Surfboard leashes have not been around forever, in fact they were invented in 1971 by Pat O’Neill, son of wetsuit inventor Jack O’Neill. Early leashes were made of surgical tubing, and as the story goes, Jack O’Neill lost his eye due to the leash flinging the board back at him.
Today’s leashes are made of a urethane cord and are a bit safer, but there are still some dangers you should be aware of. We’ll also cover buying, using, and storing a leash.
Leashes (sometimes referred to as a legrope) are a handy invention that allows you to completely wipe out and not have to swim back to shore to get your board. The leash can also save boards from crashing onto boulders, jetties, or rocky shorelines.
The leash will often save you from a long swim, which is helpful at breaks where the waves are a long way from shore. Sometimes breaks can be a half mile paddle from shore!
Surfboard Leashes also aid somewhat in safety by allowing you to kick the board away from you if you know you’re going to wipe out. You should always try to maintain direct control of your board at all times and not rely on the leash, but if you’re going to go over the falls I wouldn’t recommend trying to hold onto the board.
In addition, surfboard leashes should always be worn at crowded or semi-crowded breaks. There’s nothing worse than seeing an abandoned longboard flying at you at 10000 miles per hour. Some towns even have laws that require the use of leashes.
The leash is NOT a lifesaving device. Surfboard leashes can and do break, even on small days. When you’re surfing, ALWAYS make sure you have the ability to swim back to shore. In addition, don’t surf to the point of exhaustion. Always make sure you have enough energy to swim back to shore in case your leash breaks. Call it a day just before that swim to shore looks like it would be too much for you. There will always be more waves. Safety is the most important thing out in the ocean, and you must always be able to rely on your swimming ability.
In case the leash does break, don’t panic! Panic makes all situations worse. Just relax, and tell yourself it might take a little while, but the waves are going to help you back in.
- If you start to panic, take a moment to relax yourself. Smile and tell yourself you can handle it.
- Use your legs if your arms are tired. Use a breaststroke to conserve energy.
- You can tread water using an eggbeater kick to check your bearings.
- Use the waves! Just bodysurf in to shore.
- Don’t fight the current. If you sense that you’re stuck in a rip current, swim parallel to shore to get out of it.
- Know the currents at your local break.
It might help to surf a few times without a leash to get used to holding on to your board and swimming after it if you lose it. Make sure you do this at an uncrowded beach!! Do NOT attempt this in a crowd. I’d also do this with a few friends or lifeguards around in case something weird happens.
PS—make sure you can swim! If you don’t have the basics of swimming, I’d recommend taking some swim lessons at your local University or YMCA/Rec Center. You’ll have a lot more confidence in the water, and be a safer surfer.
On occasion surfboard leashes will get tangled around something on the sea floor, such as a reef protrusion. In such situations it’s important to be able to release the leash from your leg. Don’t get a leash that has more than one Velcro flap or something that seems complicated. You don’t want to have an unbreakable connection to your board. You should be able to easily take off your leash with one hand in one motion.
Surfboard leashes do not give you a license to ditch your board all the time. This is a habit I think most surfers are guilty of at least occasionally (including myself), and it’s a bad one. When you let go of your board it is capable of seriously injuring or dinging the boards of anyone in your vicinity. Think about it this way: if you have a 10’ leash and a 10’ longboard, that is a 20’ radius circle of death and destruction for other innocent surfers. That is a big area, and at a crowded break it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll hit someone.
Sometimes—and I mean only sometimes, in the most dire emergencies—it’s ok to ditch your board if the lip of a wave is about to guillotine you. You better check behind you before you do this. I’ll admit to letting my board thrash around at the end of my leash if I can’t get it safely under control when I’m stuck inside after a wave. If nobody is around you, you can take the risk. Just beware that surfboards are heavy, and leashes are elastic. That brings us to our next warning:
Surfboard leashes can and will cause the board to rubber-band back at you, hitting you in the face. If the leash is pulled to its limit, sometimes the board will come shooting back at you fins first. This is not a good situation! When you surface for air, try to get into the habit of shielding your head with your arms.
