body surfing
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The OMBE Guide to Body Surfing

Many consider body surfing as the purest form of surfing. Learn everything about it with the OMBE crew’s thorough guide below.

At one point in his guest appearance in our new podcast series, Save the Rail, conducted by the OMBE head coach Clayton Nienaber, Ricky Bassnett says that he started surfing because it provided him with an opportunity to be closer to nature. Similarly, when you take a look at the most inspirational surfing quotes, being close to nature emerges as the most prominent reason why all those legendary surfers love surfing.

Feeling the energy of one of the fiercest forces of nature, the ocean, through wave-riding, tapping into that energy, and having the mental flexibility to flow with it is so amazing that we want to experience it over and over again. Now, if you can get that multi-faceted sensation when surfing on your feet (and on a board), imagine what happens when you can body surf with no mediation between you and the waves.

Well, if you don't want to imagine, let's once again refer to an interview conducted by Clayton. This time, the guest spot belongs to the GOAT, Kelly Slater: “I think body surfing is the only truly, completely, absolutely pure form of surfing and body surfing without fins.” He says, "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."

Not to speak in the name of everyone, but still, we think that we can all benefit from such appreciation of nature and such natural mindfulness. So, let's now see what body surfing is, what it has been, and how you can do it.

A Brief History of Body Surfing

The Past

Our version of the body surf history will be a brief one (since we are not running a history blog), but the actual history of body surfing is not at all brief. Several sources point out that the tradition of body surfing is rooted in ancient times when the natives of seaside settlements, like the Aboriginal clans, Pacific Islanders, and Polynesians, were in closer contact with nature.

Naturally, both their livelihood and recreational activities depended on the ocean. They'd fish on their canoes, and when they had enough, they'd try to catch and ride waves by swimming under them either with their canoes or with only their bare bodies.

Similarly, and quite unexpectedly, there are also indications that there was a body surfing tradition called viya (meaning wave in Greek) and practiced by the Pontic Greeks in the eastern Black Sea Coast of Turkey, dating back to 600 BC. The locals of the area have continued the practice up to this day (although the Greeks were subjected to a population exchange at the beginning of the 20th century), albeit in lower and lower numbers with every passing generation.

However, despite the diverse tradition, body surfing was first recognized as a branch of sports at the beginning of the 20th century in Australia. The Surf Bathing Association of New South Wales was founded in 1907, eight years before the grandfather of modern surfing, Duke Kahanamoku, stood up on a surfboard and brought joy into the world on the shores of Sydney.

Moreover, the equipment revolution of body surfing also precedes the surfboard revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. In 1940, Owen Churchill, a surfer from California, introduced the first swim fins (they were called duck feet) to the surfing world and added to the sport's popularity.

The Present

Although the aforementioned surfboard revolution had reduced body surfing to the status of a forgotten art over the years, as can be derived from the words of Kelly Slater, it's still the "purest form of surfing" for some, including legendary names like Mark Cunningham, Belinda Baggs, and Mike Stewart. Thanks to their greatness and many accomplishments, we're witnessing a revival of the sport nowadays.

The release of the documentary, Come Hell or High Water, in 2011 especially helped body surfing gain newfound popularity among the new generations. The film was produced by Keith and Dan Malloy, and it featured them alongside Cunningham and Stewart, riding waves just on their bodies.

The waves they rode weren't ordinary like those at your own local break either; one of them was the famous Teahupo’o in Haiti, which is mostly hailed as the most dangerous wave on the planet even when you're on a surfboard. Therefore, the film left some thrilled admirers in its trail, and body surfing gained widespread recognition once again.

Nowadays, there are many body surfing competitions taking place in Australia like The Flat Rock Invitational, Slyde Fest Bodysurfing Competition, and WHOMP OFF. In addition, another surf spot that's famously dangerous, the world-renowned Banzai Pipeline, holds an annual surfing contest called Pipeline Bodysurfing Classic. As Mark Cunningham is a local of the Pipe, you know that you're in for lots of treats and excitement in the Classic.

The Benefits of Body Surfing

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The Body (The Matter)

Towards the end of his interview on Save the Rail, Ricky Bassnett says that he still continues to surf despite losing interest in being a professional, as it's one of the best ways to stay in shape. If that's true for stand-up surfing on a board, it's even more so for body surfing, as it can burn up to 200 calories in under an hour.

In the end, you're exposing your entire body to the force of the wave, which means that it's almost a full-body workout. You can imagine how that can help you with your muscle structure.

Moreover, the workout doesn't only consist of movement either. You also need to show sustainable strength to maintain a certain position against the movement of water that can get quite berserk at times. Such thorough workouts generally result in a rush of endorphins, and that’ll affect your level of happiness on any given day.

The Mind (The Soul)

Having covered the material aspect (oh no, you won't get rich), let's remember how pros express their love for surfing: being in close contact with nature. Obviously, it isn't just a fantasy born out of the hippie tradition of mindfulness or an unrealistic desire to return to ancient times when everything was much simpler (except for the occasional floods, wars, and famine) and people weren't obliged to fill taxes.

There are also cases made for the thought line that water is therapeutic to be around and even more so to be in. It alleviates stress, anxiety, and depression; it opens the gates to a new realm of being where the daily concerns of the 21st-century individual can dissolve into thin air. It makes you remember that we're only little parts of something bigger.

For some, understandably, the main benefit of body surfing is the personal illuminations they have during such unmediated contact with the ocean.

The Equipment You Need for Body Surfing

More experienced body surfers can go out there and ride waves only with their bodies, but if you're not experienced, you'll need a few things that'll help you learn the basics better. These pieces of equipment are bodysurfing fins and handplanes.

Let's see why you need them and how you can choose the best option in the market.

