Bodysurfing: The Ecstatic Motion

Read on if you're interested in bodysurfing, the Santa Cruz Bodysurfing Championships, or waves in general.

Goat Trails

by Ryan Masters

“Don’t wait any longer. Dive in the ocean, leave and let the sea be you.” – Rumi

Oct. 17, 2014—As I trudged down the trail from Highway One to Lagunas, a little-known but breathtaking stretch of beach north of Santa Cruz, I was thinking about the idea of a “return.” It was a gray seven a.m. in October and I was lugging my wetsuit and Viper fins down to the 30th Annual Santa Cruz Bodysurfing Championships. The last time I had competed in this event, Ronald Reagan was president, my wetsuit was DayGlo yellow, and Def Leppard dominated the Billboard charts. Today, I was slated to compete in the Men’s Senior Division. Unbelievable.

Rumi, the eternally eloquent Sufi mystic, is really good at expressing our desire as humans to return to a Divine state. He recognized that the suffering we experience on this dirt-strewn earth is usually self-inflicted and always an illusion—his poetry frequently compares our human souls to animals locked in cages of their own making or drunks staggering blindly through life. Yet, according to Rumi, no return is necessary because we have never actually left: “You are not a drop in the ocean,” he says. “You are the entire ocean in a drop.”

I reached the beach and scoped a fairly substantial three-to-four foot swell pulsing in from the northwest. Not exceptional—but good, contestable conditions. The forecast called for a much larger swell to begin filling in late in the day and overnight—some reports suggesting waves as big as 10-12 feet.

Lagunas is an excellent bodysurfing wave because a northwest swell refracts off of the rugged cliff at the south end of the beach, creating the potential for punchy bowls and spinning barrels. The contest organizers had set up a canopy in front of this peak and bodysurfers and spectators were already milling about, slipping into their wetsuits or bundled up in clothes. I checked in, signed the waiver and received a dark blue competitor’s t-shirt identical to the shirt I had received over a quarter century ago.

I suited up, grabbed my fins and dove into the cold water to warm up. When I kicked into my first wave and carved across its face, I felt every cell of my body alive with the ocean’s energy—energy born days earlier in a frigid Aleutian Islands storm. As I broke out the back of the wave with a goofy smile on my face, I wondered about the energy that had originally powered that storm. Where had that come from? And what powered that power? What, after all, is the original source of all this energy transmuting and reflecting around us and in us? As Rumi suggests, it’s all one in the same. Who cares what it’s called. The heads of my fellow bodysurfers bobbed around me, disembodied in the opaque, green ocean like kelp bulbs—the same silly grin on their faces. As one of them took off on a wave, another bit of 13th century Rumi stoke came to mind: “Stop acting so small. You are the universe in ecstatic motion.” Solid.

Read about Ryan Masters' visit to 'the other Ghost Tree'—the Great White Redwood.

At 8 am sharp the contest began. Back on the beach, I watched the first heat with a tall, laid-back, older gentleman. A wild shock of foam-white hair broke over his head as he studied the waves before us with the relaxed intensity of a well-fed barracuda. This man was none other than Mark Cunningham, undeniably the best bodysurfer in the world from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s—and arguably the greatest bodysurfer of all time. Mark is the dude who dominated the Pipeline Bodysurfing Classic for decades, logged 29 years as a lifeguard on the island of Oahu (18 of which were spent at Pipeline) and has served as the sport’s de facto ambassador since the 1970s. He is, without question, the man—although he would probably deny this if he heard me say it.

That’s what makes Mark Cunningham the perfect elder statesman of bodysurfing. He’s legitimately humble, grateful and stoked. There isn’t a counterfeit scale on his bonefish body. When I asked him about his philosophy of bodysurfing he shrugged his shoulders and told me, “The ocean helps me keep my head above water. It inspires, soothes, excites and embraces me. It’s given me everything I have in life and I am grateful for that every day.”

After retiring as a lifeguard in 2005, Mark told me he has been “pretty much just playing in the ocean.” He’d been hearing about the Santa Cruz Bodysurfing Championship for decades and was intrigued by its tradition. “I heard it was the 30th annual event this year and decided it was about time I checked it out.”

There is, of course, another reason why Mark is the perfect elder statesman of bodysurfing—he still rips. A call for the second heat cut our conversation short. Mark picked up his fins, walked to the staging area and tied on his pink contestant’s cap. The next 15 minutes was a clinic. Make no mistake, there were a lot of excellent bodysurfers in the water during the contest, but Mark’s smooth style and effortless strokes are distinctly artistic. He glides through the water as if towed behind some unseen force. When he takes off on a wave he looks as relaxed as a man easing on to a sofa. Even in the slightly disorganized conditions of the contest, he carved through the chop like a Cutty Sark. While many of the younger bodysurfers perform tricks such as dolphin reentries, butterfly starts or spinners, Mark is content to simply ride the wave as long and as stylishly as possible. When the heat ended, the master had accumulated 74 points—the highest single heat score of the contest.

