Sometimes soaring like a dolphin, sometimes skipping like a stone
January 17, 2019 11:57 AM   Subscribe

Bodysurfing — surfing waves without a board — is the most ancient of the wave-riding sports. Easy enough to learn in an afternoon and challenging enough to pursue for a lifetime, it's the sport of presidents and kids. Bodysurfers have been charging heavy waves at spots like The Wedge and Pipeline for decades. But until recently no one took on the world's biggest waves without a surfboard. Now a few bodysurfers have started swimming out at Nazare, Portugal, where surfing world records are regularly broken, and where bodysurfers look like flecks of foam on waves the size of skyscrapers.

Brazilian Kalani Lattanzi was one of the first to bodysurf Praia do Norte at Nazare back in 2016. He's spent up to four hours at a time in the water there chasing big waves. The payoff is some of the biggest rides of his life. Here he is enjoying himself on a "fun and playful" day. Canarian ocean activist Ahmed Erraji spent months doing intense apnea training before first bodysurfing Nazare. In between taking several horrific wipeouts, with 30-second hold-downs, he swam into a few monster waves. Fred David is one of only a few other people known to have bodysurfed Nazare when it's massive. Bodysurfers have been killed and paralyzed while surfing shallow waves like The Wedge, but in huge waves bodysurfing is actually safer than board surfing. "I feel much safer with just my body than with a surfboard, says Lattanzi, who is also a big wave board surfer. "The board can hit you in the head, but when I'm bodysurfing I feel really safe – I use swim fins to duck dive, and they really offer a ton of power to move around."

While the end goal is the same, bodysurfing requires an entirely different set of skills than board surfing. Bodysurfers use their body like a flexible, ever-adapting surfboard, capable of accelerating and decelerating along the face of a wave. If the wave is moving faster than the surfer, they free fall rather than surf (which is part of the fun). Some bodysurfers use a handplane — an 8-12 inch long wood or plastic board that attaches to one hand — which helps lift the arm and torso out of the water, decreasing drag and increasing speed. Most rides last a second or two before the wave crashes down. But long rides are possible at the right spots. And the truly talented can play dolphin and ride waves underwater.

Go bodysurfing! Little waves are the most fun. Don't have an ocean? You can do it in a (icy) river! In a wavepool! Here are some tips for beginners. The excellent bodysurfing film Come Hell or High Water has a tumblr with lots of inspiration. Or you can stay nice and dry and enjoy some more bodysurfing in heavy waves in France, Brazil, at Cape Fear in Australia, Dungeons in South Africa, Todos Santos, and of course The Wedge in California.

Nazare previously and previously (the world record has been broken multiple times since then); big wave surfing previously and previously.
posted by not_the_water (17 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

Great round-up, and inspiring me to get back in the water ... were I closer to an ocean. I loved bodysurfing, even though I was never great. The feeling of getting tossed around in (relatively) small waves was fun, and when I actually got pushed forward instead of getting tumbled ... that was fantastic.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:11 PM on January 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

Nazare is amazing but also scary as all get out. Here’s Thiago Jacaré wiping out.
posted by chavenet at 12:21 PM on January 17, 2019 [3 favorites]

I gotta think the surf nazis at these prime surfing spots just love sharing a wave with a bodysurfer about to get a three second ride.
posted by Nelson at 12:24 PM on January 17, 2019

We just returned from a holiday that included showing my sister-in-law who grew up very far from the ocean (in a place where most water is found in lakes) the joys of being tossed around by waves while attempting even momentary control. The first wave she caught left her laughing so hard when she stood up i was legitimately kind of worried she wouldnt recover in time to not take the next wave to the face.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 12:25 PM on January 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

I used to do it a lot.
One of the greatest feelings in the world. Ridiculously tiring workout. But I'm not going in anything over 3', and probably not even that not that I'm old. Those pictures are scary as hell. I've been nearly seriously hurt on an average beach on an average day.
posted by bongo_x at 12:59 PM on January 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

I have a favorite bodysurfing spot in Malibu and it's the most fun I have all summer (and spring and fall). And when the surfing itself gets a little wearying, I swim out a bit further and just drift around, my ears submerged, staring at the sky or up into the mountains with that perfect, meditative, aquatic silence. I'll never live more than 45 minutes away from toes in the water again.
posted by mykescipark at 1:33 PM on January 17, 2019 [4 favorites]

I gotta think the surf nazis at these prime surfing spots just love sharing a wave with a bodysurfer about to get a three second ride.

