In the past year, I experienced a complete renaissance in my wave riding. I rediscovered the joys of bodysurfing, and I’m hooked.
Growing up spending summers at the beach, I took the fairly typical trajectory upward by starting with bodysurfing, progressing to bodyboarding, and finally leaving them both behind to surf for real. And I surfed a lot, and loved it, for about fifteen years.
Then one day I found my old swim fins in my parents’ garage, and brought them to the beach and gave bodysurfing another shot. Suddenly, I remembered how much fun bodysurfing could be. It’s remarkable. I went with a buddy, and because the heavy beachbreak where we ride waves involved a lot of steep drops and punishing barrels, we called it “bodywhumping.” We wore shit-eating grins the whole session. It was a blast. Why hadn’t I remembered bodysurfing sooner?
Then I met Danny Hess, an esteemed carpenter and surfboard shaper, and I got one of his handplanes. It’s been all over for me since then.
In San Francisco, you have to surf in a wetsuit, and the rubber increases your body’s drag across the face of the wave. With a wooden handplane, you can push your body out of the water as you ride, which decreases your drag and increases your speed. The end result is the perfect barrel-riding experience. When I handplane, I get an absurd amount of barrels, barrels that I can ride for several seconds, and if I streamline enough, barrels I can make it out of.
I’ve confused my friends on many occasions by grabbing a handplane and fins on a perfect day, instead of a surfboard. “Why don’t you surf out here? Look how perfect it is!” My reply is always similar, “Sure, it’s perfect. Perfect for bodysurfing.”
There are also some distinct advantages to bodysurfing. First, it’s a fantastic workout – even more so than surfing. Second, it’s a barrel feast (as I mentioned earlier). Third, my wave count is typically higher. These are all big appeals, but I think its nostalgic qualities are its greatest draw. It reminds me of childhood, when I would bodysurf with my siblings and play catch with my dad. I feel almost childlike when I bodysurf, and I think that’s a really good thing.
There’s also not much you can do to be fancy when you bodysurf. You can’t do 360 airs, or chop hops, or any of that. You can basically just glide. As a result, you completely under-emphasize the importance of how you look when you do it. That doesn’t matter. All you end up caring about is how well you can stay in the pocket and how deep you can get in the barrel. And you’re mostly out-of-sight of the rest of the line-up, anyway, picking off the inside wedgier waves that no one else wants. So you’re doing it almost entirely for your own benefit.
Bodysurfing is good in so many ways. Of course, there are some downsides. I take some vicious beatings in close-outs. I often get treated like a second-rate citizen, and drop-ins are really common. (Most surfers don’t realize how much speed the handplane offers, so they assume that a bodysurfer is just going to drop in and waste a perfectly good wave.)
But I still do it. I take the beatings, and getting snaked doesn’t bother me. I end up having a ton of fun with every session. I’ve made friends who love bodysurfing as much as I do, like Nick Allen, the exceptional photographer who supplied the pictures for this story, and have encouraged others to give it a shot.
I often think of a great quote that speaks these truths quite succinctly: “I’ve occasionally had a bad time surfing, but I’ve never had a bad time bodysurfing.”