Unfortunately, I was not so graceful or adept in the third heat. The waves had backed off a bit so I hit the water with a strategy. I caught four smaller waves on the inside to ensure my score quota then swam outside to wait on a big set. It was a good plan because a fellow competitor, longtime Santa Cruz bodysurfing veteran Dave Ladd, was thinking the same thing. After a long wait, the set arrived. When its first wave arched up before me, I turned and stroked into it. Almost immediately I realized my mistake. It crumbled at both ends like a cold, sad pastry and embraced me in its mediocrity. To punctuate my flaccid performance, I surfaced just in time to see Dave take off on the second wave of the set, a picture perfect left which carried him aloft on its noble brow to victory. Needless to say, the contest was over for me.

Fortunately, the waves don’t turn off when you lose a contest. The consolation prize for the ejected contestants was a fun session further up the beach from the event. The waves were not perfect but as Mark Cunningham once put it, “The nice thing about bodysurfing is that the waves are always overhead.” The sun came out and squadrons of brown pelicans flew by in formation like prehistoric bombers. Lagunas, which is locally known as a “clothing optional” beach, is also a birding paradise. Laguna Creek, which springs out of the flank of Ben Lomond Mountain, drains southwest down 2,200 feet of elevation before finding the sea at this spot. The lagoon attracts shorebirds in fall, including Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, “peeps,” Baird’s and Pectoral Sandpipers, phalaropes, and rarities such as Solitary Sandpiper and even Ruff. The beach is also home to the infamous Snowy Plover.

By the time the final heats were in the water, the tide had filled in and wind was shredding the waves into soupy tatters. When all was said and done, Dr. Chris Lafferty, a perennial World Bodysurfing Champion from Del Mar, won the senior men’s division; Dave Ladd placed a strong second; and Mark Cunningham good-naturedly earned a fifth-place medal. Santa Cruz’s Pat Malo, a mellow, shaggy-haired dude who won titles in both 1998 and 1999, took home the trophy for a third time in the junior men’s division. Finally, Brenna Sullivan, who also organized the event as a partnership between the Santa Cruz Bodysurfing Association and the Santa Cruz State Lifeguard Association, won the women’s division.

Thanks to Brenna, however, the winners of the contest were not limited to bodysurfers in the water at Lagunas. The event also doubled as a benefit to provide equipment for lifeguards in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. All told, Brenna and her team collected 66 pairs of fins, plus “rescue tubes, some lifeguarding odds and ends and about 40 single fins.” In addition, a raffle at Saturday night’s awards ceremony generated enough money for an unspecified number of new rescue tubes and pocket masks. She plans to bring the equipment down to Mexico in mid-November.

Yet as much fun as the contest day was, the best was yet to come. The next morning, our small army of bodysurfers convened at 26th Avenue in Santa Cruz for a free surf “Expression Session.” As promised, the swell had filled in overnight and we were greeted by perfectly glassy, overhead sets the color of lavender honey in pre-dawn light. We spent a solid two hours in pure bliss and ecstatic motion.

While we grinned like idiots and caught wave after wave, our board-riding cousins perched grim-faced on their foam or paddled around each other in tight circles like caged animals. At one point a bodysurfer named Allen made a whistle out of a kelp bulb and blew a series of weird notes as he bobbed in the line up. The surfers were not amused. Don’t get me wrong; I love surfing as much as the next guy, but it is definitely a different vibe.

Perhaps Mark Cunningham captured the spirit of bodysurfing best in his prose poem from The Plight of the Torpedo People, a companion book to Keith Malloy’s seminal bodysurfing film, Come Hell or High Water:

Fun fitness stoke fully immersed in nature. Voyeuristic solitude. Freeform spontaneous silly amusing disciplined focused. Out for a swim and getting some too. No game face needed; invisible. Picking choosing positioning treading sprinting charged electric reposition kick ride. Fin rub cramp up work out. Floating weightless not sitting or standing on it, but in it. Food chain member. No shackles—float bob trip undulate stretch out like no one’s business. Underwater bending and contorting, a lunatic bouncing off the walls. Body chemistry and water composition matched. Relaxed neutralized and massaged by the sea pressure. Stimulated by power beauty and marine life. Two ounces of Speedo, fins and saltwater. Go swim.

Somewhere in the infinite, divine ocean, Rumi is stoked.

Ryan Masters writes a weekly column for Hilltromper.


Field Notes

Plant your flag! Upload a photo, video, field note, nature poem or question for our army of (mostly) amateur naturalists.


Thanks Ryan, your story inspired me to abandon that pile of watersports gear and just jump in for some pure waveriding!