I live near The Wedge and the solution there (primarily "boogie board" surfers versus body surfers) is to close the wave to board surfers of any kind between 10 am and 5 pm.

*Not a surfer, either.
posted by notyou at 1:35 PM on January 17, 2019

I've been bodysurfing my whole life, whenever I am blessed to be near the waves. I'm walking distance to OB415 now and it's particularly great for bodysurf in that it's a beach break that stays relatively deep until late in the wave.

I gotta think the surf nazis at these prime surfing spots just love sharing a wave with a bodysurfer about to get a three second ride.

Come join me @ OB sometime if you're game - I've generally found that the crowd here is a) fairly transiet and perhaps as a byproduct b) pretty chill about sharing with the paddlers, bodyboarders, bodysurfers et. al.. As long as you know and adhere to basic etiquette for dropping and not poaching lines, you're all good. Aggro people are for socal, not here.

But my initial reaction? ...holy schnikes they're bodysurfing Nazare now? How do they stay on the surface with balls that big? It's kind of crazy to hear a big wave surfer talk about feeling safer without a board - at least it's pulling you back to the surface when you go under?
posted by allkindsoftime at 1:37 PM on January 17, 2019

You go to Hawaii for soul-surfing and becoming one with Mother Ocean. You go to the Wedge to try and kick Aquaman in the balls.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:38 PM on January 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

I didn't know bodysurfing was similar to ACTUAL surfing - I just thought it waq a slang term for messing around in the water. I TOTALLY WANT TO LEARN now. Those Instagram pics look amazing and I seriously want to be swimming like a dolphin.

Amazing - can't wait to learn how.
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 2:36 PM on January 17, 2019

Grew up body-surfing in the Carolina coast -- don't think I managed longer than 4-5 seconds, nor any wave as large as a meter (I'd duck under when a big 'un appeared). Some of those videos are making me Holy Crap! at work.

Awesome post -- thanks!
posted by Quasirandom at 2:45 PM on January 17, 2019

Fuck I love body-surfing. Don't often find myself near waves that will give me a ride, but when I do it is just the best.
posted by awfurby at 4:24 PM on January 17, 2019

This was how I'd spend my summer as a kid. It doesn't get better. I also didn't realize their was "pro-level" bodysurfing. Great post!
posted by xammerboy at 4:43 PM on January 17, 2019

heh, of course a thing I do at the beach for fun regularly is also an actual professional sport that's also scary as hell
posted by numaner at 9:10 PM on January 17, 2019

I gotta think the surf nazis at these prime surfing spots just love sharing a wave with a bodysurfer about to get a three second ride.

In practice, there's a lot of respect for big wave body surfers. Plus anyone who would fuck with a big wave body surfers isn't just a kook but a total noob.

One of the reasons why is because it's a grave tactical error to try to mess with someone who is likely a much stronger and more experienced surfer and swimmer who can swim all over and inside a wave like a hyperactive seal or dolphin, including directly under someone's surf board where it's really easy to knock them off their board and wave over and over again and steal all their waves.

I used to be an experienced body surfer and a regular at the Wedge and I have knocked a few kooks off their stand up short boards for being jerks. In hindsight it's probably pretty alarming to have someone suddenly appear underwater and upside down under your surfboard while actively surfing a large wave and they're coming for you and grabbing the rails of your board to flip it out from under your feet, only to vanish back into the deep.

So yeah, no. Stand up surfers and body boarders all tend to have a lot of healthy respect for and/or fear of body surfers because they own the waves and aren't afraid of much of anything at all.
posted by loquacious at 4:25 AM on January 18, 2019

I've been nearly seriously hurt on an average beach on an average day.

Yep. I used to body surf occasionally in the shallow water where the smaller waves finally break. No chance of running into a real surfer there; basically it's the same space used by the boogie boards.

It was hella fun but it's a wonder i never broke my damned neck. There must be something wrong with me because after getting my chin slammed on the bottom and getting flipped heels over head--wrenching my neck but good--I'd just catch my breath, stretch my sore neck and head out for another go at it.

Not that this has any relationship to the amazing stuff we're talking about here. (Well, except that an idiot like me bodysurfing in the small waves might be unwittingly taking on as much danger as a serious body surfer in the big surf. I mean... at least they know what they're doing.)
posted by sjswitzer at 5:15 PM on January 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

« Older “Get over here!”   |   the nicest sense of personal honor Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments