“To me [bodysurfing is] the best interaction between man and nature that exists.” – Mike Stewart.
Bodysurfing is an elusive activity about which not a whole lot of information is widely known or disseminated to the masses. Most ocean people — surfers, coastal-dwellers, fishermen and women — know how to or at least understand the importance of bodysurfing. To them, it may be more than a pleasurable activity, rather a practical way to get from point A to B. Yet there is something mystical about the activity. Bodysurfing is, arguably, the best way to connect with the ocean’s power, simply because there is nothing that separates the bodysurfer from the wave.
In honor of our newest vacation: Bodhi Awaken: 14 Night Bodysurfing, Ocean Awareness, Surf and Yoga Retreat, we have consolidated much of the existing bodysurfing knowledge and information into one handy guide. We truly believe it is “everything you need to know about bodysurfing.” Of course, we hope you will join us on this retreat and put this knowledge into action!
History of bodysurfing
Note: the majority of the following information is paraphrased from Matt Warshaw’s Encyclopedia of Surfing online database
“Hawaiians showed me that it’s not always about the biggest wave or a huge barrel. It’s about being in the ocean and having fun.” – Mark Cunningham
There is not much known about the history of bodysurfing, at least in comparison to that of board-surfing, which was first recorded by crewmembers of Captain Cook’s 1778 expedition through the Pacific Islands of Tahiti and Hawaii (although surfing was likely established long before recorded history, maybe even as early as 2000 BC). According to Matt Warshaw, author of the Encyclopedia of Surfing, “Nothing factual is known about the origins of bodysurfing, but it’s possible that humans were inspired to emulate wave-riding sea animals such as dolphins and seals,” and that “bodysurfing certainly predates board-surfing.”
Considering the surf leash wasn’t invented until the early 1970s, it is fair to assume that anyone who surfed before that time must have also known how to bodysurf, or at least known how to swim sufficiently through the surf zone to retrieve a lost board.
The Art of Wave Riding
One of the earliest attempts to legitimize bodysurfing came from California lifeguard Ron Drummond, who published the first ever book on bodysurfing (and surfing in general) in 1931. Drummond’s intention for writing The Art of Wave Riding was to bring about a bodysurfing renaissance.
“Wave riding — without a surfboard — is a sport with which few people are familiar, and it is undoubtedly in its initial stages of development,” Drummond wrote. “There are no books of instruction on the subject, and at present only a few of the more athletically inclined have become proficient wave riders.” Drummond goes on to comment on the necessity for such an instructional book:
One has only to watch a swarm of bathers at any crowded beach in order to see that thousands of people are interested in the sport. Whenever a good wave for riding comes in, about half the people make an attempt to ride it, and only about one-tenth of one per cent of them even get started on it. It is this pitiful sight of thousands of swimmers, young and old, men and women, always trying and never succeeding, that has urged me to put into print a few hints that I hope will be of some help in teaching the enthusiastic beach-goers the art of body surfing, and thus increase a thousand fold the pleasure derived from ocean bathing.
The biggest leap forward in the sport of bodysurfing, however, came not from Drummond’s how-to manual, but from the invention of “Duck Feet” swim fins by California surfer Owen Churchill in 1940. Churchill came up with the idea for swim fins after observing Tahitian bodysurfers use “soft rubber and metal bands shaped like a fish tail” to generate more power when kicking into waves. It was around this time that bodysurfers began lengthening their rides by surfing horizontally (angling right or left) across the breaking wave face, as opposed to riding already-broken whitewater waves straight to shore.
One of the first well-known bodysurfers to progress the sport was Richard “Buffalo” Keaulana, a skilled Hawaiian surfer and lifeguard on Oahu’s west side, who held his lifeguarding post at Makaha Beach from 1969 to 1995. Keaulana, whose wave-riding style was akin to that of a seal’s, was considered by many to be the best bodysurfer of his era, likely a result of his inordinate amount of time spent in the water at Makaha.
