AN INTERVIEW WITH JAMIE McCLELLAN
Hatteras Island, NC, April 2013
Interview by Ken McKnight
The last time I talked to Jamie McClellan he was living on the Outer Banks and mat surfing his heart out. At that time he was just starting to plan and execute an odyssey to Australia for school and adventure with his life partner Tatum.
Now, years later, he and Tatum are back living on the Outer Banks, working hard, and Jamie is as dedicated to the mat-craft as ever.
Jamie was kind enough recently to give us a Here and Now look into his mat world.
UKMS - Jamie, What’s going on? How are Tatum, work and surf?
JMC - If ever there was a time for you to ask what’s going on… man, life is hectic. Sparing you the gory details, it’s pretty much been madness and upheaval, well, since the day after Christmas. At this point I’m kinda like Dory from Finding Nemo… ‘Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.’
Tatum is great. I keep her from going to the puzzle factory, and she keeps me from living the rest of my life in the back of my pickup. Make of that what you will. She’s my rock and definitely my roll. Almost 6 years now.
Work is hard to come by for a lot of people right now I think. Even more so on the Outer Banks. I won’t complain. I’ve had great jobs and I’ve had horrid jobs. I have a job and thankful for it. Started a new job a few months ago.
Surf is feast or famine, but I did just get out of 42 degree water. My core temp is still pretty low, takes a few hours to get warmed back up. Worth it though, surfed for two hours with three friends in good waves. We have had a very good winter.
UKMS - What is it that you love about riding a surf mat?
JMC - Weightlessness. The texture of speed. Watching water pass at a rapid rate under the leading edge of the mat with my eyes two inches off the surface. Portability, adaptability and the Clark Kent effect.
UKMS - What exactly is the Clark Kent Effect?
JMC - I’ve got a little drybag backpack which contains my mats, fins, wetsuit, etc for the day. A bag of most any sort will suit the example. When I walk down the beach, hike down a trail, or pull up to a crowded spanish-speaking parking lot, I look like I am a tourist[true] going swimming or maybe diving/snorkeling/whatever.
The point at which most people realize I have any interest in riding waves is when I fly past laughing like a lunatic on a set wave I snuck out the back for.
UKMS - How long have you been riding mats?
JMC - I believe Dale delivered my first Neumatic in the fall of 2006. Prior to that I had been messing around on Intex [blue and red] rafts from the chain beach crap stores since summer 2005. So I reckon 8 years this summer. Still a Newb.
UKMS - Where is home now and how often are you in the water?
JMC - Home for the last two years has been the village of Avon, North Carolina. Living on Hatteras Island, you couldn’t get away from the water if you tried. My entire neighborhood floods every time the wind blows west. After Sandy last year and Irene the year before we had 4-6ft of floodwater from the sound under the house. A lot of people’s homes here flooded badly during Irene. We got lucky, high water mark was less than a foot from our underpinning. Never lost satellite reception in Sandy. Friends paddled over in kayaks for a cuppa and a glimpse at the news.
As far as surfing, I go out for at least four to five sessions a week.
UKMS - Are you a solo session mat rider or are there other mat surfers in your immediate area?
JMC - The only other mat surfer on the Outer Banks, to my knowledge, is Tatum. We surf together as often as we can in spring, summer and fall. She is much more disciplined than I am. She waits for those choice days when air and water could be mistaken for the Caribbean. She’ll go out from ankle high to 6ft [I will always refer to wave size in approximate actual face height. 6ft = six feet, not Hawaiian] so long as it’s clean and peeling. And no wetsuit is required.
I don’t discriminate and will surf whenever the opportunity presents winter or summer, day or night. I often surf alone right out front of my house. Sometimes I’ll take a friend to a bank I’ve sussed out that nobody’s onto. Sometimes I’ll go surf the pier with Auger, Twig and all the boys from the Surf Shack if I’m in the mood for PBR and shit-talk.
I surf alone as often as I could ever want to. Though I reckon it would be good to have some company from time to time.
UKMS - You have to be in a different frame of mind where you live to mat. It’s basically just beach breaks and sand banks, correct? Granted the Outer Banks are some of the best banks in the world. But, it’s not reef or that long lined up Greenmount / Lennox / Rincon point setup that we aspire to ride. How do you get around that?
JMC - I am hopelessly addicted to twisted, roping right points. It has been a hard reality having to give that up when we moved back here. I have had to settle for backdooring wedges and getting barreled.
