When the surfer rides over the top of the wave that is breaking, floats down the line for a little bit on top of the whitewater on top of the wave, and then drops back down into the main part of the wave. Advanced surfers may float over the top part of the wave and actually free fall down with the lip of the wave as it breaks.
Paddle out to any lineup today and you'll see surfers of all levels pulling those basic, lateral drifts we call floaters. From the overweight funboarder at Linda Mar to the wide-eyed Long Beach Island grommet who's intent on traversing to that next launch ramp, the back of a breaking wave may as well be a four-lane thoroughfare.
Believe it or not, the maneuver that's become as commonplace as the cutback was once a secret weapon for surfing's most innovative test pilots. From Santa Barbara's Davey Smith at Emma Wood to Cocoa Beach's Matt Kechele at Sebastian, we were slack-jawed at an approach that was previously confined to surfing comic strips. Gliding weightlessly across the back of the wave, only to re-enter back in the green with all the speed in the world, why wouldn't we want to shift it in neutral and see how far we glide? But, like any hot, new trend, the floater projected toward the burning spotlight like a pair of waxen wings. It reached its peak in the late '80s when even guys like three-time world champ Tom Curren had built a flashy version into his repertoire, but it wasn't long before the new emperor was revealed for what it was: a poor excuse to avoid burying the rail and generating your own speed.
But before we go into the floater's inevitable plummet from grace, we need to go back -- way back -- to the early '80s, when the number of fins we stuck on our board was limitless and there was still a lot of uncharted real estate left on a breaking wave. No one holds the claim as the first surfer to "float" a section, but as early as 1982, Santa Barbara surfer Davey Smith was pushing the limits on what you could do on a waist-high closeout. "There's a lot of small beachbreaks in my area," says Smith, "so at the time, I was always trying to find ways to ride different parts of the wave. The back seemed like the next logical step.
"I remember hearing about Cheyne [Horan] doing similar things around the same time, but really, no one was doing floaters in my area. They were definitely a novelty."
Horan was one of the first Aussies to push surfing sideways, but it wasn't until a spiky-haired, Avoca Beach regularfoot named Mark Sainsbury came along that the "dump floater" became a contest knockout punch. In 1985, during the highly esteemed Pro Junior event at Narrabeen, the late "Sanga" took backside surfing to its weightless extreme and sent future two-time world champ (and Narrabeen local) Damien Hardman home with the second-place trophy. A year later, Sainsbury showcased his floater on the international stage during the World Amateur event in England. The result was the same: while favored American Jeff Booth surfed in short, vertical sprints, Sainsbury went the distance by connecting improbable sections in marginal beachbreak. Sanga -- and the floater -- were on top of the world.
What the amateurs can do well, the pros can usually do better, and it wasn't long before a handful of the world's elite began experimenting with their own lateral attack. "I was 13 or 14 when I first saw one done," says Newport's Richie Collins, a certified black belt in floating. "Cheyne Horan came flying down the line at Trestles, clicked up on top of the whitewater, and nearly took my head off. I was like, 'Wow, what was that?' I knew right away what I needed to start practicing. Before that, we'd just kick out when the wave would section."
The Richie Collins floater quickly became as recognizable as his webbed gloves and mohawk. And along with other open-minded pros like Martin Potter, they not only helped make junk surf fun again, they made the bigger stuff an even riskier venture. "I was quoted in the magazines as saying that I'd rather float on top of the wave rather than ride inside it, and I still stand by that statement," says Collins. "I got flack for that, but let's be honest: what's more difficult? Pulling in at Pipe or floating over one of those sections? I used to get 10s for doing floaters in bigger surf."
But 10s for Collins were trips to the hospital for a handful of other pros as more and more surfers found that their ankles and knees just weren't made for 8-foot freefalls into the flats. Potter, Tom Carroll, Nicky Wood and others all suffered injuries at the hands of the dump floater.
