Surfing Below Sea Level

Surfing Below Sea Level

I confess, I am a surfer and I am addicted to waves. Selfishly, I resent letting one go by unmolested without leaving my drunken scrawl on its face. Yet surfing is a learned and imitative sport, where conformity is the awkward, pimpled step-sister hiding behind a façade of stubbly individualism. We are all guilty at some stage of poaching style from our peers, grabbing the latest copy of Dane Reynolds: First Chapter or Jamie O’Brien’s Freakside, and screwing up our courage to do something “unique” and innovative.

To be sure, the athleticism, flexibility and hubris to bust an air-reverse over a huge closeout or “go switch” inside a grinding Pipeline tube are truly inspiring for the rest of us mere mortals. Fine if you’re still 20-something (and still have all your anterior crucial ligaments attached), not to mention an endless board supply from Al or Rusty.

But there is a school of surfing that seeks harmony with Mother Nature, not opposition. This act of wave riding is intimate, cradled in the curl, angling along the most efficient high-line to maximize acceleration and length of ride, occasionally dipping to bleed off speed before gathering momentum once again. No “Huntington hop, hack, floater, pig-dog, lay-back slash, tail slide, aerial, or air reverse” here. No butt wiggles, no flailing arms; just slotted, stretched from finger-to-toe-tip. This is the realm of the bodysurfer.

Bruce Jenkins

You may scoff and kick sand in their faces, grateful that they’re one rung lower on the aquatic food chain. But witness the apparent disembodied head bobbing in the line-up, usually well inside you, as the backs of waves obscure his stealthy art. Paddling back out you may smugly mock the bodysurfer: “Lose your board, dude?” But he’s heard that one before, and the joke’s on you when you catch a rail or mis-time that aerial; he’s only too happy to pull in, lean, and elegantly finish the wave you nearly wasted. Purity of line and economy of movement are his calling cards. His is an intimate, tactile relationship with the sea.


There can be little doubt that the forefathers of surfing were bodysurfers, Pacific islanders or Peruvian fishermen stepping out from the primordial ooze to catch a free ride into the beach. Before Paipo and Olo boards, records show that early enterprising Hawaiians lashed palm leaves or bark to their feet for propulsion, a sure-fire path to dry rot or constellation of blisters. Benjamin Franklin reputedly fashioned a couple of wood planks in the shape of art palettes to attach to his feet and enhance his swimming experience, and Leonardo da Vinci also tinkered with the idea:

Modern proponents almost exclusively employ a pair of rubber Duck Feet or Churchill fins, invented simultaneously over 65 years ago by Louis de Corlieu of France and Owen Churchill of the U. S., whose patented design was adopted by naval demolition teams and made Churchill a multi-millionaire. It was a fortune he lavished on his addiction to competitive sailboat racing, where he was appointed team captain of the U. S. Olympic Yachting Team for two successive Olympiads.

Various adaptations include vented “jet fins,” sliced “split fins,” swallow-tail “force fins,” and even elongated free-diving carbon fiber fins. Some will even attach small plastic planes to their hands for extra traction and speed, but the basic technology for most bodysurfers has not changed in decades.


The bodysurfer’s entry point on a wave is similar to a board surfer, but typically deeper. He has eliminated a big step—standing up. True, this can be a near seamless step for an expert bipedal surfer, but the lack of it allows the prone surfer to catch a steep, breaking wave almost instantly, sometimes before it even breaks. Like the athletic dolphin, he may kick inside a swell, submarine-style, arms flat against his sides, exploding to the surface just as the bulge of water transforms into a breaking wave. Mostly, he angles in near the curl, cants his body against the suck-up surge, extends an arm and, with a sharp flutter kick, is off.

Too late, and he may air-drop into the pit, recovering with two arms forward, and using his planing hands like a skeg on a board to pull into the tube or up the face in order to take the high-line again. From there, basic maneuvers include the regal “wave,” with one arm forward and the other bent at the elbow overhead while leaning with the back into the wave face. The “iron-cross” juts one arm forward again, but extends the other straight back, palm dragging on the bending curl. Speed is relative, both a blessing and curse for the bodysurfer, achieved by lifting body parts from the water to reduce drag and knife along on a single plane. Rarely do you see him project out onto the shoulder, but right at sea level the sensation of acceleration is greatly amplified. His body conforms to the wave and on steep, dredging sections, his legs can bend and fins arch up into the lip.

Once well-positioned, a number of other options present themselves on a nicely funneling wave. The pinnacle is to stall back in the barrel, inch up the face and then come flying out on the foam ball. Purists may opt just to trim and fade, until the wave runs out of gas. But after folding arms back to cruise, the bodysurfer can then accelerate with one hand forward, dip a shoulder and pull a “spinner,” rotating around his body axis 360 degrees without missing a beat. This has been elevated to an art form at the exclusive Point Panic on the South Shore of Oahu:

Advanced maneuvers pulled by the experts include a half-spinner, where the bodysurfer ends up on his back on the face of the wave and can fold his arms for effect, stall, and then rotate the remaining 180 degrees back to his belly and carry on. Another is to pull up steeply on the face and, at the apex by the lip, arch his back and launch back down the wave, the equivalent of a surfer’s off-the-lip. For the truly advanced, a rare “El Rollo” is pulled off—achieved when the bodysurfer gets sucked so high in the curl that he can simply roll over with the lip, supported by the foam ball, and land at its base only to be pushed out again on to the face. This is a cross-over move from body boarding, where it is much easier to execute.

