Multi Sport

The Glide | From Polynesia’s First Surfers to Today’s Skate Punks, One Thing Unites Us All

Introducing "The Glide"…

Words by Matt Barr

One evening during the summer of 1777, William Anderson sat down at his desk to write his daily observations.

Anderson was the surgeon aboard HMS Resolution, Captain James Cook’s flagship command on his third Pacific voyage. That night, the fleet was at anchor at what the expedition called The Society Islands – Hawaii, to us.

It had been an unusually stimulating day. Anderson had witnessed some uniquely strange behaviour from one local inhabitant that had left quite an impression, and he set about recording it for posterity.

“He went out from the shore till he was near the place where the swell begins to take its rise; and, watching its first motion very attentively, paddled before it with great quickness, till [it] had acquired sufficient force to carry his canoe before it without passing underneath.

“He sat motionless, and was carried along at the same swift rate as the wave, till it landed him on the beach.”

He sat motionless, and was carried along at the same swift rate as the wave, till it landed him on the beach. Then he started out … and went in search of another swell”.

What Anderson had witnessed was, of course, a form of surfing.

Kanoa Igarashi in Hawaii Credit: Red Bull Content Pool

But as his next sentence reveals, what he was really recording for the first time was the Glide, that unique phenomenon known to all board riders, where sensory pleasure is derived from effortless, friction-free sideways motion.

“I could not help concluding that this man felt the most supreme pleasure while he was driven so fast and smoothly by the sea”.

239 years later, this meeting of two foreign cultures remains one of the most culturally significant events in recent human history.

“I could not help concluding that this man felt the most supreme pleasure while he was driven so fast and smoothly by the sea”.

Don’t laugh. It’s true. According to Simon Sheffer, Professor of the History of Science at Cambridge University, the significance of the Cook voyages is that this “encounter between two of the really great maritime civilisations of our planet, that of the North Atlantic and that of Polynesia, caused … an extraordinarily dramatic change in our knowledge of the world”.

Julian Wilson in Hawaii. Credit: Red Bull Content Pool

How then can the western world’s first recorded encounter with the Polynesian subculture of surfing – a man using the power of the waves for his own pleasure, no less – be viewed as any less significant?

Just consider the evidence. In 2013, the European Surf Industry Manufacturers’ Association valued the global board sports market at a whopping €37.2 billion – 15% of the entire global sports market. That’s a lot of people buying a lot of boards, clothing and trainers.

And the actual sensation at the heart of this enormous industry? The same feeling that compelled this nameless Hawaiian native to catch waves, and which hooks modern day board riders in their thousands every year.

A feeling you could call “The Glide.”

The author Matt Barr surfing in New Zealand. Credit: All Conditions Media

The democracy of the Glide

So what is the Glide?

Unsurprisingly, defining such an ineffable feeling is difficult. Is it a manoeuvre? Is it a feeling, such as that experienced by a small kid recklessly skidding on ice for the first time, or a pro snowboarder reaching 70mph down an Alaskan face?

Is it that by its very weightlessness, the Glide mimics that original feeling of float that every human experiences in their prenatal state?

Is the Glide simply the name given to the general high that makes the experience of riding sideways such a lifelong addiction?

Or is it nothing more complicated than the fact that flying through the sections, along the coping, or down the fall-line is about the most fun it’s possible to have with your clothes on?

The truth – and the mystery – of the Glide is that it is each of these things and none of them. Different for everybody, yet the same for all.

For you, the feeling engendered by the Glide will differ from that experienced by Kelly Slater. Yet you’ll both know it when you feel it, and are both hooked on the same feeling.

That’s the beauty – and the democracy – of the Glide.

Photo: iStock

The paradigm of the Glide

Unsurprisingly, talk of this type doesn’t go down well with a certain school of board rider. They find it embarrassing. They might even refuse to acknowledge the existence of the Glide, or flat out refute its impact upon the sideways arts.

Witness the reaction of none other than snowboard legend Terje Haakonsen, who replied: “I’ve heard some rubbers give good glide,” when asked to comment on this article.

This unwillingness to embrace the Glide is in fact reflective of a wider struggle, the ongoing battle between the diametrically-opposed id and superego that lie at the heart of all board sports. The boardsports bro versus the sideways spiritualist.

Witness the reaction of none other than snowboard legend Terje Haakonsen: “I’ve heard some rubbers give good glide…”

This battle is played out on many levels, from clothing to language. But the most significant battleground is always the evolution of wider trends that define the development of each individual board sport.

First come the zealous early adopters, happy with the simple novelty of the Glide. Think of those early Polynesian pioneers, rocketing straight-to-shore on hand-made craft, or the first skateboarders, looking to mimic the surfing carve on urban concrete waves. Or early snowboarders, building glorified stand-ups sleds they could point straight downhill.

