Curious George

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    Ever been around an extraordinary person? Have you encountered an individual where afterwards you thought to yourself, Wow, that was awe-inspiring, impressive or any other such complimentary adjective you might want to attach to the experience? In the world of surfing there is a select group of people that might stir that reaction out of you. For me, George Greenough is one of those people.
  George Greenough is simply a surfing genius with the aptitude to have taken his forward-thinking ideas to fruition and in the course, changed the path of surfing development and history. To look at him, with his always bare feet, sun-lightened bowl hair cut and riveting blue eyes, you might initially think he looks like kind of a prototypical, older, California surf bum. That is until he opens his mouth and speaks. Then all preconceptions immediately vanish. This dude is astonishing. To me, he sounds very much as brilliant and self-assured as any Cal Tech scientist, and in his own way he is.
  Born in Santa Barbara, California in 1941 to a wealthy Montecito family, George Greenough started surfing in the mid -1950’s but didn’t take to the big, heavy longboards of the day or the “crowds” of surfers back then. He built himself a 7’8” by 22” wide board in 1962 to find something more responsive and easy to maneuver. Ever curious, George studied sea creatures and observed that yellow tuna fish were capable of making quick direction changes while maintaining high speed. He then built flexible fiberglass fins based on the design of a tuna’s tail fin. Keep in mind; this was back when surfboards featured wide, bulky skegs that looked more like a boat rudder, not a thinly-raked blade of a fin. When he built a revolutionary scooped-out “spoon” shaped kneeboard in 1965 with a 11” high-aspect tapered fin on it, he forever blew away conventional thinking on  what could be done on a wave. This six pound, foam-railed, thin fiberglass-centered board called “Velo” allowed Greenough to launch high speed turns up and down the face of a wave and especially stunned Australian surfers who witnessed him riding it on one of his early trips down under.  It inspired a whole new approach to wave riding and was embraced by surfers like Bob McTavish and Nat Young, who won the 1966 World Surfing Championships in Ocean Beach, San Diego with this aggressive, carving style.  Surfing was forever changed and Greenough’s futuristic thinking was mainly responsible.
  By the time I first met him in the early 1970’s, Greenough was already considered something of a legend in Santa Barbara. My friend Greg Huglin hosted a little party and George previewed some incredible footage he filmed from a back-mounted 16mm camera while riding on his kneeboard and had our mouths agape. It showed views of carving tracks from his point of view, both behind and in front, at dawn, dusk and even at night with the use of a mounted light. The highlight featured astonishing shots from deep in the tube looking out, views most of us had never seen on our own. George would deliberately backdoor macking sections for an awe-inspiring view that had us all tilting our heads, as if we were there, leaning in to the power source. Greenough was very low-key about his ground-breaking achievement, humble even, but all of us were blown away.
  We weren’t alone, and in the years to follow, Greenough built his own 39-foot yacht in his backyard and sailed the South Pacific in it. He hand-built an electric generator for the boat utilizing wind power and photographed many virgin surfing areas.  George became known as the best surf mat rider in the world riding a specially made, tightly inflated mat that while laying down , had him going faster than most standup riders even while staying closer to the curl. While working on the water filming unit for the Hollywood surfing film “Big Wednesday” in 1977, he disassembled expensive 35mm motion picture cameras and rebuilt them into lightweight, custom, shoulder-mounted housing rigs for filming in Hawaii. Studio execs were stunned at his inventive skill and genius. I was there covering the winter season and I remember him saying that although he thought some of his surfing designs would go well at spots like inside Sunset Beach, he wouldn’t go riding. It was just too crowded for his tastes.
  I brought one of his single-to-dual concave, tri-plane hull surfboard designs, built by his fellow Santa Barbara expatriate Michael Cundith, back to Santa Barbara from an Australia trip in late 1977. I showed it to Al Merrick, who was shaping a lot of flat-bottomed stinger designs at the time. I told him how great these boards worked, and he built some for test pilots like Davey Smith and a young Tom Curren. After watching the pumping, driving speed these boards generated under such talented riders, Al was flooded with orders for the tri-plane design and this Greenough-inspired, Santa Barbara-born idea came full circle.  
   When sail boarding became popular in the 1980’s, Greenough built the first carbon-fiber mast and all-carbon fiber super-fast sailboards and rode them in the solitude of northern Point Conception waters.
  Now living in Byron Bay, New South Wales, Australia, George Greenough continues his creative endeavors. He built a custom water housing shaped like a baby dolphin and mounted it underwater in front of his surf boat to film a dolphins-eye view of riding though early-morning swells and breaking waves next to speeding dolphins. Entitled “Dolphin Glide”, this intimate, artistic movie masterpiece is currently in post production.
  Although he would likely shrug off talk of his many contributions to the design and art of our waterman’s world, George Greenough to me, is one of the most amazing individuals in surfing history. If you ever get a chance to meet and talk with him, you will not forget it. He is truly a classic.
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