On a warm sunny day about a dozen skateboarders are buzzing around the Novato Skate Park on Hamilton Parkway, just enough people to keep the energy going but not too many to make it overcrowded. The skaters alternate between trying their tricks, taking breaks to watch the others and getting lured in by the ice cream van that rolls through the parking lot every few hours. They range in age from eight to 40, and each brings a different story to the park, one that can be seen in the skater’s style and chosen terrain. The Marin skate community is a multigenerational group who all learned to skate at different points in the evolution of this sport.
The 15,000-square-foot park in Novato consists of a perimeter track of technical obstacles like stairs, rails and ledges and a five-foot-deep bowl that weaves its way through the center like a lazy river. The popular park is known for its cohesive design that allows skaters to flow from obstacle to obstacle without having to step off their boards.
Today, 37-year-old Billy Handly is in the bowl. Although only 20 percent of skaters in the United States are older than 18, diehards like Handly prove skateboarding is not just for kids. “I’ve been skating in and around Marin County for the last 25 years and I’m having as much fun with it as ever,” the Corte Madera resident says. “My friends still mountain-bike, and no one thinks that’s weird. I just happen to skate.”
Handly grew up in an era when skaters mostly kept their feet planted on their boards and focused on carving whatever transitions they could find. “We would skate ditches, curbs, banked driveways, mini-ramps and the occasional empty swimming pool,” he says.
Handly also rides at the McInnis Skate Park in San Rafael, where he likes to skate the 10-foot-deep bowl, a highlight of the park. At 25,000 square feet, McInnis is the largest park in Marin, costing $1.6 million to build. It’s known for being a great place for younger skaters because it’s broken up into various sections where kids can skate by themselves, yet the design also lacks the flow that makes the Novato park so popular.
“I think the kids today have it pretty good in terms of [skate] parks, at least,” Handly says. “Within Marin you can pretty much find a little bit of everything, and there’s 20-plus more parks throughout the Bay Area.”
Just as Handly is leaving, James Norton flies by and lands a perfect 360-flip (he kicks the board horizontally 360 degrees and it rolls over itself once, then he lands back on it) off of a waist-high ledge. Norton, 25, grew up in Mill Valley learning tricks an earlier generation of skaters never dreamed of. While Handly grew up skating pools and ramps, Norton grew up skating street spots like the stairs of the Sausalito post office, the Corte Madera DMV and various schoolyards and office complexes around Marin.
“We could skate anything then and have fun,” Norton recalls. “Tricks were still being invented and everything felt new and exciting. Street skating in Marin is actually a lot harder now. A lot of spots have been shut down by security guards, people telling you to go to the skate parks, and people paranoid about lawsuits on their property.”
So why persevere, at an age where most might put down their boards, especially in an expensive place like Marin? The answer’s simple, Norton says. “Why not? I’m still having fun and progressing. It keeps me fit and it’s one of the best ways I know to have fun and kill some time!”
These daysevents like ESPN’s X Games have also turned skateboarding into a mainstream sport, with top skaters earning in the millions through endorsements and winnings. But 14-year-old Woolf Barnato of Kentfield doesn’t seem to notice. He’s too busy having fun skating around with his friends, just as Handly and Norton used to, and trying to come up with new ways to skate the Novato park. “We tried to build a cement bowl in the hills behind my house when I was 10 but got chased out by a mountain lion,” he says. Nowadays,
“I pretty much [always] just skate, unless I’m in school.”
Across the generations, the creativity, adrenaline and camaraderie of the sport are what keep local skaters going. “Skateboarding really recharges my batteries,” Handly attests. “It recharges my soul, and it gets me all stoked on life again no matter what I’m going through.”
Novato Skate Park
1200 Hamilton Pkwy.
15,000-square-foot, all cement park; offers a seasonal skate camp.
McInnis Skate Park
310 Smith Ranch Rd., San Rafael
25,000-square-foot, all-cement park.
Corte Madera Skate Park
1 Pixley Ave. off Tamalpais Drive, in the Corte Madera Town Park
A small park with mostly plastic ramps.
Bolinas Skate Park
In Mesa Park, off Mesa Rd, next to the firehouse
All-cement park with a 30-foot-wide mini-ramp and a simple street course.
Mill Valley Skate Park
425 Sycamore Ave., behind Mill Valley Middle School
One of the smallest skate parks in Marin; all plastic ramps.
Battens & Boards
2640 Northgate Mall, San Rafael
DLX Skateboards and Clothing
1831 Market St., SF
Fat Kat Surf Shop
1906 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Fairfax
Proof Lab Surf and Skate Shop
(Lessons and gear)
254 Shoreline Hwy., Mill Valley
Triumph 4th Street
907 Fourth St., San Rafael