I, like so many others who reside within reach of the ocean, got bitten by the surfing bug, and that little sucker has left teeth marks that will scar for life.
I’ve surfed up and down the Australian Coast, in Bali, Thailand, America, and Europe, on shortboards and longboards, in winter and summer, on hair-raising swells that towered over my head and little ripples that barely wet my shins. I have immersed myself in the culture on so many levels and my life has, at times, revolved around the ocean’s ebb and flow exclusively.
But for the last four years, I haven’t set foot on a board.
My father taught me how to bodysurf before I could walk. Growing up in the UK wasn’t the most favourable breeding ground for my love of it, but trips abroad and the two days of English summer annually were enough to fuel a lifelong love.
This came to be articulated through stand-up surfing, but after every session I’d leave my board on the beach and jump in for a couple of double-overhead, shore break barrels – it’s always overhead when you’re lying down.
Over the last 15 years, there’s always been a pair of fins and a handplane in my car, never an opportunity missed to slide into a couple. But surfing always took precedent and, while I often dived in for a few, my head stayed mostly well above water level.
Like its stand-up counterpart, bodysurfing can be attributed to the Hawaiians and fellow Polynesians. ‘Kaha Nalu’ or ‘He’e Umauma’, sliding with the chest, has been practiced by islanders since before documentation began, good ol’ Cap’n Cook bringing the locals’ oceanic antics to the attention of the ‘civilised’ world. Where warm surf laps a coastline, there have been bodysurfers. Hawaii still has it’s nucleic pod of human porpoises, Southern California’s Newport Beach has a local crew of deranged hellmen who take on the mighty, bone-crunching Wedge, Brazil is rapidly becoming a hotbed for gung-ho chargers and even the south western corner of England has a tight-knit bodysurfing community.
Although it’s gaining a bit more of a following in Australia, it has always looked upon it as a bit cooky, something the Speedo-wearing surf club members do and more of a functional practice than a sport in and of itself. Heads buried face down in the spume of a broken wave, one arm madly digging at the water for extra speed, they drive shoreward, more intent on achieving the sanctuary of the dry sand than enjoying the ride. It is, for all its practicality and motivation, an entirely different sport.
But bodysurfing proper is exactly that: traversing the wave, positioning yourself in the curl, gliding out onto the clean face of the wave, getting barrelled. It is, lack of board notwithstanding, surfing.
Surfers tend to frown upon anything outside their genre. Shortboarders hate longboarders, longboarders get irksome at bodyboarders and everyone cracks it at stand-up paddlers. But bodysurfers are different. No one knows what to think. Bodyboarders give sideways glances, unsure whether an affinity exists. Surfers lack any collaborative experience in the lineup to make an early assessment. Are they going to get in the way? Are they a liability to themselves and others? But a bodysurfer of any significant ability will also have a solid appreciation of surf etiquette. And pretty soon, everyone gets stoked.
The utter simplicity of bodysurfing, its intrinsic part in any oceanic pursuit and its passive, uncompetitive nature make it the least offensive wave-based pastime in the water. Bodysurfers tend to be a humble bunch, no fashion, bravado or arrogance involved in the simple act of swimming in a wave. But when you give it a go yourself, you begin to realise that, not only is it a massive amount of fun, but it is also incredibly tricky to get good at. It’s a 'minute-to-learn, lifetime-to-master' kind of skill and for the best of the best it has indeed been a lifetime love affair.
Former pro-surfer and filmmaker, Keith Malloy, created an entire film around the ancient but underground activity titled ‘Come Hell or High Water‘, highlighting the depth of commitment and level of skill of some of the planet’s best, venturing to the North Shore of Hawaii, Southern California’s sand-dredging wave, the Wedge, and even to the bone-crunching Tahitian break of Teahupo’o.
This movie did two things: it showed bodysurfers as athletes, as committed and passionate about their sport, if not more, than your average surfer or bodyboarder, and it made bodysurfing just one pair of Speedos short of actually being pretty damn cool. There is an insurgence of handplanes and swim fins flooding surf shops worldwide and a pair of DaFiNs and a handplane are fast becoming a staple element in every surfer’s quiver.
It will never gain the fame and fortune of its board-based counterpart and, when the waves are pumping, those reaching for flippers over fibreglass will be in the vast minority. But bodysurfing has become a part of the surfing mindset.
It doesn’t take forward planning, heaps of equipment, roof racks on the car or even particularly good waves, but the thrill of sliding your way into a barrel on your belly, one arm thrust in front as your torso levitates above the water’s surface is unparalleled.
In the past few years, I have discovered that bodysurfing is as much a valid sport as any of it’s more marketed counterparts. I trace swells, look at the maps, stare at the surf cams and select my breaks specifically for their bodysurfing potential.
Surfing will always take precedent. It has the celebrities, the magazines, the movies. It’s sexy and cool and it looks so bloody stylish. The stoke you get kicking into a wave and sliding your way down the line, sans board, free as the day you were born, might not be everyone’s preferred method of waveriding, but it’s an incredible experience. I will never sell my boards, I’ll never pass up an offer to go get a few waves on my feet and I will never lose my love of surfing. But one thing has now become my truth:
I am a bodysurfer.
All Photos: @andrewcarruthersphotography