The lay back was popularized by the first professional tour champion, Peter Townend. The frontside maneuver was essentially blended into a high speed cutback in which the rider (at full velocity) fell back on to the water and used both the wave's force and his own leg strength to then return himself to the standing position. While appearing radical, the maneuver was more theatrics than real carving, but it signaled a progression away from the status quo. Some years later, surfers applied the layback to backside surfing in which the rider would lay back on the face of the wave in order to stall and fit into the tube. By the 90's, the lay forward would take precedence in the tube and the lay back would be relegated to sloppy aerial landings and over extended closeout hacks.
When surfing's foremost player, Kelly Slater, was asked his opinion of the layback, his response was proof of the bumpy road the maneuver has faced. "Laybacks or lamebacks?" he questioned. "I'm on the fence as to what I think of them." But it wasn't always this way.
The '70s was a time to move -- Travolta was swinging his hips under the glare of the disco ball, the Jeffersons were rising to a deluxe apartment on the East Side and surfers had been paroled from longboard imprisonment, at last held back by nothing but their minds. It was in this free-thinking era that a statement emerged telling everyone "It's time we stop -- hey, what's that sound -- everybody look what's goin' down." It was the layback, a casual declaration of civil disobedience in the pope's living room, our own aquatic limbo act. After rocketing up the maneuver chart to become an overnight sensation, it succumbed to the perils of success, a victim of its own inherent nonchalance, falling off the map by the early '80s amid rumors that it was gone for good.
Where exactly the layback has its roots is debatable, but few would argue that Hawaii's brash young afro brigade -- led by Larry Bertlemann, Buttons Kaluhiokalani and Mark Liddell -- were among the first to kick it. Oahu's South Shore was the scene. The place where surfing was rescued from extinction at the turn of the century had become the hotbed of hot-dogging. Surfboards were being cut and trimmed every which way, a foot off the nose, a stinger here, a swallow there. With newfound freedom in maneuverability, the backhand boys were determined to find a way to surf the Ala Moana bowl as deep as the frontsiders. Bertlemann, asked recently about the first time he saw someone perform a layback, responded, "You mean the first time we did one? Aww, man, it was an accident, really. We'd go up to crank a turn backside, and the fins were getting so small, the board just slid out. It was actually a recovery, just sliding down under the lip."
Whether or not Bertlemann and company were the first, by the mid '70s, the sentiment was clear -- backsiders had just as much right to the barrel as everyone else. Along with tight bell-bottoms, butterfly collars and the Bay City Rollers, laybacks were it. International acclaim was just around the corner.
On Australia's Gold Coast, the land of the long right point, goofyfooters were poised for revenge. "They had no choice but to find a way to circumnavigate the barrel on all those Gold Coast righthand pointbreaks," recalls unfairly advantaged natural-footer Rabbit Bartholomew. "Guy Omerod, Tony Eltherington and Dave McDonald all helped perfect it, but I would say Chappy Jennings and Glen Winton were the '80s masters. And Simon Anderson had a mean one at Narrabeen."
As the Travolta era segued into the Reagan era, the layback was riding high, running perilously close to going over the falls. Looking back, the end was inevitable. Not since the soul arch had a maneuver been so disrespectful of the forces of nature, so ill-mannered as to look at a wave and shout, as Pat Benetar would a few years later, "Hit me with your best shot!"
The new breed of Hawaiians -- mindful of their heritage and of the sport's religious background -- were having no part in this insolence. In 1982 at the Pipe Masters, the layback was dealt a near-fatal blow. With the world watching, Hawaii's Michael Ho not only won the event with an unprecedented dis play of pig-dog, lay-forward backhand tube prowess, but he did so with a cast on his forearm, drawing extra attention to the grabbing of his rail. For the layback, it was too much to bear, and it all but vanished on that fateful day, relegated to "hippie freaks" and "soul daddies". The age of rip, tear, and shred was upon us, and in it the old method was cast aside with the typewriter and rotary phone.