The next bodysurfer to make a name for himself by perfecting his craft was Mark Cunningham, who served 29 years as a lifeguard on Oahu’s north shore, and was one of the first bodysurfers to pioneer waves at the Banzai Pipeline. Cunningham was widely considered the best bodysurfer in the world from the 1970s through the 1990s, and remains the sport’s most notable figure to this day. During his competitive tenure, Cunningham won the Pipeline Bodysurfing Classic — the premiere bodysurfing contest in the world — at least four times. (Record-keeping for this contest began in 1981).
Today, the best bodysurfer in the world is undoubtedly Mike Stewart, who is also a nine-time world bodyboarding champion. Stewart is widely considered the best wave-rider in the world, due to his plethora of championships in both bodysurfing and bodyboarding. Both Stewart and Cunningham were featured in a 2011 film on bodysurfing titled Come Hell or High Water, produced by former professional surfers Keith and Dan Malloy. The film includes footage of Stewart and Cunnigham bodysurfing near-perfect waves at Teahupo’o — a rarely bodysurf-able wave in Tahiti, and undoubtedly one of the most dangerous waves in the world.
Connecting to Mother Ocean
“It simply feels good. I get exercise, I get to go outdoors, I see my friends, and I’m completely surrounded and immersed in nature.” – Mark Cunningham
Although the sport of bodysurfing has progressed tremendously over the past couple of decades, it remains the least publicized form of wave-riding to this day, primarily because it is the least marketable of all forms of surfing. However, what the sport lacks in marketability, it makes up for in soulfulness. The simplicity of bodysurfing is exactly what makes it so valuable: less equipment results in fewer learning steps, more freedom, and a deeper connection with the wave and nature itself.
Considering the human body is nearly the same density as water (which allows us to float), and that our mineral content is almost identical to that of the ocean, it makes sense that bodysurfing would “simply feel good” for most people. What’s more, bodysurfing provides a tremendous full body workout that results in an increased release of endorphins, as you are constantly either swimming or kicking your legs to stay afloat. Bodysurfing is both aerobic and anaerobic, as it involves a sustained physical effort over a long period of time, as well as short bursts of energy at maximum effort — which can greatly benefit your physical and mental health.
The Blue Mind effect
In recent years, there has been a push from scientists around the world to understand the positive affect nature exposure plays on the human psyche. In his best-selling book Blue Mind, marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols makes the case that being in and around water has therapeutic benefits that can make humans happier, healthier, and more connected.
Nichols claims that the average person in today’s society has to process more information on a daily basis than any other time in history, which has resulted in unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression. He believes that most people operate constantly in a reptilian fight or flight “Red Mind,” which can be counteracted by spending more time around water:
What happens when you’re at the water, is your brain is getting a break. Getting to the water forces us to disconnect from the stream of auditory and visual information, and switches your brain to Blue Mind, which helps us relax, reconnect with nature, reconnect with others, and reconnect with ourselves.
There is a beautiful scene in Come Hell or High Water that features Don King — a world-renowned surf photographer, and winner of the 1992 Pipeline Bodysurfing Classic — bodysurfing with his autistic son Beau. Anyone who watches this scene can clearly see the calming effect the ocean has on Beau, and just how much he enjoys playing in the surf with his father.
“One of the neat things about Beau,” King says, “is how comfortable he is in the water, and how much he likes it. And so, when I go in the water with Beau, for awhile, I can just play with him and forget about all the problems of autism, and it’s just me and him.”
Learning to bodysurf
“I’ve got basic bodysurfing tips: know how to swim, have a suit that’s gonna stay on, kick like hell, and come out of the water smiling.” – Mark Cunningham
For people who grew up near the ocean, especially in places like the Hawaiian islands (where youngsters practically live in the ocean), bodysurfing is completely self-taught. Playing in the shorebreak leads to a natural progression of figuring out how to catch and ride waves without equipment, before moving on to more complex versions of wave-riding like bodyboarding and surfing.
However, if you grew up, say, in the mountains, then you might not have the slightest idea how to bodysurf, or even how to navigate the shorebreak. Therefore, let’s take a look at what Ron Drummond, author of The Art of Wave Riding, had to say about bodysurfing for beginners back in the 1930s. For those looking to get into the sport, “A powerful stroke, speed, good endurance, and the absence of fear are the primary requisites.”
