When teaching beginner surf lessons, I often find myself having the same thought: “Man, this would be a lot easier if so and so already knew how to bodysurf”. When it comes to learning how to surf, the more ocean experience the better. If you want to reduce your learning curve, then you should spend some time catching waves without a board first. In fact, it is my contention that ALL aspiring surfers should know how to bodysurf before moving on to board surfing. The ensuing article is an attempt to explain exactly why I believe this to be true.
“Bodysurfing is the root of all wave riding”
According to Matt Warshaw’s 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. For many a skilled waterman, the two methods of wave riding went hand-in-hand. The advent of the surf leash meant that surfers could now paddle out to the lineup without knowing how to bodysurf. What a loss.
There is simply no denying that nowadays, the surf leash is used as a crutch by surfers everywhere; so much so, that some modern day surfers can hardly even swim. But what happens if (and really, when, if you surf long enough) that leash breaks? How does a weak swimmer navigate his or her way to shore without the aid of a floatation device beneath them? Should he or she even be allowed in the lineup in the first place? These are the questions that we in the surf community need to address.
Let me be clear that I am talking about beginner surfers here, not professionals. In order to be a professional surfer, especially those taking on big waves, bodysurfing is a necessary and potentially life-saving skill to have. Some of the best professional surfers in the world are also incredible bodysurfers — Dave Rastovich, Rob Machado, Greg Long, Belinda Baggs, the Malloy brothers. It is the amateurs, the ones that are just getting into the sport of surfing, that need to learn how to bodysurf. Not only is it a skill that will ultimately help the progression by reducing their learning curve, but also as a safety precaution.
The power of observation
When learning a new skill, the best way to improve is through repetition. The unique thing about surfing in comparison to other sports, however, is that the playing field is constantly changing. When you go to a basketball court to shoot some hoops, you can count on the basket being in the same place at all times. But out in the ocean, no two waves are exactly the same. The conditions may be ideal for surfing in one moment — glassy ocean surface, perfect peeling waves — and completely different even 20 minutes later. This is why surfing demands a certain level of ocean-savvy above and beyond just physical capability. The more you understand the ocean and its ever-changing moods, the better surfer you will become.
Learning how to bodysurf (or the art of “surf swimming”, as it was formerly known), allows the participant to have a better understanding of ocean temperament and wave mechanics for a number of reasons. Primarily, because the bodysurfer is actually in the ocean, rather than just floating on top of it. Other than a pair of swim fins, there is no equipment to worry about — no board, fins, leash, wax. “It’s a basic, primitive thing. It’s just you and the ocean,” said Robert Gardener, author of The Art of Bodysurfing. The simplicity of bodysurfing is exactly what makes it so valuable: it allows you to truly observe the ocean.
Learning how to bodysurf also teaches the individual how to do the following:
- See waves
- Dive beneath them
- Catch them
- Move around other surfers
- Identify rip currents and other potential hazards
Furthermore, less equipment means fewer learning steps, more maneuverability, and a deeper connection with the wave. Bodysurfing is also more aerobically challenging than board surfing. You are constantly either swimming or kicking your legs to stay afloat. In order to be able to paddle out to the lineup on a surfboard, one ought to have a solid aerobic base first. Bodysurfing will undoubtedly help build that base.
Confidence in an emergency
Not too long ago, I found myself in a bit of a scary situation while surfing. I had taken an old longboard out in surf that was a bit too hectic for said board, and snapped it in half while turtle-rolling an especially large set wave. All of a sudden, I found myself floating in the lineup with half a board attached to my ankle leash, and even bigger waves bearing down on me. Instead of panicking, I calmly unstrapped my ankle leash and let the ensuing wave take what was left of the board back to the beach (there were no other surfers around). I then proceeded to catch the following wave with nothing more than my body, and ride it safely to shore.
A potentially scary, even dangerous situation was turned into a fun ride to the beach. This is the power of bodysurfing. It provides you with the skill set and confidence to survive an emergency situation in the ocean that might otherwise induce panic and fear. Not only does learning how to bodysurf make you a stronger swimmer and a better breath holder. It can also provide you with the necessary foundation to become a proficient surfer. Clearly, the two pastimes go hand in hand, and if you want to learn how to surf, you should first learn how to bodysurf.
WATCH professional surfer Dave Rastovich display some amazing bodysurfing skills.
Interested in either learning how to surf, learning how to bodysurf, or both? Well you are in luck. Bodhi Surf + Yoga is just about as stoked as one can get to be the first surf camp in the world to offer a retreat that features bodysurfing. The newly minted “Bodhi Awaken: 14 Night Bodysurfing, Ocean Awareness, Surf + Yoga Retreat” will run several times in 2020. AND we are offering a celebratory discount of 20%! Read all of the details, including which dates this one-of-a-kind retreat will be running, and send us your inquiry! In the meantime, learn everything you need to know about bodysurfing and get stoked!
Written by Spencer Dunlap