A Guide on How to Body Surf
According to most, body surfing is the purest form of surfing. It might also be the most difficult. Learn what you need to do with the OMBE guide.
Body surfing is probably the oldest tradition of surfing. The traces of it can be found in the most unexpected corners of the world, dating back to a couple of millennia ago. Although the prominence of surfboards made riding waves easier, body surfing still continues to exist. Not because it’s any easier, mind you, but because it takes less, as you don’t even need to have a surfboard to body surf.
Yet, limiting its survival to its ease is considerably unjust. For those who’ve had the chance to experience it, body surfing provides the most unmediated, purest way to ride waves. You’ve probably heard your share of inspirational surf quotes that imply how surfing is an escape from the daily struggles of life to a realm where you’re one with nature.
If surfing with the help of a board can provide such an escape, imagine what surfing without any equipment provides you. Even those who are seen as the greatest of all time when it comes to surfing, like Kelly Slater, are awe-inspired by the realm opened up by body surfing: “I think body surfing is the only truly, completely, absolutely pure form of surfing and body surfing without fins. At the end of the day, it makes you appreciate every wave you have a bit more because even a so-so wave while body surfing is a great wave."
Now, let’s see what inspires such awe in the greatest name of the surfing world, how and why it persevered all those years, and what you should do to learn how to body surf and start appreciating every wave you get.
The History of Body Surfing
Come to think of it, a psychologist can easily draw a parallel between the passion for surfing and the desire to return to times when everything was much simpler. After all, we love surfing because it offers us a gateway to peace from everyday concerns. Yet, most of that desire is rooted in the idea that, in the past, the close contact with nature made people of the time appreciate and value every moment they spent on Earth.
According to historians, that’s how body surfing was conceived as well. The lives of the natives of seaside territories, such as the Aboriginal clans, Pacific Islanders, and Polynesians, solely depended on their contact with nature. More specifically, they depended on their connection with the ocean. They sustained themselves on the fish-rich waters, and when it was time to engage in recreational activities, they caught waves with their bare bodies and rode them.
Moreover, such traditions didn’t only emerge on the ocean coasts either. Even in the Black Sea region of Turkey, there was a specific tradition called viya, which means wave in Greek, that was practiced by the Pontic Greeks who had once populated the land and is still honored by the locals of the area, albeit in low numbers.
Although the interest in this particular tradition significantly dropped after the population exchange between Greece and Turkey preceding World War I, should you visit the area, you can still find a closed community of body surfers.
Despite such a long history and traces from many corners of the world, the official recognition of body surfing as a branch of sports dates back only to the beginning of the 20th century and happened in Australia with the foundation of The Surf Bathing Association of New South Wales.
The Present of Body Surfing
Everybody more or less has an idea about the surfboard revolution that happened in the 1960s. However, we cannot fault anybody for not knowing that, before the surfboard revolution, there was an equipment revolution in the sphere of body surfing. Yes, we’re talking about an equipment revolution in a sport in which there was no equipment to speak of.
In the 1940s, Californian body surfer Owen Churchill introduced swim fins (called duck feet) to the surfing world, and handplanes soon followed. Both pieces of equipment helped surfers have more stability, control, power, and thrust when riding waves. Yet, the succeeding surfboard revolution meant that the interest in body surfing was going to diminish in the following decades, if not totally die down.
Despite the efforts of many great body surfers, including Mark Cunningham, Belinde Baggs, Mike Stewart, and the aforementioned Kelly Slater, the world was only able to renew its interest in body surfing after the release of a documentary, Come Hell or High Water, in 2011. The film chronicled the exploits of legends on big wave spots, including the notorious Teahupo’o in Haiti, which is difficult to ride even when you’re on a board.
As a result of the thrills, excitements, and mindfulness presented in the documentary, many people around the world got hooked on the prospect once again, and the contemporary state of the discipline is thankfully quite flourishing.
In Australia alone, there are at least three prestigious competitions taking place every year such as The Flat Rock Invitational, Slyde Fest Bodysurfing Competition, and WHOMP OFF. Moreover, should you time your visit to the Banzai Pipeline well, which is another one of those world-renowned spectacular surf spots, you have a chance to catch the Pipeline Bodysurfing Classic and see the best in action.
What Body Surfing Requires
As you can guess, the requirements of body surfing drastically differ from those of stand-up surfing. For example, you need to use your lower body a lot to compress, decompress, and maintain balance when riding a board. When you body surf, you don’t need to do any of those things.
Moreover, surfing solely on your body means that your breathing capacity will be quite restricted most of the time. So, instead of exercises that emphasize strength, more meditative exercises such as breath training should be at the forefront of your workout program.
Now, let’s see the fitness levels and types of equipment you need in more detail.
Of course, you’ll have to use your legs and hip area when you body surf, but the main emphasis will be on your core muscles. That’s what will help you ride the wave, keep you stable and in control, and maneuver when it’s time for twists and turns. So, the key exercises in your routine should pertain to improving your core strength.
To that end, there are a couple of fitness exercises we can recommend:
- Split squats: As you still need to maintain a certain level of strength in your lower body, split squats are a must for any workout session. However, that’s not all they do either, as you need to work all your body when practicing squats.
- Push-ups: They’re boring, yes, but there might be no better, more efficient way to strengthen your upper body except for, maybe, planks.
- Planks: Yes, planks, in which a minute will become an eternity.
- L-sits: L-sitting is great for both strengthening your core and improving your balance. You can do variations of it like one-leg L-sits and bricked L-sits as well.
- Table position (reverse tabletop pose): Another great core exercise that puts you in a weird position is the tabletop one. Don’t worry, though, in tabletop, time passes more quickly than it does during planks.