Bodysurfing Fins

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A good body surfing fin is supposed to provide you with flow, especially when you're underwater, but that's not all. It should also give you control and hold as things might get quite hectic when you're under a wave. Therefore, most bodysurfing fins will have rails that channel water, and that's what distinguishes them from traditional swim fins and body-boarding fins.

Additionally, when bodysurfing, there will be times when you need an explosive sort of energy. In these times, a good pair of fins will be an extra thruster to the strength of your body. So, a fin that has the potential to drag and track too much isn't preferred.

Of course, similar to all wearable equipment, you never know which option is the best for you without trying them on. Some might claim that their products are one-size-fits-all, but you've probably been surfing long enough to know that they might not fit everyone. Some brands might have a product for your size, but their understanding of size might vary on a brand-to-brand basis. So, it's better if you try them on before you make a purchase and test their comfort and fit.

That being said, we can wholeheartedly recommend two great fins that were designed with the help of legends Cunningham and Stewart. Mark Cunningham's signature DaFins model will surely furnish you with the power and comfort you seek. Mike Stewart's multi-purpose Viper fins aren't too off the mark either; they'll grant you control during turns, and with them, you won't have difficulty when accelerating.

Bodysurfing Handplane

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Handplanes initially look like nice, little, cute surfboards designed for little people to surf on; you might also use them to ward off the sneak attacks of little people, also known as children. More importantly, though, they are also quite handy if you want to learn how to body surf.

Body surfing requires you to be completely fluid on the lift of the wave, but sometimes, generating and maintaining that lift barely by your body (no, of course, you need to wear a wetsuit) can be difficult. That's when the handplanes prove their worth. Once you apply pressure on the water by using a handplane, you'll feel a lift on the entirety of your body, and your flow will be smoother. Moreover, they're quite useful in terms of providing power and control.

Similar to surfboard shapes, handplanes are designed with different surf conditions in mind. Some are better for big waves, some are ideal in shallow water, and some are made for beginners who are expected to ride small and mushy waves. Also, certain designs emphasize speed, some control, and others lift and power. So, when you're in the market for one, make sure that you're making your pick in accordance with your needs and not with how the handplane looks.

Our recommendation would be WAW BadFish Bodysurfing Handplane. It's comfortable, strong, durable, and fast, and it'll provide you with that much-needed lift. On top of all that, it's also made of recycled plastics recovered from the ocean. So, not only are you surfing with the BadFish, but also you're cleaning the ocean of foreign elements.

How to Body Surf: A Step-by-Step Guide

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First of all, we should warn you that the fact that you've done your fair share of surfing on a board doesn't matter because body surfing doesn't have any common bodily aspects with stand-up surfing. Rather, your knowledge of the ocean and waves and your ability to connect with the energy of the wave will determine your readiness to take the challenge of body surfing.

So, if you have any presumptions about it based on your previous dawdlings with surfboards, get rid of them, and let's go!

Step #1: Pick a Location

The ideal spot to learn how to surf without your board should have an ocean floor with a shallow gradient and should be sandy. The shallow gradient is imperative because it ensures that there are no sudden drop-offs that can create large waves that break too close to the shore.

Learning how to surf over sand might even be more important, as you're going to get dragged to the bottom of the ocean or lose your balance when on the waves while learning. If you're over a reef or rocks, you won't only feel uncomfortable when your feet touch the ocean floor, but you're also risking serious injuries.

You might be a strong swimmer and think that you can handle the bigger waves out in the open, but no matter your strength, big waves are not a good start for your body surfing journey. Keep it small in the beginning, and don't forget that the right wave is the small wave. The time you'll ride a giant breaking wave will come, too.

Step #2: Catch a Beginner Wave

Once you make sure that you're in the right spot and the breaking waves are suitable for your abilities, you can go into the ocean—but no further than waist-deep. Wait for the approaching wave, which is probably in the form of white foam, to get into an arm's distance. Then, turn around, expand your leading hand (the one with the handplane, preferably), and dive into the wave.

At first, you'll probably want to fight the wave and resist its desire to carry you, but once you're able to let go, you'll see that letting the wave carry you is much better than swimming. Of course, there'll be times when you're feeling like you're going down. Then, you can try staying on the water with a few swimming strokes.

Step #3: Ride the Wave

So, it's all cool, right? You have no surfboard beneath you, you're just feeling the lift of the wave, and trying to fit your body in it in the most efficient way? Oh, you have a question: "Wait a minute, what's the most efficient way to fit a body into a wave and to surf it?" And, oops, you just dropped out.

Well, think of surfboards. How do we fit them into a wave? When we aren't doing tricks, surfboards are mostly parallel to the ocean floor. In other words, they're positioned horizontally. That's how you position your body when body surfing, too, and we admit that it's not that easy.

Maintaining a horizontal position in the water will require you to do quite strenuous stuff. You'll need to hold your breath and force every single muscle in your body, and you won't know how to take your head out of the water and see what's going on. But, once you're in sync with the flow of the wave, you'll be able to ride for long distances, too.

Wrapping Up... Be Safe!

Yes, it is the purest form of surfing; yes, it's amazing for body and mind alike; yes, once you get a taste of it, it's impossible not to go back to it; yes, it has a huge history and its own unique master-apprentice tradition in unexpected corners of the world. However, we should also warn you that body surfing is one of the most dangerous sports in the world, especially when you're advanced enough to surf big waves.

Therefore, don't forget that safety should always come first. Don't test your skills on large waves unless you're an excellent swimmer; try to stay away from reef breaks and shores with deep gradients. Ultimately, always have a friend by your side so they can help you if anything goes awry.

Written by
Jeremy Dean
surf coaching