The riders, boards in hand, salivate over the skinny water at Clearwater Beach. Soon after, they take off from the sand and sprint toward the water, tossing their skimboards onto the surf, where they spend a good chunk of the day carving up the saltwater foam. As they glide over the froth toward an oncoming wave, the skimboarders produce a jaw-dropping series of moves, mimicking surfers as they carve, flip, slide or rebound off the gentle surf with an acrobatic aerial. They perform in front of an audience that swells to a few hundred spectators during Skimfest, a skimboarding competition held two weeks ago.
Now in its fifth year, Skimfest draws nearly 100 participants. Those numbers speak volumes of the sport's potential.
Though skimboarding has been recognized as a professional sport since the 1980s, it has remained just below the mainstream radar. Its popularity, however, has been growing the past few years with Web sites, magazines and a league (United Skim Tour) devoted to the sport.
"Skimboarding is becoming really big," said Jack Tenney, who won the boys division at this year's Skimfest. "I think it's as big, if not bigger, than surfing here."
Skimboarding was an ultraunderground pastime initially spawned by Laguna Beach, Calif., lifeguards using plywood boards in the 1920s.
Laguna Beach still has a stranglehold on the skimming world, due in large part to the shoreline, where waves come close to the sand before they break.
But the sport started reaching coastal communities across the nation in the 1980s.
Skimboarders popped up more frequently in the Tampa Bay area at that time, though most beaches had ordinances that prohibited the sport while lifeguards were on duty.
Skip Maxwell, a former Clearwater Beach lifeguard, remembers having to shoo away skimboarders.
Now, Maxwell, 39, is the owner of Double Barrel, a store that caters to skaters, surfers and skimboarders.
"Skimboarding is a huge part of business," Maxwell said.
When he opened his shop five years ago, Maxwell said he had about five to eight skimboards in stock. Now, he sells around six skimboards each Saturday during the spring and summer.
The sport's boom in the bay area has a lot to do with the calm water in the Gulf of Mexico, which provides a perfect playground for skimboarders, particularly beginners.
It also is an attractive alternative for surfers, who only have a limited number of days of rideable surf each year.
"Here, you only get about 70-90 days where you can surf," Maxwell said. "Skimboarding is something you can do every day."
Skimboarding is akin to skateboarding on water, involving the three fundamentals of running, dropping and jumping on a kind of finless minisurfboard.
Most beginners ride a thin layer of water atop the wettest sand at the edge of the ocean. This is sometimes referred to as sand skimming.
The more advanced style is wave skimming — the art of running at a shore break, jumping on the board and carving the wave face with tricks.
It's the opposite of surfing, where riders paddle out and ride waves to the shore. Instead, skimboarders ride smack into the teeth of a wave, where they flip the board about-face before coming back to shore.
The pioneers of this aggressive style were located in California, where waves crash onto shore more frequently.
But Florida skimboarders are starting to catch up.
The Tenney brothers — Jack, 14, Turner, 11 and Pierce, 9 — are consumed by skimboarding.
All three were on boards by the time they were 6. And it didn't take long for them to master tricks and dominate competitions.
Turner is ranked No. 1 in his age group by Skim USA. Jack is ranked No. 2 in his.
The crowning moment for the Indian Rocks Beach family came in June when all three brothers competed — and placed — at the Victoria World Championship of skimboarding in Newport, Calif.
Turner won the 9-11 age group and Pierce was second. Jack finished fifth in the 15-17 category.
"It was cool to have all of us place," Turner said. "I don't know if a family has ever done that before."
The Tenneys live on Indian Rocks Beach and are homeschooled, which allows them to custom-fit their schedule around their sport.
"We practice skimboarding every morning," Jack said.
Now the family is branching out. This summer, the brothers started holding a skimboarding camp on the beach, where they handed out skimboards to newcomers and helped teach them the basics of riding along the soft sand.
"We love the sport and it's easy to pick up," Jack said. "I think in time there will be a lot more people who give it a try."
Bob Putnam can be reached at email@example.com.