It’s kind of hard to explain the feeling. There’s something else in there that puts you much more in touch with nature when it’s just your body and the wave. No board, just you, a pair of fins and a wave (and your speedos, of course).
Words and Photos by Sean Davey
Bodysurfing, or some basic form of it, is how most people interact with waves for the first time. My earliest experience of breaking waves was actually about as horrifying as you can imagine. My mom had brought my brothers and I (a 3-year-old Australian ‘gremmie’) to the beach for the first time, and told us all to stay on the sand while she went for a swim. No problem methinks, until, just as she entered the water, the whole ocean opened up its enormous mouth and completely ate her up.
At least, that’s how this little toddler saw it. I was totally distraught at seeing my own mother disappear into the jaws of this terrifying monster.
Of course, really she’d just ducked under a pitching wave. And even though this was a traumatic experience, in the long run it didn’t affect my feelings for the beach at all. I’ve pretty much been in and out of the ocean almost every day since I was around 9 years old. During this time, bodysurfing definitely became a staple part of my daily routine, especially as a youngster. It became an absolute must on days when the best waves broke in the flagged (surfboard-free) zone, which was a lot of the time because the lifeguards always flagged off the best waves on the beach so they could bodysurf without surfers getting in the way.
We resented them for that, back in the day. I don’t know if it’s still the same now, but I do know that if I were one of the lifeguards, I’d probably do it myself now!
By my mid-teens, bodysurfing had fallen away as surfing became my focus, although I did get pretty obsessed with it again through my early 20s. Back then, as soon as I got home from work every day, I’d be straight down to the beach to meet up with my buddy and we’d bodysurf until dark. It didn’t matter if it was 1ft or 10ft; we’d be all over it, every day.
Now, working as a surf photographer gives me a fair amount of time in the water, and in some ways it has become a kind of replacement to bodysurfing. Time spent in the water as a photographer has superseded time spent surfing or bodysurfing.
I’ve been living on the North Shore of Oahu for almost 10 years and have come to know some wonderful characters. One of them is ace water photographer Daren Crawford, who’s also an extremely talented bodysurfer. Hanging out with Daren has refueled my interest in bodysurfing again. Some of the very best waves I’ve ever seen ridden have been during our “body-bash sessions” on this stretch of coast. We find that Off The Wall is usually the best in the early season, while Pupukea has the gold during the late season on north swells. It gets truly ridiculous sometimes – just shimmering, glowing, green walls, like blown glass.
Most people conventionally bodysurf the face of the wave, endeavoring to keep moving and hopefully cop a little cover up somewhere along the way, right? Then there are the real freaks. They can do spins on the face of the wave; some even go around with the lip. You’ll see those guys at the Pipeline bodysurfing event each year, but more about that later ... Then there are the guys who can tap into the pure energy of the wave by positioning themselves high up the wave, but totally under water. The power of the wave carries them, just like when you see a dolphin surfing a wave. It’s this kind of bodysurfing that looks truly amazing on those glassy, clear green days. It’s totally different to watch. Speaking of which, if you haven’t done it yet, next time you see people bodysurfing in really clear water, grab a pair of goggles and take a look at it underneath. You’ll be amazed. It truly is like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
I don’t know what it is exactly about bodysurfing, but it has a strong allure to me. I have to make a living as a surf photographer, but despite that, I’ve passed up many a session that would have produced dollars, just so that I can bodysurf instead. Daren (Crawford), our many bodysurfing friends and I, have formed a loose-knit group we call “The Insiders”. When it’s glassy, and 3-5ft, there’s a good chance you’ll catch us out at OTW, Pupukea, or Waimea if it’s a little too big for the other spots. Waimea shorebreak is one gnarly, powerful wave. It approaches from deep water and dredges up onto a super-shallow sandbar. The ride is pretty damn spectacular. The place can and will hurt you eventually. I fractured a collarbone there one day on what seemed to be a pretty insignificant wave. That’s when it’ll get you, when you least expect it.
The best wave I ever saw anyone bodysurf was on a day at Backdoor a few years ago. Dave Wassel is a sick surfer and now also a lifeguard at the Ehukai Beach tower. He’s a good all-round waterman for sure. If I were in trouble out there, I’d be stoked to know that Dave was taking control.
He was out surfing 8ft Backdoor late one morning when all the photographers had already packed up and gone, and he lost his board. But instead of swimming in to retrieve it, he waited for a wave and bodysurfed a serious 8ft barrel across Backdoor. It was easily the best barrel I’ve seen anyone get while bodysurfing – top to bottom, too. “Where’s the picture?” you ask. I didn’t have my camera at the time, but believe me, it happened.
Winner of the annual “Patagonia Pipeline Bodysurfing Classic” is a much-coveted title strongly contested around February each year. 2006 was talked about more than any of the previous events. For starters, there was a trio of British bodysurfers in and out of the national press on a pretty frequent basis. Their approach had shades of Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, who contested the 1988 Calgary Olympics in the ski-jumping category, not because he was an expert ski-jumper, but simply because he could. He finished dead last, but still received more media interest and interviews than any other athlete. Tim Bawden, Mark Craze and Andrew Whitworth from Cornwall, UK, entered the Classic in similar fashion – and they all finished last in their heats – Andrew came sixth out of six, and the others were no-shows.
The fact that Pipe was churning out 10ft barrels that day might have had something to do with their results. This was pretty serious Pipe. Quite a few of the early heats had competitors taking off on the shoulder. And then there were the freak watermen like Mike Stewart, Mark Cunningham and Don King. These guys, and a few others, are more than comfortable cruising around the impact zone at big Pipeline. I was pretty blown away with some of the rides that they were getting – definitely some of the best bodysurfing I’ve seen to this day.
The guy who won the event was an extremely stoked Steve Kapela, an eastside Oahu resident and long-time competitor in bodysurfing events. He has every right to be stoked – he won in the biggest waves I’ve seen the Classic held in, and against a really strong field of competitors.
Whenever I’m out shooting water photos, I see all kinds of waves go unridden. Occasionally, I’ll even bodysurf one, using my camera housing as a plane instead of my hand, such is the drawing power of bodysurfing. I don’t know quite how to explain it, but I enjoy bodysurfing more than just about anything else. During our North Shore sessions we often get 20-30 sick barrels in an hour. That’s pretty rare for any surfer. So next time you’re cruising on the beach and you see sick little barrels throwing over an inside bar, just grab a pair of fins and get out there. Hey, until you get to the level of the Pipeline Classic competitors, the speedos are optional.
Sean Davey, originally from Tasmania, Australia, has spent the past 10 years living on the North Shore of Oahu, where he consistently produces all manner of beach and surf-related imagery. Sean has an eye for detail and regularly goes out of his way to capture pictures that are different to the norm, exploring techniques that often set his work apart from the pack. When he’s not shooting surf, you can catch Sean bodysurfing, or photographing turtles and stuff.