A complete guide to surfboard leashes

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A surfboard leash or leg rope is the urethane cord that ties the surfboard tail to the back foot of the surfer. The leash prevents the board from being swept to shore when the surfer loses control of it. Uncontrolled surfboards are a risk to everyone in the lineup, and surfboard leashes are considered to be essential gear for most surfers. There are, however, some groups of surfers – usually long-boarders and other types of retro surf-craft connoisseurs – who deem the use of a leg rope an unforgivable violation of the “core” laws of surfing.

And this is because surfing started far earlier than leg ropes came into the picture. Moreover, when they first appeared were thought of as dangerous. Early legropes would bounce the board after being pulled by a wave, somewhat like a bungee, creating a hazard for the surfer.

The history of surfboard leashes

What we know as “modern surfing” was practiced for about one hundred years before the invention of the leg rope. In earlier times, everybody surfed leggie-less (without a leg-rope), risking losing their board, which would encourage everyone to keep as much control of their boards as possible and be avid swimmers (something which is less common nowadays). The ambition for riding big waves in more dangerous spots pushed some pioneers to start attaching their boards to themselves.

Data, pre-1920s, shows surfers trying to attach themselves to surfboards. This image shows surfer Major Nigel Oxenden with his board attached via a cord to a leather belt around his waist. We can also find reports of Aussie surfers using other materials for the same purpose.

In 1971 a young Pat O’Neill bravely jumped into a contest in Malibu with his version of the legrope, made of surgical tubing that would attach to his wrist and his board with a suction cup. The invention was so unpopular, it was labeled “the kook cord”. But unpopularity came with a reason. 

As mentioned earlier, the novel prototypes of the legrope were considered more dangerous than not using one at all. The recoil of the materials used would make the board bounce dangerously. Did you ever wonder why Jack O’Neill wore an eyepatch? 

No, he was not trying too hard to pull off the pirate look. He did lose an eye in 1973 while using one of these devices, and there are records that he was not the only one who suffered one of these vile surfboard attacks.

Despite not having early success, the O’Neill family saw the potential of this piece of hardware in surfing, therefore patenting the invention and finally regarding Pat O’Neill as the first person to ever sell a legrope.

By the mid-1970s, models made of rope or tube and with velcro straps were widely available, and by 1977 a version of the urethane legrope was patented by Aussie David Hattrick, starting the transition into the almost indispensable use of a leg-rope. This same year, legropes got banned during the final of Allan Oke on Philip Island. Their stance on legropes was made “clearer” if needed by publishing a picture of Wayne Lynch riding a barrel switch-footed, and of course, leggie-less. But the advantages of using a legrope were undeniable.

Surfers were not scared to lose their boards anymore, far more dangerous spots got surfed more progressively. The time spent on waves increased due to surfers didn’t have to collect their boards from the shore anymore. The modern version of the urethane legrope came to be. The recoil was fixed, made lighter, and less disturbing during the surf. 

We can all agree that the general use of a legrope is a far safer scenario than the apocalyptic image of our lineups today if there wasn’t such a thing. But as mentioned earlier, there are still pockets of surfers who will practice and encourage surfing (usually longboards) leggie-less.

Mainly, the purpose of this is to keep an aesthetic true to classical surfing, as well as the logical necessity of freedom needed to walk gracefully on a 9,0 log. Some argue that (leashless surfing) should not be allowed or that at least you should take some responsibility for the damage your board could cause, but in most breaks nowadays, you could still get hurt by many surfers despite them wearing a legrope (we can all think of a couple of faces now). In the end, everyone should be respectful and responsible while surfing, but I also rather watch longboarding clips where a python-thick legrope isn’t flying between the surfer’s legs.

This is the actual debate on leg ropes on this side of surfing. While lawyers in Byron Bay advertise counseling in leash-less related injuries (as seen in Stab Mag), “cool dads” like (legend) Joel Tudor applaud the leash-less use of longboards, as he expressed in his recent Instagram post (@joeljitsu). 

How surfboard leashes work

Many would think that attaching and using a legrope is a pretty straightforward activity. Some could even argue that if you have to look up how to use a legrope, perhaps you shouldn’t surf at all… Nothing further from the truth. 

In reality, there are some nuances to using a legrope, which if not aware of, could lead you or your surfboard to serious damage. With the “boom” of surfing in the last years, we can simultaneously see growth in YouTube tutorials related to surfing, and a portion of them explain how to use a legrope the right way. 

Despite the amount of surf content available, I have found that most of these tutorials focus on only one of the few instructions for using a legrope and fail to mention the ones that could harm the surfer.