As if this weren't bad enough PR, a strategy meeting between Martin Potter and his manager, Peter Manstead, at the beginning of the '89 season could very well have been the beginning of the end for the floater's short-lived reign. We don't have the exact transcripts of the conversation, but it went something like this:
Manstead: Pottz, you're surfing better than ever and this could finally be your year to take the title, but... Potter: But what? Manstead: Two things: you need to perfect the forehand snap in the pocket a la Tom Carroll and... Potter: And what? What's the second thing, Peter? Manstead: This new charge has to be all about power. In other words, you need to drop the floater.
Potter, of course, listened to Manstead's advice and turned his back on riding the back. With title in hand and a new proven form of strong, high-speed surfing in the record books, the floater has yet to recover.
Potter's assault notwithstanding, the flight school had become so prevalent by the early- to mid-'90s that floaters had literally lost all their power. Instead of winning $250,000 contests, they were relegated to Masters division of the NSSA Explorer season, winning fourth-place trophies for washed-up former pros. Some innovators attempted to add a few new melodies to the same old base line -- a tail tweak here, a 360 off the curtain there -- but these new breeds have yet to fool the judges.
Still, laying it sideways over the lip of a 6- to 8-foot wave will always raise eyebrows, no matter how much aerial-oriented surfing rises above the traditional weightless approach. Just ask C.J. Hobgood, who attempted two floaters at Sunset a few years ago year and ended up with stitches both times but still claims that's the only way to go on the Inside Bowl. And as the tour continues to steer toward surf of consequence, it's likely that a better, stronger breed of floater will become standard issue once again. "You can't tell me that those lame tailslides are the way to finish off a wave," says Collins. "As long as it's in good surf, the floater's always going to be a solid choice." -- Evan Slater
Moments arise during a ride where you must make a decision. You must decide if an oncoming section is makeable or not. Is it so long and vertical that you have to just straighten out? Is it hollow enough to go through the tube? Or maybe, just maybe, is it possible to hop on top of the oncoming section and glide across it to the next bowl? Here is where the floater option is very helpful. When a simple bank off the lip will not cover enough area and will slow your forward momentum, and when the section is not hollow enough to pull into, the floater is a stylish and functional way to utilize a wave.
Completing a floater is a delicate balance of weighting and un-weighting. It begins with a solid bottom turn, as do many of surfing’s greatest moves. However, instead of heading straight up for the lip, veer at an angle until your board reaches the edge of the curling lip (or top edge of a whitewater section), letting your board drift onto the very top of the wave. Don’t drift too far off the back of the wave or you will lose speed and power and find it diffiult dropping back in to the wave. Once your board is level on the “roof” of the tube, you must hold your line to extend your float. Here is where you must un-weight and try to stay as high as possible on the top of the falling lip.
One way to do this is by aiming the nose of your board toward the back of the wave, letting the bottom of your board slide sideways along the top of the wave perpendicularly (like a railslide on a skateboard). This may require you to land your floater tail-first, which looks spectacular but can be challenging. Maintaining a wide stance and keeping your weight over the center-point of your board increases your chances for success.
Another more challenging technique to prolong your floater effectiveness is by “pumping” your board mid-maneuver much like the way you would pump for speed along the wave face. As you feel the board begin to drop from your prime tabletop position at the top of the wave, simply lift your board back to the crest of the falling section. A few small pumps like this will allow you to cover more distance and in effect, complete a more functional and dramatic maneuver.
Landing a floater depends on a nice, wide (although not like kooked out wide) stance over the midpoint of your board. As long as your spine is somewhat perpendicular to your stringer, and your weight is also over the midpoint of your board, most floaters are quite do-able.
Remember, the floater is very functional and can be done with style for a pleasant, as well as radical, addition to your repertoire. However, be warned that passing up a good barrel and opting instead for a floater could open you up to some serious ridicule from purists.
A high risk, epic floater. It involves lots of speed and a bit of tail sliding.