The invention of the leg rope
Updated: Oct 23, 2022
Pretty much every surfer these days uses a leg rope. It's an automatic thing surfers do without a second thought. Of course there was a time when there were no leg ropes. Surfers back then did a lot of swimming, got used to fixing dings and probably had second thoughts about paddling out at certain rocky surf spots.
The leg rope may have been invented in a number of locations around the globe independently around the same time, and as such no one really knows who thought of it first. This, however is the story of how the leg rope first appeared in Wellington, and quite possibly the rest of New Zealand
The year was 1969 and Howard Rait was surfing at Crap Point when his nice new board that he'd just made got smashed up on the rocks. Later on he was standing round chatting with a few other guys lamenting his dinged up board. A guy from Masterton called Grant Beaumont said, "You should do what that guy at castle point does. He can't swim so he ties himself to his board with a rope round his waist." That was the lightbulb moment.
After that weekend Howard went home and got together with his mate Ian Stewart. The two of them had been making surfboards and surfing equipment such as fin boxes for a while. A lot of stuff we take for granted these days had either not been invented, was not available in New Zealand or was too expensive, so plenty of equipment was home made. In Howard's dad's basement the two of them got to work trying to produce something that would tether a surfer to their board... what we now know as a leg rope.
Their prototype leg rope used a car seatbelt to go round the ankle. Howard's dad worked in the automotive industry so that's where they got the seatbelt. The seatbelt was clipped round the ankle with dome. Pretty soon afterwards they would start using velcro. The ankle strap was held to the board by a length of 6mm curtain cord. The idea was to make it short enough so that when you lost your board it was possible to pull your leg in and reach the board, rather than have to swim towards it. This resulted in a fairly short leg rope by today's standards, but it must have worked since Howard persisted with relatively short leg ropes for the duration of his surfing life. The curtain cord was connected to the board by a hump of resin on the tail. The prototype was finished and it was time to try it out.
The following weekend they were back at Palliser. it was reasonably early in the morning and there were about six guys out at Craps. In those days there were dirt roads and no bridges all the way along the coast so it wasn't that crowded and as such nobody was out at Dee-Dees. Howard decided to head down there for the first test as,"he would not be a laughing stock if it didn't work." Paddling out seemed not to be a problem. Then he caught a wave and rode it which didn't cause any problems either. The next wave he got about halfway along the wave and jumped off. He had his leg bent up underwater to take the shock, but as it turned out he hardly felt a thing. He paddled in to the beach and thought, "oh well, that worked."
As it happened they had taken a roll of curtain cord with them that weekend. By the end of the weekend the roll was used up as everyone wanted to give it a go. Howard had a hunting knife and was cutting holes in the back of people's fins. One guy used a dog collar to connect the cord to his ankle. Socks, handkerchiefs and other paraphernalia were all used. Another guy from Eastbourne tied a slipknot which tightened alarmingly and was only removed from his leg after some rather careful work with the knife on the beach.
Some time later Howard was up in Gisborne. He was having a chat with a bloke, possibly Ralph Blake, about the leg rope. Ralph said, "We don't need those here since all our beaches are sand." Howard then went out from a surf. Afterwards he bumped into Ralph again. Ralph said, "I've been watching you and you've been getting three times as many waves as everyone else because you don't lose your board." The leg rope had made it to Gisborne.
There was a big gap before the leg rope found its way up to Auckland. In those days there wasn't much back and forward between the upper and lower North Island. After that it got established in Australia and then California. Howard reckons he took an interest in how it spread round New Zealand and then to other parts of the world.
The Californians were not as keen on the leg rope as surfers in Australia and New Zealand. They called them "kook cords" for many years. Howard reckons the Californians had a much more established surf industry and were more resistant to change. This attitude continued for many years and it was arguably the Australians who were at the forefront of much of the innovation in surfing through the seventies, eighties and nineties.
In 1972 a guy from Wellington called Peter Fitzsimmons, who was president of the New Zealand surf riders association, went with Wayne Parkes and Alan Byrne to the world champs in San-Diego. Peter came back with a leg rope made of bungee cord. Howard said he was sitting on the wall at The Corner when Peter fell off a wave. Peter was a big bloke so he was like an anchor. The board stretched the bungee almost all the way to the beach before it reached the end of its stretch and pulled violently back towards Peter. People were diving off their boards trying to get out of the way. Fortunately no one was hurt, but that was the end of the Californian bungee leg rope.
Over the next few years there was a bit of tinkering with the design of the leg rope. Howard experimented with a length of clear plastic tube as a rail saver. Roger Titcombe began manufacturing leg ropes out of his factory in Onepu Road in Lyall Bay, which continued for a number of years. These leg ropes still used the nylon curtain cord, but sheathed it in red rubber tubing like what was used in Bunsen burner gas pipes in school science labs. I remember seeing these leg ropes from time to time when I started surfing in 1987.
Later on in the 1970s, probably in Australia, the urethane leg rope cord was invented. The leg rope has gone through a few more changes over the years but essentially it's the same basic principle. It's been pointed out that Simon Anderson had a dollar for every Thruster ever built he'd be a millionaire. You could say the same for Howard and the leg rope. However, as Howard says, "It wasn't a big deal. We just didn't want our boards wrecked on the Wairarapa rocks and it was a really simple thing to make. The other bonus was that it opened up heaps of breaks over the coast that had previously not been surfed much because of the consequences of falling off."
Howard has donated his early leg ropes to Wellington Museum. Thanks Howard! Wellington Museum is really interested in collecting a board or two from the early days of Wellington surfing. Contact the Museum at email@example.com if you’re keen to donate a piece of history for future surfers to ponder and enjoy.
The Wellington Museum have recently interviewed Howard. You can view the interview here: