Outside

Outside
The writer in his element.
Image: Gwenn Le Franc

Slideways

A bodysurfer’s manifesto

Outside / I’m a guy with a mind/body problem. A bookworm as a child, I loved hiking trips but suffered literary withdrawal pangs. High school football battered my teens and pickup basketball and flag football consumed my twenties, when I wasn’t sitting at a desk writing fiction. The older I got, the more things fell out of alignment, producing back spasms, broken noses and writer’s block, often all at the same time. This could have been a problem without resolution, if bodysurfing hadn’t come along to save me.

Bodysurfing is one of those rare things that are commonplace, transcendent–even ecstatic–and pretty much impossible for human beings to screw up. Maybe the only such thing.

First, anybody can do it, in theory. You get in some water with waves, throw yourself forward and just sort of fall. Do this at Waimanalo with kids, throw in a tutu in a muumuu and you can feel the love.

Once you add bodyboards and surfboards, though, you lose the vibe. I blame the tools: they give the riders the armor that allows them to feel aggressive and threaten mayhem to clear a path. Anyone who’s been at Makapuu after school lets out knows the feeling.

So, the second great thing about bodysurfing is lack of gear. You can bodysurf naked. Even if you really want to pimp your chassis, you’re still limited to a swimsuit, fins and a hand-board or a McDonald’s tray.

Lack of gear keeps bodysurfing pure. For instance, I stopped by Local Motion in Hawaii Kai last weekend after they called to say they had Duckfeet in my size. I’ve bought fins there since, well, forever–1977, probably. The last few years, I have loved Da Fin. But after my calves kept cramping in bigger offshore surf, I began to alternate with the longer-bladed Duckfeet. It’s a system.

But that’s the extent of my gear, two sets of fins. Now peek into a board surfer’s closet: rash guards, short johns, long johns, booties, hoodies, and that’s all before we get to the boards themselves: potato chips, shorties, quad thruster shorties, triple-quad thruster shorties, spoons, swallowtails, guns, longboards, tow-ins and standups… Oh, and wax.

Which leads to the third great thing about bodysurfing: It’s not a great big capitalist shuck. There’s no money in it. Nobody gets rich doing it, although a few swimfin innovators may have done well. (I hope so: they deserve it.) The lack of capitalistic fervor spares us magazines, videos, girls in dental-floss bikinis and cadres of vacuous dudes expounding on their relationship to the tube. Bodysurfers regret none of the latter, except when we floss alone at night.

The fourth great thing about bodysurfing is it’s hard to teach. That means: no surf schools. Something about bodysurfing just has to happen in the mind. From summers stranded on the East Coast, I’d say that fewer than one person in any hundred at a mainland beach is capable of making that leap. I say this because I almost was one of them.

My dad was a former lifeguard who loved bodysurfing and Hawaii. He actually found a handful of little jobs to do in the Islands so we could all come out in 1969 and bodysurf and snorkel to our hearts’ content. We were a California family of six crammed into a Datsun with all our wet swimsuits flapping like flags from the radio antenna.

He took us to Poʻipu and, in particular, to Doc Brennecke’s Beach–now gone, then a shrine–a gift of a beautiful sand crescent dedicated to the bodysurfers of the world. In ‘69 there was still a sandy bottom, unlike now, and a wave you could catch all day and even under a full moon. That night, it was just our large family and a large Hawaiian family. We drifted together in the waves in the dark, paired off naturally by age, chatting and taking waves. My partner was a younger girl who, after a half dozen waves, said, “Why do you go straight in? You can go slideways, you know.”

Slideways, the word delighted. And connected. Once I got the hang of it, a brand new waterworld opened. A few years later, I would end up meeting my local surfer wife in Iowa. I revisited Makapuu and Poipu and Sandy’s, tackled Point Panic and Ehukai, pancaked Pounders. I’ve taken to bodysurfing anything that moves: hurricane Long Island, 61-degree Brittany. Winter nights in New York City, drinking Scotch, I’d study the technique of the master, Mark Cunningham in Robert Pennybacker’s video, “Waves to Freedom.”

Over the years, I’ve learned to merge mind and body in ways that leave me fulfilled instead of black and blue. Even when I go over the falls, bodysurfing has, so far, never let me down.

Don Wallace is author of One Great Game and Hot Water.