On Your Knees

Rob Gilley

Previously in denial about his photographic past, Rob Gilley now rummages through his trove of mediocrity.

As some of you know, California has had a nice little run of surf lately. Nothing huge, but consistent swell from both hemispheres coupled with warm conditions—super fun stuff. It was about three days into this wave barrage when it happened. Sitting on my own private peak down from the main crowd, I looked towards the beach and watched as a bodyboarder paddled from shore straight for me. I tried to Obi Wan him down the beach, but he somehow he remained impervious to my silent mind control, kept his line, and kicked his little rubber fins in my exact direction. Damn it.

As he got closer, though, I noticed something. This guy wasn't a sponger…he was a kneeboarder. Holy shit.

My peak protectionism status went from full alert to at-ease. Suddenly I was excited to share this little corner with half a man.

Those old enough will understand the "half man" nostalgia. Like the dinosaurs, kneeboarders have pretty much disappeared from the face of the earth, and to see a live one is like excavating a fossil. And never, not in a million years, did think I would ever be this happy to see one again.

To understand this surprising endearment, let me take you back. Back to an era when longboarders hated shortboarders and shortboarders hated kneeboarders and kneeboarders hated bodysurfers.

Back to a time of peace and love.

In the 70s, lineups the world over were populated with kneeboarders, and nowhere was this more true than La Jolla, California. When I moved to the area in 1979, kneeboarders ruled the La Jolla slabs and were some of the best surfers at Black's Beach.

And like mosquitoes, they were bothersome as hell.

Truthfully, La Jolla kneeboarders were pesky because they were really good. Like four-legged creatures on land, they could move faster and more tirelessly than you. They could make steeper drops, and fit into the tube more efficiently. This was especially true at Black's, where they could chase down a canyon peak, fit earlier into the almond-shaped barrel, and then just sit in the tube until the cows came home.

It sucked.

As time went by, though, I got to know some of these guys and sadly, started liking them. Most of them were smart, and, almost without exception, were…well…let's call it…quirky. I don't know what it was, but for some reason kneeboarding had an uncanny knack for attracting eccentric, non-conformist personality types. Nut jobs and geek geniuses. Bow tie wearers.

Put it this way: if Ted Kaczynski or Orville Redenbacher rode waves, I'm pretty sure they'd be kneeboarders.

Then, right when I started liking these guys, they started disappearing. Some of them turned to stand-up surfing, some quit, but some of them turned to the darkest side of all—they became boogie boarders.

I think it's pretty clear that the boogie board ultimately killed kneeboarding. When "esky lids" hit the scene, those quirky youth that might have become half men turned to sponging.

And nothing, absolutely nothing, can make you miss kneeboarders more than a pack of boogers kicking straight for you.

So I'd like you all to take a moment of silence and remember the half men. Think of guys like Bill Lerner, Rex Huffman, George Greenough, Peter Crawford, Tom Litton, Bob Gove, Grant Brittain, Ron Romanosky, Dave Markeby, Dale Kobetich, Wooly the Wandering Aussie, and 'Blacks' Jack with fondness.

In fact, in solidarity, get on your knees and pray for the universal dream. Assume a kneeboard stance, and ask a higher power for a more perfect world—a world without boogie boarders.

Ron Romanosky. Photo: Gilley
Wooly. Photo: Gilley
Unidentified. Photo: Gilley
Unidentified. Photo: Gilley
Bob Gove. Photo: Gilley
Bill Lerner. Photo: Gilley