Here and Now with Jonathan Jarrett.
Interview by Ken McKnight.
Southern California. March 2019.
Jonathan Jarrett is an Aerospace Brat / Scientific Machinist by trade and a very futuristic thinker. He understands the dynamics of mat making like few others. It is no wonder his moniker is Thinkmat. He walks the walk and talks the talk! To see him ride any mat is a thing of beauty.
Our first encounter with J.J. was in a parking lot overlooking a San Clemente beach break. He had a whole bunch of old style mats splayed out on the pavement for us lookie-loo’s to ogle over. And we did and we didn’t forget him. About eight years later we were lucky to shoot some water photos of him riding one of “his” mats. He blew us away that day as one of the best mat riders we had ever seen. And we still didn’t get to talk with him. Fast forward to now and we are standing in his yard with Pranaglider looking over his mat collection again and noticing how it has grown. So stoked! But I will let Prana start……
J.J. Mr. Cool. Few people can really be called a Renaissance man these days. Too much to do, too much to know. But what else do you call someone who builds satellites, his own water housings and surfmats, all while curating the Mobile Mat Museum, and when pressed can cook a buttered turkey in a vacuum bag in an Autoclave. Not to mention his fine taste in Mid-Century Modern architecture.
Oh, and if you have ridden a Fourth Gear Flyer, you have directly benefitted from one of his Seam Welders. So tune in, hold on and enjoy another installment of Here and Now, featuring Jonathan Jarrett. - Bruce Cowan
MatSurfers – What are your thoughts on the future of mats and mat surfing?
JJ – I believe the future of mats in general lies in the advancement of their materials and construction techniques. We might be riding mats with permanent hydrophobic coatings, multiple/independent air chambers (twin inflation), assignable outline/rocker profiles via smart fabrics... who knows? I get stoked when I see younger, influential surfers pick up the mat and take it for a spin on a serious level. They'll be the next ambassadors for the sport (if you can call it a sport?)
MatSurfers - You are definitely a mat archivist, or could we call you a hoarder of facts, figurines and memorabilia? How many mats do you have?
JJ – Honestly, I have never counted. It is in a constant state of flux. Some die on the vine mat types (points to the floor) I never even consider them ridable at this point. Maybe repairable to some degree, and they go back overtime. I have also seen mats in the wild and passed on them for collecting cause I have one that is similar to it already.
MatSurfers - (pointing to all the mats lined up with air in them against the wall) Have you ridden all of those mats?
JJ – No, but there was always something that piques my interest when I see a particular mat somewhere and it is for sale. I either want to ride it or know someone else rode it or I want to study it for construction purposes. I mean I have even stone cold approached people on the beach about their mats because it might have been simply sitting around at their house and they bothered to bring it down to the beach on a whim! And I saw it and had to inquire about it!
MatSurfers – But they weren’t bringing them to ride, but just to sit or float on?
JJ – Yes, However, unlike collecting surfboards, that are so plentiful, mats on the other hand, you rarely come across them; and, well I have to ask about them. But collecting mats, it’s like Hen’s teeth. I’ve been collecting them for 20 plus years and this is the fruit of it.
MatSurfers - How did you start the mat collecting process?
JJ – Out of necessity really! You might want to grab anything you can find. Even that Budweiser mat over there (pointing at the faded red/white/blue mat standing in the corner), I think I rode that thing just because I knew it was the final construction of them. They were kind of cheap, maybe made in China or Taiwan and believe me; it did work and actually worked well. I would drag it to the beach and it got all sunburned and people would get a kick out of the Budweiser thing.
MatSurfers - I first me you when I saw your “Mobile Mat Museum,” back in 2006 when a group of mat enthusiasts met one Saturday morning at T-Street in San Clemente. You had all those cool mats laid out on the ground in the parking lot for a bunch of us to see. We all had mat names, Irideamat, yours is Thinkmat, Mattitude was there, I think Pranaglider was there, and a few others. It was Dale Solomonson who got us all together from his Eagle’s Nest in Oregon via the Internet. Would you want to be part of that type gathering again?
JJ – Absolutely. I think if there was another Mat Meet type congregation I’d like to show them off to educate people interested in mats. There is a younger generation now riding mats. I’ve been matting long enough and a lot of these kids, which are now into mats, have no idea what a Hodgman is!
A lot of surfers are leaning towards new things to ride these days and it’s cool to ride anything. And many really good surfers are riding mats. Like Dave Rastovich, he seems to have gotten a hint of the sensation of speed and capability of low flying speed with low inflation pressures, when that light bulb suddenly comes on.
MatSurfers - Do you think it is important to collect all these mats?
