Commemorating the Life and Legacy of Surf Icon Tom Morey

Megan Swedberg

2021 marks the 50th anniversary of the Boogie Board, celebrating the lightweight, flexible bodyboard creation that revolutionized the surf industry. Unfortunately, as of October 14, it also marks the passing of the legendary inventor of the Boogie Board, Tom Morey, who died at the age of 86 due to complications from a stroke.

According to SurferToday, which is considered “the ultimate surfing news website,” Morey was introduced to the surfing world at eight years old, after having moved from Detroit, MI to Laguna Beach in Southern California. There he first discovered the art of bodysurfing by riding waves on his father’s back before learning to ride a surf mat, catching his first wave on a surfboard, and eventually becoming one of California’s most renowned longboard surfers. 

Morey fell in love with the ocean and he was inspired to experiment with different surfboard creations out of a genuine desire to share this love by getting as many people into the water as possible. As surf historian Jim Kempton reported to The Guardian, “He invented the ‘wing tip’, a Coaund Lift nose, and created the first polypropylene fin and first commercial interchangeable fin system.” Furthermore, after earning a mathematics degree at the University of Southern California and working several jobs as an engineer, Morey opened a surf shop and hosted the world’s first professional surfing contest.

Though Morey clearly made many contributions to the sport of surf, there are perhaps none as significant as the Boogie Board.

In the 1970s, after moving to Hawaii, Morey sought to design a board that was soft, light, and inexpensive like a surf mat, but that was able to perform like a traditional surfboard. As further reported in SurferToday, Morey said “I was always depressed by the shape of a surf mat. A surf mat is really designed to hold air, not to surf. Surfboards, on the other hand, are more efficient, but a lot of people get turned off to them because they are so hard.” 

Experimenting with soft foam, Morey shaped a two-by-four-and-a-half-foot board with a rounded nose, square edge, and no fins in his backyard before paddling out to the waves to test his creation. After riding his first wave on his new creation, Morey had an epiphany. He later stated “I could actually feel the wave through the board. On a surfboard, you’re not feeling every nuance on the wave, but with my creation, I could feel everything. I was thinking: ‘it turns, it’s durable, it can be made cheaply, it’s lightweight, it’s safe. God, this could be a really big thing.'” Initially, Morey called his creation S.N.A.K.E. (side, navel, arm, knee, elbow). However, desiring a more commercial branding name, Morey eventually called his invention the Boogie Board, which was inspired by his fondness of jazz music and what NBC News described as “nights playing ukulele, drums and guitars with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Stu Williamson, Bid Shank and Conte Condoli.” The second person to test the Boogie Board was Morey’s wife Marchia, who was eight and a half months pregnant at the time. Reasonably, Marchia doubted that she could safely try out the board in her current physical state, but the Boogie Board made it possible for anyone, no matter their condition, to safely surf in the shallows. 

As Sol Morey reported in The Guardian, the Boogie Board reinvented the way people could ride waves by changing the “dynamic of toughness involved with surfing,” making the water more accessible to everybody, and making the ocean less threatening. “When you are able to go into the ocean and come out of it unscathed, unhurt, that really does something to you. The ocean is something to be feared, but the Boogie Board took some of that fear out.”

As a relatively cheap product that could be simply tossed into the water for a ride by anyone, the boogie board quickly gained popularity and boogie-boarding evolved into not only a favorite pastime hobby but a professional sport. Along with becoming a sport within itself, bodyboarding jump-started the careers of generations of professional Southern California surfers, for many first faced the ocean waves with a bodyboard bought from their local drug store.

Despite the boogie board becoming a global sensation, Morey sold the boogie board trademark, missing out on what might have been millions of dollars. According to his son Sol, Morey was never interested in money, but he rather valued the impact his inventions had on people’s lives.

Up until his recent death, Morey continued to develop new surfboard shapes and designs, along with crafting other inventions outside of surfing such as a universal language and number system. He continually strove to improve the world and positively influence the lives of millions, making his legacy one that will forever live on.