Surf leash: it took over 50 years to reach the modern design | Photo: Shutterstock

The invention of the surf leash has always been controversial. The debate over who should be credited with attaching it to a surfboard is still ongoing. But we've gathered the pieces of the puzzle.

Surfboard leashes are one of the sport's greatest 20th-century innovations.

Imagine riding a tall and heavy wooden-based longboard in overhead surf.

Every time you got caught by a sneaky set or had to overcome a powerful whitewater wave, the chances you'd be unable to hold on to your craft were high.

Consequently, your board would be swept away toward a sandy or rocky shore, and you'd be left in the middle of a chaotic lineup with no chance but to swim in to recover it.

In most cases, surfers were lucky to get out safely and unharmed, but their surfboards had different fortunes.

They would be either lost to currents and the open ocean or crash into headlands or rocks near the beach.

With wipeout, it was essentially the same. And whenever you successfully finished a ride, you'd have to grab the rails to keep the board close to you.

An Inevitable Invention

Although surfboards got lighter and shorter every decade since the 1930s, eventually, necessity became the mother of invention.

At some point, it didn't make sense to swim back to the beach every time you got pounded, fell off, or, for some reason, lost contact with the board.

There should be a way to stay close to your craft no matter what happens when you are surfing.

Tom Blake: the father of the surfboard leash

The Seeds of a Great Idea

One of the first known versions of the surfboard leash emerged in the mid-1930s when American surfboard designer Tom Blake connected a 10-foot cotton rope from a belt around his waist to his board.

However, he soon abandoned the idea, deeming it too dangerous.

According to surf historian Matt Warshaw, author of "The Encyclopedia of Surfing," in the 1950s and 1960s, surfers occasionally experimented with homemade rope leashes.

In 1958, French surfer George Hennebutte developed a "footline" featuring an elastic line and a double-velcro ankle strap, but it failed to gain popularity.

Hennebutte did not file a patent but a simple Soleau envelope for his invention nicknamed "fil à la patte," which literally translated to English means "thread on the leg."

A Soleau envelope is a method used in France to establish proof of an invention's date of conception or creation.

It allows individuals to send a description, drawing, or any other evidence of their invention to the French National Institute of Industrial Property (INPI).

The Tether Pig Rope

Then, there's the account from 1964 World Surfing Championships runner-up Mike Doyle.

Doyle stated that while surfing in Tahiti, Joey Cabell adopted a leash system the Tahitians used to tether pigs.

They would tie a rope to a post and wrap a T-shirt around the pig's leg, allowing it to move freely without escaping, as the T-shirt absorbed the tension and prevented injury.

According to Doyle, Joey applied this technique by attaching a line, whose specific type he doesn't recall, to the fin of his surfboard.

He then introduced this concept in Hawaii, where "nobody had invented the leash yet."

Surf leash: a piece of surfing equipment that evolved throughout the 20th century | Photo: Encyclopedia of Surfing

The Ironically Popular O'Neill Contribution

The most widely spread credit with inventing the surf leash is Pat O'Neill, the son of Jack O'Neill, the inventor of the modern surfing wetsuit.

Pat's first design featured a surgical tubing connected to a suction cup attached to the surfboard.

O'Neill tried to convince his peers that it could be a very good idea.

At the 1971 Malibu Invitational, he gave away free samples to the competitors, for them to test it out.

However, after wearing a leash himself, Pat was disqualified. The "kook cord," as it was called at the time, did not belong in surfing.

Ironically, Jack O'Neill lost his left eye while testing the early version of the surf leash, making him wear the legendary patch that would be part of the surf company's logo.

The 1970s Boost

Despite the impactful accident, the no-leash lobby didn't last long.

In 1972, Australian surfer David Hattrick created a prototype leash to ride the waves of the remote Cactus surf break in the Great Australian Bight.

By then, surf magazines already featured ads promoting the latest innovation.

Hattrick evolved the prototype further after he moved to the Margaret River area, leading to the development of an Australian patent issued on September 5, 1977.

The final urethane legrope template won the Australian Design Award in 1979.

In 1976, John Malloy, inspired by a washing machine repairman using urethane for fan belts, Malloy tested urethane by attaching one end to a post and the other to a tractor and found it remarkably strong.

He founded Pipe Lines in 1976 and introduced urethane leashes to the market.

Malloy continued innovating with Creatures of Leisure in the 1980s.

In 2002, he introduced a stainless-steel bearing swivel with acetal plastic, preventing swivels from seizing up, an innovation that eventually became the industry standard for surf leashes worldwide.

In the late 1970s, Cadillac Surf Company was already into urethane skateboard wheels and started producing surfboard leashes with urethane-based cords.

Balin and Control Products also introduced changes, such as velcro ankle straps, replacing old leather and webbing straps.

The Power Cord by Control Products had limited rubber stretch and slowly damaged board tails.

However, with the introduction of the urethane cord around 1977, most of the surf leash's downsides were dramatically cut.

Surf More: the 1973 ad published in Surfing Magazine to promote the latest in bungee cord technology with Velcro closure for the strap | Photo: Surf More

Incorporating Paracord and Nylon

The history of the surfboard leash also involves the contribution of Bob Nealy.

In 1973, Bob Nealy, a lifelong waterman and military para-rescue veteran, was dissatisfied with the leather strap on his surfboard leash.

Inspired by the Velcro on his old military rescue vest, he realized he could improve the leash's design.

Nealy bought an industrial sewing machine and materials to create a new leash prototype with webbing and a bungee cord.

After showing his samples to Hobie Surf Shop, they immediately ordered 50 units.

Nealy's innovation revolutionized surfing, making it accessible even to weak swimmers by preventing boards from being lost after a fall.

He further improved the leash by incorporating paracord inside latex tubing to reduce snapback and adding a non-stretch section to protect the board's rail.

In the mid-1970s, Nealy developed a leash that stood out from the ankle, reducing the risk of tangling.

This led to the creation of the first Surf More XM leash, featuring a molded urethane strap and stem, which became the industry standard by the early 1980s.

Last but not least, there's the potential pioneering contribution from Peter Wright from Raglan, Waikato, New Zealand.

Some reports indicate that in the early 1970s, the Kiwi surfer used a nylon cord to address the long paddle back following a failed takeoff at Whale Bay.

However, his innovation wasn't widely recognized because he didn't secure a copyright for it.

Ultimately, the invention of the surfboard leash is a sum of iterations and a cumulative process of constructive contributions and improvements by several players.

Today, despite all arguments from the so-called purists of the sport, the legrope, "kook cord" or leash - whatever you prefer to call it - is a fundamental piece of surfing equipment that saves lives and prevents serious injuries.

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