JJ – Yeah, in a way. I’m kind of like a steward of history!
MatSurfers - Where did you grow up?
JJ – In Corona Del Mar primarily, and all around Orange County, CA.
MatSurfers - You have to be in a different frame of mind where you live to mat?
JJ – I grew up much closer to the ocean than where I currently live...so yes, it's more of a deliberate effort to monitor conditions, swell heights, etc.
JJ - I've always been very respectful of the ocean and its strength. Over time I have learned to be more careful considering water quality (bacteria levels) due to run-off. I know the waves can be tempting after a good rain, but it may not be worth risking your health.
MatSurfers - Was mat surfing your first foray into riding waves?
JJ – Yes, Like many other surfers from Southern California, rental mats were your introduction to your "First Ride.” I practically grew up at Big Corona State Beach, where seemingly every Summer/Fall there were large South swells generated in the southern hemisphere, or from the eastern Pacific from tropical hurricanes. The East Jetty on the CDM side of the harbor entrance is a magnet for these particular swells. As a kid, I was awestruck by the better standup surfing crew of the time, and was quick to observe that their ability to switch from a board to a mat when the blackball flag was raised was a routine born from necessity and preservation. Swell still pumping? Keep the fun going....simple as that! There was a more dedicated crowd of mat surfers devoted to riding "off the end" when the big South Swells rolled through. Riding Hodgman/Converse mats modified by the likes of David "Woody" Woodworth, John Parks, etc...(double-canvassed, small attached twin skegs), jetty riding was elevated into an art form, if not a death-defying feat. As a rite of passage, you can imagine the impression it left on me.
MatSurfers - How did you actually start riding mats?
JJ – I probably started with the early rental mat experience at Corona Del Mar State Beach, there at the Snack Bar. I moved to Corona Del Mar (CDM) in 1966 and I probably didn’t start riding a mat till around the summer of 71. I was just a little kid, but maturing from a youngster to a young teen, and watching the older guys riding the end of the CDM Jetty when it broke big, was a huge influence on me. It gets so good! It didn’t take much for me to see guys paddling up the face of huge waves on big summer swells. It is a very esoteric wave.
(Shows me a couple great color photos of the spot.)
JJ - These photos were 76-77 on two completely different Southern Hemisphere swells. Remember, surfboards are blackballed for most of the daylight hours by the lifeguards and only mats and boogies are allowed. This shot gives a sense of scale to be out on a mat. Shitting your pants as you’re going up and over the top as a kid! That initiation of getting scooped up by an elder who is saying “Come on Kid, Today is the Day!” And now I’ve kind of passed on some of that to these new kids down there that are out of mats and boogie boards. So I tell ‘em, “Today is the Day!”
MatSurfers – Then this is the era when Woody Woodworth was the man shooting photos and riding mats there?
JJ – Yup! On this Day (pointing at one of the photos}, I was on the beach shooting 16mm film and he was on the hill shooting stills. Later, he asked me excitedly, “Did you get that shot?”
MatSurfers – Woody Woodworth is a legend in mat surfing. The whole Rubber Ducky thing in Surfer Magazine was an eye opener.
JJ – He wrote and photographed a major mat article in Surfer Magazine, the issue with the Forgotten Island of Santosha on the cover (early 1974)!
MatSurfers – What type of mats was Woody riding?
JJ – He was riding Stripes Across Converse Hodgman’s. These were a thinner, narrower and shorter mat than the Stripes Down models. He was in cahoots with a good friend of his, John Parks and the two of them had a small shop setup in one of their garages with tables and benches and rolls of fabric. They would go to a canvas and awning fabric shop in Santa Ana and buy material in bulk. This is what it looks like (see Photo) and it was called Gulf Stream. You could get it in solid or go to the whole stripes section with all those classic stripe scenes across, down, everywhere and of course top of the line contact cement. The tops of the canvas skins are already on the horizontal direction and you run this stuff down the vertical length. Those Stripes Across Hodgman’s Woody and Johnny made were pretty popular. All the heavy hitters at the end of the Jetty rode them because the waves were so good and the Blackball Flag was up.
MatSurfers - Do you ride any other vehicles like paipos, surfboards hand planes, etc.?
JJ – I do occasionally stand up surf....I've taken a few stabs at shaping/glassing my own boards....so I do have a little quiver going. It seems to me that stand up surfing requires that all of the stars have to align closely to justify the trip, where mat surfing can be performed more on a whim...regardless of less than perfect conditions.
MatSurfers – What is it that you love and inspires you about riding a surf mat?
