When I tell people that I bodysurf, most immediately identify “bodysurfing” with a middle-aged, overweight father who launches himself in front of a wave while joyfully laughing with his eight-year-old daughter at the beach. They don’t understand what it truly means to bodysurf a real wave. I describe to these people (mostly friends from the mainland) what it’s like to paddle out into the heavy surf at pipeline when it’s double overhead and the rip just pulls you over towards the lifeguard stand (which is 100 yards away) in a matter of seconds. I tell them how hollow the barrels are at Waimea as I drop into them, how you could easily fit two buses stacked on top of each other inside of the barrel. I try to explain what it’s like to duck dive a 20ft wave at Pipe while trying not to panic, which is nearly impossible. I illustrate with my arms that you see this mountain of a wave coming towards you and you see the lineup hauling ass to get over it before it breaks – you better swim as fast as you can before it lands on you. Most of the time, I will swim to the bottom and hold onto the reef so I won’t get sucked up and shredded to pieces while the massive mountain of a wave roars above my head. A good bodysurfer will jump on the opportunity to catch the wave and ride it as far as he can before the face will eventually catch up to you and swallow you up. This is bodysurfing…
I will admit, bodysurfing has never really gained too much attention in the surfing community. I don’t know why, because most professional surfers are quite good at it, but it’s still rarely mentioned in magazines or during competitions. Fortunately for us here in Hawaii, the sport has been gaining a lot more attention in the past 10 years or so. A group called HSBA (Hawaii State Bodysurfing Association) has really helped push the sport to a new level of recognition by holding and sponsoring several competitions throughout the year. One of the more popular bodysurfing competitions is held once a year in North Shore called The Pipeline Bodysurfing Classic. The Pipeline Bodysurfing Classic has been running for over 40 years on the North Shore of Oahu, and it is one of the most anticipated bodysurfing events in the world (aside from Oceanside World Bodysurfing Championship). Contestants from all over the world will fly out here for this event. Past entrants include Kelly Slater, Tom Curren, Rob Machado. There’s actually a holding period for this contest, so most of the time, the waves are 10ft or higher.
I’ve been going to a popular bodysurfing break called Sandy Beach for most of my life. For over six years I’ve been shooting wave photos here at Sandy Beach. Sandy Beach has more neck and back injuries than any other beach in the world, and I’ve witnessed this first hand many times. However, this beach consistently has nice rideable barrels, making it a breeding ground for bodysurfers. Kane Wilcox is part of the newer generation of the sport. He’s one of the few people who can actually throw a front-flip on the face of a wave and keep riding the wave as if it was nothing. Spectacular.
And of course there are the legends of the sport like Mike Stewart. Have you seen him bodysurf a wave? You should YouTube “Mike Stewart bodysurfing” and you would swear he was riding a board from the way he pops off the lip or dolphin swims down the face of a 10ft wave. You cannot write an article about bodysurfing and not mention Mark Cunningham. He has developed an exceptional style that is so unique and graceful for his tall frame.
The Wedge in southern California is another major bodysurfing break. The Wedge’s wave is created by hitting a jetty and forming this massive crest that the bodysurfer rides. The Wedge’s wave will peak and crest almost immediately after, so the locals here have developed an entirely new style that fits that particular wave.
That’s what makes this sport so great: you don’t need a particular technique to make it work, you don’t need to be really strong, or very fit, or even very young…as long as you have a pair of fins (and Speedos if you fancy) and you can successfully ride the wave. Then you are bodysurfing. It is the purest form of wave riding, and what a ride it is.
By the way, please check out the movie Come Hell or High Water. It’s a beautifully produced documentary on bodysurfing.