"There’s a reason little fish school together"
It may have been my fragile sensibility, but when I was a kid all the local bodysurfers seemed like grumpy pricks. They’d hang in a group, tight on the ledge at the Patch or the Point and bark like walruses. All of them old and hoarse, and none of them with a working thermostat - Speedos in June was the norm. By the early-90s all the old walruses were gone, replaced by the first wave of boogie boarders, and I can’t say I really missed them.
For fifteen years afterwards, I surfed the reefs around Cronulla and Kurnell and there was only ever one bodysurfer who’d swim out to join us. And though he wasn’t local he was accepted through sheer weight of presence - he simply never missed a swell. It also helped that, even on the biggest of days, he gave it a red hot go.
That was how I saw bodysurfing for a very long time. Throwbacks going the same way as kneeboards and surf skis. Yeah, there were lone warriors up and down the coast, stubborn souls keeping the flame alive, they’d sporadically assemble for a Malloy brothers film before retreating solo to their perches. Maybe they liked it that way?
Which is why I’m a little surprised with the sudden turn bodysurfing has taken. I no longer live at Cronulla yet I recently drove up there to accept an invitation from Rikki Gilbey, one of the driving forces in the body whomp renaissance. It was a busy Sunday morning when we arranged to meet and I wondered how I’d find him.
“Don’t worry, there’s a few people here. It’ll be easy to locate us,” assured Rikki.
And sure enough, walking over the low dunes of Wanda I spied twenty bodysurfers roaming the inside bank north of Wanda Surf Club. Paying no heed to the supposed rules, two, three, and sometimes four people took off on each wave, and they did so over and over, pulling into the small tubes and pulling spinners where possible. The surf was only small, the stand ups struggling to function, but the whompers were clearly having the most fun on the beach.
Later, while drying off on the grass, Rikki explained to me that it wasn’t just a gathering of locals but a meet between two body surfing clubs. The Bate Bay Body Bashers, who are local to the area, and the East Sydney Bodysurfers, who’d driven down for the morning. It wasn’t an official competition, just a gathering of the tribes, yet the carpark talk was pure braggadocio. All puffed up chests and quick one-liners.
Rikki Gilbey in the slot (Pete Noone)
Three years ago the Bate Bay Body Bashers didn’t exist yet now they can count 120 members on the roll. Some members are more keen than others, especially during winter, but the BBBB have a name as one of the more social clubs around and people want a part of it. Their club captain, Luke Brbot, also doubles as social director.
“The first thing that happens when anyone swims with us is they get a nickname,” explains Luke. “You’ve got all these bodysurfing movies where the people have terrible nicknames, ‘Cashbox Johnson’ and the like so we take the piss out of that.” So they have 'Chicken Wing' and 'the Pilgrim', 'the Flounder' and 'Mud Shark', and presumably 116 more.
“And” continues Luke, “we have a saying, ‘On Sunday you wear navy’”. The team colours must be worn to lunch, afterwards with the family, when you’re shopping, whatever it is you’re doing.
Recently Luke’s brother Nick returned like the prodigal son from East Sydney to Bate Bay and the club put together a press conference replete with cameramen, ‘media’ attendance, a contract to sign, and a metal lectern that looked suspiciously like a garbage bin.
You may have heard of Nick Brbot, a year or so back he scored headlines bodysurfing big Cape Solander, and some of his body whomping brethren are following him out to the reefs. Recently Swellnet ran a video titled ‘What is bodysurfing?’ that showed these gut-sliding rock jockeys hooking into the Cape and Middles, the equally fearsome wave next door. These were the waves I surfed years ago when there was just one lone bodysurfer on the ledge, yet now there were a handful and they were all giving it a nudge.
“What,” I wondered, “would old mate who used to bodysurf on his own, think about it?” And so I made some calls.
Peter Sperling is the grandfather of whomp according to the younger crew on the scene, so you’re probably thinking grey hair and bit of a paunch, though you’d be well wide of the mark. Despite his elder status, Sperlo is a lithe forty-something with a jet black coiffure, and instead of driving a sensible Toyota Camry he whips ‘round town in a shiny European convertible. His Instagram tag line is ‘Rip it and kick it!’
Sperlo gives it a red hot go (Nick Hollman)
“I’ve only got myself to blame,” says Sperlo about his no-longer-solo sessions. “I had no idea I had so many Instagram followers!” Like many, he whacked a few photos of himself doing what he loved onto IG and received a rush of DMs. Before long he was on the rocks with Nick Brbot, showing him the jump rock, and then came Rikki Gilbey, and a slow trickle of curious whompers. However, instead of rueing the social media magnetism, Sperlo is enjoying the company.
“There’s a reason little fish school together,” laughs Sperlo. “In a competitive lineup with surfers and bodyboarders, us bodysurfers are definitely at the bottom of the food chain. It’s great to have some company down there.”
Nick launching into the Cape (Peter Tids)
The reefs work on a particular set of conditions. Yet those conditions have been determined by surfers, and bodysurfers aren’t beholden to the same criteria. Off-kilter tides, backwash, sideshore winds, are all water off a bodysurfer’s back - doesn’t matter, they’ll still go out. And just like I saw on Sunday, the ‘one surfer, one wave’ decree isn’t always adhered to; the instinct to share regularly overcoming the proximity of sharp rock. Simply put, bodysurfers can do more with less, and this, I believe, gets to the heart of the bodysurfing resurgence.
In recent years the stand up surfing community has split rather than consolidated, with the tribe devolving into various cliques and factions, each a little wary of the other. The days of tribal gatherings - the Bells Beach Pro, for instance - are long gone, yet the need for tribal company remains strong. With a healthy dose of danger and a large serve of fun, the Bate Bay Body Bashers have created their own tribe and it’s 120 whompers strong.
Also, stand up surfers always have their guard up. Waves are a finite resource and every other surfer threatens access to that resource, so they’ll guard their share through fear or coercion - it’s classic primate behaviour. But the thing is, stand ups seek a particular kind of wave. If the parameters for good surf are expanded then there are more waves that can be ridden, The ‘resource’ has just expanded. Communal whomps - two, three, and four a wave - only add to it. All of which makes your bog standard bodysurfer less suspicious of his equals.
In 2016, Rikki Gilbey organised the first Whomp Off Australia. A modest affair, it featured just four teams bodysurfing perfect North Narrabeen. The response to that first event was, according to Rikki, “overwhelming”. He had people contact him from all over wanting to be part of it. People that he had no idea existed. The following year they had seven teams competing in the Whomp Off at Thirroul, and this year they have fourteen teams.
Even better, two of the teams are from overseas, the Saturday Morning Bodysurf Club from Britain and the DaFin Team from Hawaii, the last one featuring the real grandfather of bodysurfing, Mark Cunningham. Even Sperlo would agree on that.
The Whomp Off has four events: Tag Team, Tricks, the Individual event where each team picks their best whomper, and the 4 x 25 metre relay. The last one isn’t a swim relay, it’s a sprint relay, on soft sand, with swim fins on. The terms and conditions set the tone for the day: not only is the judges decision final but protestors will be deducted points. The Whomp Off clearly isn't about winning. “So what,” I ask Rikki Gilbey, “is it about?”
“It’s about getting in with your team and having a go,” says Rikki with sincerity. “And getting together with like-minded people to have some fun.”
“Nah,” interrupts Luke, “It’s about bragging rights. Pure and simple.”