Skimming or surfing? Brad Domke's wave-riding seemingly defies physics
When Brad Domke travels to ride massive waves at such destinations as Puerto Escondido, also known as the “Mexican Pipeline,” he packs light. Whereas most big-wave surfers use boards over 10 feet to help paddle into waves, or “tow-boards” with foot straps, Domke’s quiver has neither. He doesn’t pack a surfboard. Instead, he prefers a 52" skimboard. It’s 5/8" thick, made of carbon fiber epoxy, symmetrical in shape, and weighs five pounds. It has no fins, no foot straps, no leash.
“I rarely get charged for it when I fly,” Domke says of his board of choice.
A lack of baggage fees is far from the only thing that distinguishes the 27-year-old regular footer from Wabasso Beach, Fla., from his peers, whether they are skimboarders or surfers. Domke is in a category all his own. The board on which he skims through shallow water into the shorebreak is the same one he he uses to ride waves of over 30 feet. Yet, it’s what happens after Domke lets go of the tow rope from the Jet Ski that whips him into the giant surf that seems to defy physics. Without the aid of fins he can hold a line and maintain control on the face of a wave. He can stall in the barrel, then race out and land 360 or 720 pop-shove-its, moves usually reserved for skateboarders.
“When you first see him on a wave you wonder, ‘Did he really just do that?’ says David Langer, who towed Domke into waves at both Puerto Escondido and Nazaré. “It is mind blowing.”
Domke’s prowess in big waves might seem unlikely considering he grew up in an area not touted for quality surf: the Gulf Coast of Florida. But Domke didn’t let the meager conditions on Anna Maria Island deter him. He started surfing when he was eight years old on a waterlogged Gordon & Smith board. Domke would stay in the water “all day” says his mother, Debbie, and even late into the evening when there was enough moonlight. Domke’s parents noticed his potential early on, and say it influenced their move to Wabasso Beach (on Florida’s Atlantic coast) when Brad was 11. The proximity to more consistent surf fueled his desire even more. Domke would wake up before the sun rose and pester Debbie to drive him to nearby Sebastian Inlet—the surf break that has served as the proving grounds for the likes of surfing world champions Kelly Slater, Lisa Anderson, and CJ Hobgood. When the waves were flat, Domke devoted his focus to skimboarding and skateboarding.
“Any board Brad picked up he would excel on right away,” says Brad’s father, Charles.
Domke competed in his first skimboarding contest when he was 12, though he caused some confusion at the registration table. He wanted to enter the pro division. It took a few more years to reach that level. After dominating the amateur events, Domke was 16 when participated in his first pro contest, at Cabo San Lucas. It was not the debut Domke had planned. He broke his leg and was sidelined for most the year. Still, the injury was only a short interruption to Domke’s rise. He finished runner up on the United Skim Tour in 2007, then again in 2010 and ’11.
Even with that success, Domke’s appetite for competition waned.
“Sometimes there would be be five minutes before one of Brad’s heats and everyone would be asking where he was,” Charles Domke says. “They’d eventually find him a quarter mile down the beach riding better waves.”
While back at home between contests, Domke started trying step-offs and tow-ins from a Jet Ski at Monster Hole, a spot that breaks over a third of a mile out from Sebastian Inlet and produces some of the largest waves in Florida. It’s also notorious for shark attacks. But Domke wasn’t concerned about the marine life. He was contemplating the possibilities of riding larger waves on a skimboard.
“I realized that when the waves are pristine, it doesn’t even matter what board you are on,” he says.
Yet it wasn’t until a surf trip in April 2012 to Pascuales, a heavy beachbreak in the Manzanillo area of Mexico, when Domke brought his skimboard and got towed into waves by Brian Conley, that he realized the potential of the board in overhead waves.
“We kind of knew that it could be done,” says Hank Snapp, operations manager for Exile Skimboards, Domke’s board sponsor. “But we had no idea of the scope of it or how much you could push the limits until Brad started.”
Since skimboarding’s inception on the beaches of Laguna Beach in the 1920s, the sport has maintained a niche following and has been confined to the shoreline. Traditional skimboarders start on the sand, toss the board in front of them, and then jump on it and either glide parallel to or directly at the approaching surf. Bill “Beaker” Bryan towed into a few waves at Teaupho’o on a skimboard in 2010, but otherwise riding skimboards in waves of consequence remained a question. Domke sought an answer. He set out to test those limits. He stopped competing full time after 2013. He would chase big waves around the world.
