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The Ultimate Guide to Surfboard Leashes

History, parts, types, and sizing of surfboard leashes explained

I always forget my leash when my stoke levels are through the roof. Maybe the surf cam looked insanely promising, maybe I haven't surfed in a week, or maybe (aka certainly) the thrill of surfing simply never expires with time.

Regardless of the cause for elevated excitement, it is inevitable that every so often as boards get tossed into the car, the mind forgets to complete the full circle ‘do I have everything I need?’ checklist and the leash is then left behind.

It is with these no leash circumstances that I realize just how much I appreciate the rather straightforward concept that is the ‘surfboard leash’, and the extent to which it allows me to maintain comfortability in big conditions while granting more surf and less swim time.

And because surfboard leashes have evolved to such an innovative extent since their initial conception, they are an equipment piece beyond worthy and essential to take the time to answer the questions of:

When were surfboard leashes invented?

What are the different parts of a surfboard leash?

What are the different kinds of surfboard leashes?

How do I size a surfboard leash?

mick fanning surfboard leash guide
Mick Fanning with his Creatures of Leisure Leash

A Brief History of the Surfboard Leash

Can you imagine being deemed a total kook if you chose to wear a leash? Because honestly, I can't wrap my head around surfing certain conditions without one.

But that was the just the way it was when Pat O'Neill (yep, son of Jack O’Neill, the same O'Neill legacy who brought us wetsuits and the surf brand ‘O’Neill’ we now know and love) first commercialised the surfboard leash in the 1970’s.

Although there are debates over who really invented it. According to the Encyclopedia of Surfing, the first recording of someone utilizing the idea of securing a surfboard to the body was when Tom Blake decided to tie a piece of cotton rope to his belt and his board in the 1930’s. As you can expect it didn't gain traction and the idea got tossed aside.

This was followed up with a few other surfer inspired takes on creating a leash, everything maintained the same scheme of trial, error, and getting tossed out the window as none of the initial leashes caught on until Pat showed up to the Malibu invitational with a suction cup on the nose of his board and a rope tied to his wrist. Not only did he think that his invention would help with keeping the board close after a wipeout, he actually thought he could use the leverage from the tension of the rope to help intensify his cutbacks.

Hit with the nickname “kook-cord’ as surfers at the time believed leashes actually made surfing more dangerous, and there was indeed some truth to that. The first surfboard leashes were crafted from stretchy materials (think surgical cord or rubber) that often made the board ricochet back from elasticity and smack ya clean in the nose. In fact, Jack O'Neill has worn an eye patch ever since the day his son’s own creation backfired and his surfboard bounced back from the leash tension and took his eye clean out.

Just as well, surfers thought that the leash would make us weak and pitiful swimmers, and with stubborn pride they refused and neglected the idea of the leash.

But as time progressed, and as surfboard leash technology improved, about came the realization that a good leash actually makes surfing safer, and it allows us to push our limits in the most intimidation of situations by acting as our modern day lifeline in the ocean.

Left: The first attempt to commercialise the leash was infact from the nose and wrist. | Right: Ever wonder why the iconic Jack O'Neill wore an eye-patch? It involves the same style leash from the previous image.

The Parts of a Surfboard Leash

parts of a surfboard legrope

The Cuff

The cuff is the velcro attachment that straps around your ankle to secure the leash to your body. Oftentimes featured with a key pocket so that you don't have to stash your key in the sand while surfing, but don't try stuffing your push to start fob down in there…

The Cord

The cord is basically the leash itself. The long, usually polyurethane piece that attaches the leash to the cuff and also to the rail saver so that you can then attach it to the board.

The Rail Saver & Leash rope

The rail saver is the piece that attaches the leash to the leash rope. Usually made of a thick and protective fabric secured with velcro, rail savers are designed to be the part of the leash that gets tugged on your surfboard tail when a wave is pulling it. By being thick and soft, This prevents the leash itself from slicing through the delicate tail of surfboards by placing the pressure on the thick surface area and soft fabric that is the rail saver.

The rail saver is strapped around the leash rope, which is the little (but super strong) rope that is knotted into your leash plug so that you have a viable place to strap your rail saver into, thus attaching the leash to the board.

PRO TIP: Avoid the leash rope being too long and touching your rails. This is what the rail saver is designed for. The rail saver will help you avoid damaging the tail of your board by pulling the leash rope into it.

how to set up a surfboard leg rope

The Swivel

The best way to describe a swivel is to compare it to a joint. The leash swivel is a small piece that attaches the cord to the cuff that is designed to give the leash and your ankle an entirely free range of motion. It prevents the leash from getting tangled from certain movements by allowing the cord to move freely from the cuff. If a leash doesn't have a swivel, you probably dont want that leash.

A single swivel will feature one of these joints where the cord meets the cuff, whereas some leashes feature a multiple swivel. Multiple swivels attach to the cord to the cuff and also the cuff to the rail saver, creating the highest extent possible in free ranging movement.

What are the Different Kinds of Surfboard Leashes and How Thick Should My Leash Be?

With advancing technology the surfboard leash has become extremely specific, and oftentimes if you are shopping for a leash you will notice the different kinds of leashes are broken down into:

Competition (Comp) Leash

Pro Leash

Regular (all around) Leash

Longboard (calf) Leash

Big Wave Leash

The category or name that a leash falls under is derived from the thickness in millimeters of the leash itself, and if you are unsure of what type of leash is best for you and your surfing, it boils down to both your skill levels and types of waves you are riding.

When answering how thick a leash should be, to summarize simply: the bigger the wave, the thicker the leash. And the more performance you seek, the thinner the leash! But let's get into these specific types of surfboard leashes a little bit more in depth to help direct your leash choice with definitive knowledge.

