Watch: What is bodysurfing?
It's the oldest and purest form of surfing, an uncomplicated means to an endorphin high. But bodysurfing's simplicity also meant the performance ceiling was lower than that of board riding. As surf craft progressed so did the feats of board riders while bodysurfers did what they'd done for hundreds of years.
Recently a bunch of East Coast bodysurfers have been readressing the limits of bodysurfing. It's not enough to kick into undersucking slabs and pull into the pit, they're also now making the barrels and in turn redefining what bodysurfing is.
Rikki Gilbey runs WAW Handplanes, and he's one of the new crew of slab bodysurfers.
Over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two forms belly sliding: good ol’ bodybashing and bodysurfing.
So, what’s the difference?
While both involve using just your body to catch and ride waves, they are in fact very different. The term bash is by definition to be bashed, or struck with a heavy or crushing blow, which in bodybashing terms, equates to a collapsing wall of water. And the term surf is...well, we all know what surfing is.
For me, bodybashing is all about fun, it’s not to be taken too seriously. It’s the most popular and the purest form of surfing, and with good reason: it’s easy, it’s fun, and you can do it with next to no equipment. Just swim into an oncoming wave and allow its energy to carry you towards the beach.
You can even level up from here and trim sideways across the wave, and, if you’re lucky, get swallowed up in a nice hollow shorey. After a bodybash it’s extremely hard to leave the water without a big smile on your face.
Over the years I’ve discovered that a lot of people, when they think of bodysurfing, are in fact thinking of ‘bodybashing’, and the general assumption is that bodysurfers ride the white water till they’re eventually smashed, bashed, wiped out, or gently rolled up onto the beach.
Yet for many years, decades even, bodysurfers have been taking on larger, steeper, and more challenging waves. The kind of waves that people expect to be surfed on surfboards or bodyboards. These people are bodysurfers.
When bodysurfing, as with regular surfing, the mission is simple: catch the wave, ride the wave, then exit the wave cleanly. With the ultimate goal of making it in and out of a pitching barrel.
To do this, bodysurfers really need to surf the wave. For starters, you need to drop in at the optimal take off spot, getting into the wave nice and early, utilising strong swimming strokes, and in many cases, specialised bodysurfing swim fins and handplanes to generate extra lift and power. Once up and planing, keep your body up on the water’s surface so it mimics a surfboard. From here, the body is lengthened and manipulated in order to navigate across the wave’s face, and to stay in the pocket to maximise speed and pull off tricks and manoeuvres. On steeper barrelling sections you can even use your arms and legs to stall and extend the barrell time.
Now, even amongst those that understand what bodysurfing is, there’s still a general assumption that those who slide on their belly, don’t make it out of barrels. “That’s for the guys on surfboards and bodyboards”. But I’m here to tell you, that’s not the case. As with any other form of surfing, with the right technique, positioning, timing, and wave selection, making a barrel whilst bodysurfing is highly achievable.
Once a bodysurfer is locked into a barrel, exiting it is the next mission. To do this, speed must be maintained, so staying high on the wave and keeping the body up on the water’s surface is critical. A good handplane can only help in this situation as it lessens the drag. Sometimes the foamball must be negotiated - absorbing the blast while navigating its lumps and bump. Then, as the lip peels back, the bodysurfer is shot out on the face where they can pull out over the shoulder nice and cleanly.
Don’t believe me? Click play.