JJ – That pure sensation of speed...when you've hit that optimum trim, it feels more akin to flying than any other surf craft I’ve ridden before. The learning curve is seemingly perpetual. The mat is always teaching me something...not the other way around.
MatSurfers – Can you tell us a bit about your video experiences and making films?
JJ – I built a carbon fiber boom Pole for videoing. It is really lightweight, telescopic and had movable joints, like a scorpion tail. I had a dry harness from an Aqualung that I modified so I could get it on my back and get it adjusted. That harness is so heavy. This was right when the real early Go-Pro’s came out. I was looking to get like a bird’s eye “Point of View,” by getting a mat surfing vignette where you see some of the mat dynamics from the Ass up. Seeing the body while turning and squeezing the mat and doing it in the most critical part of the wave. I’m coming from a 16mm background and of course I’m worrying about the thing fogging up as I am pulling in!
(Ed. Note – The video is insane and speaks volumes for JJ’s abilities not only for film but for out and out mat riding in the ZONE while filming!)
MatSurfers - I’ve found that since we last rode together mats the designs of mats have subtlety changed, at least for me. How about you?
JJ – Yes, the basic template is still there...but as more riders (and makers) come onboard with fresh ideas, I believe you'll see incremental advances in mat design rather than monumental ones. If I've noticed anything, it's the raw material advancements, pertaining to weight.
MatSurfers - What’s different and what’s the same?
JJ – Well certainly the advent and use of TPU coated nylon fabric has been the single biggest difference to construction. The "Basic Template" I refer to...a rectangular shape with rounded corners, has pretty much remained the same.
MatSurfers - Do you study mats, say, like on the Internet? Do watch videos or review still photos of others riding mats?
JJ – Yes, it's fun to watch videos of other riders at their local breaks, or traveling abroad. I'm also stoked that there's plenty of vintage mat riding content available! I've always dug the segment of George and Paul riding perfect waves in Greg Huglin's film Fantasea.
MatSurfers - How has the mat world changed over the last five - ten years with the push of Social Networking
JJ – Hah! You're asking the least qualified person. A self-admitted "retro-grouch" whose social network skills are lacking! To be honest, I'm certain that social networking has played a part in helping the mat community stick together. Communication is vital to mat surfing's growth, and thus its survival.
MatSurfers - You’ve made a few mats in your day. How is that compared to getting them from Paul and before that Dale and before that Woody or buying one off some guy on the beach?
JJ – My earliest mat-making endeavors were merely modifying older inflatable canvas Hodgman sleeping pads .I'd cut their stock length down to a usable 48 inches, and use contact cement to patch up the end seam. Examining the cut off end pieces, I was paying attention to the inner I-beam construction techniques and layout, dimensions, etc. Later on, I would use some of that data in the construction of my own canvas/rubber-based mats. Keep in mind that I was coming from a history of riding heavier canvas rental Hodgman/Converse mats as a kid...so it seemed the norm. There definitely was a "dark decade" for mats in general, I'd say between 1984-1994...where availability and domestic construction was non-existent. The first and only mat I received from Dale (Neumatic) was nothing less than a revelation. It was leaps ahead from what I was doing at the time. Likewise, my first mat from Paul (4GF) felt like something from the distant future...the era of enlightenment was on!
MatSurfers – Has Dale passed along any mat making tips?
JJ – I do not know Dale personally, other than our earlier correspondence in getting a mat ordered for my dimensions. Frankly, I was a little embarrassed to discuss anything construction-wise with Dale upon receiving that first Neumatic. I mean, everything that I had built (or modified) up to that point, felt downright archaic to what Dale had successfully achieved.
MatSurfers – So what are all these fabric swatches doing here at your home now in 2019 (with a smile on my face)?
JJ – Because when I started to attempt making my own mats I needed to get this material in bulk (with a smile on his face)! And then I will have to find a way to calendar rubber on to the back side of the fabric. And a way to vulcanize and cement bond it on. I was thinking along the lines of how the Converse mats were originally built. I mean this mat (pointing to one of the Floor) was from Framingham, Massachusetts, where the factory was originally. It was nowhere near us. Mats back then and mats for the most part, were only coming out of that part of the country. The manufacturing hadn’t been offshored yet. We are talking late 40’s, early 50’s. By the early 70’s these mats started drying up on a retail level. They were starting to fall out of popularity, especially when the Boogie Boards were introduced. I love Tom Morey but the Boogie Board was a death sentence for commercially produced mats. You didn’t have to inflate them, it was a different type of way to ride waves and they worked pretty well.
MatSurfers – So once again, here on your table is all this material strewn about. Are you making mats now?
