Backyard pioneer Brennan Gagnon is keeping the dream alive.
Vert skating is not for the faint of heart. High-flying aerials, inverted hand plants and lip tricks are burly enough to scare even the most experienced skaters.
Short for “vertical,” vert skating is exactly what it sounds like. Skaters ride on ramps, usually over 10-feet-tall, with transitions that end up at straight 90 degrees. Like riding a pendulum, they drop in one wall and fly down the transition toward an identical wall with enough speed to rocket into the sky. Consequences are high, but so are the rewards.
A niche community within a niche community, vert skating used to pull only the gnarliest skaters around, but today, thanks to accessibility, vert skating is growing once again.
After reaching its pinnacle in the ’80s, vert skating began to flutter out because of a lack of access to the vertical surfaces required to practice on. Vertical surfaces are incredibly resource intensive and not easy to come by at the time. But North Florida skaters will be getting a perfect canvas for those looking to take four wheels to air soon enough when the Datil Pepper Vert Ramp opens.
Vert skating began in backyards on handbuilt ramps but was taken mainstream by Jacksonville’s very own skateboard holy ground, Kona Skatepark. Located off Arlington Expressway near Regency, Kona opened in 1977, making it the oldest functioning skatepark in the world and a pioneer in developing the sport.
Kona’s place in skating history—and vert skating—cannot be overestimated. The first vert ramps, called U-ramps, had no flat bottom making it incredibly hard for skaters to generate enough speed to get vertical. But Kona built a ramp so large and so hard to skate that word has it there was a $10,000 bounty on someone to drop into it. The ramp was so gnarly, however, no one skated it, and the financial investment led to the park’s first bankruptcy.
But in true skater fashion, Kona didn’t give up. Instead, they improved upon the first ramp with the perfect ratio of transition, flat bottom and vertical wall. The incorporation of the flat bottom allowed skaters to get two pumps for speed—one down the wall and another going up the opposite wall—eventually allowing for tricks like the 900-degree aerial spin to come to fruition (yes, that is two and a half spins; thank you, Tony Hawk). The park was also the first to host a professional/amateur competition on a vert ramp, the Kona Summer Nationals in 1981.
Kona was a mandatory pilgrimage for all skateboarders during the height of vert skating. But after its popularity peaked in the late ’80s and street skateboarding grabbed hold of the limelight, fewer skaters found the pilgrimage necessary.
The ’90s brought dreams of street progression, meaning skaters could literally practice stair sets and curbs anywhere there were stairs or curbs.
While vert skating never died, especially here in North Florida, but it has had its slumps and we’re on the upswing out of one right now.
In contrast to the old days where people were funneling into this area to skate vert, skaters have to look elsewhere to find ramps, which is why Brennan Gagnon decided to build one in his backyard.
“I mean, to be a true vert skater in North Florida right now is to kind of be a road dog. You’re on the road every weekend, and you’re kind of chasing it and going where the scene is. You know, that’s something that’s exhilarating and a fun part about it. But it can be a pain in the butt. I mean, it’s just a lot to have to travel every weekend. So I think it’ll just add something to eat, to have our own thing going on right here. Because there’s been vert ramps in North Florida before. And then they’ve gotten torn down. So we’re building just to have something here and now.”
This backyard pioneer is keeping the dream alive today. Once completed, it will be the only standing wood vert ramp in St. Augustine. The 11-foot-tall-24-foot-wide behemoth of a ramp is constructed entirely out of pressure treated wood with Florida’s climate in mind and surfaced with Gatorskin, a specially formed compound made just for skating that is nearly indestructible as it’s both water and fire resistant.
“I’ve loved to skate vert for a few years now. And I just thought if I could ever own a home, I’d love to build a ramp. And that became a reality during 2020. My lease was coming to an end, and interest rates are pretty low. And I just thought, well, if I have a job here in town, I’m going to be here for a while I should buy a home, because that’s probably smarter than renting. So I ended up in this great neighborhood with no HOA or anything. And, you know, people kind of do their own thing anyway. The main thing is, I just had to ask the blessing of my neighbor right there, cuz she’s older. And I asked her if I could build a ramp, and she was super supportive of it. And she’s been kind all along the way. We started fundraising in the fall of this past year. And as we raised money, we started to put the ramp up with the help of some friends and carpenters. And slowly, slowly got to where we’re at right now.”
Although the year gave Brennan time to actually start the project, lockdowns and safety protocols wreaked havoc on the lumber industry making materials expensive. It’s community built as much as it’s community funded. This is important to keep in mind as although he’s stoked to have the ramp in his backyard for him and his friends, he’s also pushing forward the skate community. Local kids come pouring into his backyard to see the project. and most are already taking to skating on the wood.
“There’s been a lot of people who have wanted to point out, hey, you obviously live in a poor minority community, how are you reaching out to and saving these kids so to speak, and I don’t like to frame it that way. I just like to say, like in any other community, I’m sure there’s kids who could use an alternative outlet, an alternative sport if you’re maybe a little more artsy or something. And I think that kids in this community, because there’s poverty in our community, there’s a lot of injustice going on. The kids in this community are under, I would say, a unique amount of stress. You know, they don’t need somebody to come in to save them or anything. That’s not what I’m here to do. But I just think there are certain kids in our community, like any community, who could use a really positive outlet. And I think vert skating is a unique outlet that not many people get to experience. So if I can, if I can throw that in the mix, you know, maybe it’s worthwhile.”
This ramp is going to be a great place for people to learn how to skate, but it’s also a perfect spot for those that already take kindly to vertical surfaces. The ramp has the exact same dimensions as the ramp Christian Hosoi blasted his famous 11-foot air at the Vision Highest Air competition back in 1980s.
Although Gagnon is proud to have the vert in his backyard, he’s most excited for the community to have it too.