Photo by Tyler Brooks
Hailing from California in the 1970s, skimboarding has become deeply rooted in Dewey Beach culture and within these Delaware boarders’ lives.
Lucas McCoy was checking in from Hawaii, where he and his brother Sam were living for a few months while the weather on the East Coast was cold, and the waves in the Pacific were tasty. He would be back in Delaware “by the Fourth of July,” though. Count on that.
The McCoy brothers spent their childhood summers with their parents in Dewey Beach, where they learned to skimboard. In fact, that’s where a lot of people first encountered the sport. And even though the Hawaii and California skim communities are “pretty cool,” the McCoys will always be Delaware skimmers.
“The Delaware skimboarding scene is very unique,” says McCoy, who is now a professional. “I’ve been to a lot of places and a lot of great skimboarding towns. But Dewey Beach is small, and everybody knows everybody. There’s a family vibe and a lot of history. A lot of the older guys are still around.”
Skimboarding in Delaware is a community affair—and a generational one. McCoy’s father, Harry, is on the Mount Rushmore of the state’s skim culture, and Lucas and his brother have had success skimming all over the world. From the groms to the pros, skimming is a way of life for many in the First State, which has become the East Coast’s capital for the sport.
One big example of that is the 39th Zap Pro/Am World Champions of Skimboarding, to be held August 13–15 in Dewey Beach. Skimmers from all over the country and around the world will convene for a weekend of tricks, competitions and aquatic fraternity (and sorority) that serves as the perfect end to the summer and further establishes the state as the place to be for those looking to practice, view, enjoy and live the sport.
“I feel like skimmers are unique people,” says Jason Wilson, a professional skimboarder with Zap Skimboards and owner of Alley Oop, which provides camps, lessons and training for fledgling skimmers. “It’s kind of like small niche sports. It takes a certain person to notice it and get into it.
“Skimming is a pretty technical sport. The people who get into it are technical thinkers.”
Skimboarding is still something of a hidden pursuit. Just about everybody is familiar with surfing, but the skim world is not nearly as developed—although anybody who ventures to the beaches in Dewey and Bethany after the lifeguards pack up for the day would be convinced that just about everybody is involved in it.
The sport emerged in Hawaii when kids would pick up pieces of broken surfboards and zip along the shore and into waves in the shallow water. Its roots in Delaware date back to the late ’70s, where Harry Wilson’s Sandpiper Skimboards first sold, and then later manufactured equipment for kids and young adults who were discovering the sport. Since then, it has ballooned in Delaware, and some of the top competitors, including John Weber, have slid for the first time across the wet sand along Delaware beaches.
Corey Mahoney is close friends with Jason Wilson, and the two started running skimboarding camps in 2000. They started the Alley Oop Surf Shop in Dewey in 2007, and even though the store closed in 2014, the longtime friends continue to play large roles in the state’s skim scene. Although Mahoney is a full-time real estate agent now and he leaves the business of the sport to his pal, he remains connected and understands the importance of the sport to the state’s beach towns.
Dewey Beach’s first mayor, Bruce Vavala, had a son who started skimming when he was about 3 years old. He was friends with Mahoney and Wilson and grew up with the sport as they did.
“It’s a tight-knit community,” Mahoney says. “Skimboarding is a big deal [here].”
And the culture is booming with youngsters—or “groms” in the parlance— grabbing boards as early as 5 or 6 years old and creating a new generation of sliders and wave jockeys looking to embrace Delaware’s spin on what some consider to be a West Coast phenomenon. But check the roster at the Zap championship and you’ll see that the California crowd, along with skimmers from Florida, Brazil and maybe even Australia, has made the scene on Dewey. Thanks to social media, the skim gospel is spreading. Where once kids had to watch the same VHS tapes and DVDs over and over to get a fix for big-time maneuvers, they can now check out Instagram and YouTube to get daily doses of the good stuff.
“It’s constant,” McCoy says. “Kids can watch skimboarders doing new tricks on waves every day. It keeps them wanting to get better and to compete more.”
