The author and a fellow privacy advocate, above, enjoying some privacy at a bodysurfing spot in San Francisco. Photo series animation surreptitiously photographed by the incomparable D. Akana of Hawaiian Line International.
Bodysurfing Is Private
I’d be lying to you if I told you I felt anything but skepticism and trepidation about the play that bodysurfing is receiving today. Instagram, internet magazines like this one, surf movies. All of it. It’s unseemly. Bodysurfing isn’t delicate but I wonder if all the attention is going to leave it sucked dry, suffering the inevitable fate of the love interest in a B vampire movie. I don’t want to imagine bodysurfing with its life force gone wandering the earth looking for love and a blood meal.
Bodysurfing is private. That’s the thing. P R I V A T E. Like The Donald would have preferred his tax returns remain. Bodysurfing was the last way to ride a wave that hadn’t been washed, combed, blow-dried, and packed into real shoes like teenagers at a prom. It was unbridled, unexposed and probably undervalued. It was never going to grow up like a good capitalist kid and shill for deodorant or surf shorts. Now I’m not so sure.
I know, there have been bodysurfing stars. Well, a bodysurfing star. And he is a lovely fellow. He has a wonderful and deserved life thanks to his alacrity with a Speedo and fins and the wave at Pipeline. His years in the tower there factor into this too, don’t get me wrong; his position as the world’s foremost bodysurfing star is constructed of a plurality of factors uniquely aligned and quietly kept while the scaffold to hang that star was being built. Mr. Cunningham was doing nothing differently twenty years ago than he is doing now (except for the retirement bit and hopefully getting more waves to go along with his C&C Honolulu pension). He was the dark star of bodysurfing- all gravity and no light, nearly hidden from view but locally influential.
That’s because nobody gave a shit about what a bodysurfing star might be doing because, frankly, he was a star to about three dozen people and maybe a stray dog or two that hung around the beach. (I exaggerate, but not really.) And that, to me, was one of the beauties of heading out with a pair of fins. (Or at Sandys, a fin, because you lost the other yesterday but whatever, no one cared.) I know that there were groups of die hards here and there- the folks at Panics, Sandys, Walls, the Wedge. But nobody cared. Except them. And that’s how bodysurfing remained private.
Everything in bodysurfing other than those previously named whack jobs were just spots to check: Pounders, Manhattan Beach, Its Beach, Ehukai and Pipe, Waimea, that horrible boat launch concrete slab in Santa Cruz. Not a nickel was going to be made, no names were ever going to become household. It was people going out quietly on their own to get some waves au natural. One of bodysurfing’s prime methods of propulsion (Churchill fins, for those that don’t follow corporate sales mergers) is made by the Wham-O corporation– the company that made the Wheelie Bar so that kids wouldn’t flip over popping wheelies on their Sting Rays. How could something that lame be anything but private?!
So in review, a lone person needed the beach, some waves, maybe a fin or two, perhaps something inappropriate to wear like a Speedo if you swung that way. Then that person waded out, then swam a little further out and caught and rode a wave back in to where the day at the beach began. Pretty simple, pretty private. If that person wanted complexity they’d throw a spinner in. A girl or a boy and a wave, no matter your age because you felt like a kid. There weren’t going to be phallic gaggles of long lenses on the beach, no fawning groupies, no potential sponsors. That’s it. Pure oceanic joy. And when exposés were written, like Sports Illustrated did at the Wedge, they had no discernible impact because nobody cared.
The worst thing that used to happen to bodysurfing was that some misguided surf contest would arrive at a bodysurfing spot (the Gotcha Pro at Sandys?! WTF?) and keep a bunch of people who wanted to get a few waves and mind their own business before going grocery shopping out of half of the beach on a Saturday morning. Don’t think for a minute that anyone associated with that contest cared about what was going on sans board over at Gas Chambers, because they didn’t. Even though it was probably more fun than surfing blown out Half Point.
And now we have the internet and million dollar books conflating people with torpedoes. And bespoke hand planes. Really? Bodysurfing is becoming an activity that people amass equipment for and talk about rather than doing. Men’s Journal Bodysurfers. What happened? Bodysurfing was private.
It was low budget, low tech, easy. Not easy as in facile to accomplish but easy like don’t worry, nobody cares. If I thought that these changes were going to somehow improve the state of the art I’d be writing about something else; there are plenty of worrisome things to write about in the world today. If I thought that bodysurfers were going to be accorded more respect in the line up for all of this new-found public profile I’d be thrilled but guess what, sticks are still gonna stuff you; doesn’t matter if your hand plane cost as much as a used surfboard. Maybe you’re gonna get stuffed more, did you think of that?
Probably not, I know. That’s the thing, people don’t seem to be thinking about the primacy of experience much these days but about how that shit is gonna play on Instagram. I swear a quarter of the folks I see in the water bodysurfing have a GoPro. I know this is no different than surfing because when I’m on a board surfing tiny summer waves I can’t figure out why so many people have GoPros– to document knee hi dribblers? So bodysurfing isn’t unique in its being exploited for internet points. It still stings, it was so easy.
I know I’m a crank. I know that to a 25 year old I’m so old I might be dead but c’mon kids, pull your heads out of the GoPro anus and catch a wave without worrying about what it looks like online. BODYSURFING IS PRIVATE. I’m not worried about crowds clotting up my favorite bodysurf spots, I concede that’s probably just not going to happen. What I’m worried about is bodysurfing’s integrity. The integrity of slicing down the face of a wave on your shoulder for no reason except that it makes you feel like the recess bell just rang and you are out of that stuffy classroom leaving adults behind to do things they could no longer possibly understand. Kid stuff, guileless kid stuff.
That’s what drew Cliff Kamaka and Fred Van Dyke into the freezing water at Ocean Beach before anyone even thought of a wetsuit. That’s the thing that made riding the bus from town to Sandys an imperative for thousands of 14 year old South Shore kids over the years. That’s what made Obama ditch his Secret Service handlers and head for Middles faster than they could say “get a back board for the President”. Bodysurfing is the in the realm of private childlike exhilaration. Except it’s cheating because you can carry it into the uptight land of adults. Don’t make it about buying stuff, about curating an image, about exposure. Get on your shoulder and slide. And if you really need a planing surface other than what the genius of human evolution provided, steal a tray. The Burger King ones were the best when I was a kid– stiff and wide.
Remember though, bodysurfing is private.