They give mats a try, sputter around for a week or two, then suddenly crack the code and say, flat out, it’s the best surfing experience they’ve ever had. And this happens like once a week.
We ran a tongue-in-cheek posting on Surfmatters a while back claiming that if you take up mat riding, you’ll make at least a thousand dollars because you’ll end up selling all your other gear… boards and stuff. We ended up getting dozens of serious emails from mat riders saying that’s exactly what happened to them.
Another issue I face is trying to convince experienced surfers that the dimensions of mats won’t translate to their own experience. It’s gotten to the point where I won’t even discuss numbers anymore. Guys will email and say they want a mat, but make it “this long,” because their favorite paipo is that long. But mats are perfectly parallel, and they carry their thickness nose to tail. And they are super light and super buoyant. So an inch of length on a mat means a lot more than an inch of length on anything else in the water. Plus the dimensions change from moment to moment while riding a wave, all at the whim of the rider.
I ask surfers to put themselves in my hands, and accept what I’m doing as being at least pretty knowledgeable. 9 times out of 10 they do, and it turns out fine.
You recently added the Omni in your mat lineup and it’s been a big hit gathering from all the chatter on the Web. What goes into the design of a new mat?
The Omni was the hardest mat I’ve ever had to design. It’s right in the middle of the size range of mats, so it had no particular preference in terms of what kind of wave it likes, or what its strong suit would be. Wide mats are clearly meant to plane out easily on small waves, and narrow mats hold in well in larger waves… so those concepts are clearly focused and sort themselves out fairly quickly. But the Omni took over two years to find it’s voice… because it isn’t naturally good at any one thing, just a conservative, easy going shape.
The breakthrough came when I was studying some old footage of George riding one of his old Hodgmans. I picked up on something that I’d never noticed about how the mat handled. I knew Kirk Putnam had that same mat in his garage. (KP raided George’s garage when he was moving to Australia in the mid-90’s.) So I asked Kirk to send it up to me so I could reassess it. I say reassess it, because I’d seen that mat probably a hundred times… but that was nearly 40 years ago. I wanted to look at it with fresh eyes.
As soon as I got it in hand and analyzed the interior design – how the I beams related to the overall shape – I realized what made that mat go so well. I built a mat and interjected the ideas that I suspected would work… and on the very first wave I rode with it, I could feel it surfing at a higher level. The final shape of the Omni had a few further improvements, but essentially, it was a goer right off the building board.
I’ve plugged those same ideas into out other models, BTW. Any 4GF build after Aug 1, 2012 has them lurking inside.
What’s funny is that the Hodgman mat wasn’t a surfing design per se, just something they put together that was a reasonable sized thing to float on. But in the process of doing that, they unintentionally got something right that resurfaced nearly 50 years later, and initiated a significant step forward in mat design.
In addition to mats you are also a sought after surfboard shaper. What kinds of boards are in your quiver?
Right now, none! I don’t own a single surfboard or kneeboard. I’ve built hundreds for myself in the past 45 years – 47 years actually – and learned something every time. But in the end, mat surfing is the purest form of wave riding for me, and that purity speaks to what attracted me to surfing in the first place.
That said, I’m constantly fooling around with board design using the Aku Shaper software. If I build myself a board tomorrow, it would be a 9’ roundtail single fin hull. The only surf condition that I wished I had a conventional board for is small, super clean point surf… which is hard to ride with a mat if there are more than a few other surfers out.
Who else in the surf industry is doing innovative design work in your opinion?
Wow, that’s a loaded question! I would say anyone who’s designing outside the contest paradigm has my respect. The thruster scene is being attacked by a lot of talented builders, but the end-game seems to be photo ops and contest results… and that kind of spoils the whole thing, IMO.
What meaning does surfing hold for you and how has it affected your life?
I was aware of surfing from an early age. My father grew up on Oahu in the 20’s and 30s, so from what I heard as a kid, it seemed like a really neat thing to do even before I ever set foot in the ocean. But unlike most childhood dreams (like being a baseball player, playing in bands, etc) surfing lived up to its expectations. I never seem to outgrow it. No matter how much of myself I apply to surfing, it keeps thwarting my best laid plans. I think that’s true of every surfer who ever lived. We’re all being held hostage!
What’s next for Paul Gross?
One thing that I’ve realized in the past few years is that continuing to develop mats is something that will always fulfill me. No need to search any further.
Surfing has been a constant for me since I was young, and serves as the standard bearer for anyone meet or anything I do. I guess in that way it occupies the same psychological role as religious faith. I’m an agnostic, and my wife is a devout Catholic… and it’s amazing how my surfing and her religion influences our respective lives in the same way. I see it in her Catholicism, and she sees it my surfing. Neither discipline is anywhere near perfect, but the result of believing in it is.
Photography: (1) George Greenough by Dan Gross, (2) Bruce Cowan by Jason Hall, (3) George Greenough, Paul Maisel, and Paul Gross by Dan Gross, (4) Schuyler McFerran by Ken McKnight, (5) Matt Brown by Jason Hall, (6) Mary Mills by Ken Samuels, and (7) Brett Cook by Michele Cook.