Skim Jam in Bethany Beach is a weekly demo and hangout hosted by professional skimboarders. Photograph by John Yeatman, Jr.

A Shore Break for Skimboarding

A youth movement and annual competition is spurring growth in the sport. We chatted with passionate skimboarder, Bill Baxter, on how he’s pushing his sport into new frontiers.

Bill Baxter sounds mildly bummed. It’s the middle of a heat wave in Bethany Beach: “Bad for ocean waves,” he says.

Baxter has a couple dozen kids in mind. They’ll be turning up soon for Skim Jam, a weekly demo and hangout hosted by professional skimboarders like Baxter, who shreds the surf on boards visitors can rent or buy from Bethany Surf Shop. The tradition has been running for 22 years straight. Skim Jam is just one reason Delaware beaches have emerged as an epicenter for the sport.

“It’s cool, and it’s become like a meeting point too, which I think is really rad because we’ve got some local kids and then you have all these other kids from different areas,” Baxter says. “They met at Skim Jam and now they’re summer buds.”

Bill Baxter was photographed by John Yeatman, Jr.

No matter the waves, young boarders usually have a blast with Baxter. The skimboarding pro grew up on a couple acres of farmland in Stockley. His mom Olive, a fellow beach fanatic, was happy to drive them to Bethany or Fenwick Island whenever chores were done.

Though Baxter still maintains a connection to the farm — “we’re ready for that sweet corn to be ready for the barbie,” he says — he found his true calling in skimboarding.

The slimmer, shorter cousin to surfboards, skimboards allow the rider tighter control on the comparatively smaller waves Delaware beaches offer. Beneath the right pair of feet, they can resemble skateboards on the ocean, complete with kickflips and scalpel-sharp 360 rotations.

The unique properties of the Delaware coastline make it an ideal skimboarding spot. “We get really good shore breaks,” explains Jason Wilson, a Dewey Beach skimboarding icon. “The waves break at a linear angle and riders are quite attracted to that. Since the ‘80s, there’s been top riders coming from this area that have gained some exposure, which has highlighted the area as well, in addition to the competition.”

Wilson knows a thing or two. Harry Wilson, Jason’s father, is a local pioneer for the sport. “He manufactured the boards in Georgetown, and sold them for a long time, so it became really popular here,” Jason Wilson says. In addition to running Alley-Oop, his skimboarding lessons and camp business, Wilson directs the Zap Pro/Am World Championships of Skimboarding, now in its 41st year.

“I’m really proud to showcase this coastal vibe, our skimming culture.”
— Bill Baxter

Its tradition and its quality have made Zap — so named for the skimboard company who sponsors the event — one of the East Coast’s premier events for the sport, drawing around 200 of the best pro and amateur skimboarders from around the world, plus nearly 1,000 daily spectators. World champions attend Wilson’s tournaments, and last year, the Zap Pro/Am doled out $10,000 in prize money to competitors.

“I’m really proud to showcase this coastal vibe, our skimming culture. We have some art at the event, we have some music. It’s everything I like about this area that I try to highlight and make it the best we can this weekend. It’s a bit of a circus in town for the weekend. But I know a lot of people really enjoy the circus.”

Aside from the skim contests, the weekend includes live reggae music and DJs, and some requisite partying. On Saturday night, Wilson and organizers host an art show called The Art of Skim at Ivy in Dewey Beach. Artists and celeb skimboarders painted and autographed unique mini skimboards, which will be displayed and auctioned off for charity at North Beach.

A proud Bill Baxter (second from left) at a recent Skim Jam.

“It’s like our 4th of July,” says Baxter, who, along with Wilson, have emerged as two of Delaware’s ambassadors for skimboarding. But that picture might be expanding.

A youth movement — led by women like Sydney Pizza, an up-and-coming star who turned pro in 2022 — is again spurring growth in the sport. She splits her time between Dewey Beach and California, returning to coach in Alley-Oops’ camps. “She’s really great and an ambassador for the young ladies,” Wilson says. “I think that’s pretty neat, the growth of the women side of the sport. That’s a pretty big trend across the board right now in board sports.”

Baxter is helping to push his sport into new frontiers, too. He’s an early adopter of a motorized winch pulley system that whips riders into waves with incredible speed and control. Imagine an electric, retractable rope that allows the skimmer to tow himself through waves like a water-skier. “Your rides are amazing with a winch. The slams are amazing too,” he says. “It’s still new and we’re still pushing the boundaries.”

Local heroes like Wilson, Baxter and Pizza get their moment in the sun later this week at the Zap Pro/Am, where they’ll sign autographs, give out stickers and sell T-shirts, all while helping and hyping the contests. “It’ll be cool because a lot of my boys will be in town and I get to show them around Sussex County and give them a good time,” Baxter says.

“As far as skimboarding in the summertime, it’s on tons of people’s schedules,” says Baxter. “It’s like a holiday weekend. And the cool thing is you’ll see generational stuff: we get to see the people that Wilson and I looked up to when we were little kids, and now we’re pushing kids in skim camps and stuff like that. It’s cool to see the process keep going and seeing the sport grow and evolve.

The motorized winch (seen here with Baxter) has added a new dimension to skimboarding. Think of it as the cousin of tow-in surfing (where a watercraft positioned out in the ocean tows the surfer on a line at a high-speed and into the waves). Instead of a boat, this version utilizes a small, motorized device with a retractable rope inside. It’s gas-powered, and can resemble a go-kart motor. With an assistant operating the winch that’s been anchored near the surf, the skimboarder holds onto a handle on the other end like a water-skier. When the line retracts, the rider goes whipping into the waves or the gaps between them. As the rider lets go of the line, they can build up speed ranging anywhere from 15 to 40 miles per hour. It’s a dance that requires some rhythm and timing from both the winch operator and rider. But when it works: “I think it’s great…the slams are so gnarly,” says Baxter.

The 2023 Zap Pro/Am World Championship of Skimboarding takes place Aug. 11-13 at 9 a.m. at McKinley Street in Dewey Beach. The competition concludes with an awards ceremony on Sunday.

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