When Harry Wilson started selling skimboards back in the mid-1970s, he wasn’t exactly peddling state-of-the-art equipment.
“It was caveman-style stuff,” he says. “People were using wooden, round boards and just sliding across the shore. It was nothing like today.”
That’s for certain. Today’s skimboards have foam cores that allow riders to get off the ground and into—and above—waves. Unlike surfers, who ride waves into the shore, skimboarders run toward the waves and unfurl a collection of spins, twists and other tricks. That product innovation turned the pursuit from one that was just a fun back-and-forth along the shoreline to one that encompasses characteristics from a variety of extreme sports.
“I would say that skimboarding combines the technical maneuverability of a skateboard with the wave riding of a surfboard and the aerial components of a snowboard,” explains Sydney Pizza, a Bethesda, Maryland, native who skims at Dewey Beach in summers and is the top female amateur on the East Coast. “If you saw that, you would be drawn to it.”
At the time when skimboarding was in its prehistoric stages, Harry Wilson owned a surf shop in Dewey and started selling plastic-coated boards made by Bon-Aire Industries. In 1977, when Bon-Aire won a contract to make every plastic piece for GM cars, it no longer had time to make skimboards. Wilson bought the molding the company used and started building the Sandpiper Skimboards behind his store. “We did well for a long time,” he says.
Although the plastic versions weren’t all that much better than their wooden ancestors, they allowed for more lift and therefore better tricks than just some spins and hops. By the mid-’80s, foam boards made their debuts in Laguna Beach, California, and so did competitions that allowed skimmers to show off their skills at higher levels. Wilson adjusted his manufacturing process to accommodate the foam innovation, and the better boards helped create a more vibrant skim scene on the Delaware beaches. It also added some jet fuel to the East Coast Skimboard Championships, which he created in 1982. “We put a grand name on it, so people would think it was big,” he says.
The competition helped establish Dewey Beach as the place to be on the East Coast for skimming. It was fun to watch the competitors break out their new moves and tricks, but the camaraderie and sense of community were even more important. Since there was little ability to see what was going on at beaches in other parts of the country and the world, bringing together a large group of skimboarders allowed people to compare notes, see a variety of equipment and gear and just hang out with like-minded people in a place where what was niche to others was perfectly ordinary.
“It was eye-opening for us,” Wilson says.
In an attempt to bring some order to a sport that thrived on its casual approach, Wilson started Skim USA. Through it, he was able to help skimmers from Delaware and up and down the coast find competitions and also develop their skills so that they could head west and thrive out there. He likens the successes they enjoyed to the story of 11-time Association of Surfing Professionals world champion Kelly Slater, the Florida native who became perhaps the most dominant surfer of all time by whipping the California, Hawaii and international crowds, despite not coming from an area known for its monster waves.
After Wilson gave up the administration of Skim USA, his daughter, Amanda, took over. At the end of the 2019 skim season, Toby West inherited the top spot and is now working to bring the skimboard phenomenon to as many people as possible. The 47-year-old grew up on the West Coast and in Hawaii but now lives in Rehoboth Beach. He has been skimboarding for more than 30 years and still competes.
“Our goal is to grow the sport of skimboarding and to give a place for kids to have a home in the sport,” West says.
West offers three reasons for why he believes his goal is attainable. The first is that the restrictions put on gathering by officials during the COVID-19 pandemic has created a substantial hunger among skimboarders. As people hit the beaches again in large numbers, it’s natural that the numbers of skimmers will grow. Second, skimboarding is a relatively inexpensive sport to get involved with. Boards can be had for less than $100, and there isn’t anything else necessary for someone to get started. Finally, as professional skateboarders promote themselves—and are promoted by their sponsors—on social media and YouTube, excitement for the sport is building, something that should inspire newcomers to join the fun.