1.   Put your legrope on your back foot!

This might be the most obvious thing to say about a legrope, but I think if you surfed for long enough, you have probably seen someone opting for their other leg instead (or their arm…). We want to put the leash on the back foot for obvious reasons. It’s the place of our body that will stay the closest to the leash plug, therefore, the leash will disturb us the least while surfing.

It is worth mentioning that it will also be helpful to tie the legrope kinda tight around your ankle and point towards the outside of your leg. This will prevent the legrope from tangling around your other foot so often.

2.   The cord must not touch the rail!

This means that when you attach the Velcro strap to your board, you should ensure it’s tight enough to your surfboard, so this is the only part of the legrope (and cord) that is in contact with your board when being pulled. This velcro strap is commonly known as the “Rail Saviour”, can you guess why? Well, if the cord is touching the rail of your board, you are at risk of the cord encrusting in the rail of your board, causing a ding that you probably shouldn’t be repairing yourself…

If you research online, you’ll find that this is the main subject when looking for a tutorial on how to use your legrope; and it feels like all the people who got their boards busted by the cord are the ones who are now making these tutorials on how to correctly do it. It was surprising to me to see the number of videos all referring to this same “trick tip”, cause the truth is that if you pay attention there are more people in the line-up exposing their boards to this danger than you might think.

3.   If you are going to jog wearing your leash, hold it with your hand!

Once again, this might seem to many as an obvious thing to do, but if you don’t know, I guess you just don’t know… Running with your leash flying and shaking from your leg is like playing Russian roulette with your board every time you rush to the beach. The risk here is to suffer a pretty shameful dive, that will end with either sand in your mouth or worse, your teeth on your board. In this situation, we also need to count the spectator factor, it’s never a good start to the session to hear the laugh of that group of boys/girls that just saw your belly flop like a seal into the sand.

4.   NEVER hold your leash! (especially when your board is pulled by a wave)

I consider this the most important rule, and surprisingly, it is the one I came across the least when doing a bit of research regarding legrope usage information. It’s also something I have come to find is often forgotten to warn the newcomers in surf schools.

Waves are powerful, and even when we are in small surf, the weight of the water pulling your board is enough to snap your finger. It doesn’t mean that every time you try to hold your board this way, the legrope will immediately snap your fingers, but it does propose a real risk, and of course, the more you do this, the more you expose your fingers to this unnecessary danger.

If you keep losing your board and you are scared to hit anybody around you, getting better at controlling your board is a far better solution than playing “tug of war” with the sea. You will lose.

If you want to see the real image, here’s the link: 

         Snapped fingers by legropes

5.   Few more things to mention…

Like any surfing hardware, it will last longer if we rinse it with fresh water. It will also last longer if we avoid wrapping it around the surfboard or in a knot. And last, remember to replace your leash every time it feels over-stretchy/ed.

How to choose a surfboard leash

Out of all the hardware surfers we need to acquire, the legrope might be the easiest thing to choose. The selection process will entirely depend on the board size you are riding. Although, if you are an experienced surfer looking to minimize weight and drag, or someone that rides bigger waves, you will also pay attention to the thickness of the leash.

Besides this exception, when looking for a legrope we will likely just check the length, which must always be the same as the length of the board, or at most 2 inches longer.

(Example: for a 6,0 we will use a 6,0 – 6,2 leash. For a 7,0 we will use a 7,0 – 7,2 leash)

As easy as essential. A leash that is any longer or shorter, than the length recommended for your board could lead to your board ending up dangerously close to you or others.

Now, if you walk into your local surf shop (or online surf shop), you might feel overwhelmed by the amount of choice (like with any other piece of hardware). If you research all different brands and models, they will all feature different materials and technologies, each more innovative and futuristic than the last. After the research, it might appear as if the leash you choose will make a drastic difference in your surf. Not true…

As the average surfer, you only need to get the right size and be sure you are buying it from a legitimate surf shop. Besides that, I recommend you pick the brand you like the most or the one that sponsors the surfers you like. This helps those brands and surfers to continue doing what we enjoy about them. The difference in price between one leash and another is almost meaningless compared to the price of a surfboard.

I hope this gives you a better idea of how to use a surf leash, but eventually, practice makes perfect, and like most of us, it will take you to break your board or fall on the way to the shore a couple of times before you implement these tips. In the end, whether you are wearing a legrope or not, remember to be safe and respectful wherever you surf!

Dakine Kaimana Pro Comp Leash