To some, bodysurfing is a simplistic sport, inadvertently practiced by wiped-out surfers, or thought of as a precursor to bodyboarding. The history of bodysurfing, however, reveals there’s much more to the sport than that.
Bodysurfing is one of the purest sports around. Witness its utter lack of equipment, as only fins and the occasional handboard are used. It is far older than stand-up surfing and believed to have been dreamed up by ancient Hawaiians who watched dolphins catching waves. The best bodysurfers resemble the master’s themselves – dolphins – whose techniques have directly informed the sport.
The history of bodysurfing reveals some interesting facts about a sport that is frequently overlooked.
You should remember Bodysurfing, from the summer days of playing on the beach. It is, essentially, surfing without a board; the art of using the body to ride a wave and maneuver on its face. With no board to steer, and no fins to gain purchase in the water for turning, bodysurfers have to use an outstretched arm for direction. The arm lets a bodysurfer hold a straight line in the water the way a tail of a surfboard or the keel of a boat digs in and maintains direction. Bodysurfers also wear fins much shorter than scuba divers’ fins, which are designed to stay on while being ravaged by a breaking wave.
Like surfers and boogie boarders, bodysurfers have to position themselves at the point where waves are at their biggest just before breaking. Because bodyboarders don’t have as much buoyancy as traditional surfers, and can’t allow the wave to sweep them up as easily, they have to be much closer to the cusp of a breaking wave. Just before the wave lifts them up, they generate speed with their fins, point their body down the face of the wave and ride.
Sport of Dolphins
Like stand-up surfing, Hawaiians can take credit for the creation of bodysurfing, which is known in Hawaiian as “he’e umauma” or “kaha nalu.” Long before the invention of surfboards, ancient Hawaiians are believed to have watched dolphins using the surf for play.
Watching this video, there is no mistaking the fact that dolphins are using the surf to play and that they are experts in doing so. Their powerful tails let them easily catch any wave. In the exact same way that skilled surfers can eject over the lip of a wave, the dolphins shoot themselves out the back of a cresting wave like a rocket. It’s easy to see how the history of bodysurfing developed, as the ancients stood on a shore watching these animals play and longed to do the same.
It’s only natural that, as bodysurfing evolved, its practitioners looked, once again, to dolphins for clues about how to do it. The best bodysurfers now use a technique called the dolphin technique or porpoising, drawn straight from the way the animals surf. This technique consists of creating a short blast of speed at the moment just before the wave breaks. By executing a swift double kick, the bodysurfer reaches the speed of the wave very quickly. Then, the bodysurfer arches his or her back and tucks their chin downward, resembling the shape of a dolphin, to use the same physics that propel the animals through the wave.
Tricks and Competition
Expert bodysurfers can roll back and forth or turn onto their backs when riding a wave face.
It is said that Banzai Pipeline, on the North Shore of Oahu, is the birthplace of bodysurfing. Pipeline, now as ever, is possibly the best bodysurfing destination in the world. The same powerful barrel-shaped waves, which often reach double-overhead height, that make stand-up surfers worship this spot makes it sacred to bodysurfers, too. One of the sport’s most important and longest-running competition, the annual Pipeline Bodysurfing Classic, is held at this beach. Another of the sport’s biggest events is the Oceanside World Bodysurfing Championship, ongoing since 1971, which sees about 60 competitors annually.
The Wedge, a surf break at California’s Newport Beach follows Pipeline as the second most coveted bodysurfing spot. Swells bounce off of the jetty and collide with incoming swells creating high peaks on barreling waves: ideal bodysurfing conditions.
This decidedly minimalistic sport does have one optional piece of gear besides fins: the handboard. Handboards are small paddles, usually shaped from wood, that are strapped onto one hand and used to control direction in the water. In effect, a handboard is a rudder that bodysurfers can use to steer into the pocket of the wave and help them hold a straight line down the face.
If reading about its history has got you pumped up, check out our Bodysurfing Starter;s Guide before hitting the waves.