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Skim City

Published Sep. 1, 2005

Growing up on the beach back in the '70s, summer meant skimboarding.

"That is all we ever did," said Gary Sullivan, 45. "Here on the Gulf Coast, we don't always have waves big enough to surf, so skimming is the next best thing."

Back then, every kid wanted a Juan Rodriguez "Western Flyer," a wooden/fiberglass composite disc-shaped board that would be launched down the beach like a Frisbee.

"We would try to do as many 360s as we could," said Sullivan, who owns Florida Oceansports, a surf/skateshop in downtown St. Petersburg. "The main thing was to just fly down the beach as fast and as far as you could go."

But in the 30 years since Sullivan was sliding down Sarasota's Lido Beach, skimboards have changed.

"They are much more like a surfboard," Sullivan said. "They float better which makes them a heck of a lot faster."

Sullivan, who still surfs and rides a skateboard, recently found out the hard way just how technologically advanced skimboards have become.

"I took one of the new boards and launched it down the beach," Sullivan said. "It just disappeared. . . . No way I could catch it."

On his second attempt, Sullivan hopped on the skimboard, but this time, he went flying.

"Hairline fracture to my wrist," he said. "Lesson learned. . . . Big guys and skimboards don't go together."

But Steve Levine, whose Largo-based Watersports West sells a variety of "extreme" water equipment including kite boards and wake skates, said the new compression-molded fiberglass skimboards can accommodate any type of rider.

"I had a guy in the other day who was in his mid 40s," Levine said. "He wanted a skimboard so he could go out and ride with his 10-year-old son."

The skimboarding craze is said to have started in 1920s California, when a group of Laguna Beach lifeguards began skimming along the waterline on pieces of plywood. Over the years, skimboarding evolved, as did its sister sport of surfing.

"Today's skimboards are much more like surfboards than they are like the old skimboards," said Levine, who sells everything from introductory "door skin" models for $35 to "super floaters" that cost more than $200. "The kids today are no longer content with just riding down the beach," he said. "They want to catch waves, just like surfers do."

Bruce Davies, whose Island Shop on Indian Rocks Beach caters to both skimmers and surfers, said the sport is exploding.

"Skimming is on fire," Davies said. "I can't keep enough of them in the store."

Davies said most youngsters try skimboarding before they move on to surfing.

"It is a young person's sport," he said. "Don't try it if you are over 35. I did, and it hurts. It hurts real bad."

Levine recommends kids start off on a basic, wooden board.

"You begin by riding on your hands and knees," he said. "Then, once they get a little confidence, they can try to stand up."

While Laguna Beach is still considered the spiritual mecca for skimboarding, Florida's Gulf Coast has more skim enthusiasts than any other place in the country.

"We have the beaches for it," said Sullivan of Florida Oceansports. "From Naples to the Panhandle, there are plenty of spots vying for the title Skim City U.S.A."

Trevor Scott, an 18-year-old from Tampa who rides for Treasure Island's Suncoast Surf Shop, said youngsters who pick up the sport should not get discouraged.

"It takes time before you can do any tricks," he said. "That first year, your hands just get killed. We call it giving a skin donation."

But once you get the hang of it, an experienced skimboarder can catch rides of 10 seconds or more, which compares to what you might get on a surfboard.

"It helps to be in good shape," said Scott, a high school track star who can run a 5-minute mile. "Speed is important. But so is endurance. On a typical day, we might run six or seven miles skimming."

That's why so many parents don't mind buying skimboards, Levine said.

"It keeps kids busy, especially during the summer," Levine said. "After a good skim session, they'll sleep good at night."

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