Drummond continues with a step-by-step approach to the basics of bodysurfing:
Walk out to a point where the waves are breaking between knee and waist deep. The object is to fall with the wave as it curls over, and therefore the important factor is to judge the time and place of this curling over. When you are ready for a start, turn your left side toward the shore and watch the approaching wave over your right shoulder. When the wave is about to break on you, take a step toward the wave so you are falling or sinking into the base of the swell. When catching the wave, give the body a strong swing forward and throw the arms straight out ahead with hands clasped together and hold the body and legs quite rigid.
But if you are more of a visual learner, or simply looking for a less dated explanation of bodysurfing basics, then check out this video featuring Come Hell or High Water director Keith Malloy:
Bodysurfing vs board-surfing
“I’ve occasionally had a bad time surfing, but I’ve never had a bad time bodysurfing.” -Mark Lukach
As Matt Warshaw points out in the Encyclopedia of Surfing, “Prior to the invention of the surf leash in the early 1970s, all surfers were adept bodysurfers, as nearly every wipeout was followed by a bodysurfing ride to the beach to pick up the lost board.” For centuries, anyone who surfed — by way of necessity — also knew how to bodysurf, and for many a skilled waterperson, the two methods of wave-riding went hand in hand.
Not only does bodysurfing make you a stronger swimmer and a better breath-holder, but it can also provide you with the necessary foundation to become a proficient surfer. Bodysurfing teaches the individual how to see waves, how to dive beneath them, how to catch them, how to move around other surfers, and how to identify rip currents and other potential hazards. You can actually feel the water moving around you when bodysurfing, as opposed to simply observing it, which helps you get in tune with the ocean.
In order to be a professional surfer, especially those taking on big waves, bodysurfing is a necessary and potentially life-saving skill to have. In fact, some of the best professional surfers in the world are also incredible bodysurfers — Dave Rastovich, Kelly Slater, Rob Machado, Greg Long, Belinda Baggs, the Malloy brothers, and so on. Undoubtedly, these surfers find pleasure in bodysurfing merely because there is less pressure to perform when riding waves sans surfboard.
For some, being immersed in the ocean simply feels better than sitting or standing on top of it. In an interview with Surfline.com, Mark Cunnigham describes why he prefers bodysurfing to board-surfing: “It gives you a different feel. You’re in the wave, you’re a part of the wave, the wave’s energy is going through you.” As Cunningham points out, it’s quite a special feeling to have nothing in between you and the wave, as your body receives ocean energy that has traveled hundreds of miles to be transmitted to and then through you.
Where can you bodysurf?
“People around the world love swimming whether it’s in a pool, a lake, a pond, or in the ocean. It’s gone on for thousands of years, playing in the ocean energy.” – Mark Cunninghman
One of the difficult aspects of bodysurfing, as compared to board-surfing, is that bodysurfers are partially submerged when riding waves, and therefore cannot create near as much speed as surfers because of the extra drag. Thus, a good bodysurfing wave is typically one that has a steep, “peaky” section that will provide the bodysurfer with plenty of speed from the takeoff, but not so fast that the bodysurfer is immediately overtaken by the wave. “You may not be able to make a real fast down-the-line wave,” says Keith Malloy, “so you are looking for a hollow, peaky, powerful nugget of a wave.”
One of the best things about bodysurfing is that it is much easier to get barreled than when standing on a surfboard. The bodysurfer becomes less concerned with his or her length of ride, and more focused on finding a steep drop that will result in a brief tube ride — the pinnacle of wave-riding. “The beauty is that if it’s waist high you can be getting totally barrelled in the most critical part of the wave,” says Malloy, “where if you’re standing on a board, you probably won’t fit in there.”
Two famous bodysurf breaks
Two of the most notorious bodysurfing waves in the world are the Wedge in Southern California, and Point Panic on Oahu’s south shore. Although these waves break completely different from one another — the Wedge is a pounding shorebreak, while Panics is a peeling reef break — they each offer tremendous barrel sections, which is undoubtedly why they are so beloved by bodysurfers. In fact, Point Panic is one of few waves in the world that is designated solely for bodysurfing (no boards allowed), whereas the Wedge has instituted a “Blackball” rule that forces boards out of the water during certain times of the day during peak summer months.
