Star-Bulletin Features

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Glen Tomlinson takes his surfing skills to the streets
with long skateboards he markets as Koa Surf Classics.

Long way to go

No waves?
No problem for wave riders who
remember how to surf the sidewalks

By Greg Ambrose

SURFERS have rediscovered a solution to one of their greatest torments: how to keep riding when the ocean won't cooperate.

Happily, the solution is a time machine that also transports aging wave riders to the carefree days of their youth.

Sidewalk surfing, skateboarding to the masses, is enjoying a revival that helps ease the frustration factor of surfers denied regular doses of ocean fun. Hawaii Kai asphalt rider Glen Tomlinson, 36, is convinced that his neighbors think of him as "that old nut" on a skateboard. "It's the same story with a lot of guys my age. Surfing gets put off to the side when you have a family.

"Being able to jump on a skateboard again is a return to my childhood. And it has been nice to pass it on to my kids."

You don't have to search far to spot riders carving concrete with blissful smiles on their faces. Look closer and you'll notice that many are atop what appear to be skateboards on steroids. They are long skateboards, the land-locked twin of long surfboards, those gigantic water craft that since the mid-'80s have reemerged to create a dichotomy of tool selection in the waves.

On land and in the sea, the choice is blazing performance vs. stylish cruising.

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Tomlinson's love for the downhill glide also carries
over to his children, from left, Duke, Baron and Brittany.

Hawaii is a bit behind the mainland in embracing this fad. California skateboard videographer Aaron Meza saw long skateboards spring to life a decade ago, then fade out with the rest of skateboarding in the early '90s.

Two years ago, longboard skating caught the same wave of performance skating that fired up a new generation of street skaters to ricochet off of every wall, railing, staircase and bench in sight.

Longboard skating has always been an older-guy thing, and a surfer thing, says Meza. The older guys are former performance skaters uninterested in seeing how much more slowly their old, brittle bones take to heal than did their younger, rubbery bones.

In a word, they want to cruise.

Like mongooses and rats with their different hunting strategies, the two subspecies of skaters seldom meet.

Performance skaters take their short, kick-tail, lift-nose, tiny hard-wheeled boards and slink into prohibited areas to perform their amazing gymnastics.

Longboarders look for long, easy hills with no hazards to obstruct their flowing ride on big, wide boards with big, soft wheels.

The surfers want to capture the rush they get while gliding on ocean waves. "I have a classic long skateboard," says three-time world champion longboard surfer Rusty Keaulana. "You take a couple pumps and you're gone. It's like a Cadillac; it's a classic for cruising."

It's also a good training tool. As a kid, Keaulana practiced on a short skateboard to perfect wave techniques such as switching stance.

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Glen Tomlinson shows even an "old nut" still has
what it takes to ride a long skateboard.

With imagination and a serious surfing jones to feed, a surfer can close his eyes and convince himself he's on the ocean. With two important differences: there is no waiting waves; and water is more pleasant to land on than asphalt.

It's all much too tame for the performance street skaters, except for a few who surreptitiously haul a longboard to the top of a hill, then pump and fly to the bottom like a bat out of hell.

Tomlinson is well acquainted with the feeling. A surfer who spent his younger days skating to classes at the University of Hawaii Manoa campus, Tomlinson is now enjoying his second childhood.

"I had a guy follow me in a car down my favorite hill, and I was going 37 miles an hour with no wobbles. Nothing beats that feeling of speed. The exhilaration is incredible, but that will change once I eat it at top speed."

Fortunately for his worried wife, Tomlinson has just as much fun cruising with his kids or skating to Safeway for milk or to check out the long skateboards at Local Motion, his competition.

Yes, competition. Two years ago Tomlinson was trapped in traffic, brooding about how work, when he had an inspiration. Why not make old Duke Kahanamoku-style big skateboards out of koa?

He pursued the idea, thinking he had just invented long skateboards. Research quickly revealed that the boards were all over, and that it was impossible to use koa. Lovely to look at, but much too brittle to put to such a rugged use.

Then came another brainstorm: use multi-laminates of maple, ash, and a bottom of birch from Finland, so light, flexible and strong that it's used in aircraft wings. Laminate on the deck 1/4-inch-thick koa, and you have a skateboard of beauty and strength.

These aren't "Wigwam dollah-tree-eighty" metal-wheel plywood skateboards from small-kid times.

With custom-made soft wheels and extra-wide Randal trucks (metal axles), the 5-foot koa work of art costs $375. Throw in a kapa-print tote bag and the price hits $460.

"People on the mainland flip out when they see the price, until they find out how much koa costs, and the amount of handmade details on each board," says Tomlinson.

The boards are made to be ridden, but are lovely enough to hang on the wall. "The only problem we have is that people say it's too beautiful to ride."

For kids, it's not a problem. They know what skateboards are for. "When I skate past kids on other skateboards, their reaction is 'Wow!!!' Even the young kids know koa. They all want to try it."

Now, Tomlinson's part-time hobby has become a full-time job as he, his wife and three workers crank out a few dozen Koa Surf Classics boards a month, not nearly enough to keep up with demand for the 5-foot Ali'i Papa Aina (land board).

But his is only a small part of the market. Skaters have mostly spurned his $250 4-foot model, preferring to shop at Local Motion and other surf and skate shops.

There they can pick up performance skateboards for $100 to $120 and 4-foot skateboards for $170 to $190. And some never set foot in a skateboard shop. "The kids on the Waianae side make their own," says Keaulana.

For Tomlinson, the long skateboard revival is about more than just making unique boards. It's a chance to help preserve Hawaii's threatened koa forests.

"Our wood comes from trees that have been laying on the ground for years. A portion of our profits is used to replant koa trees, to make it a renewable resource."

The feverish demands of building and marketing his koa creations is keeping Tomlinson from the ocean more than ever. But that's OK. It merely forces him to spend more stress-reduction time cruising on a long skateboard.

After all, that's their reason for being.

Do It Electric!

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