Words by Sam Haddad
My parents recently unearthed some footage of me in the sea, aged 3. It’s shaky and grainy and awesome. My dad is holding my hand and my face is all smiles and glee as I jump the waves, clearing some, running through the rest. Then a bigger one comes along and knocks me down flat.
My body disappears under a wash of whitewater. When my dad plucks me out, I come up laughing so hard I can barely stand. Was that the first time I saw the inside of a wave? I don’t know. But that rare moment of video matches the tone of many of my childhood memories, that is, my dad and me, playing in the surf.
In most of the fragments I remember, he’s bodysurfing, and I’m trying to copy him, without much success. He’d learnt in Nigeria in the 1970s, while visiting his sister who lived there at the time. There the waves were wedge-shaped, which, it turns out, are the best kind for bodysurfing. His style was smooth and his rides seemed long. To me at least. I could barely harness more than a couple of seconds of ride. It was fun but always left me wanting more.
Later, I’d bodyboard a few times then fall for surfing, with its longer though often equally elusive rides. Well, as much as you can fall for surfing when you live in London and are limited to wave-chasing in holidays and the odd weekend. I never thought about bodysurfing. I didn’t even know it was a thing, beyond a way of playing in breaking waves, which I never seemed to do anymore. If I came to the sea it was with a board.
Then a few years back, I watched Come Hell Or High Water, a film directed by the pro surfer Keith Malloy, and realised how wrong I was. It turns out there is a subculture of humans for whom bodysurfing is a really big deal. A serious sport even, though more in terms of the possible consequences of the size of waves they ride on the North Shore or at Teahupoo or Cloudbreak, rather than their approach to the sport, if the tight Speedo-style trunks on view in the film (and trailer, above left) are anything to go by.
In fact, their comical lack of hipness actually bestows upon them a kind of ultra-hipness, as Rory Parker, when writing for Beach Grit, said: “Bodysurfing is the greatest thing ever. It’s fun, it’s easy, and because its biggest devotees are hairy middle-aged men, it’s inherently uncool. So uncool, in fact, that it transcends its own uncoolosity, and circles back around to become extra cool.”
Malloy’s film, shot in 16mm, is a beautiful paean to bodysurfing. In an era of high-performance and hyper-progressive surfing, which can sometimes look a bit samey and aggressive, he celebrates the simplicity and pure, rootsy vibe of bodysurfing, describing it as merely: “taking a breath and kicking your feet in the big blue sea.”
Around the film’s release, Chris Nelson of the London Surf Film Festival, asked him why he made the film. He told him he loved bodysurfing as: “It’s some of the time I enjoy most in the ocean because you don’t have to worry about performing.
“Surfing on a board can sometimes feel like more of a job. Bodysurfing you can just enjoy the ocean.”
The film also quotes an ‘old lifeguard’ (his words to describe himself!) who says: “It’s not so much riding the perfect wave but being out in the ocean and enjoying it.”
Enjoyment is paramount though there is of course an art to bodysurfing. The best technique is to clench your fist and hold your lead arm out in front of you rigidly, Superman-style. Then you try and ride across a green wave as you would on a surfboard. The steeper the face the easier it will be but catching waves can also be tough if you don’t have giant hands and a Phelps-esque leg kick, so lots of bodysurfers use handplanes and fins, as an extension of their limbs to make waveriding easier.
The Extreme Academy at Watergate Bay in Cornwall even does handplaning lessons, which I tried out a couple of summers ago for a story and found it immense. Not only was it far easier to catch and ride across waves, but it also lets you get inside the waves, at their core, albeit momentarily, which was a pretty mind-blowing experience. Especially as I’m not a good enough surfer to ever get truly barrelled in real life.
If you’re a decent swimmer you don’t need lessons, you just need a handplane. Plastic versions that look like shrunken lifeguard aids are widely available but there are also some wooden beauties on sale, such as those made by Otter Surfboards. I ask the company’s founder, James Otter, who also runs handplane-making workshops, what he likes about bodysurfing. He says:
“The simplicity. You can travel with everything you need in a backpack. No faff, just get in amongst the waves and have fun! Then there’s the intimacy. You are much closer to the water, having to be much more reactive as you only see one wave at a time with your head just bobbing above the surface…you simply begin to feel much more attuned to the dynamic environment you’re playing in.”
“When you catch a wave, every single one gives you such an incredible view along the water’s surface and most will offer up the opportunity to get covered up by the lip of the breaking wave.”
“The final thing I like is the one that I can’t quite explain – you laugh like a child rather uncontrollably whenever you catch a wave…. I think it’s because you sacrifice an element of control to the waves and let them move you as they please… you’re just along for the ride.”
He’s right. There’s something funny but also super-liberating about just messing about in the waves and trying to share their power in the most simple way. It’s freeing not having to worry about your board clonking you on the head the next time a big set rolls through, or your fin etching a deep groove on your cheek, it makes you feel really at one with the ocean (man…) and best of all like a kid again. And with that I’m off to south west France to go and play in some waves.
And in case you’re wondering, this is how the pros do it…
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