There’s a rocky cove along the Northern California coastline just a short jog from my house where, in the winter when the surf is enormous, I swim in the waves and occasionally smash into mussel-encrusted boulders. It’s only a ten minute run at a reasonable pace, five minutes maybe if I’m soaked and freezing in a wetsuit, skipping shoeless at a full sprint over the bitterly cold pavement on a windy winter’s afternoon, eager for a hot shower.
The jog to the surf takes me past a bustling urban high school, across a bus-choked four-lane boulevard that runs straight to the congested heart of a megapolis’s financial complex, in front of rows of apartment complexes, then finally skirts impossibly picturesque mansions with dramatic cliffside views of a hidden Pacific cove. If the wealthy residents of those cliffside homes bothered to look below to the water in winter they’d see pods of surfers bobbing and washing against the rocks below, dark specks in a vast sea they might at first mistake for birds.
I’m usually one of those specks, chasing a little endorphin hit of adventure in the middle of the day. A microadventure, maybe, through the refreshingly simple act of bodysurfing. A rinse in the sea, a shoulder-separation-tempting tumble over shallow sandbars and sharp rocks, a couple liters of ocean water swallowed, and my batteries are recharged.
Though I’ve surfed nearly every day for more than 20 years now, I’ve only recently taken to bodysurfing. It seems similar to board-surfing, and in obvious ways it is. But there’s a more whole-body experience in bodysurfing that board-surfing doesn’t quite provide. It’s far more physically taxing for one thing, but it’s a more visceral connection with the sea too. And often, it’s more satisfying.
There are no performance hangups in bodysurfing—there’s really nothing to get wrong. No anguish over choosing the wrong board, no complicated equipment to get in the way.
To begin bodysurfing, the following equipment is mandatory:
• a body
Do you have one of those? That’s all you technically need. You might need a wetsuit, and swimfins help, as does a handplane—a little mini surfboard that attaches to your hand and helps to increase flotation and speed—but you can get started without those things.
Good bodysurfing waves are often difficult for stand-up surfers to ride, so bodysurfers often have them all to themselves: they’re hard-breaking and the lip pitches mercilessly fast into very shallow water, giving little time to get to your feet. But a bodysurfer can kick lazily into the wave, using the spiraling force under the water to push them along with the wave before it breaks.
As the wave pitches, the body hydroplanes, granting an exhilarating sense of speed. Over time, you learn to control that speed by dragging arms and legs against the sheer wave face, using drag as a kind of brake. Almost every ridden wave ends in a thrilling tuberide as the wave folds over the rider in a shimmering, echoing cocoon of water. Sometimes, there’s a brutal bodyslam into a compact sandbar below, but it’s not an adventure without a little risk.
Bodysurfing is like entering a time machine connecting today’s surfer with the first humans to ever ride breaking waves. It’s the oldest form of waveriding, an uncomplicated surrendering to the simple joys of the sea, probably learned from watching seals and dolphins at play in the surf.
While a regular surf session might last two hours, bodysurfing, even when the waves are terrific, becomes exhausting after less than an hour. Thirty minutes is often long enough. A few rides, some laughter, a thrilling slam into the ocean floor, and I’m jogging back home, wetsuited, water dripping from my sinuses, pausing only for stoplights, running past buses filled with curious faces, easily ignoring the bustle of urbanity because, for that hour, I’ve escaped. Escaped into my own little world of adventure.
Top Photo:Don Moulds