You have to find ways to approach the tube at full flight, either from a capper on the outside, or a side wedge to run across a wall to connect up behind the main peak. Surfing shitty beachbreak forces you to be creative. And dedicated. Nowhere else in the world have I taken more beatings than out front of my house, or down at lighthouse on a solid north. Not even close. Only place I ever thought I might really drown, and it wasn’t over 8ft.
As far as my needs in pointbreaks, there are a couple sandbanks that have no names, that on certain swell angles and periods can produce point-like rights. There is also a left pointbreak that forms and breaks every few years, maybe, for a few days or weeks. I’ve surfed it less than 10 times and never over shoulder high or so, but long peeling almond lefts and the occasional double up that looks like a shorter, smaller version of that joint in Namibia.
Now that would be a surf trip… Who likes to go left on the mat besides Wazza? I know he’d go
UKMS - What’s your typical wave like there and what about the super days?
JMC - I believe the most interesting part about living on Hatteras Island is the constant change. If you want to see global warming, rent a house in Rodanthe for 6 months and come see the show. Shit is real. And two waves down here are rarely the same.
Like anywhere, it has its moments. Sometimes very fleeting moments. Highly dependant on personal perception and interpretation of the ‘perfect’ day. I will say that for the guys that like chunky, onshore wedges, storm surfing, and heavy barrels, there are a lot of perfect days.
UKMS - Where did you grow up?
JMC - I grew up in Virginia, four or five hours from where we live now. Everybody knows there’s no waves in Virginia, but that’s not entirely true.
UKMS - Was mat surfing your first foray into riding waves?
JMC - I was very fortunate that my grandfather purchased a small beach cottage in the 70’s at Sandbridge Beach. It’s just up the coast a bit from the northern end of the Outer Banks. My parents took me there when I was a month old. I think I learned to swim pretty much straight after I dialed in the walking thing. They couldn’t keep me out of the water. We always had rafts and Boogies as little kids. Played in the shorebreak and naturally ended up whomping and then bodysurfing. I’ve always ridden whatever I could get my hands on. Surfboards came later, but I’ve been riding waves in one form or another for most of my life. Though there have been plenty of long periods where I’ve been away from the ocean. Never far from my thoughts. Makes you appreciate it that much more when you get a window of good waves and the opportunity to take advantage, regardless of craft. I have lived very near the ocean for the last twelve years or so.
UKMS - Do you ride any other vehicles like Paipos, surfboards hand planes, etc.?
JMC - I’ve sold off all of my surfboards except for one. I still have a 9’9 singlefin gun longboard Will Allison crafted for me about 3 months before Clark Foam shut down.
I’ve owned quite a few kneeboards as well. The only one I have at the moment is a 4’10 triplane edgeboard spoon, made by Geoff Levens. The original fin was lost at sea in hollow waves at home. Mike Cunningham in NZed is making a set of quad paddle fins for it. Should be back in the water shortly.
Before the fins get here, a friend and I are going to use it to make a mold and pull some new spoons with carbon and epoxy in his vac bag setup. Backwoods hi-tech.
While in OZ, I made myself a 5’ paipo style board with a deep swallowtail and sidecut reverse curve. From the scrap end of the paulownia blank, I made myself a handplane. I love bodysurfing with the handplane. It does wonders for making deep tubes.
The Outer Banks might be the best place on earth to be a bodysurfer.
UKMS - What inspires you to mat?
JMC – The never-ending learning curve. It’s a challenge for a lifetime in the same way that yogis develop a lifelong daily practice.
UKMS - How has mat surfing changed your ocean life?
JMC - Some people do a lot of things really well. Some just have their one thing. Outside of surfing I have so much going on, for my time spent in the water there’s nothing more connected and more gratifying than a good ride on a mat. I still bodysurf a lot though.
UKMS - How has the mat world changed over the last five years with the push of Social Networking?
JMC - I see the blessing and the curse. I think it’s great that so many of us are connected and able to share the experience, sound the alarm for spontaneous sessions or organize larger gatherings like the Santa Cruz thing. I’ve got close friends all over the world whom I regularly keep in touch with and I am extremely thankful for that.
I do feel that the art of matsurfing is sacred and should be respected as such. It belongs to a very small circle of people, none of which are on Twitter. The rest of us are lucky to participate at all. It would be a shame if it ever went the way corporate surfing has gone. Highly unlikely. Mat surfing will never sell stretchy boardshorts. To some degree I think many lineups around the world would benefit from having a few more people having fun on surfmats. But just the same, to all participants now and the inevitable ones to come, it’s only about the personal experience in the water. Protect it from the vultures.
