Bodysurfing is the art of riding the waves without a surfboard or boogie board. You simply slip on a pair of swim fins and catch a wave.
At first glance, it’s just a unique way of defining drowning, but there’s a lot more to it and if you’ve even watched a bodysurfer ride the waves, you’ll know just how impressive it can be.
But how do they do it, and how can you emulate them? In this article, we’ll answer these questions and many more, giving you the ins and outs of bodysurfing and showing you how to bodysurf like the pros.
How to Bodysurf: A Guide
Bodysurfing can be tricky, but as with all water sports, if you devote some time to learning the basics and practicing them repeatedly, you’ll figure it out eventually. Just follow these steps:
1. Look for the Right Conditions
To begin with, you’re not looking for optimum surf conditions with big waves to propel you forward. You want to stick with chest-high whitewater and look for waves that are less than 4 feet high. That way, you can stand up and touch the bottom, making it easier to compose yourself and try again after every wave.
2. Get the Right Equipment
One of the great things about bodysurfing is that you don’t need expensive equipment, but you should pick up some basic tools to make your life easier.
If it’s cold, you’re going to need a wetsuit. Keep an eye on the temperature and if it’s chilly, don’t get into the water until you’re fully suited and protected.
You’re also going to need some swim fins. You can find swim fins in many beachside shops and surf shops and they will help to make you more aerodynamic and give you more control when bodysurfing.
Swim fins are also fairly cheap and while a top-of-the-range set will cost you up to $100, you can buy some very good bodysurfing fins for less than $40.
A handboard or handplane is an optional piece of equipment for bodysurfing, but it may make your life easier. Handplaning will allow you to gain more speed and ride waves with greater ease. It’s also fairly cheap.
3. Stay Fit and Strong and Practice Your Swimming
Bodysurfing can be a challenge to inexperienced swimmers and unfit individuals. If you fall into these categories, you’ll struggle to ride the wave safely and effectively and may feel a little out of your depth. Hit the gym, stay fit and strong, and make sure you’re a capable swimmer before going up against those waves.
4. Ride the Face of the Wave
When a wave approaches, turn your back, push yourself off the ocean floor, and start swimming. Kick your feet, paddle, and swim as fast as you can. When the wave lifts you, thrust your arm out in front of you and keep it in line with your head, like Superman soaring through the skies.
Stiffen your body, keep your head in line with your leading arm and push your weight onto that arm. The technique can be a little hard to master, especially in the beginning when everything happens so quickly, but if you stay relatively close to shore, remain in chest-high water, and keep practicing, you will get there eventually.
Once you have mastered these basic waves, you can take things to the next level, but it’ll be a while before you can start thinking about big waves and challenging conditions.
How Does Bodysurfing Work?
Bodysurfing is basically swimming with added propulsion. When you bodysurf, you’re moving with the energy of the wave and using your natural buoyancy to glide over the water and not fall under it. Your posture plays a big role, as does wave choice, swimming ability, and swim fins.
Is Bodysurfing Dangerous?
If the waves are breaking heavy and you don’t have the skill to tackle them, bodysurfing can be very dangerous. You also need to be a very good swimmer and have some understanding of rip currents, reef breaks, and other ocean dangers. Bodysurfers are not just surfers who have forgotten their boards. They’re highly-skilled and knowledgeable and if you want to emulate them, you need to learn how to respect the ocean and all of its dangers.
A Short History of Bodysurfing
Bodysurfing likely predates board surfing, making it thousands of years old. Some of the earliest incidents of bodysurfing in the modern era occurred around the turn of the 20th century, when a Pacific Islander named Tommy Tanna taught Australian Fred Williams how to bodysurf, before Williams taught the same technique to many others.
LA-based swimmer Wally O’Conner popularized the sport in the United States during the 1920s, and it was also said to have been practiced by John Wayne before he became famous. Bodysurfing continued to thrive in Los Angeles and California in general, and in the 1930s The Art of Wave-Riding was published by Ron Drummond, becoming one of the first instruction manuals on bodysurfing and surfing in general.
Mark Cunningham is one of the biggest names associated with the history of the sport and was regarded as the best in the world during the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. There were no official world championships or other major events at the time (or since), but the sport continued to grow alongside board surfing and there is a Bodysurfing Classic event held at Pipeline.
Mark Cunningham initially worked as a lifeguard in Hawaii, before showing off his skills at Pipeline, which was dominated by board surfing at the time. In later years, Mike Stewart became the face of bodysurfing. The former bodyboarding World Champion was actually the first to perform a barrel roll at the famous Pipeline surf spot.
Bodysurfing is a unique and interesting sport, and a fun way to ride the waves. The learning curve is quite high, but it’s also quite accessible, as you don’t need an expensive surfboard or bodyboard to get started.
If you’re planning on bodysurfing for the first time, make sure you understand the risks involved and do everything to negate them. It also helps if you are a strong swimmer and focus on riding waves that you can handle until you’re more experienced. Inexperienced bodysurfers should also be accompanied by friends who can help them out if anything goes wrong.
If you’re looking for more information beyond this article, we recommend taking a look at YouTube videos of bodysurfers in action.
Bodysurfing is fun, but it can also be dangerous, so it pays to do your research and to be prepared.