I would also advise against trying to hold onto the leash with your hands in medium to large waves. This is a good way to hurt your fingers.
If you’re having trouble getting your board through the whitewater and breaking waves, check out our guide to duckdiving and the turtle-roll.
Buying a Leash
OK, now that I’ve told you all the dangers of surfboard leashes, here’s how to pick one out!
Use a leash length that’s approximately equal to or slightly longer than your board length. If you’re at the 6” mark, I’d round up. If you have a 6’6” board, I’d recommend a 7’ leash. A 7’8” board would use an 8’ leash.
You don’t want your leash too long—it will drag in the water and slow you down. You also don’t want it too short. A 6’ leash on a longboard is a scary proposition!
Comp or competition surfboard leashes are thinner than normal, and are designed for surfing in competitions where leash breakage is not as important as decreasing the drag incurred by the leash.
I’d say if you’re on a shortboard in waves up to about head high or a little bigger, get a comp leash. You don’t really need all that thickness and with that thickness they tend to have the dreaded leg wrap problem. But if you’re a beginner on a 7’8” funboard, skip the comp leash and get the regular kind.
There are several brands of surfboard leashes out there, but I would invest a couple extra dollars and get a well constructed one. Dakine and FCS make great leashes. Check the leash to see if it is well stitched and the ankle part looks comfy. Also check to make sure the leash has swivel points where the cuff connects to the leash and where the leash connects to the rail saver. This helps reduce tangling. Rail savers are also a necessity, although I haven’t really seen a leash without one. Rail savers are nylon sections designed to protect the rail of your board from being dug into by the leash on a hard wipeout.
This is completely up to you! Black leashes can get wax on them and start to look gunky, so you might want a clear leash.
Some surfboard leashes come with a key pocket. This isn’t really a dire need, so if it has one great, but I wouldn’t sweat it if it doesn’t. Often wetsuits and boardshorts have key pockets. If you really must have it, check to make sure there the leash has one before you buy since they don’t come standard.
Using the Leash
Attaching the leash to your board is easy. Surfboard leashes come with a piece of nylon string attached to the end of the rail saver. I usually tie this piece of string into a loop by putting the two ends together and tying them into a simple knot. Then I thread the looped end into the leash plug and pull tight. (see pictures) This way, the stress of the leash is not put directly on a knot which could come undone. The knot must be big enough to not slide through the leash plug, however.
If your leash plug is near the edge of your board, make sure the nylon loop isn’t too long. If it hangs over the rail it could cause damage. The rail saver should rest on the rail.
When you’re ready to surf, lay the board on the sand and gently pull the leash all the way out away from your board to uncoil it and to make it doesn’t have any twists or loops that could get in your way. Attach the leash to your rear leg. If you’re regular foot, put the leash on your right foot. If you’re goofy, put it on your left leg.
Surfboard leashes have a tendency to mysteriously wrap themselves around your leg if you’re not paying attention. This is annoying but hard to avoid completely. As you’re sitting waiting for the waves, just reach back and lift the leash out of the water to untangle it and make sure it’s not wrapping around anything or coiling up. This will gradually become second nature when you sense the leash acting up.
Storing Surfboard Leashes
It’s common to wrap surfboard leashes around the tail of the board, just in front of the fins. I wouldn’t recommend doing this, however. If you wrap the leash tightly all the time, kinks develop in the leash and the next time you go surfing you’ll find that it’s constantly wrapping around your leg. It really sucks when you’re about to take off on a perfect wave with everyone watching, only to have it ruined by the leash getting in the way! The constant contact with the sharp fins can also damage the leash and make it more likely to break.
When you’re done surfing, just stuff leash in your boardbag along with the board or remove it and coil it neatly in your bag. Just don’t forget to bring it with you on your next surf!