"There’s a reason little fish school together"

Stu Nettle
Swellnet Dispatch

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.”

Whomp Off 2018 is presented by Vissla, Da Fin Hawaii, The Bodysurfing Shop, WAW Handplanes, and Swellnet.


simba's picture
simba's picture
simba commented Friday, 14 Sep 2018 at 4:21pm

Great read......that's how i remember it....all about fun...well done Stu


WAWhandplanes's picture
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WAWhandplanes commented Friday, 14 Sep 2018 at 4:59pm

Thanks legends! Tomorrow is set to be all times, Thanks for all the support

nbrbot's picture
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nbrbot commented Friday, 14 Sep 2018 at 5:10pm

What a great analogy and way to put it. Although I have seen a few silvers coming through for the Grandfather of Australian Bodysurfing :)

stan1972's picture
stan1972's picture
stan1972 commented Friday, 14 Sep 2018 at 5:46pm

That was such a good read to finish off the week. Best of luck to the bodysurfers in the Womp Off and thanks a lot Swellnet!

kneepete's picture
kneepete's picture
kneepete commented Friday, 14 Sep 2018 at 5:49pm

"Throwbacks going the same way as kneeboards"

Hey! Some of us are still doing it you know.

truebluebasher's picture
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truebluebasher commented Saturday, 15 Sep 2018 at 2:20am

"Simply put bodysurfers can do more with less"!
Sounds a bit posh...
Bodybasherz sufjustsurf

Yep! A good read alright Stu...Right on about old GC crew fading...
I came onto a lonely scene from 2000. I met about 10 basherz GC/Tweed until 2010.
After 2012 on Gold Coast there were around 20 regular bodysurfers.

Come Hell or High Water 2013 Byron tour of Keith Malloy broke the mould.
We sent a split Gold Coast crew of half a dozen down to Surf Festival
That Byron Comp became an Exhibition by default of 30 worldly bodysurfers.
Half a dozen Bodysurfing Stalls an all day affair.

Well after that day the whole scene was overcrowded with Whomper Stomper fever
Every snack bar & coffee shop even every surf shop sold Handplanes.
Where's yer Handplane! You need a Handplane! You'll go faster with a Handplane Mate!
Whomperz 4wd Menshed with sidecart micro brewery palming off marine debris for all.

Why stop yourself from surfing ?... A band-aid anchor is way plastic enough for me!
US Whomper toyz won't zombify every OZ Basher.
Happy Swellnet Whomp Off... Bottom of the surf food chain wedged beneath Bikini Bottom!

davetherave's picture
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davetherave commented Saturday, 15 Sep 2018 at 10:25am

just for the pure pleasure. nothing like feeling the power of a wave/swell running along your body as you glide with it. hope there's a good shorey and not a howling onshore for the whompers- it will be fun regardless anyway- thanks stu and swellnet for reminding all surfers-have fun, just have fun.
happy surfing-davetherave


velocityjohnno's picture
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velocityjohnno commented Saturday, 15 Sep 2018 at 11:15am

Those pics in the article look truly epic. It is so satisfying to see surfing branch out and have depth everywhere. Stu there might be an article in the tradition of bodysurfing the Black Sea in what is now Turkey, which is about 2000 years old? They seem to have the same sense of sharing and one-upmanship this article does? For my 2c only time I've ever been barrelled, come out, get barrelled again and come out was with a hand plane and flippers, not quite a purist approach but mind blowing nonetheless.

What chance do you reckon a grom born in 2050 will think these guys are the walruses of 2060? (meant in the nicest possible way: keep surfing!)

And Dave, enjoy your travels down our way :)

Edit: hats off to my uncle who was bodybashing double overhead Mooloolaba/Cartwright in the 1940's, before boards were on the coast, before Ma and Pa, McTavish, etc.

davetherave's picture
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davetherave commented Saturday, 15 Sep 2018 at 11:52am

travel plans delayed vj because of left arm/ shoulder injury from getting driven into the superbank whilst avoiding collision with beginner's chucking their boards as the sucky grinder grabbed them pitching them back with the lip. tried to straighten round them but so shallow my left arm then shoulder got driven into the sand before i got sucked back up over the falls and flogged again. thinking of seeking out lesser quality waves with less people- it seems all my surfing injuries are from collisions or avoiding collisions with humans not paying attention. but i'm alive and thankful, so all good.


groundswell's picture
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groundswell commented Saturday, 15 Sep 2018 at 2:09pm

I hope Rasta is going in this, he rips on the belly.

Gary G's picture
Gary G's picture
Gary G commented Saturday, 15 Sep 2018 at 5:43pm

Gary has said this about a few publications in the past, but when he says: ‘Gary mainly buys Swellnet for the articles’

He really means it in this case.

You and me, Gary, ain’t nothing but mammals so let’s do it* like they do it on the aerobics channel


davetherave's picture
davetherave's picture
davetherave commented Sunday, 16 Sep 2018 at 10:46am

glad to see double g showing he loves whomping his body!!


tbrook's picture
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tbrook commented Sunday, 16 Sep 2018 at 2:22pm

Great article. Thanks. I very rarely read the articles on swellnet but this was a beauty and very interesting.
I live in Newcastle and there a couple of youngish guys who swim right out and body surf here. They are very good. I didnt think about it much but this made me think more about the bigger scene.
Epic photos and I am not ashamed to admit these blokes have much bigger balls than me.
Keep doing it lads.

the-u-turn's picture
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the-u-turn commented Monday, 17 Sep 2018 at 10:33am

What a wonderful article loved it. Indeed Bodysurfing remains the lost art.

...and onto the clubbies. On the East Coast if you could not master a wave you really had no chance on making the dash to the line. What's thrilling to see is the sheer advancement of body surfing outside the clubbie realm. It's brilliant. Can assure you that the Bodysurf God, Mark Cunningham, is one of the nicest and sincerely humble blokes you are ever likely to meet.

The U Turn
...a little Aloha goes a long way.

batfink's picture
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batfink commented Friday, 21 Sep 2018 at 4:22am

Body surfing is now a fundamental part of my water routine and so often gets me in the water when conditions or crowds make surfing a marginal activity at best. I wouldn't survive a Sydney summer without it.

The visceral feeling of body surfing is completely different to surfing. I don't recommend you take it up. I'm enjoying it too much without you.