Surf and Turf
A crossbreed of surfing and snowboarding, the little-known sport of sandboarding may be the next extreme pursuit to go mainstream.
(FORTUNE Small Business) – I'm about to launch myself down the face of a 60-foot sand dune, my stockinged feet strapped to a 41-inch-long wooden board. All I can think about is friction and the heat it causes, and then I wonder: Which will come first—my feet bursting into flames as I fly down the hill or a long, hard fall where my skin meets the world's largest belt sander?
Before I have a chance to find out, I hear a primal scream from a dune nearby. It's Josh Tenge, the 26-year-old world-record holder for the longest sandboarding backflip (45 feet, eight inches). He's dropping into a dune twice as steep as mine, which gives him the necessary speed to hit a jump and soar. Later, after he lands and stops laughing, Tenge will say that my friction theory is all wrong. He tells me to trust him, that he's my instructor. We're here at the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area in Florence, Ore., so that he can teach me how to sandboard, not die.
A hybrid of snowboarding, surfing, and skateboarding, sandboarding involves skimming down very large sand dunes (or, in my case, bunny hills). Competitions in Australia, Europe, and South America draw thousands of spectators and corporate sponsorship from companies such as Red Bull. In the U.S. the sport hasn't found its way into the X Games yet, but it's probably only a matter of time. Sandboarding has appeared in recent commercials for Ford and Nissan (the Ford commercial featured Tenge, who shot the ad near Lake Tahoe, Calif.).
Banking on the sport's growth is Lon Beale, a 47-year-old entrepreneur who has been riding dunes since the early 1970s. He has launched two of the six sandboard companies in the U.S. (Monarch and Venomous), the sport's governing body (Dune Riders International), and an online magazine called sandboard.com, which serves as the sport's hub. He also oversees five U.S.-based competitions, which draw as many as 300 competitors in events such as slalom, big air (jumps), and freestyle. The next event, Sand Master Jam 2005, will be held in late May at Beale's biggest operation, Sand Master Park, 40 acres of dunes owned by Beale and adjacent to a national park on the coast of central Oregon, one hour west of Eugene.
When he opened the park five years ago, Beale envisioned a place where passing tourists could drop in for a few rides and maybe take a lesson (those cost $100 an hour; access to the park is free with either a $5 parking fee or a $16 board rental). Today the park has also become a mecca for expert sandboarders, people who like to jump the ramps and ride the rails designed by the park's young staff. In 2004, Beale saw about 8,000 visitors—up from 6,000 the year before—and in November he opened his second park, Sandboard World, in Palm Springs. He's thinking about building an indoor park in Las Vegas as well. "America's got this love affair with board sports," Beale says.
I arrive at Sand Master Park on an unseasonably warm fall day. While riders with snowboarding experience hit the dunes immediately, beginners are encouraged to spend a few hours on the facility's simulator, an angled, carpeted treadmill designed to teach them how to move, jump, and grind on a board before they set foot on a hill. Six hours on the simulator costs $600 (usually spread out over a week or so), but luckily, as I'm contemplating how to fasten the waist harness, I am saved by instructor Tenge, who says that the sunny weather shouldn't be wasted indoors. Mercifully, I have the park almost to myself, with my 13-year-old cousin, Sara, who has tagged along for moral support. Winter is a slow season for the sport, but the dunes draw crowds again starting each spring, as the snow melts at North American ski resorts and snowboarders look for warmer-weather options. Leaving the shop, which is covered in posters of a bare-chested Tenge vaulting off sand trails near Death Valley, Calif., he gives me two neon-green chunks of wax. Then he hands over what looks like a sawed-off snowboard, and we head out to the dunes.
Sandboarding is a budget sport. Most dunes are in public parks, and access is usually free, with a nominal parking fee. (For the best locations, see the box that accompanies this story.) Regarding equipment, beginners don't use any boots or padding, just some wax ($3) and a board, which you can find on the Internet for $150 to $400 or rent by the day at the park. (Experienced sandboarders, who ride down steeper slopes and go much faster than beginners, wear snowboard-style boots and bindings and ride on longer, fancier boards.) The same goes for clothing—I show up in thin waterproof pants, but Sara, an Oregon native, wears jeans and a T-shirt.