“At some point you have to live your own dreams,” Domke says. “So I started making a lot more movies, made it my new goal to make quality films. I threw those dice a few years ago and it has paid off.”
He wrote down a list. Cyclops in Western Australia, Teaupho’o, Nazaré, and Jaws were on it. He has crossed all of them off after his latest conquest at Jaws in the first week of 2016.
But it was Domke’s performance at Puerto Escondido in July 2014 that first garnered him widespread attention from the surfing community.
The start of the session wasn’t promising. On Domke’s first wave the wall of brown-colored water closed out and left him with no exit. After getting “rag-dolled” in the mountain of whitewater then stuck in a rip current for 40 minutes, Domke finally got back on the Jet Ski and Langer drove back to the beach.
Domke’s response? He wanted another wave.
On the next attempt, Domke pulled into a massive right hand barrel with only the last five inches of his board clinging to the wave. He looked as if he was hovering above the water. Domke heard the wave detonate behind him. He felt the sand from the wave’s spit sting his back, then engulf him in a cloud of vapor. He emerged a second later and rode away unscathed. Once video footage of the wave surfaced, it was deemed the largest ever ridden on a skimboard and earned Domke a finalist nomination for the 2015 Billabong XXL Ride of the Year at the World Surf League Big Wave Awards. The awards were open to waves ridden from March 20, 2014 to March 20, 2015 and feature seven categories ranging from Worst Wipeout to Best Barrel.
Ride of the Year is the most coveted.
When Domke’s wave was displayed on the big screen during the award ceremony at the The Grove in Anaheim, it received the loudest applause. People stood. They hooted and shouted. But Domke didn’t win. He placed fifth. Shane Dorian won for an equally massive wave he paddled into on a 10' 6" surfboard, also in July at Puerto Escondido. Dorian received $50,000. Domke got $1,500.
“Brad’s wave required a helluva lot of technical ability to ride that successfully,” Dorian said in an interview with Surfline when asked if Domke’s wave deserved to be a nominee. “I wouldn’t have included it personally because it’s opening a can of worms. Where do you stop from there?”
Dorian’s opinion echoes the resistance against Domke and the debate surrounding his nomination last year. The criteria for Ride of the Year states it is, “awarded to the individual surfer who demonstrates the most advanced and committed level of big wave surfing during a successful ride, as judged by available video footage.” The type of board or means to catch the wave are not referenced. Still, the argument centers on the difficulty of classifying what Domke does. Is he surfing on a finless board? Tow-skimboarding? Or perhaps skurfing—the hybrid term that Domke occasionally calls his exploits.
Some are in argreement.
“It depends on your definition of surfing,” Snapp, the operations manager for Exile Skimboards, says. “I definitely think he is surfing, just on different equipment.”
“It is definitely finless surfing on a skimboard,” says Garrett McNamara, who set the world record for largest wave surfed in 2013.
Others are not.
When Surfing magazine published on their website one of Domke’s Ride of the Year entries from November at Nazaré, Surfing’s online editor added: “This is impressive. It takes skill. It takes b----. It takes a vision and it takes a whole lot of commitment to see that vision through. But it is not surfing.”
For his part, Domke, who says it’s an “honor” to be nominated for the XXL awards and that Dorian is one his favorite big-wave surfers, seemed confused when questioned about the fuss. “Why shouldn’t skimboaring be included?” he asks. “Just because I decided to not use fins? I just think it’s more fun skimboarding waves like that because it is more challenging.”
No matter what name it goes by, Domke is breaking boundaries. And his style of wave riding might soon be more than a one-man show. Snapp says several pro surfers have inquired about “getting what Brad rides.” Domke swapped boards with Jamie O’Brien on trip to Mexico in December 2014. Even three-time surfing world champion Tom Curren has been spotted in Southern California riding an Exile skimboard that Domke gave him. (Curren added fins to the board).
Domke may have also settled critics’ doubts about his acumen on boards of the finned variety after his trip to Maui. Before pulling out his skimboard and netting another Ride of the Year entry (his fourth), Domke borrowed a 10' 4" surfboard from Francisco Porcella, then paddled into and rode three waves at Jaws—all at least triple overhead.
Perhaps definitions, just like the environment in which Domke says he spends an equal amount of time riding his skimboard and surfboard, are fluid.
“I am a skimboarder and a surfer as well,” he says. “I guess I’d consider myself a multi-boarder.”