What is tandem surfing?

July 4, 2019 | Surfing
Tandem surfing: it takes two to ride this wave | Photo: Noosa Festival of Surfing

Tandem surfing combines the art of surfing, gymnastic skills, and the synchronized moves of figure skating.

Traditionally, this alternative surfing discipline or subgenre involves a man and woman, who perform eye-catching acrobatic poses and stunts while riding waves.

Tandem surfing has its origins in Hawaii and celebrates the ancient practice of riding waves and getting in touch with Kanaloa, one of the four major gods of Hawaiian religion.

This two-to-a-board surfing activity gained additional attention when, in the 1920s, Duke Kahanamoku and the Waikiki beach boys started taking female tourists for a ride in the local small rolling waves.

In a classic tandem surfing ride, the male performer lifts his female partner above and on his shoulders. As they surf the wave, the pair tries to impress by performing various acrobatic poses.

According to The Encyclopedia of Surfing, Pete Peterson and Lorrin Harrison were the first to introduce this innovative surfing specialty to mainland America.

Duke Kahanamoku and Isabel Letham: they were one of the first ambassadors of tandem surfing

In the 1930s, the California duo quickly attracted more couples to tandem surfing, especially in breaks like Malibu, San Onofre, and Doheny.

As the doubles surf crusade gained traction, it was included in the 1954 Makaha International Surfing Championships as a demonstration sport.

Later, tandem surfing had its own official category at the 1965 ISF World Surfing Championships.

In the 1970s, surfing's team discipline nearly disappeared. It was seen as an awkward, ridiculous, and somehow embarrassing wave riding activity.

However, with the rebirth of the longboard movement, tandem surfing rose from the ashes and stood firmly as a relevant chapter of surf culture.

Bobby Friedman and Anna Shisler - two of its finest enthusiasts - took tandem surfing to higher grounds after a few memorable sessions at Pipeline and Waimea Bay.

Tandem surfing: a mix of surfing, gymnastics and figure skating | Illustration: Mel Ramos

Ballet and Communication

But, make no mistake. This is a complicated four-footed art.

"The risk is definitely higher, and when I feel we're going to fall, I usually push my partner well away from the board," explains Kalani Vierra, one of the most competent tandem surfers of all time.

"It looks like I'me being harsh to her, but I'm actually trying to keep her safe."

In most cases, tandem surfing requires a well-built, fit and strong man, and a light and highly flexible woman.

Today, tandem surfers perform over a dozen tricks, poses, and stunts. In a way, it resembles ballet executed over a moving wave.

Communication and a sense of comradery are key ingredients for a successful tandem surfing team.

The female partner is generally under 5'2'' and around 110 pounds, but acrobatic skills are usually more important than height and weight.

Tandem surfing: you can always have fun with your family | Photo: Hedemann/Creative Commons

Competitive Tandem Surfing

The International Tandem Surfing Association (ITSA) runs several world and continental competitions but also works to preserve the history, heritage, and culture of the sport.

The rules of tandem surfing are relatively simple.

Each performance is scored on a 20-point scale, with the components of wave riding and lifting being worth 10 points each.

Each lift is assigned a point value based on the degree of difficulty, and only the top four tricks are scored in each wave.

Judges are also looking for surfing maneuvers performed while in a lift. As a result, wave selection, functional moves on the wave, length of ride, and the kick out will count toward the overall score.

There are also point deductions for falls while in a lift and uncontrolled dismounts. The judging panel expects tandem surfers to dismount to a controlled sitting.

Finally, it's important to note that each lift must be fully executed for a minimum of three seconds.

Tandem surfboards: they're thicker, wider, and longer than standard longboards | Photo: ITSA

The Tandem Surfboard

It is no surprise that tandem surfboards are thicker, wider, and longer than standard longboards.

They need to be shaped to support the weight of two riders and provide enough stability for acrobatic stunts and lifts.

The length of the board, the fin setup, the rocker and the type of core depend on the weight of the pair, and the type of waves they're surfing in.

So, tandem surfboards vary from 11' to 12'' in length, 27'' and 29'' in width, and 3'' 3/4 and 5'' in thickness.

The Summer Surf Gear Guide 2019