Bodysurfing: Pure Connection to the Water

From Santa Cruz shorebreak to some of the world's most treacherous waves, bodysurfing is making a comeback.

by Malone Ahern

Aug. 12, 2016—Spend enough time at the beach and eventually you’ll see seals and dolphins hanging out in the surf. On some occasions, if the waves are right, you can even see them bodysurfing the waves. Sometimes pods of dolphins ride the waves together. The spectacle borders on a circus act, but empathetic humans will see it as an animal's expression of joy.

It’s heartening to think that the creatures of the sea want to have fun and surf just like us, but according to Ben Finney, University of Hawaii anthropologist, it is actually the other way around. It is more likely that we realized the potential for riding waves only after being awed by the dolphins’ and seals’ performances.

From the beginning of surfing to what it is now, bodysurfing is the original form of riding waves. “Bodysurfing certainly pre-dates board surfing, dating as far back as 2000 BC,” Finney writes in the Encyclopedia of Surfing.

Before surf leashes became common in the 1970s, any surfer who wiped out inevitably had to bodysurf in to retrieve his or her board. Consequently you had a generation of surfers who were all experienced bodysurfers, because surfing indirectly required it.

Bodysurfing lost popularity towards the end of the century. By the 1990s, bodysurfing was known as “surfing’s lost art” (Encyclopedia of Surfing). There were bodysurfing pockets in places like Santa Cruz and the Wedge in Newport, but the sport had stagnated for a long while.

These days, you can take a walk around Santa Cruz and more often than not see bodysurfers bobbing in the lineup. There are crews of bodysurfers all looking to get a fun wave in the spots around town.

With the neo-retro movement happening today in surfing, and the willingness of new generations to try alternative surf-craft, bodysurfing is fitting well into today’s crowded lineups and the hobbies of independent-minded individuals. It is seen today as the chill, laid-back form of surfing.

Ryan Masters is a bodysurfing legend in Santa Cruz and a Hilltromper contributor. While reflecting on his early days bodysurfing, one can see how his attitude fits that of today’s bodysurfers; joy-seeking, a little aloof, but always humble.

“We were into bodysurfing 26th, Its Beach and a bunch of little-known spots north of town," Masters recalls. "We also thought we were hipper than traditional surfers. We were, of course, wrong on that, but I think we may have been having more fun."

Bodysurf City

At spots throughout town, groups of people without boards are charging the many barreling shorebreaks Santa Cruz has to offer. At spots like 26th Avenue, Sunny Cove, Blacks Beach and Mitchell’s Cove, you’ll likely see bodysurfers having a good time and getting wedged into hollow, speeding barrels.

Being a spectator on the cliffs around the break is sometimes just as exciting as being in the water. When you see a surfer catch a wave, there’s beauty in the fluid and graceful entry into the wave.

Some of the most exciting waves crash close to shore. Breaking on shallow sandbars, the wave’s energy sucks water up into a cyclone that throws the water down into the sand. Bodysurfers are often caught up in the whole mess and end up going along for the ride, getting flung onto the sand in awkward positions even your yoga teacher would frown on.

For some bodysurfers, this is just part of the thrill. Masters prefers waves that are “steep and hollow. Any size, but the bigger the better.” Simply watching a surfer navigate the treacherous tube can be all the thrill you need.

Not everyone seeks the hollow cavern of a sand-sucking curl. One is David Ladd, one of Santa Cruz’s OG bodysurfers, not to mention one of its finest. For him, the point breaks around town are more enticing, with longer rides and more focus on stylish tricks like the “el rollo,” where you roll your body parallel to the wave while maintaining momentum.

Ladd has competed in bodysurfing competitions for years, surfed up and down the West Coast, and spent serious time surfing Hawaiian waves. Ladd has surfed some of the most dangerous waves in the world with success, like Oahu’s Pipeline and Point Panic, but has also felt the consequence of surfing such critical waves.

Ladd recounts one wipeout while bodysurfing Makapu'u, a burly deepwater break on Oahu. “Makapu’u took me to the bottom and ripped my fins off. I thought I was going to drown,” he says.

To push the limits, one must accept that he or she is rolling the dice, with ever- increasing odds of winding up in a life-threatening situation.

Don’t Try This at Home

How far can bodysurfing be taken? And just as important to ask, how far is too far? Ryan Masters is the man with the answers, as he is the only person to have bodysurfed Mavericks, the big wave spot in Half Moon Bay.

After a long tenure of successfully bodysurfing maxing Middle Peak at Steamer Lane, Masters ventured to Mavericks on the last day of the 2016 El Nino winter. After making a few marginally successful lefts, he missed a right and found himself caught inside for a set that big wave legend Grant Washburn gauged at 30 feet. Masters was drilled by the lip of the first wave, which drove him 40 feet deep to the reef where he shattered seven ribs and his scapula, fractured his neck and punctured his lung. After enduring a two-wave hold down, he was blown into the lagoon and forced to swim most of the way back to shore. He has since called bodysurfing Mavericks "inadvisable."

Bodysurfing a wave that big and fast doesn’t translate well given the anatomy of the human body, says Ladd. “Funny thing about bodysurfing,” he says, “you reach a size bodysurfing where if it gets any bigger it’s not that fun, it’s a physics thing.” At high speeds, skipping across the water may feel more like being dragged in the dirt by a car than the gratifying flying sensation of gliding across smaller waves.

“There are the Wedge riders, the Brazilians and the [Keith] Malloy types,” Masters says, referring to the surfer and filmmaker behind the bodysurfing documentary Come Hell or High Water. “Other than that, big wave bodysurfing is not really a thing. It definitely takes a certain type of big wave and a certain kind of person.”

Read Bodysurfing: The Ecstatic Motion by Ryan Masters
Read Wild Coast Whomp by Ryan Masters

While the best bodysurfers are taking the sport to new and unprecedented levels, the sport still has a very relaxed vibe that is geared more towards having fun. Ladd’s opinion on the sport is that it’s most likely to put a smile on your face. “They do it because it’s underground, they don’t have that agro surf personality,” he says, talking about the new generation of surfers.

“It’s the alternative, it’s the hipster version. I don’t care if it’s cool or not cool, I want to get my wave, I’m just having fun,” says Ladd.

Masters sees a difference between board surfers and bodysurfers in that the bodysurfers have shed themselves of the shackles which bind board surfers to a localized, prideful code.

For bodysurfers, “Fun is fun. There are guys who have fun riding waves on anything or nothing. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of people who are insanely territorial and angry and just not particularly well-adjusted human beings. Bodysurfers, on the whole, tend to be very mellow people”.

While board surfing may have become a new industry with more photos and web videos than ever before, bodysurfing remains low-key and down-to-earth, rooted in being enveloped in the water and seeing otters swim by, having the spot to yourself, and waiting for the next exciting ride that you will remember later to get yourself through the day.

Upcoming Bodysurfing Competitions

40th Annual World Bodysurfing Championships in Oceanside, CA, Aug. 20-21
32nd Annual California Bodysurfing Championships at Lagunas off Hwy 1, Sept. 17, 2016