George Greenough at a first glance seems unimportant with his kneeboard and surf mat, but don't let that fool you. He's one of the most influential people in the evolution of modern surfing. He hasn't stood on a surfboard since the early sixties, yet he is credited as the inspiration for the modern surfboard fin, in-the-tube water photography and the entire shortboard revolution. In response, Greenough just shrugs and goes about his business, which is innovation and reinvention.
Greenough was born in Santa Barbara, CA in 1941 to Hamliton and Helen Greenough. A descendant of the great sculptor Horatio Greenough, and son to the heir of a railroad fortune, Greenough grew up in a Montecito mansion; his upbringing was unique if not eccentric. He didn't want to wear shoes, and his parents didn't make him. Greenough's worn them only three times in his adult life (he flies first-class so he can remain shoeless) and a suit just twice in his life.
George has been surfing since the mid 50's and grew up surfing the pristine waves of the Hollister Ranch, just north of Santa Barbara (the Hollisters were friends of the family) and then unknown places like Rincon(Just south of Santa Barbara) .Greenough says he never really related to stand up surfing, he thought the surfboards of the time were too restraining and the crowds to hectic. George kept surfing and in 1962 made his way into surfing history by shaping a 7'8" x 22" baby surfboard with materials he bought from the Yater surfshop. He never really rode it, but his friends Bob Cooper, Skip Frye and Bob McTavish sampled it. Not satisfied he built a rather conventional kneeboard with a slightly scooped-out deck in 1962, much like the one he'd later take to Australia (the 'spoon') and inspire a band of surfers in quest of new dimensions of performance.
In 1965, Greenough created his breakthrough kneeboard, Velo. Unlike anything that had gone before, Velo featured the distinctive "spoon" shape, which has been the trademark feature of Greenough's boards ever since. Based on a performance concept Greenough called "neutral handling," the board was designed to flex in the same way his fins did. With a Bob Simmons-like plan shape that was buoyed only by a foam-filled rail section (the middle of the board was just fiberglass, tapering back to a flexible glass tail), the board just barely floated itself.
Velo weighed only about 6 pounds and was powered by an 11-inch high-aspect fin designed built by Greenough. Wide and thick at the base, then sweeping and tapering to a raked tip, the fiberglass foil loaded up on torque and propelled his kneeboard out of a turn with alarming force. It was Velo (and its powerful fin) that inspired Nat Young's 1966 World Championship board, Sam, and the vee-bottom shortboard experiments of McTavish and his test pilots in Australia in 1966 and 1967, thus becoming the catalyst for the shortboard revolution.
In 1966 armed with a Nikonos water camera, Greenough snapped his seminal in-the-tube shot of Russell Hughes that opened an entirely new territory in surf photography. Inspired by such successes, he began to fabricate his own waterproof boxes for his 35mm camera. In the late '60s and early '70s, these Greenough housings were in great demand among the rising stars in surf photography and many continue to build housings in the Greenough style.
Greenough's camera housings continued to be in demand by filmmakers up until the late 1980's by Hollywood studios and underwater photography. Many underwater filmmakers still use the cameras and housings that he built for them, showing their strength and durability even after 10 or more years of hard use.
Paul Witzig's 1967 surf flick, Hot Generation, featured one of George's first forays into motion pictures. He shot the in-the-tube point-of-view footage with a modified 16mm camera mounted on his back or on the nose of his spoon. Later he created a rig with a battery pack and lights and filmed at night at Rincon and other spots. The resultant film, The Innermost Limits of Pure Fun (1970), reflected Greenough's crystal-clear fascination with the curling wave and his own torquing wake; it was a completely unique cinematic adventure that broke new ground in cinematography, he followed this with Crystal Voyager which featured a soundtrack by Pink Floyd.
By 1968, shortboards had swept away the old logs and Greenough was a renowned surf-culture hero. Curious surfers were ever on the lookout for his celebrated California Highway Patrol black-and-white Dodge 440, but just as likely, Greenough was cruising the Channel Islands in his modified 16-foot Boston Whaler (old surfboards were cut up, shaped and glassed into a coupe-style shell that gave the thing roll-over capabilities), checking his lobster traps or shark fishing along the way to esoteric surf spots that he generally surfed alone.
For the next 30 years, he followed an endless winter, alternating residences between his parents Montecito mansion (where he had transformed large sections of the house into workshop spaces) and the Byron Bay area, so he could ride the more powerful winter swells and escape the summer crowds. More and more often he took to the surf on a canvas air mattress, which he could somehow make go faster than anyone on a surfboard. His surfing became the stuff of legend.
Finally in 1998 after the death of his mother George permanently moved to Australia, He resides near Byron Bay and remains unconcerned with any sort of acclaim. His current ongoing film project (Dolphin Glide) is a documentary on dolphins, for which he crafted a housing shaped like a baby dolphin to keep pace with the creatures underwater.
Actively involved in efforts to clean up the ocean, Greenough has been participating in recent surf elder powwows Down Under. Even so, he has been forced to abandon the powerful grinders at Lennox Head. "It's too violent down there," he says. He simply continues to innovate, record the action and surf, even if it is on a mat.