The exit frequently ends in apparent outright destruction, mostly an exercise in damage control, with an inability to straighten out, kick out, or effectively launch over the shoulder in large surf. The bodysurfer’s best option is the “kick-flip” into a tapering closeout section, diving down at the last second, flipping the legs over and ducking out the back. This maneuver is a natural application of the same Olympic pool technique, with a roll and kick off the wall, which many have learned from the ranks of competitive swimming. Another less elegant option is the “pile-driver,” plowing head down into a closeout in hopes of just avoiding the worst of the implosion until the wave energy dissipates. The Wedge in Newport Beach offers some cautionary footage from the spin cycle:

The lack of a board also provides a built-in advantage in large surf, where floatation can be a liability as much as a crutch. For a bodysurfer, the surfer’s basic “duck dive” is just one of many choices while swimming back out. He can just slip under the boiling white water with a quick bow of his head, tread water, and dip down vertically or make a deeper dive to avoid becoming snared in columns of energy. Eyes wide open underwater, there is a whole range of options that a stand-up surfer never sees at the surface. When thriving in huge days, unencumbered by a board, an almost mystical experience for some.

As bodysurfer-journalist, and all-around bon vivant, Bruce Jenkins tells it… “It’s all about escaping those whitewater fingers, and it’s impossible to explain, but I’ve had times at large, very nasty Ocean Beach where I had no traumas going under waves. This also explains how experienced Pipeline guys—there are probably about twenty of the highest caliber—go out there on inconceivably giant days and don’t hit bottom when they’re caught inside. This is just one of the many pure, essential relationships one can get with the ocean, but it’s unique to bodysurfers (and surfers who have lost their boards).”

Only Characters Need Apply

There are essentially two primary categories of bodysurfers. The first are the purists, who embrace the sport as their own and, for them, it is their passion and only choice when heading to the beach. Many grew up by one of the premier bodysurfing beaches, such as The Wedge, La Jolla, Pipeline, Sandy Beach, Makapuu, and Point Panic. Their sport defines them as characters and iconoclasts. These are classic human beings from many walks of life, fiercely independent, who work hard and play harder. They couldn’t care less what you think of them. Many were expert swimmers before they mastered their craft, like Mark Cunningham, who defines grace and class as ambassador of the sport.

In the second category are the cross-over body boarders and surfers, who are already world-class, gill-breathing watermen, so intimate with the ocean that they can seamlessly make the transition. Names like Slater, Hamilton, Stewart, Machado and the multi-talented Malloy brothers readily adapt to the art of boardless surfing with style and daring.

Judith Sheridan counts herself among the purists of the sport. Having done her internship at an underground bodysurfing beach in San Diego seven years ago, she matriculated in just a few short months to Ocean Beach in San Francisco in pursuit of her Ph.D. in bodysurfing. A distance swimmer, she had no experience at such a dynamic beach break, nor any wetsuit, and was game for anything the beach could throw at her… and teach her. After cutting her teeth (and hands and knees) at the So-Cal reef, clinging to rocks and ducking under hard-breaking waves, she was on a steep learning curve and used to taking sets on the head.

Judith gets left barrel, SFOB

With the keen observation of a Ph.D. Seismologist, O. B. gave her a new appreciation for the chaos below sea level: “I could see the wave structure, the underwater turbines that surfers never get to see. There is no math to describe the non-linear dynamics underneath a large breaking wave, where rotating turbines (of water and air) spin side-by-side and back-to-back through a feeder zone. After you dive just deep enough, the turbine can push you down to a neutral zone where the water won’t compress any further, or you can navigate between discrete cells until the darkness and silt clears before heading back up.”

Judith gets right barrel, SFOB

An early attempt to apply her water-reading skills in Hawaii nearly backfired. Like a negative image of O. B., the ocean on the North Shore is clear, not opaque. “Brightness above is composed of air bubbles in the turbine (of wave energy). Here you want to avoid the bright spots and head for the dark.” Learning that lesson the hard way, she headed straight out into the line-up at Pipeline; she hadn’t planned on it, but couldn’t resist the beauty and shape of the waves. In her maiden bodysurfing contest at the break, Ms. Sheridan went right at Backdoor, something board surfers do with some premeditation and bodysurfers rarely do. And she made it straight to shore, luckily avoiding the shallow cauldron of reef and caves in no-man’s land.
[To view more photos of Judith Sheridan bodysurfing at O. B., visit photographer Marlin Lum’s website.]

Don’t Taunt Aquaman

So the next time you see that head bobbing in the line-up, don’t smirk. Give a nod of respect, or better yet a hoot, if you’re lucky enough to see him pull in on your way back out. You could learn from his skills, which might come in handy if your umbilical cord-leash snaps spontaneously in double-overhead O. B. and flaps lifelessly around your ankle, while your precious EPS board drifts merrily off to the Farallones to freedom.

As Jenkins observes:

“Getting in, after a session, can be a nightmare at a churning, current-ridden place like O. B. But on just the right occasion, you can pick off a wave from the far outside, go straight down the drop, survive the violence of the broken wave, and ride that thing straight in to the sand. Kind of a cool thing to do under your own power.”

So, share a wave; savor the purity of its energy and beauty. For a change of pace, try going with the natural flow and grain of the curl, rather than above it or in opposition to it. You just might find yourself deeply pitted and blissfully savoring a clarion moment in sync with Mother Ocean, chattering across the dimpled face of a wave. After all, at sea level or below, it’s always overhead.

Mike Wallace has surfed for over two decades on the East and West coast, Hawaii, Europe and NorCal. Currently a resident of Moss Beach, he can often be found haunting the beaches south of Devil’s Slide in search of the perfect sandbar with his dog, Moose.

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