UKMS - I’ve found that since we last matted together, mat design has subtlety changed, at least for me. How about you? What’s different and what’s the same?
JMC - I reckon it’s been five, six years now that you and James came up north and we surfed Moss Landing. A lot has changed for me in that time. I have PG to thank for that. [Thanks, Paul!]
Generally speaking, the quiver aspect. Having options of mats designed for specific uses.
On the other hand, I can still take out the same 4GF Standard that I’ve had for five years and it surfs as well or better than any other. I call it, ‘Yeah, You Know Me’, the old black nylon, metal valve. Favorite mat ever. That thing has been beaten to death and has never had so much as a pinhole repair.
UKMS - What is your go-to mat currently?
JMC - At the moment I am mostly riding two 5th Gear Flyers, one a black canvas deck/blue bottom and one the favorite old black nylon deck and bottom with diamondback traction.
UKMS - What’s in your quiver?
JMC - Heaps. 4th Gear Flyer Standards, I think three, in different fabrics and deck traction setups. The two 5th Gears. A range of small wave/low inflation mats of varying sizes called Hovercrafts. The Hovercraft series came out of a one-off Paul made me called El Fantasmo Blanco. The white mat is magic. We never quite duplicated it. I had a Fatty, passed it on to a friend. The guy who drew the artwork on Blanco.
A few others I have traded, sold or given away, but I’ve never had one of Paul’s 4GFs pop or fail in any way. They really are bombproof.
I have my Neumatic Advanced Design 200/70, and had a K-Mat from Dale Solomonson. I had a Krypt MT5 from the first generation of those. It blew out the right rear corner. I’ve ridden a Neumatic MT5 as well. Never got to ride a 30D though…
I now also have a G-Mat from Graeme dubbed Kenneth. I’ve ridden it in a variety of surf in the past few weeks and it goes flat out. Handles predictably at low inflations in onshore surf and at higher inflations in good, hollow waves. Feels great, very lightweight and sensitive.
UKMS - How often do you go to other mats to try them?
JMC - Not nearly as often as I should, or as often as when I’m travelling.
UKMS - How are your inflation rates these days?
JMC - Variable.
UKMS - What is normal and comfortable to you and how often do you adjust inflations?
JMC – Since I surf a lot of steep, curvy and hollow beachbreaks, I’ve gone up in pressure the last couple years. In point surf or junk surf it can go rediculously low, to the point where it becomes nothing more than bodysurfing a Hefty bag. At some point it loses functionality though, so I try to stay balanced. At home around 75% full is average, at Greenmount it would run down around 35-45% inflated.
UKMS - What fins are you using and why?
JMC - I wear a favorite pair of solid black UDTs, slowly trimmed and foiled over the past few years. [Tatum loves the fin trimming process and the mess it entails] I made a couple custom inserts for summer use. Two layers of 3mm neoprene sandwiching a hard, flat piece of plastic and glued in. Usually by the end of October the water has cooled off and the glue is smoked so I pull them out and wear booties with them all winter.
UKMS - Have you tried a lot of different fins?
JMC - Yep, you name it. Best rubber compound I’ve ever seen is in the new Duckfeet and UDTs from Deets. I know he would cringe to hear this, but I can’t wait to foil the UDTs to perfection. They will be the best fins ever, for now. I hear things about “stuff” sometimes. I’m stoked to hear people are putting renewed time and effort [$] into research and design. Looking forward to what’s coming down the track.
The one fin I have yet to try is Mike Stewart’s new Viper. I’m very interested in those, particularly for bodysurfing, more so than for mat surfing, but I reckon they would be good in both applications. [If anyone at Viper happens to be reading… PO Box 1162 Avon, NC 27915, Thanks!]
UKMS - Do you lose your mat much?
JMC – Rarely, but it does happen. Mostly when I should have worn gloves and didn’t, fingers gone hypothermic and can’t hang on through another pounding.
UKMS - Do you ever swim out with a limp-towel mat cause the paddle out is too austere?
JMC - It can be challenging to get out when its big here. No channels anywhere. Shifty, peaky, extremely shallow, hollow and powerful. The short period swells give you no time between sets. It’s not Ocean Beach or Mexico, but it’s very difficult to get an inflated mat out at size.