Competition leashes

When a 0.10 score can make all the difference in your surfing career, it is essential that every single piece of your equipment is optimized to the highest performance extent. A competition leash was designed for smaller wave, high performance surfing. They are only 1/5" in (5mm) thick, and this is because when performing big turns or airs, the leash creates a drag that can affect even the most minuscule of movements, so less leash equals less drag!

It's true, you don't have to be competing to appreciate the thin and unnoticeable nature of a competition leash, and a lot of good surfers go for this when enjoying playful and small conditions. But as soon as the waves get big, considering you do not have a jet ski team waiting by for rescue as they do in a lot of competitions, then you should think about upping that leash thickness to prevent any snapping.

If you feel that your skill sets are ready for a comp leash, look no further than the sleek Comp Essential leashes from FCS.

Pro Leashes

The reason pro leashes came about was to provide really talented surfers with a leash that does not compromise safety while being as absolutely thin and out of the way as possible. For the same performance reasons of why a competition leash is made thin, a pro leash is as well.

However, the cord of a pro leash will generally be 6mm thick to provide surfers a little bit more reliability when surfing bigger waves. For reference, check out the leg ropes from the rad team at Sympl Supply Co.

It is also suggested that pro leashes be used on bigger volume surfboards versus a competition leash. This is because a wave will tug and pull a board of greater volume with a lot more force as the surface area is larger and the buoyancy is increased.

Regular or All Around Surfboard Leashes

Chances are, most of us ‘regular surfers’ are not throwing massive buckets of water and air reverses, so the drag from a leash really won't affect our more intermediate style of turns at all.

Regular leashes, like this FCS All Round Essential Leash, are great because they provide surfers with safety throughout pretty much any range of wave size other than XL and beyond, as they are a solid 7mm thick. This means that you can keep one leash on your board for any season which is perfect for your average surfer, and often talented surfers will trade out their pro leash for a regular one when the waves get nice and chunky.

Longboard (Calf) Leash

Longboards require really long leashes so that you can maneuver up and down the deck of the board and are often strapped on the upper half of your calf.

A calf leash allows you to cross step to a noseride without tripping up on your own leash. Don't get me wrong, it isn't full proof, as longboards are the one surfboard that you will still commonly see surfers riding without a leash, but it does help prevent tangling when noseriding quite a bit.

Longboard leashes are also really thick, usually 7mm, to provide strength against the intensity of a longboard's high volume.

Big wave Leashes

8mm or thicker with the sturdiest construction available for big wave surfers. Big wave leashes are really long to fit on big wave ‘gun’ surfboards, and implement certain characteristics that no other leashes do, such as quick release safety measures to ensure the epitome of safety and reliability in the death defying surf sessions that most of us like to enjoy form the comfort of our couch.

Tips When Choosing a Leash Size for Surfboard

Selecting a leash for your surfboard can be challenging given the wide variety of leashes that come in different sizes, lengths, and styles. So how do you select the best leash? Below, we try to make it easy by giving you simple tips on how to select the perfect leash for your surfboard.

Surf leash length

Sizing a surfboard leash is really quite simple. You never want your leash to be shorter than your board, so as a general rule use a leash that measures as equally long or just slightly longer than your surfboard. A 7 ft funshape would then indeed require a 7 ft leash.

Beginner surfers tend to like a leash that is especially long. This will help to prevent the board from pulling back and hitting the body mid bail-out which promotes comfort throughout the learning curve. If you are looking for the perfect beginner leash, take a peek at this “FCS All Round Essential Leash” that is perfect and durable for any wave size.

Should your surfboard measurement sit between two equal sizes, a 5’7 shortboard for example, then your best move is to round up to the larger measurement and therefore you would want a 6ft leash. If you are riding a longboard with a leash, then give yourself an extra foot or so to give you the freedom required to stand on the nose without restraint.

Leashes stretch over time so be sure that you check you surf leash length. If you want to go longer, then keep it within 1 feet of your surfboard’s length. If you’re planning to surf bigger waves then use a longer leash. This will keep you at a safe distance just in case you wipeout.

Surf leash thickness

There’s no clear answer here. The thickness of your leash depends on the type of water conditions you’re surfing on. Thicker leashes are stronger but create more drag.

When surfing smaller waves, go for thinner leashes (5 to 6mm). Regular and large wave conditions, on the other hand, requires leashes that are 7mm thick. It reduces the likelihood of the leash snapping when you suddenly bail, or the surfboard gets suddenly pounded by strong waves.

When to use a calf/knee or ankle leash

Ankle leashes are very popular because they feel more comfortable and makes it easier for surfers to retrieve their surfboard. One downside with an ankle leash is that they tend to get tangled.

Calf or knee leashes are ideal for longboards. Their point of attachment, which is on the upper part of the leg decreases the chances of these getting tangled especially when you’re walking on the surfboard. However, these feel less comfortable when compared to ankle leashes.

Surfer’s skill level

More advanced surfers can get away with thinner and shorter leashes. A thinner, shorter leash produces lesser drag making them ideal for competition surfers. This is not advised for beginner surfers since it also increases the chances of the board hitting them back at a faster rate during a fall. So, should you go for the longest leash available? No. If you’re planning for a leash that is longer than your surfboard, then keep it within a foot of the board’s length. A longer leash increases its hit area and can actually hit more people within its radius.

Leash em’ up!

No surfing gear is complete without a quality leash. There’s no denying the many benefits of having a leash that there is simply no excuse not having one. Leashes make it easier for you to retrieve your board and prevents your board from hitting other surfers.

Get a thin leash for small waves, regular leash for normal waves, and thick, longer leashes for bigger waves. A quality surfboard leash is one that you barely know is there. Something lightweight but sturdy and can stand up to the biggest waves.

how to size a surfboard leash

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