This is followed by an explosion of interest, where the early majority join the fray and the styles and innovations proliferate. Some of them are necessary evolutionary cul-de-sacs. Others point the way forward. Progress is made.

Then comes the the hard wave of inward-looking progression, a period that tends to focus on other cruder, more dynamic thrills. Witness the early 90s skateboarding Dark Ages of tiny wheels and excessively baggy trousers, the fin de siècle snowboarding jib explosion, or the initial phases of surfing’s shortboard revolution.

These teenage years can often result in an outright rejection of the Glide and all it stands for, as happened during the development of snowboarding, which saw the humble carve exiled to the shadows for almost two decades as the sport grappled with ever more stratospheric levels of progression.

It can’t last. And it never does. Hence why the next stage is the long, slow, reflective return to the roots as the sport matures, and the Glide once again takes its rightful place among all the other offshoots of a healthy boardsports culture. Multiple entry points, multiple opportunities for self-expression. All, finally, united by the Glide.

Travis Rice. Credit: Red Bull Content Pool

How else to explain the recent explosion of surf-inspired shapes in snowboarding, if not solely as an attempt by older snowboarders to replicate the unique weightlessness of the surfing glide? Or the sudden popularity among brands of Banked Slaloms, placing mastering of the carve above all else?

It’s a pattern that has been played out in each board sport. And in every case, the Glide will always out. What else could that seemingly dumb mantra “It’s all about riding powder with your friends” mean, if not the shred bro’s tacit acknowledgement of the power of the collective Glide, a halfway-house attempt to placate these two seemingly opposing forces?

“Why else make these journeys, other than to chase the feeling that got you hooked in the first place?”

The truth is, whether you acknowledge its existence of not, the Glide is real.

And is, for the massed ranks of ordinary board riders who buy all the kit and prop up the industry, for whom that fantasy fortnight in Japan or that boat trip to the Maldives will be the pinnacle of their board-riding careers, the real point.

Why else make these journeys, other than to chase the feeling that got you hooked in the first place?

Stephanie Gilmore. Photo: Roxy

The aesthetics of the Glide

It’s almost possible to overlook one crucial detail of Anderson’s 1777 account of his unknown Polynesian wave rider gleefully sliding down waves: “He sat motionless.”

Yet this is one of the most intriguing and revealing bits of information of all. Why? Because this sentence reveals something fundamental about the Glide: this ripper had style, and it clearly blew Anderson’s mind as much as the act itself.

Think of how it would have looked to the wide-eyed surgeon on that distant summer’s day. Here was a local breaking every maritime rule he’d ever known, and enjoying himself into the bargain.

Not only that but he looked good doing it, too.

What’s even more brilliant about this is that, even 200-odd years later, board-riders instinctively understand exactly what Anderson was seeing.

“He sat motionless.” The words suggest poise. Beauty. Control. These are the same standards by which the best riders still stop traffic in every skate park, line up and fun park in the world. We’ve always known it, yet it’s clear that the Glide and style have been innately linked since day one.

It’s why our most celebrated riders through the ages are those who have mastered the Glide with style. Tom Penny. Craig Kelly. Miki Dora. Terry Kidwell. Guy Mariano. Tom Curren. Jim Greco. Noah Salasnek. Gerry Lopez. Stephanie Gilmore. Rob Machado. John Cardiel. Chris Roach. Terje Haakonsen.

Not forgetting, of course, that nameless rider who inspired Anderson all those years ago.

Kelly Slater. Photo: ASP/Cestari

The personal Glide

For ordinary riders, pursuing the Glide tends to become a lifelong passion. Ski Sunday presenter and ex-Whitelines editor Ed Leigh puts it well.

“The glide is the hook that reels you in. It’s that effortless moment when everything falls into place, and you have a wave at your fingertips, a rooster tail of powder in your wake, or a cacophony of decks applauding the coping. One taste, and you’re hooked for life.”

Another mystical thing about it is how individual board riding careers often mirror the Glide’s wider trajectory, becoming in essence nothing more than a circuitous journey backwards towards the source of all sideways movement.

Think of your own board-riding career. Chances are it has the same landmarks as most. A trick and progression-focused youth, when learning as many tricks as you could at all costs was the only goal. A twenties spent pushing it as hard as you can, before injuries and (whisper it) fear start to get in the way.

On through the thirties and beyond, when that youthful obsession with progression gives way to pursuit of the most basic of thrills. A simple powder turn. A backside air. A frontside rock and roll. The wave that you read and rode correctly.

In these times, these simple reminders of the Glide can be enough to sustain you through the leanest times.

It happens to everybody, no matter who you are. And that’s the gift of the Glide. 

Matt Barr is a director at All Conditions Media

To read the rest of Mpora’s Style Issue head here

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