I will swim out with no air in the mat, but I’m not a big fan in the middle of winter. Sometimes I’ll get denied a few times and it becomes clear its the only option. Usually on big, freezing winter days. Fun when its warmer.
UKMS - Or are you the kind of mat surfer who just takes the hit until you make it past the lineup?
JMC - I’ve definitely taken my fair share of hits.
UKMS - You have been lucky to travel around in mat friendly places. Tell me a little about your travels in the past five years.
JMC - There are so many places that I want to go, and not just to ride waves. I feel like I’ve only had a tease of traveling. Also, I’m not sure luck had much to do with it. Debt is the more important factor here. Aside from the romanticism of exotic travel for extended periods, we could have mortgaged a house for what grad school cost Tatum and I combined. Worth it? Yes. Absolutely. Easy? Negative. Not even close. Nothing in this world’s for free.
UKMS - You went on an extended school / work excursion in what year? For how long? Where did you go?
JMC - We spent a solid 8 months planning, sorting, applying, packing and moving our life from Nags Head into a storage unit in Virginia. We landed on the Goldy in early January 2009. We lived right out the back of Burleigh for two years and attended Bond University. Tatum started school right away. I worked planting trees in Myocum for the first six months. From the hill we were working, I could turn around at any moment and see the surf from the Wreck through to the Pass and the entire headland at Cape Byron. He’s a lucky fucker that built his house on that parcel. We planted out the entire valley below to stabilize the hill before they started construction. I mostly made my own hours. Worked my face off. Dodged more species of poisonous snakes than I care to speak of.
And I surfed, a lot.
Tatum worked all through school at a PR firm on projects for the Queensland government. We traveled at every chance, we camped everywhere, and we surfed together, a lot. She earned a Master of Communication, Public Relations. I earned a Master of International Relations.
I minored in Right Point Surf.
UKMS - As a mat surfer what did you find in Australia?
JMC - One amazingly massive and beautiful island with unbelievable waves down every track to the coast. Not withstanding the Goldy, there’s so much wide open space to explore if you’ve got an open mind to what sort of waves are rideable, and what you’re willing to risk swimming with to surf them.
The Goldy’s a whole other animal. It’s like Hunter Thompson vomited all his utopian hopes and dreams onto one tiny stretch of coast and it sprouted like a Chia pet on steroids. Decadence, chaos, and drunken hooliganism. Just so happens to have a handful of the worlds best barreling sand bottom point breaks, and all only one concession bus pass away from our studio apartment [spacious by NYC standards]. The Goldy is heaps of fun.
UKMS – Did you meet a few interesting people?
JMC - There was a fella called Krispy we met camping around Byron. Lived up the far northwest of WA at Ningaloo. Was ‘getting away from it all for a bit’. Imagine that.
We met another guy that was basically a one-man traveling circus/magic act. He had this flash van and broke out his act wherever he went. He was called Troppo Bob. Happened to be a kneeboarder. No surprise there.
OZ is so full of classic characters and good, salty, honest people. [Except for car salesmen on the Goldy. You’d be better off trusting the Brown snakes.] We made heaps of lifelong friends there. Cannot wait to get back.
UKMC - Any memorable sessions and/or experiences you’d like to share and where were they?
JMC - More than I could ever recount, especially if we are talking specific experiences on the mats that were enlightening in one-way or another.
Working for an extended period in Byron, I got to spend a lot of time surfing between Fingal and Flat Rock. As I suppose people might know, there is a little nucleus of mat surfing going on in the area. I was very lucky to spend a lot of time in the water with other mat riders, in great waves for the craft. A master class in mat surfing.
Scored flawless pumping Snapper/Little Marley/Rainbow/Greenmount, Kirra and Currumbin so often it's only a blur of blue-green memories. Scored Burleigh more than any one man ever should if he’s not local. [Thanks, Peter Harris.]
Scored flawless Burleigh with the Gothic Dolphin and some mutual friends. Memorable because I had a shocker of a session, kooked nearly every wave. The single wave worth making the movie was of me burning Peto and him squeezing my ass all the way down the line at Rockbreak. So many fun days went down.
UKMS - Have you ventured much into the Fourth Gear range as far as speed goes?
JMC - Yes. The texture of speed is intense. Lennox, Kirra and Burleigh are fantastic venues for pushing a mat to its top end. A few other places here and there as well. Building speed on speed and breaking the mat out into a semi-controlled vapor trail can only really be done in certain conditions. The key is having a strong enough wind from a good direction along with the prerequesite long, powerful waves. The right wind will make the mat levitate off the face of the wave and accelerate well beyond matching speed with the wave.