Once we get to the dunes, I feel like an ant inside a giant sandbox. Sand Master Park is part of the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, 42 square miles of sand mountains that were formed thousands of years ago from sand brought in by westward-flowing rivers (and wind). Some of the dunes are a mile long, and the highest reach 600 feet above sea level, tall enough to offer views of the Pacific Ocean, two miles away. (The Oregon park site inspired sci-fi author Frank Herbert to write Dune.) Fortunately, several smaller hills are about 70 feet high, offering beginners a 150-foot run on a gentle slope.
The first thing we do is kick off our shoes. Not only is the sand clean—it's constantly washed by the area's heavy rainfall—but the boards are ridden barefoot or in socks. Small-hill riders slip their feet into neoprene bindings. We hike up a small hill to a plateau, where Tenge traces a circle in the sand and carves marks at ten o'clock and two o'clock. "Like driver's ed," he says. Tenge, who has taught snowboarding at different resorts in Lake Tahoe for seven years, tells us that as with snowboarding, you steer on a sandboard by pointing your lead shoulder where you want to go. Keeping it at either ten or two is the first rule in maneuvering; if you're pointing at 12, you're shooting straight down the hill.
Before we take our first run, Tenge explains the importance of waxing the bottoms of our boards—a step that is required before every run. Sand doesn't let things slide over it as easily as does snow. To create slippage (and speed), Tenge says, the bottoms of our Venomous-brand boards contain a double pane of melamine, a synthetic material that resists heat better than the plastic bottom of a snowboard. Hearing this eliminates my spontaneous-combustion worries. Then there's the wax, which staffers at the park create themselves. Just as surfboard wax comes in different types for different water conditions, sandboarding wax has variations: For hotter temperatures it needs to be harder, with a high melting point, while wet sand calls for a wax mixed with liquid Teflon.
Even with a freshly waxed board, starting down the hill isn't as easy as Tenge makes it look. I'm standing on a 45-degree incline, facing down, and I still have to hop three or four times to get moving. Tenge, behind me, checks my stance and promises to hold on to my back hand, running with me down the hill until I tell him to let go. Halfway down, I drag him onto his face; five seconds later I'm at the bottom, still standing.
For the next five runs I focus on maintaining my balance without flailing my arms. Boarding down the hill is over so quickly—most runs on beginner slopes last less than five seconds—that maneuvering and turning are lost causes. I point my board at 12 o'clock and head straight down. Just as the board feels as though it's going to race out from beneath me, the hill flattens and the sand acts like a runaway truck ramp. I fall from the abruptness of the stop. Once we learn that falling doesn't hurt, Tenge leaves us to find our own rhythm, and trying ever-larger slopes becomes addictive. For two hours we climb up and race down the park's dunes, realizing that the more weight we put on our back feet, the faster we go. After conquering the biggest bunny hills, we're ready for something steeper, with longer runs and more time to practice turning. We drive five miles south to Honeyman State Park, where the dunes reach 200 feet. (Sand Master Park's $16 rental fee for the board includes permission to take it anywhere you want for the day.)
The sport's biggest drawback: no chairlifts. To ride down, you have to hike up. Sara and I are proud of ourselves for getting up hills that take two minutes to climb. Tenge tells us later about 700-foot dunes near the Mojave Desert that take 20 minutes to climb. After hearing him, we keep quiet about our burning calves.
Frank Herbert, the Dune author who was obsessed with studying Oregon's great sand mounds, once said of the government attempts to steer Oregon's shifting dunes, "The people treating sand dunes as fluid learn to control them." By the end of the day, I still haven't reached that point. My cousin Sara is another story. After one run, I look up behind me and see her carving wide grooves down the dune, knees bent, butt almost brushing the sand. She looks like a dry-land version of a surfer from the movie Blue Crush—totally in control of her grainy new medium.