For the better part of the '80s and '90s, the layback floundered to stay afloat. Defiant poses were forgotten while actual turns gained credibility. If you weren't carving cutbacks or launching airs, some would say you weren't surfing. One could lay back for an entire ride -- takeoff to kickout -- and draw nothing but strange looks and calls of "Beat it, kook!" from the channel. Furthermore, big-wave surfing reemerged in the mid '90s with the intent of erasing the layback from memory. Times were rough, to say the least, but help was on the way.
Toward the dawn of the new millennium, retro became the rage. Everything '70s was groovy again -- even KC and the Sunshine Band started scoring gigs. Guys like Joel Tudor and Donavon Frankenreiter were taking it a bit far with their regressive single-finitis, but throwing out a little retro style was certain to solidify one's coolness. Granted, no one contends that the layback is a more proficient means of getting barreled on the backhand than either the lay-forward or the new-fangled Slater/Irons crucifix, but sometimes you have to make a sacrifice in the name of fashion.
"I haven't really thought about it in a long time," adds Slater, "but it seems they could be real cool if they were done nowadays deep in a barrel. When we were kids they were just sort of flopbacks, but I saw Pancho Sullivando one at Pipe and it was really different than anything I saw out there recently. Everyone seemed to kind of be in awe that he did one at Pipe. You could easily go into a barrel roll and kill yourself."
When Sullivan, a Hawaiian powerhouse and noted pig-dogger, eased back on an 8-foot screamer in a recent Pipe Masters as though it were a hammock in his backyard, it was indeed a highlight of the event. The soul daddies were ecstatic, lurching out from the shrubbery to exclaim, "It's back!" But in the next moment, their jubilation turned to jell-o as the judges' scored were announced. A measly 3.5, and Pancho was back to the pig-dog. Hopes of a layback resurgence vanished, trampled into the sand along with an empty can of Tab. Which is fine, at least for the true layback aficionados, who would rather live in obscurity, on the down-low, just kicking back. -- Jason Borte
There is only one way to do a layback snap and that is frontside (with your chest facing the wave). You can use the layback in two very different ways:
- As a recovery tool.
- As a way to extend a snap when the wave loses its power.
Either way, begin (as with almost any maneuver in surfing) with gobs of velocity, lots of speed (learn how to get more speed ).
Keep your eye trained on the section you want to hit, whether it’s a closeout section of a lump of crumbly whitewater. Remember, the more speed, the better. As you approach the section, begin your bottom turn early and in full coiled position with legs bent and arms out for maximum balance. Begin your extension early as well as you want to create maximum impact with maximum spray and drama. Let’s be real, you really only need a layback recovery if you are swinging for the fences.
Remain low and coiled as you approach the section, approaching at anywhere from a 45 to a 75 degree angle.
Just before making contact with the lip or whitewater section, begin to uncoil by extending you back leg and pushing your tail as hard as you can. The beauty here is that you will create maximum water displacement as you paint a massive swathe across the face of the wave or connect with a chunk of whitewater. As your leg fully extends, you will begin leaning back, possibly using your back arm and shoulder as a pivot point as your board reaches its maximum turning radius.
This is the point where you either spaz out or keep it together. Spazzing out means that you push your board too far and your body is too far back as the wave catches up with your momentum and overtakes you. Not cool.
Instead, keep an eye on your extension and be sure keep your front foot placed firmly in position. Using a combination of your front foot, the speed and power of the whitewater, and your core strength, you want to right your body in one smooth motion.
Like I said before, don’t overuse the layback snap. It is a great added flair to maneuver (especially a closeout blast, but to many laybacks can give the illusion of being out of control (even though it is a highly difficult maneuver to complete smoothly).
The layback snap is best done in small to medium waves on a relatively short board (5’5” to 6’4”) due to its tight turning radius and tight locus of control. Also, being surf fit and strong will aid you in completing this move with style and power. Boards with wider tails (like a squash or a swallow) make for a great blast and release but take more focus to regain control while a narrow pin tail more easily snap into its recovery track.