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  • Andrew Cowell

PRONE PADDLING FOR FUN AND GLORY

Updated: Sep 29, 2020

The history of surfing is full of characters, both men and women, some possessing dubious backgrounds, behaviors, and motives.  Still others were of exemplary behavior.  Prior to European contact and empire building, the Hawaiian people surfed unimpeded.  Their only prohibitions were the rituals required to build a surfboard, and the system of  kapus that outlined who could ride what board, and when and where.  Hawaiian lore is filled with tales of extraordinary watermen and women, such as King Kamehameha and his wife, Ka’ahumanu.



With surfing’s re-emergence from the Calvinistic missionary period, its rise in popularity exploded as travelers, like Jack London and Mark Twain, encountered it while visiting the islands.  Soon thereafter, surfing and the surfboard made its way to California, and subsequently a California surf lifestyle took root.  As the California surf scene matured, individuals, many of whom were ocean lifeguards of exceptional abilities, began to be recognized as their exploits became known.  Tom Blake, Pete Peterson, Lorrin “Whitey” Harrison, and George “Peanuts” Larson, whose famous quote, “I’m not talkin’ about the way it was, just the way it’s never gonna be again,” come to mind.


The surfboards of this era were long, solid wood, heavy affairs.  The modern lightweight shortboard wasn’t even a glimmer in the eye of these men.  For years these boards were put to the test as rescue paddle boards and were often featured in distance races as part of surf riding festivals.  In the late 1920’s, Tom Blake stunned the surfing world with an uncontested win at the Hawaiian Surfboard Paddling Championships, setting a record in the 100 yard dash on his never before seen, semi-hollow board.


Now fast forward to the late 1940’s.  Enter Dale Velzy, a characters character, and his need for speed.  A paddling tradition had become a deeply rooted aspect of the California surf culture.  Unrestricted to just making surfboards, Velzy possessed an impassioned interest in paddle boarding.  Like his souped-up hot rods, Dale wanted to go fast.  He married his creativity, craftsmanship, imagination, and experiences in the lifeguard service, and launched an all out effort to create boards for speed and racing.


Inspired by the waterman ethos, and taking inspiration from the escapades of Blake, Peterson, and Gene “Tarzan” Smith, Dale and buddies Bob Hogan and Wendell “Gibby” Gibson conspired to organize a 32 mile race from Catalina Island to the Manhattan Beach Pier.  Buoyed by the interest of big-wave legends Greg Noll, George Downing, and Ricky Grigg, Velzy set about creating the ultimate paddleboard.


Dale built his boards for open ocean racing.  He staunchly believed that knee paddling was more efficient than prone paddling, used less energy, and the paddler was in a better position to catch and ride wind swell and chop.  His design featured a rounded bottom with a flat spot at the apex that counteracted the broaching problem of fully rounded hulls.


The inaugural 32 mile Catalina to Manhattan Beach Pier race commenced in 1955, with the winning paddler, Ricky Grigg of Santa Monica, California, crossing the channel in 8 hours, 27 minutes.  Today the Catalina Classic Paddleboard Race continues to grow in size and popularity, and although Dale Velzy is no longer with us his legend and racing designs continue to be tested in the most challenging of environments, the unforgiving open ocean.


Editor’s note: This article is by no means a definitive history on prone paddle boarding.  My focus fell on Velzy because his fingerprints are found on many aspects of the surfing life.  Watch for upcoming installments.


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