- Beach position: Whether you’re a paddler, board-surfer, swimmer, or body surfer, the beach position is great to improve the muscles at your back, which are crucial for any kind of surfing.
In addition to all these strength exercises, you’ll need to work on your mobility, flexibility, and endurance, too:
- Yoga: Yoga will surely help you improve your flexibility and balance. You’ll also find its meditative side useful.
- Swimming: Although body surfing itself is more hardcore an exercise than swimming, you still need to swim a lot to build up endurance.
- Jogging: When you jog regularly, your lung capacity will get better. Moreover, you’ll be more athletic and mobile.
- Breath training: As you’ll spend a lot of time underwater, it’s crucial to learn how to be more endurable by learning how to breathe properly.
As we said above, with the introduction of swim fins and handplanes, surfing the waves with your body became much easier, and that’s especially the case with beginners. Although the ultimate objective is to be just you out there in the water without any mediation, it’s still better to start learning how to body surf with the help of these pieces of equipment.
They’re not just good for easing beginners into waves either; for example, bodysurfing fins will provide you with much necessary flow once you’re in the wave as well as control and hold when the inside of the wave is too turbulent. So, it’s important for bodysurfing fins to have rails like surfboards, and that’s how you can distinguish them from swim fins or shark fins. Moreover, a good body surfing fin should help you generate thrust without much drag or track.
Luckily, two surfing greats helped design two sets of extraordinary fins: Mark Cunningham for DaFins and Mike Stewart for Viper. Both are amazing fins that check out all the criteria we established above. They’re both comfortable, and they’ll help you elevate your surfing to new levels.
When body surfing, you need to stay on the water, creating lift and fluidity using your body and using your hands as the focal point of that lift. However, when you’re just a novice, or when you’re trying to surf exceptionally big, powerful waves that you’ve never surfed before, acquiring that lift just by your bare body might be a bit difficult. That’s where handplanes come in handy.
As handplanes have more volume than your bare hands, you’ll feel the lift of the wave in an enhanced manner, and in the end, it’ll provide you with better flow. Additionally, similar to fins, they’ll grant you more power and control.
Of course, there are different handplane designs on the market, and the reason behind that diversity is that not every wave is the same. So, before deciding to purchase one, you need to make sure that your pick is perfectly in line with the kind of wave you want to ride.
That being said, we can totally recommend the WAW BadFish Bodysurfing Handplane. It’s considerably more comfortable than its peers, it’s strong, durable, and you can be sure that it’ll give you the lift whenever you need it. Moreover, it’s made of material recovered and recycled from the depths of the ocean. So, should you purchase it, you’ll be doing a little bit of planet-cleaning as well.
How to Body Surf: A Step-by-Step Guide
All kinds of surfing that take place on the ocean require you to know the waves, but it might be even more so with body surfing. The most experienced body surfers know where, how, and why waves break, and most of their effortless attitude when catching waves is owed to that particular and almost instinctive knowledge.
Don’t worry, though, as we have many guides and programs that’ll improve your Ocean IQ. For example, our Surf Science program will tell you about waves, where their power zones are, and how you can understand these power zones and harness their energy to improve your surfing. Even better, our Waterman program features a fair amount of sessions in which we ask our students to body surf since it’s one of the best ways to get to know the ocean.
That being said, a good body surfing session always starts with picking the right wave.
Step #1: Pick the Right Wave
If you’re reading this guide, you’re quite likely only a beginner. Therefore, the perfect wave to kick off your journey is identifying a surf zone where waves break nearer to the shore and where the surf conditions are not all that great.
To put it more precisely, you’ll need to find small, mellow, and mushy waves to stick to the shallow water and avoid waves that might hinder your progress.
Step #2: Get Into the Ocean
Once you find the right wave and identify its breaking point, get into the ocean on your feet and walk until you’re waist-deep, but not more. It would be even better if you passed the breaking point of the wave without letting the wave crash your body. Face the shore while also keeping the oncoming wave in check.
Step #3: Catch the Wave
Now, there are two ways to catch a wave. For one, you can start swimming toward the approaching wave, and once it’s in the perfect distance, you can turn around and start surfing it. However, for beach breaks with shallow gradients, you might not need to start your journey like that.
On such breaks, you just have to wait for the oncoming wave to approach you. When the oncoming wave is in arm’s distance, expand your lead hand and dive right into it. At first, there’ll probably be an urge in your entire body to resist and react, but all you need to do at that point is let go while maintaining the lift with your handplane, fins, and core.
Step #4: Ride the Wave
Well, now the question is, how to maintain that lift, isn’t it? It’s easier with surfboards, as they provide that lift more often than not, but it might not be the case with your body. Many times, you’ll just drop out of the wave (either due to lack of concentration or not knowing what the wave’s doing). That’s perfectly normal, and you can just kick yourself off the ocean floor and back to the wave.
Having said that, let us explain the body position you need to assume when you’re on the wave face. It’s like that of a surfboard: parallel to the ocean floor. Of course, maintaining it will be quite difficult, especially for long sessions, but once you learn how to maximize the lift of the wave, you’ll be able to surf great distances as well.
Whether you’re doing it as a career choice or to reconnect with nature, body surfing is surely a rewarding experience. Yes, it requires a lot, but once you’re able to ride bigger waves, you’ll probably say: “I can’t exchange this pure joy with anything else on Earth.” So, we wish you all the best in your journey.
One last warning, though: in body surfing, reverencing the experienced surfers is quite important, and you might experience quite a bit of surf localism. So, never let go of your surf etiquette.