It's pretty rare these days for me to go on a surf trip and not have my home-made handplane and hand-me-down swim fins wedged in my carry-on luggage so that I can go bodysurfing as soon as I arrive; several episodes of lost, delayed and damaged boardbags have taught me that it's worth having a back-up option with me so that I don't go loco watching good waves breaking whilst I'm sat on the beach without my stuff.
Plus bodysurfing is damned good, simple honest fun.
Hold your breath and go. Image by Dave Homcy.
Swimming into waves and riding them prone without a board has always been a staple and core "waterman" practice for lifeguards and surf coaches to get back to the beach quickly (you can knock a load of seconds off your timed surf-swims if you can bodysurf a wave in) and water photographers who have to swim around with their camera rigs, but it's older than surfing itself and this last year seems to have been stepping out on it's own and getting a bit more attention which is great.
This seems to be culminating now in the release of Keith Malloy's movie "Come Hell or High Water" which is the first mainstream surf movie dedicated entirely to not having a surfboard. Turns out that as well as being a top flight pro-surfer, about ten years ago Keith started swimming into waves in an attempt to reconnect with the ocean and ended up being one of the best in the world, regularly competing in the World Champs at Pipeline. Around the same time his big brother Chris teamed up with North Shore lifeguards Jeff Johnson and Todd Sells to swim and hike a section of remote Hawaiian coastline, bodysurfing along the way, for a Surfer's Journal article entitled "The Body Will Suffice" (available to download here) which was all about taking the search for waves back to the rawest possible form.
When I pulled up to check this super heavy spot near Cape Town, South Africa, the only guys in the water going for these waves were a small crew of Hell-man bodysurfers. More power to you.
Whilst for most of us, leaving the board on the beach and swimming out to get our waves will never become the dominant choice, it's worth remembering that it's always a valid option. Whether it's for fitness, searching for a purer connection with the ocean, because the airline's lost your surfboards or maybe you just love having seawater rammed up your nose into your sinuses, every now and then it's good to ring the changes.
A few weeks ago I met a seemingly mad and immune-to-the-cold Welshman at the World Bellyboarding Championships who was telling me all about a bodysurfing trip that he did up the entire Eastern Coastline of Australia with nothing but a set of swim fins and a handplane. At the time we were bobbing around in the sea as part of a bodysurfing handplane demonstration (I was helping out James Otter who had a stand there) amongst the wedgy high tide bowls of Chapel Porth in conditions that, in all honesty, were only really bodysurf-able. Set me to thinking that maybe there's merit in the idea of a surf trip without a surfboard, and I think I've got the beginnings of an interesting plan in motion.
Kick hard and think of your body as your surfboard.
As Mr Malloy states, it's all about "taking a breath and kicking your feet in the big blue sea".
Why the Hell not?
My long arms spread out trying to fall into the pocket whilst a Welsh bodysurfer wearing nothing but a pair of speedos looks on. WBBC , Chapel Porth, Cornwall, 2011.
Photo by Kate Fewster.
Mid-winter tunnelling, image courtesy James Otter.