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Tandem surfing rundown: From the beginning to present day


Chuck Inman and Tiffany Rabacal : photo Rob Santanello



Tandem surfing started at Waikiki as the early Hawaiian surfers frolicked for endless hours on their surfboards.  Both men and women surfed then and it seems natural that they also rode tandem.  The first photographic record of tandem surfing was in the 1930’s.  The Waikiki beach boys would take the tourist women out for rides on their boards.  To give them a more exciting ride and to show off for those watching on the beach, they would pick the gals up into a shoulder sit and probably even do shoulder stands. 

Another reason to do “lifts” on a tandem board is that while tandem surfing with an untrained girl, it is actually harder to turn and control the big tandem board with her standing on the deck.  As soon as she is hoisted up on to his shoulders, the guy can ride and turn the board as though he were surfing alone.  .

Two California surfing legends, Pete Peterson, considered to be the best all around surfer-waterman and tandem surfing champion of the 1960’s, and Loren Harrison, a surfing pioneer and outrigger canoe paddler, first went to Waikiki in 1932.  There they learned tandem surfing from the beach boys and brought it back to Calif.  They both tandem surfed in the ‘30’s through the 1960’s.  There were small tandem events at the early San Onofre Surfing Club contests, but the first big tandem contest was at Makaha Hawaii in 1954. 

In those days, only the top male competitors tandem surfed.  The elite of the sport was entered in the tandem event: Pete Peterson, Rabbit Kekai, George Downing, Walter Hoffman, Tommy Zahn and Black out Whaley.  At that time, the tandem lifts were very basic and relatively easy, so normal size girls were ok.  Now, 46 years later, the lifts have evolved into complicated routines with intricate balance that requires small athletic women or girls.


Tandem finalists practicing : photo Anglet Surf Photo


 By the late 1960’s it became quite an advantage to find a very small female for a tandem partner.  Since the guys are all different sizes, a “weight rule” was adapted that required the female partner to be no less than one half her male partner’s weight.  The 1960’s were an exciting time for tandem surfing.  Many of the biggest names in surfing participated in tandem surfing.  Pete Peterson brought many new lifts that he learned from a famous place called Muscle Beach where acrobats and weight lifters used to work out. 

Steve and Barrie Boehne invented some of the most popular lifts used today.  The list of tandem lifts grew from the basic 6 to over 25 by 1970, making the sport much more interesting to do and watch.  For years, a beach girl or your wife could be your partner, but recently in competition it has become necessary to find a girl with professional gymnastic training to do the difficult arm to arm variety of handstands that are now popular.  Even so, nearly every lift that is being done now had been done by 1970.  In the early days, teams only did one lift on each wave they rode. 

To get an edge in competition, Steve and Barrie were the first to combine several lifts on one ride.  They specialize in transitioning from one lift to another while Barrie remains in the air without restarting from the board.  This Style of tandem surfing has become the standard for competition, but creates difficulties for the judges who seldom have knowledge or training in tandem surfing.  Inexperienced judges usually miss the technicalities.

Through the 1950’s and early 1960’s the Makaha International surfing championship was the unofficial world contest of surfing and it always included a tandem event. For years it was the only surfing event shown on U.S. national television. Teams from Hawaii, California and Australia would enter.  Hobie Alter, Mike Doyle, Bob Moore, Don Hanson, Hal Sachs, Rabbit Kekai and Leroy Achoy would compete. 


Twirl : photo Anglet Surf Photo


In most cases, except for married couples, the guys had so many different partners through their careers, that when referring to the early teams, usually only they guy’s name is mentioned.   It’s a shame, because it’s the girls who are the real show.  Their courage, poise and balance make tandem surfing fun to watch.  In the early years no team ever won the Makaha contest more than once until Steve and Barrie (the first married couple to compete) won it six times in a row.  The prestigious Makaha International no longer exists; the only tandem event at Makaha now is the locals, Buffalo long board contest.

 The wonderful thing about tandem surfing is that you can take a girl who has never surfed, out to ride waves. She can instantly get rides that would ordinarily take years of practice to achieve.  For the guy, who has probably been surfing for many years, the extreme excitement of his first ride has long been forgotten, and being a guy, he probably doesn’t get real emotional about it or express it so openly. 

Only the very few guys who do tandem surf can marvel at the very emotional and verbal response that women have in their first experience surfing.  It is such a pleasure to share this experience and their excitement is a reminder of what a wondrous sport surfing is. 

There are so few sports that men and women can participate in together where each is an equal partner, the skills are learned together and nether can perform without the other.  Now that the lifts have become so difficult, the girls’ special skills are absolutely essential.   The great reward in tandem surfing comes from the years of learning and practicing the tandem lifts. 

That great feeling of accomplishment when you put it all together: take off, bottom turn, trim for speed and leap into some radical overhead lift.  You have confidence in each other, and together you achieve what used to seem impossible.  The lifts have evolved since the 1950’s, some borrowed from other arts as ice-skating and adagio dance, and they have been passed down through three generations of tandem surfers. 


Training for tandem : photo Dimulle/ASP Europe


There was a brief period in the late 1970’s when the sport actually died out.  No teams were tandem surfing and there were no tandem contests.  Only Steve and Barrie did it alone at San Onofre and in Mexico.  They decided to actively recruit new people into tandem surfing.  They have spent the last 25 years teaching new teams all the techniques and secrets that they developed to do the many fun and varied tandem lifts.  

Their coaching has been given freely all over the world. “We help anyone, even our competitors, because once there were no competitors and we have learned that it is better for the sport to grow than to keep our techniques a secret just so we can win contests”. 

Because of the efforts of Rell Sun and Jericho Popler, in


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