The Surfboard Leash

Before the leash, you had to be a really strong swimmer to even attempt surfing.

Whatever your stance on the pros/cons of the surf leash, the fact is that the majority of surfers use them and even more surfboard have a method for attaching a leash.

When used properly, the leash is another useful piece of equipment in a surfer’s tool box.

Proper use might be up to interpretation, but I think the proper use of a surf leash could best be summed up like this:

  • Think of your leash as a last resort connection between you and your board – if you’re not sitting on your board or standing on a wave, you should at least have a hand on the board.
  • Don’t use the leash an excuse to ditch your board – especially if there’s anyone in the water with you.

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How Long Should your Surfboard Leash be?

A good length for a leash is about the same size or a little bigger than the board it is being surfed with. If you’re unsure, going with a longer leash than your board is a safer bet.

Too short a leash for your board and you risk the board snapping back and hitting you. Too long a leash and you introduce unnecessary drag and risk your board hitting others.

Leashes also come in various thicknesses.

Most of the time, a thinner leash should suffice – these tend to cause less drag and get tangled less. A thicker leash is a good choice for a surfer who falls a lot and when surfing big, powerful waves.

The majority of surf leashes are worn around the ankle.

Calf leashes are available for longboards and SUPs – these allow for a bit more walkability than an ankle leash.

What leash should you get?

Unless you want to deal with leashes breaking constantly or from normal use, don’t go with a cheap, no-name or knock-off product.

Choose a leash from a decent surf company with a solid reputation to back its products. A lot of the cheap surf leashes you’ll find are all imported from the same handful of factories in China or Taiwan with low-quality materials and cheap construction methods.

You’ll want a leash with quality swivel connections, quality Velcro connections at the cuff and the rail saver, a cuff that will be comfortable as you surf, and leash cord that won’t stretch out too quickly from normal use.

How often should you replace a surf leash?

From normal use, your surfboard leash is going to wear out over time.

How often you should replace it depends on how much you surf it, how often you wipeout and stretch it to its limits, how old it is, and where and how its stored.

Here are some times when you should probably replace your leash:

  • The leash has stretched far past its original length.
  • The velcro closures are no longer effective.
  • The cord has become brittle and/or has developed cracks.
  • You’ve put it through a few full extensions.

You can keep your leash lasting as long as possible by:

  • Avoid stretching it unless you actually wipeout. In most circumstances, you should exit a wave with your board under control or in a way that minimizes the impact it’ll face.
  • Rinse the swivels with fresh water.
  • Keep the velcro connections clean and closed when not in use – try to avoid getting it clogged with sand, dog hair, or other debris.
  • Store it uncoiled and unfolded out of direct sunlight.

Parts of a Surfboard Leash

Surfboard leashes consist of a few components:

  • The cuff: velcro attachment for your ankle or calf.
  • The rail saver: attaches to the leash rope on your board.
  • Swivels: located at the cuff and rail saver to help prevent the leash from tangling.
  • Cord: the “leash” itself.
  • Leash rope: the rope that attaches the leash to your board.

Different types of surfboards also come with different methods for attaching a leash:

  • The leash plug or leash cup: the most common leash attachment – a plastic cup with a metal rod that sits in the surfboard’s deck and gets glassed in.
  • Longboard leash hole: a hole that’s drilled through the fin box to the deck of the surfboard to accept a leash rope.
  • Leash loop: a fiberglass loop made of glass rope to tie a leash rope to.

To attach your leash to your surfboard:

  • Make sure there’s a leash rope threaded through the leash cup or the fiberglass leash loop on your board.
  • Undo the velcro at the bottom of the leash.
  • Thread the first part through, velcro the flap back over itself and repeat until the rail save is back to its closed state.

History of the Leash

The surf leash is a relatively recent surfing invention.

It was introduced in 1971 by Pat O’Neill, son of Jack O’Neill.

O’Neill used a surgical cord attached with a suction cup as an early iteration of the leash. At the 1971 Malibu Invitational surf competition, O’Neill was banned from the competition for his leash. Many referred to the invention as a “kook cord” and believed you had to earn your stripes swimming after your board.

But in Santa Cruz and many other spots in California, a lost surfboard meant an almost certain collision with the rocks. Unless you want to repair your surfboard every time you fell, a leash made a lot of sense.

Shortly after the introduction of the leash, it started to catch on.

It certainly wasn’t perfect – as early iterations of the leash caused injuries and cracked fiberglass – Jack O’Neill actually lost his eye due to a mishap with an early leash.

Leashes got better as materials got better, and we’ve arrived at what you see today.

Leashes certainly helped with surf progression – you’re able to try more critical maneuvers in the same session without having to swim back to the beach every time you fall.

But it also lets surfers get a bit lazy with their swimming strength and gives beginners a temptation to ditch their boards.

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