West is putting a lot of effort into modernizing Skim USA’s approach to promoting the sport. He is quick to praise Wilson’s work and the way he helped the organization grow. West wants to formalize Skim USA’s structure to make sure its rules and regulations are standardized and easy to access, and that the website is simple to navigate and contains all the information necessary to help competitors learn about opportunities. He also wants to help sponsors understand what is available to them, so that they will be able to participate and to help the sport grow.
“We want to take everything that Harry did so well and make it more formal,” West says. “That will bring more sponsors to the sport, which will bring more kids.”
If Sydney Pizza needed a reminder about the family atmosphere that pervades skimboarding, she received it in 2019, when she and two other skimboarders traveled to Shizuoka, on Japan’s Honshu coast, to compete in the Beach Clean Cup Contest, which combined competition with environmental awareness. All of the Americans placed in the top four in their divisions, with Pizza finishing third in the open group.
While it was fun for the skimmers to carve it up in another country, the most edifying part of the trip came the day before the competition began at the “family dinner” for participants.
“Some of the people at the meal traveled 2 1/2 and three hours to meet us and talk to us,” Pizza says. “It was so cool.”
There is great camaraderie in many other sports, but skimboarders are not just competitors. They are ambassadors who try to grow the pursuit by reaching out to others and helping them become more comfortable, successful and enthusiastic about skimming. Perhaps there will come a day when the sport turns more cutthroat—and those who compete do so solely to win, not just have a good time—but for now, every new participant is a welcome addition and a sign that growth is occurring.
Because of that, it’s not uncommon to see pros taking a few minutes to pass along some pointers to the groms who are merely trying to stay on boards while they slide across the shoreline. They share their tricks to build their brands but also to generate excitement. For Pizza, a female in a male-dominated sport, it’s even more important to reach out. At the end of the summer in 2018, Alex Yokley, a successful skimmer from Washington, D.C., who spends summers in Dewey, organized a girls-only skim session. About a dozen youngsters attended and enjoyed learning from some accomplished skimmers and having a good time.
“A lot of girls want to participate, but they get spooked,” Pizza says. “They’re afraid to fall in front of the boys. This was great. We all just had fun.”
One person who is clearly enjoying the skimboarding life is John Weber, who grew up in Lewes and started skimming on a boogie board when he was a tiny grom. At 10, he acquired the real thing and has been attached to the sport ever since. He and a crew of about 10 other kids were inseparable during the summers and could always be found on their boards in the water.
Weber started competing at age 13 at an event in North Carolina and has been all over the East Coast and just about anywhere else there are waves. “I’ve been in every ocean but the Arctic,” he says. Weber turned pro when he was 17 and has lived in California for the past eight years, where he works on a charter boat. And skims. A lot.
“I like skimming more than surfing, because you need a decent-sized wave to surf, but when you’re skimming, you can use any wave and do it every day,” he says.
When Weber was 16, he won his division at the East Coast Championships and the semipro competition. Four years ago, he finished first in a contest in Cabo San Lucas. He’s sponsored by Victoria Skimboards, and though he’s 26, he doesn’t have any plans to slow down. “I skim with people out here who are in their late 40s,” he says. “They skim as much as I do.” Even though Weber surfs a lot these days—not competitively—he remains hooked on skimboarding.
“The speed is what does it for me,” he says. “In surfing, if you have a small wave, it’s tough to generate speed. In skimming, you can run into the wave at about 10 or 15 miles per hour and bring speed into the wave.”
The adrenaline rush is great, but at its core, skimboarding is fun. It’s a great way for kids to embrace the beach life, make friends and stay active. As they progress and compete, they can get more serious, and if sponsors start sniffing around, the pressure grows a bit. But this a unique community has grown along Delaware’s coast, and thanks to the efforts of many, it’s expanding.
“It’s growing by leaps and bounds,” Skim USA’s West says. “It’s so wonderful to see. The sport has a great future. I’m 47, and I still go to the beach and skim and compete. I’m always seeing who the new kids are. There are more out there than I have seen in years.”