My father, a self-described “mountain man,” was a bodysurfer. He wore terrifyingly short-cut shorts and took to the ocean during the warm months with a fearlessness and mighty yawp, yelling passion that both impressed and embarrassed me in my youth. He would swim into the storm-whipped Atlantic Ocean — the body of water in which I developed my own salt-water gills during my Cape Cod childhood — shouts of primal joy carrying back to me on the safety of shore as he bobbed among the heaving and potentially neck-breaking peaks.
When the right wave came, he would position himself close to the detonation point, take a couple of powerful strokes, kick his feet, and then lift off, his whole body lost in the momentum of the crashing wave as every inch of his solid six-foot frame would become visible along the face of the pitching liquid crag. It seemed a small but certain miracle every time he zoomed safely shoreward, like some sort of fantastical hydrofoil and seal hybrid, a shit-eating grin plastered to his face even when the ride ended with a bone-crushing crash into the sand.
Around the time I lost my first tooth, I mustered up enough courage to swim out and join Dad in the lineup, albeit with decidedly longer shorts. Although I couldn’t know it then, that July day I spent getting blissfully tossed like a rag doll, half-drowned and occasionally turning on to the powerful feeling of weightlessness that comes from riding waves with nothing but your body, created an ocean-oriented compass point in my soul that I continue to follow to this day. It was simple, it was fun, and it was that special type of exhausting that satisfies both your muscles and mind. Bodysurfing was my point of entry into a lifelong love affair with playing in the sea.
In the past five years or so, bodysurfing has done the unthinkable — it has become a trendy and regularly showcased wave-riding pursuit. There have been movies and books made about it, long-running and historically ignored contests have enjoyed a boom in mainstream relevance, and water warriors toting swim fins and handplanes (bodysurfing tools that attach to your hand and help you cut across the face of the wave with improved velocity and efficiency) have turned up in increasing numbers at waves all over the world. And while it would be easy to dismiss this development as just the latest fad in the fad-driven surfing universe, further inspection of its actual substance reveals a much greater truth — bodysurfing is just plain fun. Better yet, it is free fun, devoid of any sort of pretension, and is ready and waiting for you anytime you want it. All you have to do is go for a little swim and let yourself get pushed around a bit by Mother Nature. Instant stoke is gonna find you!
“I think what it comes down to is that you can go bodysurf some crappy wave and still just have a blast. … It is the simplicity of it all,” said Ojai-born and Goleta-foothills-living professional surfer Keith Malloy. Malloy, who is the mastermind behind the bodysurfing film Come Hell or High Water and the associated coffee-table book, The Plight of the Torpedo People, reckons that the current bodysurfing revival was only a matter of time, especially given the tone and tenor of these hyper-paced modern times.
A devotee of Hawaiian lifeguard Mark Cunningham’s church of bodysurfing soul since the early 1990s, Malloy now figures he is as likely to be bodysurfing as much — if not more — than he stand-up surfs. “Surfing had become this ‘destroy the wave’ thing, so, for me, [bodysurfing] became this awesome getaway from that whole high-performance surfing deal,” said the well-bearded goofy-foot before adding with a telling smile, “It is just such a nice option. It is beautiful really.”