"Tom looked at surfing and saw it as being infinitely flexible and funny and worthy of our time."
Two days ago, the free-thinking inventor of the boogieboard and one of surfing’s great gifts to the world, Tom Morey, died, aged eighty-six.
Ol Tom wasn’t in the best shape. He was blind and broke, despite the outrageous success of the boogie board, which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary this July.
A little earlier today, I asked surf history custodian Matt Warshaw to fill in the blanks. Who was Tom Morey and why did he matter.
DR: When I told you Morey died yesterday, you wrote back, That’s a big one. Why big?
Warshaw: The boogie made him the Johnny Appleseed in terms of spreading wave-riding happiness, so there’s that. But the thing that stands out just as much, for me anyway, is how Tom looked at surfing and saw it as being infinitely flexible and funny and worthy of our time. Lesser minds, especially in the late ’60s and ’70s, loaded the sport down with 15 varieties of philosophical bullshit and we had to drag that around for years. Tom’s view of surfing was bigger and broader than anybody’s, but he never lost touch with the fact that at the bottom of it all we’re just out there riding waves, and riding waves is fun, and that the serious stuff, the more profound stuff, is really just a byproduct of having a good time. You don’t aim at enlightenment by surfing, in other words. You aim for a good ride, a good pun, a long late-night bullshit design session with other surfers and a half-case of Zinfandel—and if you do that for enough years, enlightenment in one form or another will find you. Tom was smart as hell, creative, a bullshitter who knew he was a bullshitter, with a great sense of humor. Surfing doesn’t have a surplus of those people. We’re no longer producing them as fast as they’re dying off. That’s what I meant by saying that Tom dying is a big one.
In that old profile of Morey by Steve Barilotti you posted on EOS yesterday, he’s described as “perhaps the most revered and reviled man among modern waveriders.” Wild claim and maybe hard to believe, now, but back in 1996, hate for boogieboarding was acute. Did Morey ever talk about that side of it?
Yeah, he talked about that in the article somewhere. He didn’t deny it. “Red ants and black ants will never get along,” or something like that. I was thinking, while reading Steve’s piece, that bodyboarders are nowhere near as hated as they were in the 1980s and ’90s. When I was at SURFER we did a Mike Stewart profile and I headlined it something like “Mike Stewart: Best Surfer in the World,” not “Best Bodyboarder,” and the hate mail rained down. That would not be the case today. Or rather, there would still be haters, but also plenty of defenders and various list-makers sharing their favorite non-WSL-Top-Five favorites.
Tom regarded his invention as important as the spoon, the printing press, yeah?
That’s what he said. But that’s what I mean about Tom being a bullshitter. Or a salesman. I don’t know if Tom believed it, but you’d listen to him make the case and he could shift your view, for sure. He had that grinning-mad-professor charisma. Actually, I do think he did believe that about the boogie. Or, at least, that the world will be a better place in direct proportion to how many of us are out there riding waves. He believed that, and I do too.
How did he name the boogie?
It was going to be called the SNAKE, short for Side, Navel, Arm, Knee, Elbow, which is a terrible and likely product-killing name, so he went back to his music roots and pulled out “Boogie” instead. Here’s another thing. There was a really popular novelty song from that time called “Hey Babe, Ya Wanna Boogie?” and I’ll bet a hundred bucks Morey loved it, and loved calling his new craft a “Boogie” because that gave it the double-entendre, just like Simon had with his Thruster. Morey never, ever called it a bodyboard, God bless him. It was a Boogie till the end.
Real talk. Was it the little board or was it out-of-the-box thinking surfers who grabbed a kid’s toy who made bodyboarding? ie, Mike Stewart and co granting Morey a place in design lore by taking the boogie places it wasn’t mean to go. An accidental design breakthrough.
In that little clip I posted yesterday of Morey riding his boogie in 1972 you can see he’s not just trimming out, he’s turning and pulling high and cutting back. So I don’t think he ever thought of the boogie as just a beginner’s board—although that was certainly part of it too. But Tom himself, visionary and all, no, I don’t he think had any idea Mike and the rest of those first-generation boogie savants were going to take it as far as they did, as fast as they did.
Talk about his genius to bullshit ratio . . .
I wrote yesterday that said Morey’s genius-to-bullshit ratio was 2:3, but that was supposed to be 3:2. More genius, in other words. Of course, I’m no actuary.
He went blind in his last few years and was broke as hell. What happened, money-wise?
I don’t know. He didn’t talk much about those decisions, at least not on record, or at least not that I’ve read. But I always feel bad when people like that end up having to do a Go Fund Me, which means they have no health insurance, or crap health insurance, which makes me angry at our health care system but also angry at the person for not having health insurance.
Did surfing need Tom Morey?
Sure. The silver lining of Tom’s death has been this great outpouring of affection, everybody sharing their memories of him. We still love our eccentrics, we still boogie with the oddballs, and I am so grateful for that.