JJ – I have had a serious bend about doing it full time. I have been gainfully employed for 30 plus years and it is kind of a lark! I have had two rolls of this material drop shipped to a company in New Jersey, The Passaic Rubber Company. I called them and asked if they would calendar rubber onto the canvas. They said that is all they do. I told them what I had and they said we can put rubber on anything, Dacron, Polyester, anything, and they can spin it, vacuum it on, do it in a finite thickness that they can control while putting it down. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall at the old Converse factory when they made what they called their “Fun Floats,” to see how it was done. They didn’t intend for them to be surfed on waves at a high level. They were meant for lakes and swimming pools. Turns out the trick to making these older mats was twofold. If you’re going to inflate this thing around the periphery, or edges only, then you’re just making a giant pillow. But it is the I-Beams that come into play and that’s the tricky part. You have areas to bond and areas you don’t want bonded while adding structure and the I-Beams have to separate also. The engineering and thought process that goes into making mats is way more complex than you might think.
MatSurfers – Like the one in the water shot I took of you that have the metal valve?
JJ – Yes!
MatSurfers - Can you noticeably tell the difference between mat outlines, lengths, widths, pontoons, etc.?
JJ – Certainly...but I've been riding all kinds of mats off and on for 40 plus years now. Sometimes the feedback from the mat is subtle, sometimes it's dramatic.
MatSurfers – What do you think of the modern day lightweight mat materials?
JJ – It’s like night and day, welding instead of bonding. I think the new material is great. It has ushered in a whole different build method, an entirely different construct. The integrity is much better than it has ever been. Having been brought up on heavier canvas mats, the lighter construction materials have been a treat, but I don't think lighter is necessarily better. I prefer to have a little more "structure" in the material feel. I also prefer a mat that is wider...not too narrow...not too long, either.
MatSurfers – Did you think the heavier materials and fabrics of yesteryear responded as well to lower inflations? I mean go back to say the movie, Fantasea with Paul and George, or the Maui stuff with George and the old Hodgman’s, and they are riding with lower inflations and ripping!
JJ – The older material had a finite amount of stretch to it. The nylon is like that, but, the lighter weight material is more reactive to pressure and those bending forces. That suspension quality that we like when you ride the mat correctly and the feeling is kind of pivotal. I’d give the nod to the newer materials.
MatSurfers – Your next level in mat making, where do you think you are going to take it?
JJ – That’s a good question. I always thought maybe doing some different things regarding the geometry, maybe more pronounced rocker, more swizzled sides might facilitate turning or do the opposite way maybe make it really open. Or, All the Woody rafts all had skegs. They made these little fiberglass marine plywood things and screwed them in with 1, 2 3 screws and they worked great. A true Woody raft was rounded with fins. Like the mat outside! I have done a lot of testing to see if this model is going to hold up; Mechanical testing, Tensile Testing, Drumroll Testing, Tensile Shear, Flat line. I work around a lot of composites, fiberglass, Kevlar and carbon fiber. I know a fair bit about material science.
From the late 70’s to the late 80’s you couldn’t ride anything new because you couldn’t always get anything new. All that was available new was the Intex stuff. Of course those old Hodgman’s would still hold air after all those years. I even have some of the original boxes from mats made some 40 years ago. The craftsmanship and materials were second to none. Then in the mid 60’s Hodgman merged with Converse and you had all that canvas to rubber weld stuff. I mean look at the P.F. Flyers and Chuck Taylors Sneakers. They were n the same wave length. You could wear those canvas High Tops to death. But then everything eventually went to Japan and the quality stayed good until they finally sent production to Taiwan and they felt they could do a canvas on vinyl mat. Except they leaked, were cheap and the vinyl just didn’t work. You can’t put vinyl in a swimming pool with chlorine. It just doesn’t hold up.
In that 10 year 70’s to 80’s where mats weren’t available readily I took it upon myself to study the Net and EBay for anything Hodgman. 90% of what I would come across would be Camp Mats or inflatable sleeping mats, vs. the 10% of vinyl mats for sale. These Camp mats were all over the place. Campers used them for years. They were U.S. Army issue mats, 5, sometimes 6 pontoons, and the same Hodgman surf mat construction and had a valve in the corner. Only problem they were 8 feet long and made for sleeping. So I bought some and thought I would cut the round end off, re-do it with contact cement, clamp it down and go. I was pretty successful. I re-worked 2 of them and one of them I rode into the ground. This was probably 1988. Just for the record I also had and rode a Woody Woodworth mat of my own that he made.