Not to say that it isn’t possible in small waves as well…
On a big, crowded day in Coolangatta I was surfing outside Greenmount where all the guys on the surf kayaks are. It was one of those days, just hyperspace across long windy walls. One of the paddlers in probably a 14’ boat was straight in my path. I tightened up my line from a drift, aimed for the bit of crosschop in the lip and launched an air straight over the guy. Cleared him easily and made the wave. A bunch of people were kinda slackjawed. I was too. I had people come up to me later in the day having a coffee at Sean Scott’s café about it. I’d give anything if somebody caught it on film, there’s always tons of people shooting that stretch.
I’d love to have a stab at J-Bay and the southern Mex points. See just how far the rabbit hole really goes.
UKMS - How about New Zealand?
JMC - Tatum and I were taken in like family in NZed. Spent Christmas through New Years there one year. I could never say enough kind things about the people, especially the Cunningham’s of Whangarei. Most varied and most beautiful coastlines we’ve ever traveled, and we didn’t even get to make it down the South Island. Slept in a van for weeks and got waves everywhere we stopped. Except when the first van blew up at the top of a mountain range halfway between Raglan and the east coast. We were towed to Mt. Maunganui and there were decidedly no waves at all.
Luck [and the local Maori, they sang the wave prayer] graced us at Shippies with a solid long-period groundswell, well overhead with 6-10 waves per set, sheet glass conditions and no more than 6 people spread over 2km of left points. I don’t know how this kind of shit happened. If you’ve ever been there, you know what I mean.
Tatum got one of the best waves of her life, and then got cleaned by an 8-wave set. Washed up smiling. I surfed so long I couldn’t hike back to camp. Hitched a ride in the back of a pickup.
UKMS - Tatum (pictured left) sounds like she is getting pretty good at mat surfing. Do the two of you share waves together while out in the water?
JMC - We share as many waves together as possible. She burns me, a lot. There’s nothing more fun in mat surfing than playing pinball together. Especially in a crowd, we’ll go together and people will laugh and lighten up a bit.
UKMS - How about the Caribbean?
JMC - We go down there to visit a dear friend as often as we can afford. The Caribbean is very fickle. Don’t go just to surf unless you can wait for a storm and go last minute. Plan a trip to do everything else but surf, take a mat and you might get very high quality waves. Or, you might get windy ripples in gin-clear bathtub temp water and rum punch drinks with little umbrellas. Rincon, Puerto Rico and our friends there feel like home. We’ve nearly not gone back to the airport every time we’ve been down there.
UKMS - California?
JMC - I’ve taken a few trips out to California. At the time I was younger and working seasonally, so in the offseason I had time to travel, camp and surf with friends there for a few weeks each year. Winter in California is a safe bet for breaking a flat spell back home. I’ve never been disappointed. I have only my friends to thank for showing me around and taking me to some great zones for riding mats. They all ride mats too, so it’s the only other place in the world that I’ve gone and spent considerable time in the water with a lot of mat riders.
UKMS - Anywhere else?
JMC - Local and regional travel up and down the east coast. It doesn’t much matter where, but there are some great setups throughout the Carolinas and the mid-Atlantic if you know what you’re looking for and time it right.
I’ve also always found my way out to the mountains since I was young. Tatum and I often go to western North Carolina to go hiking and rock climbing and to see good music.
UKMS - Do you remember your first mat ride?
JMC - Not exactly. I remember very specifically the first time I popped a pin hole in the middle of a wave and the beach crap store raft went to magic towel level in seconds. I ended up going so fast, so far down the line and out into the flats I was blown away.
UKMS - What’s next for Jamie McClellan?
JMC - Shelter. At the moment that’s what I’m working on. Need a more permanent base camp. Looking for a little elevation in a place that doesn’t offer much. We want a treehouse with a saltwater view. It’s the little things in life.
UKMS: All the best with that Jamie. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us.
JMC - Thank you Kendog for taking an interest in what I've been up to in recent years (and Graeme for providing the forum and inspiration). I hope to catch up with you soon for another surf, it's been too long.
I should also take the opportunity to thank all of the mat builders who make my time in the water so special and so much fun. Particularly, thanks to Dale Solomonson and Paul Gross for their generosity in sharing mat surfing with me, as well as their time and their craft. Without them, I would just be bodysurfing.