That summer-time smell, from surfmats to Mackintosh Coats
Growing up on the beach in the pre-boogie board era made for interesting wave riding tools. The L.A. County beaches’ black ball flags meant that surfing was forbidden after 11 am on most summer days, so we got creative.
For some years, Paipo bellyboards were the boards of choice, but these mini-surfboards, complete with fins and hard glassed rails, were as dangerous as the surfboards they were modeled after. Remember, this was also the pre-surf leash era—we lost our boards and had to know how to swim.
At a couple of Manhattan Beach spots—the pier, Rosecrans, and Marine Street— snack stands and rental shops rented inflatable surf mats in navy blue canvas with chrome yellow trim. Inflated to rock hardness, these mats got harder as the sun expanded the air within. We got pretty good at riding these mats and by the end of the summer, we were were standing up on them.
Smells of the summers of my youth included zinc oxide—striped across the nose and on the lower lip—, the dusty smell of beach sand sticking to a wet body—laying on towels were for non-locals—, and the smell of vulcanized canvas and rubber surfmats baking in the sun. I can’t remember which summer it was, but L.A. County lifeguards ultimately banned our surfing the inflatables, so the indestructible blue and yellow mats were lumped in with cheap plastic inflatable pool rings, and poof!—the inflatable mats were gone. By 1972, the first Morey Boogie Boards—sold as kits assembled in Manhattan Beach garages by dads and older brothers—were on the scene, immune to the black ball.
A few years ago, I was cleaning out an old garage, and found a dead stock surf mat. I opened a box, and before I saw it, I smelled it: that same summer smell that took me back 30 years. I’ve shown it to old friends, and they all put it to their nose before they unroll it.
In London five years ago, I was shopping at Duffer of St. George in Covent Garden, and while it was completely out of context, I smelled that summer smell. It wasn’t a surfmat, but a Mackintosh raincoat, made in the same impermeable canvas-rubber-canvas sandwich as the old mats were.
Because of their rubberized canvas, Mackintosh coats are as hot to wear as they are dry—especially in a Los Angeles beach town. But Macks have that summer smell, so I had to buy one. In SoCal, I rarely get to wear the Mack, and it’s usually on San Francisco and New York trips that I relive those summer days between third and sixth grade.