Bodysurfing style is unique to the specific wave and how it breaks. For example, bodysurfers at Point Panic enjoy long rides in which they can stay in the wave pocket and perform acrobatic maneuvers like stalls and spins. While Wedge bodysurfers take on steep drops in which they have to angle their body differently in order to make it down the hollow wave-face. Furthermore, the Wedge is a heavy shorebreak wave that breaks in very shallow water, so it helps to have a little more muscle to be able to absorb a pounding.
Bodysurf equipment: What do you need?
“There are no phonies in bodysurfing. There is no glory in carrying a pair of fins. It’s a basic, primitive thing. It’s just you and the ocean.” – Robert Gardiner
One of the best things about bodysurfing is that it requires very few pieces of equipment. According to Rick Lomax of SurfScience, the production of surfboards alone emits an average of 220,000 tonnes of CO₂ per year into the earth’s ever-warming atmosphere. If we take into account the surf industry’s prevailing supply chain — chemical resins, polystyrene foams, petroleum-based wetsuits — the industry is arguably creating more environmental harm than good. Thus, bodysurfing represents a shift toward a more environmentally-responsible version of wave riding.
Other than wearing a bathing suit that creates minimal drag (Mark Cunningam suggests wearing a Speedo), a good pair of swim fins is the only piece of equipment a bodysurfer really needs. As previously mentioned, the advent of swim fins by Owen Churchill in the 1940s drastically improved the ability of bodysurfers to catch and ride waves. Although Churchill Swimfins remain the top selling swim fin in the world to this day, they are primarily used by bodyboarders, and to a lesser extent by bodysurfers.
Swim fins for bodysurfing
When looking for a pair of swim fins, it is important to try them on first to make sure they are comfortable. Some bodysurfers like stiff fins with a big blade that will generate a lot of kicking power, while others prefer a lighter fin with a more comfortable shoe pocket. The majority of lifeguards (many of whom are also bodysurfers) wear swim fins made by DaFin, a company based out of Hawaii. Mark Cunnigham, who has his own model of DaFin, has been using their fins for over two decades, along with some of the best watermen and women in the world:
Other good swimfin options include:
Another piece of equipment often adorned by bodysurfers, although not essential to the sport, is a bodysurfing handplane. A handplane is essentially a small board that is worn on the lead hand of the bodysurfer to help her trim the face of the wave and hold a line. The handplane also helps the bodysurfer get into the wave earlier and stay on the wave longer.
The major downside to wearing a handplane, however, is that the bodysurfer has to swim through the ocean wearing a weighted object on his or her hand, which results in less freedom of expression/maneuverability when riding waves. For more information on when to use a handplane, read through this article published by The Inertia.
One of the exciting aspects of using a handplane is that you can easily make one for yourself out of repurposed materials. If you already own a jigsaw and random orbit sander, then all you need to find is a thin piece of plywood (teak and balsa are both good options), and a piece of rubber or neoprene to fashion a hand strap, check out this video for more information.
But if you prefer to save yourself some time and purchase a handplane, then look no further than Enjoy Handplanes based out of Leucadia, California. Founded by upcyclers Ed Lewis and Kipp Denslow, “All Enjoy Handplanes are made with either old foam from broken boards or ruined blanks from manufacturing for the board and neoprene from used wetsuits to make the handles.”
Other good handplane options:
Bodhi Awaken: 14 Night Bodysurfing, Ocean Awareness, Surf and Yoga Retreat
For our 2019-20 season, we are so excited to be introducing a new two-week retreat which in the first week incorporates the fundamentals of bodysurfing and a great amount of ocean knowledge, and our pinnacle Bodhi Sessions surf and yoga camp in the second week. As surfers and “fishpeople” ourselves, we understand the great value of imparting the skill set of bodysurfing prior to teaching how to surf. Our foremost goal at Bodhi Surf + Yoga is to provide a holistic education. We believe that teaching bodysurfing and ocean awareness is key in forging surfers, lovers of the sea, and ultimately Ocean Guardians. At present, no other retreat like this exists in the world, so we hope to attract people of all types, and especially those who are scared or intimidated by the ocean (many people are in this boat) yet still feel drawn to it.
Read more details on this new retreat here.
Written by Spencer Dunlap