MatSurfers – As Paul Gross was recently quoted on his SurfMatter’s Blog, “We couldn’t make 4th Gear Flyers without JJ’s machining expertise. Dude is hitting it on all 8 cylinders.” So what does that mean?
JJ – I’ve kind of been helping him out in regards to the manufacturing process. Because he went a different route than the old Hodgman mats, like Radio Welding (RF). Or, not contact cementing and no canvas and rubber involved and this stubby little valve thing. It’s like a lightweight, waterproof jacket and, it’s really freaking cool, in construction and maybe that is the Zen of the thing.
MatSurfers — Is that the Zen you look for in a surf mat?
JJ – Quality of construction is paramount in any mat, and is relative to its longevity. I have a few vintage rideable Hodgman mats that still hold air 60 years later! Whether it is heat-sealed TPU coated nylon, or RF welded PVC, or vulcanized/cemented canvas construction, the manufacturer's technique must be solid.
MatSurfers – So what is your go to mat currently?
JJ – I have a small fleet of Fourth Gear Flyers to choose from for varying conditions, but I've found the Fatty XL model (4GF) gets the most use.
MatSurfers - How often to you go to other mats to try them?
JJ – I do have a large collection of vintage and modern surf mats to tap into for experimentation, nostalgia, etc. There is something to learn from everyone, regardless of age or maker. I also enjoy riding a 4th Gear Flyer Paul made me called a “Polara.” I always give him my height and weight then he builds me mats. I’ve had him build lots of mats. I showed him my 5 pontoon double canvas thing once and he said, “Hey, you’re going backwards.” I just said ok just stay with me cause I want to put fins on it.
MatSurfers – Fins on a mat, skegs? That changes the whole dynamics.
JJ – We have only always relied on our swim fins to do that work!
MatSurfers – What would you do with the inflation then?
JJ – I would say in certain waves you don’t fool with it. But on those Big, Big Days (a gleam showed up in his eyes just talking about it), hurricane swells where the waves are not so much down the face as out onto the face and shoulder, riding so you don’t die from some triple overhead wave. Like at the end of the Jetty you need to get going along the face, and quickly. Then do those big round house cutbacks at speed, before bouncing off the whitewater and keep going for that 150 yard ride carving the whole time.
MatSurfers - What is normal and comfortable to you in regards to inflations and how often do you adjust?
JJ – The whole variable inflation aspect of a mat is its inherent strength, and what sets it apart from other surf craft (besides portability). I tend to vary my inflation levels based on the surf conditions at hand. Naturally, I "firm up" when the waves look hollower, demanding more side-to-side torque applied in bottom turns. A flatter, slower wave profile will have me running lower inflation levels for sure...think of head high San Onofre, Cotton's Point, etc.
MatSurfers – How about airflow inside a mat?
JJ – All things being equal, I like it equalized throughout. You talk I-Beams that have cross -hole drilling, the Slow Breather.
MatSurfers – Do you prefer a Wheezer or a Free Breather?
JJ – (laughs) I prefer free breathing. I like to squeeze rails in certain situations, build pressure from inside to outside; you know that whole variable displacement thing.
MatSurfers - What is your fantasy mat wave?
JJ – Any long, uncrowded, right-hand, shoulder high point break with warm water temps! I know this might sound cliché, but I keep going back to that imagery of Cape St. Francis in Bruce Brown's The Endless Summer. If only Robert August and Mike Hynson had packed their mats & fins along.....sigh!
MatSurfers - How fast do you think you have gone, realistically? Have you seen top end speed yet in your career?
JJ – Good question! I do fondly remember riding a cheap Intex PVC mat once during a good swell at Rincon. A day no one was giving up ANYTHING...let alone for the guy on his red & yellow "pool toy". Luckily (for me) I guy fell off during this set wave on a blown cutback, so I had a chance to pick the wave off. Wow! Once I had set up a trim position and held on, the speed run all the way into the cove was just unbelievable! I'm not sure if I'll ever find top end speed....cause it's a never-ending quest!
MatSurfers - Any memorable sessions and/or experiences you’d like to share and where were they?
JJ – Certainly the entire planned (or impromptu) mat meets. T-Street in San Clemente was a first. Then Solana Beach, Cotton's Point, Leo Carrillo, etc... It's the camaraderie...friendships forged....memories made...good times! Lastly, I can't forget the thrilling (terrifying?) Invite from Woody to surf off the end of the CDM jetty on a full moon at midnight during a huge South swell! That's a call you don't get often, and one you don't dare turn down! Mat surfing has always felt like some sort of youth elixir for me. I still get funny looks sometimes when I paddle out...I could really care less. Fact is, I've come back from every mat session feeling more rejuvenated and alive....good stuff!