I still love surfboards and I spend hours in surf shops checking the rails, rockers, fins and foils. It's just that in my opinion the mat is the most advanced and adaptive craft I've ever ridden
As with many things, surfing is about your intentions as much the act itself. The time spent leading up to and even after surfing is as much a part of the experience as the actual wave riding.
Lets begin with the approach, the mat is easily rolled up and tucked under one arm, my fins interlocked and dangling from one finger of the other hand.
The walk warms up my body, lets me focus my mind, concentrate on my breathing and I have to say I love the beach.
Beachcombing was more exciting before the days of the big sand cleaners. There was more driftwood, more shells, more beach finds of all descriptions. These days I am as likely to find a used syringe as a neat looking shell, my favorite beaches are those that don't accommodate the big sand sifters.
Since I walked in, I'm warmed up enough that my pre-surf yoga is more effective. I usually don't go for a big stretch just enough to find any tight areas and loosen them up. That way I can focus more on the wave and my body will just glide along.
A bit of wading, a few duck dives and some kicking and I am outside waiting for a set.
Duck diving with the mat is not much different with than a surfboard. In fact surf mats have some definite advantages. Just before the wave reaches you, you shift your weight forward and use your body weight to drive the front of the mat underwater. At this point you are underwater, under the wave energy churning above you and holding on to a bag full of air. All that is left to do is relax and hold on while you and the mat rockets to the surface behind the wave. On bigger days I can lessen the inflation of my mat. I can also swim out through larger surf with my mat completely deflated and then inflate the mat once I am safely outside. Easy on a mat, impossible on a conventional surfboard.
The mat take off for me is a lot like body surfing in that the takeoff is usually in a critical breaking part of the wave. Of course you can take off well before the wave breaks but as a matter of personal preference I like the no paddle take off, no doubt a remnant of a lifetime spent surfing fish style short boards. Once you are in good position, you are sucked up the wave where you can turn and with a quick flutter of fins begin your slide down the wave face.
Flying is really a better description, there is much less drag on a mat than on a surfboard. The toed in fins on most boards that allow small radius turns are completely absent, along with the drag they create. Less drag means more speed. The soft nature of the mat lets the air inside act like a shock absorber. Very little of your forward motion is used up being tossed about. Even choppy days seem smooth and glassy. Most mat riders are speed freaks. I make no apology, I like to go fast!
Mats are optimally ridden less than fully inflated. This allows you the freedom to shape the mat as the wave changes moment to moment. You build a rail by squeezing the outboard front corner of the mat which plumps the inside rail, which as it turns out, is quite adequate to hold in steep conditions. You have to consider that your mat, your inside leg and your fins make up your "inside rail" when you ride a mat.
If the wave backs off or you want to hold yourself back in the tube, you release pressure on the outboard edge of the mat, the shape of the mat flattens out, then by lifting your fins and with the correct body english you are in a controlled side slide.
"Just like a Willy's in four wheel drive" to quote my friend and Matter El Supremeo, KenDog.
If you have ever ridden on a dirt track the feeling is similar to drifting through the corners.
Since you can adjust the floatation of the mat so easily you can change it on the fly from a substantial floating platform to a completely neutral flotation surfing device. Wave size, surf conditions and personal preferences dictate the amount of air to use. There is no one right answer on inflation. With variable inflation one surf mat can handle a broad range of surf conditions. I use a quiver of three mats. After years of riding them I have yet to find conditions at the beach that one (or more) of the mats isn't suited for.
Riding the mat is all about the wave. Not necessarily the size because it’s always overhead. Compared to stand up surfing the motions are much subtler, quite often invisible to all but a handful of fellow practitioners. You move your weight around your core to emphasize the changes you make in the mat shape and volume. You aim at maximizing speed and subtle directional vectoring in tandem with the way the wave is breaking at the moment. Since the wave leads in this dance you are best advised to be "in the moment" without trying to impose your idea of a good ride on the wave.
This quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery explains it best, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
Mat surfing is and will continue to be for those of us who seek an intimate relationship with the ocean unencumbered by all but the basics of a fast slide down the waves face and some quiet moments in the water.
PS Thanks to Jason at Daily Bread for the use of the photos!