For miles in any direction, mountains of sand, many standing over 200 feet tall, are all that can be seen. The blue streak of the Pacific Ocean near the horizon seems unreachable beyond the bare expanse of dunes rising and falling for miles in between. Here, atop the highest pile of sand, a solitary figure leaps onto the slope — a small wooden board attached to his feet — and accelerates down the dune. As he picks up speed, the skinny, shaggy-haired rider begins to carve a path back and forth across the dune face in an effortless motion. Almost at the hill’s base, he launches off a small jump. He reaches down through the sand that sprays in all directions and grips the edge of his board for a brief moment while suspended in the air. A split second later his board crashes to the ground and spins to a graceful stop, a goofy grin plastered across Joey Peterson’s face.
In the past four years, Peterson has turned the 29.6 mph journey from the top of a sand dune to its base into the major focus of his life. Introduced to the obscure sport at the age of sixteen, Peterson, who lives just outside of Florence, Oregon, admits to being skeptical at first.
“A friend wanted me to go for quite a while, but I thought he was talking about skimboarding. When I told him I didn’t want to get all wet and cold, he looked at me like I was an idiot,” Peterson says.
His friend explained that sandboarding is a dry sport, similar to snowboarding, in which the rider stands in the bindings of a waxed, wooden board and carves down a massive sand dune. Peterson decided to give it a try.
Since then, he has taken every opportunity to hit the dunes with a love for extreme sports running in his blood. He started out racing motocross, but quit after several years to focus on skateboarding. Peterson remained an ardent skateboarder for several years before being introduced to sandboarding. He says it didn’t take him long to make the decision to quit skating and put all of his focus into sandboarding.
“Falling on sand is much less painful than falling on pavement, or even snow for that matter,” says Peterson. “I was sick of always skinning elbows and knees and banging myself up while skating.”
After only a year of riding, Peterson participated in his first competition: a big air contest in Florence called X-West Huckfest. Peterson decided to enter the event with less than a month to train and less than a year of riding under his belt. With such little time spent on the sand, Peterson recalls that his first competition was nothing short of a disaster.
On his first run, Peterson tore straight down a 200 foot dune, flying toward the big air jump at an uncontrollable speed. In his short time riding Peterson had not yet learned the essential sandboarding technique of speed checking, in which a rider carves through the sand in a zig-zag pattern so he doesn’t lose control of his board.
“I had no idea what I was doing. I just thought I did.”
“I didn’t know about speed checking and went straight-shot off the jump with no control,” Peterson says.
After hitting the jump at full speed, Peterson spun into an unintentional 360 and twisted sideways as he flew towards the ground. While trying to recover, he plunged backwards into the sand in a wreck so painful and infamous that sandboarders have given it it’s own name: The Butt Torn, or BT. Peterson can hardly help but flinch as he recalls smashing into the dune with only the left side of butt.
“When just one part of you hits the sand, that part stops, but the rest doesn’t. So if one of your butt cheeks hits–well that’s where the name comes from.” he recalls.
However, despite the numerous painful crashes into the dune, Peterson quickly discovered he had a natural talent for the sport. Within that first year of riding, he caught the eye of Lon Beale, owner and founder of Sand Master Park in Florence, the world‘s first sandboarding park. Beale is considered a pioneer of sandboarding in the United States. Since opening the park in 2000, he has discovered and coached some of the world’s best riders, including Josh Tenge, a four-time world sandboarding champion who holds three world records. Peterson began riding and training under Beale and has been hooked on the sport ever since.
For the past three years, Peterson has competed in the three major events that make up the Florence sandboarding season: The Sandmaster Jam, The NSA Railjam, and Huckfest.
This past summer, Peterson nearly claimed his first sandboarding championship. He dominated the Sandmaster Jam, an event featuring both slalom racing and straight speed competitions. Peterson finished second in the slalom and cruised to third place in speed with a top speed of 29.6 mph. The combined showings were enough for Peterson to finish first place overall.
“I kill it at the slalom. I think it’s from knowing how to skate and how to pump,” Peterson says while explaining how the Sandmaster Jam is his strongest of the three events. “We had practice the day before and I did absolutely horrible. Yet, I somehow came out the next day and killed during the competition.”
Peterson then took to the rails at the NSA Railjam, a rail grinding competition that he considers to be his weakest event. He complains that the rails are often buried too low in the sand to help younger, more inexperienced riders. In doing so, they become awkward to jump onto and easier for an experienced rider to lose his balance. Even so, Peterson was able to grind his way to a strong third place overall finish.
He stood in prime condition to win his first championship, trailing a good friend by just a few points with only the big air competition of Huckfest remaining in the season. Then one night, as he drove at 3:00 a.m. along a remote highway outside of Florence, Peterson lost control, rolled the car several times, and derailed his potential championship season.
Thinking back on the experience, Peterson counts himself lucky to have emerged from the wreck alive, much less riding again in just two months. He seriously injured his left shoulder and sustained numerous cuts and bruises. His injuries ended his sandboarding season, but Peterson believes that the fact he was able to recover and resume riding within two months was nothing short of miraculous.
Though Peterson says he’s not yet fully recovered, he has resumed his regular sandboarding training and hopes to make another run at the championship next year.
“Joey was our poster boy this past summer,” Beale says. “He was so close to being a champion [until his wreck]; but next year, he’s going to be our guy.”
Beyond riding in Florence next year, Peterson hopes to showcase his riding internationally in the near future. He, Beale, and five or six other riders from Florence were recently invited by the Egyptian government to showcase their skills in Cairo alongside riders from around the world, including Peru and Saudi Arabia.
Peterson was also recently approached by the editor of Sandboard Magazine who offered to pay for him and fellow rider Matt Walton to compete in Mexico this February. Peterson can hardly contain his excitement at the prospect of traveling abroad to showcase his talent alongside some of the best international riders in the world.
“They’re both such great opportunities. I’ve never left the country and have barely even been out of the state, so to be able to go across the world is just amazing,” he says.
Above all, it’s the atmosphere and culture surrounding sandboarding that Peterson has grown to love about the sport. He so enjoys the variety and openness sandboarding offers people of all types that last year he began working for Beale at Sand Master Park, primarily instructing new riders and sharing his passion for the sport with anyone who will listen.
“With other boarding sports like skating or surfing, the riders tend to stick to their little cliques and create their own culture. With sandboarding, everyone is welcome and people are so friendly,” he says.
Peterson sees all sorts of new riders, young and old, coming to Sand Master, including families completely new to the sport and extreme sports enthusiasts wanting to try something new. He especially enjoys seeing experienced riders from the similar sport of snowboarding try riding the dunes for their first time.
“Snowboarders often come in expecting this to work exactly the same. I try to give everyone pointers and I catch them completely ignoring me. Usually they come back in later complaining that their boards don’t work right. That’s why you see the stickers reading ‘It’s not snow’ all around here,” Peterson says.
Though it’s now the off-season, Peterson stands atop the forty foot dune preparing for another trip down. He’s demonstrating to some new riders how to properly wax their boards.
“Rub the wax in vertical lines across the board like you’re back in second grade learning to color,” he explains to the onlookers with a smile.
“I just love the sport,” he says.
“No matter what time of year it is, I always want to be out here. I will take every chance I can get to come out and ride.”
As if to punctuate his words, Peterson slips his feet into the bindings, hops onto the slope, and begins to carve a path down the dune. His movements on the board are as natural as walking as he smoothly rotates his back foot in the usual S pattern of a speed check. Completely at home on the sand, he drops into a quick crouch and launches himself spinning gracefully through the air.