The origins of longboarding are a bit hard to pin down.
No one person lays claim to fashioning the first prototype, but most sources agree the longboard was born, along with its better-known cousin, the skateboard, in Hawaii circa 1959.
Back then, surfers looking to keep riding when the waves were poor affixed roller skate “trucks,” or wheel-bearings, to their wooden decks to create “sidewalk surfboards,” according to Internet lore.
Skateboarding won mainstream attention when it migrated to the mainland, first to California in the 1960s and later up the coast. But lesser-known longboards also made the journey. They too gained momentum in underground scenes before hitting the mainstream in recent years – a late-bloomer that is finally having its day.
Unlike the rudimentary boards once geared for flat terrain with limited mileage achievable on rickety wheels, today’s longboards are engineered for speed and common fixtures on the steep slopes around Metro Vancouver – particularly on the North Shore.
“You can compare it to snowboarding, it gives you a lot of adrenalin,” explains a 14-year-old boy, part of a crew of longboarding aficionados at West Vancouver secondary, where most kids ride – or aspire to ride – the hills in the nearby British Properties.
Like snowboarding during its infancy, the sport has raised the hackles of city and safety officials – in fact it is banned on West Vancouver streets – and the reasoning goes beyond fear of the unknown due to the age difference between legislators and riders.
While some longboarders use them to cruise around town, other riders speed down roads built for motor vehicles. Longboarders’ only brakes are their feet, hands and the ability to “slide” the board perpendicular to the road to stop it on its edge.
The consequences of rider error can be devastating, with five severe injuries in the last month in Metro Vancouver. The latest, on Saturday, left a 12-year-old Maple Ridge boy with a serious head injury.
British Columbians playing sports are about as likely to get injured on a skateboard – whether on long or regular-length boards – as they are playing hockey, according to 2001-2010 data from the B.C. Trauma Registry.
For the 14-year-old West Vancouver student, who says he and his friends take safety precautions and always stop at intersections, the risk is a measured one.
“You always have to be aware. It’s not like we’re out there risking our lives. We want to longboard another day.”
Whether kids should be encouraged to longboard at all is up for debate in West Vancouver and other municipalities where injuries have occurred.
For West Van secondary teacher Bruce Holmes, education on safety practices is the only logical way to help mitigate the risk of a sport he feels is here to stay.
“I’m a teacher with 29 years, I know these kids inside and out,” Holmes said.
In light of the recent injuries – one involving a student at another West Vancouver high school who collided with a van – Holmes had aimed to deter impending tragedy by organizing a safety demonstration with pro longboarders at his school. The event, scheduled for today, was to feature riders from Landyachtz Longboards, a Vancouver-based company founded by a West Van alumnus who was one of Holmes’s former students.
The session was cancelled by Chris Kennedy, West Vancouver’s superintendent of schools, late Monday evening.
With the student who hit the van still in intensive care, Kennedy said he felt it is more important to work with the authorities to raise concerns over the dangers of the illegal sport than teach riders about safety.
“Our first message should be right now that there’s real concerns about longboarding, especially from what we’ve seen just the last couple weeks,” he said. “I have a son who has a long-board and I knew nothing really about it until that incident three weeks ago.”
He said he can see the district’s schools “very thoughtfully” teaching kids about both the dangers and safety requirements of longboarding in the future, like they have done with backcountry skiing and snowboard helmet use in the past.
But Holmes contends there’s no time to wait. Kids are riding in the municipality, regardless of the bylaw.
“We haven’t had anybody in our school get hurt yet, but it’s coming,” he said. Several of his students have made their own boards in his shop class.
In addition to safety instructions, Holmes would like to see the municipality work with longboarders to give them a safe course to ride away from traffic, along the lines of mountain-bike courses that have been built on local mountains.
And while longboarding is banned on West Vancouver streets, new boarders like West Van secondary student Ethan Fong, also 14, find the cops they encounter would rather give them a safety lesson than a ticket.
West Vancouver Police spokesman Const. Jeff Palmer said police and bylaw officers can fine any rider $45 for ripping down the city’s streets and also give out an identical penalty for infractions like not wearing a helmet.
While bylaw officers often find it quite hard to ticket the longboard-ers – who sometimes run away or become confrontational – police have more discretion when they encounter boarders breaking the bylaw, Palmer said.
“The bylaw ticket’s an option, but a longboarder understanding that they’re at extreme risk is the best solution – because we’re not going to be everywhere on every sloped street in the district,” Palmer said.
All but two of North Vancouver District’s sloped streets are technically open to boarders. A partial ban was implemented last summer after a resident hit a boarder with his truck and started a petition. The City of North Vancouver allows longboarding on its streets, but has outlawed it in just over a dozen areas.
Banning the sport isn’t something Maple Ridge Mayor Ernie Daykin sees as a suitable response to Saturday’s accident. The boy, by far the youngest victim of recent longboarding accidents, was riding on his stomach, something safety proponents vehemently discourage.
While personally shaken by the accident as a father and grandfather, Daykin said it’s important not to make policy decisions based on an emotional response and committed to waiting for results of a police investigation before pondering the possibility of a bylaw.
“We want to make our decisions based on facts and the situation.”