Bodysurf Classic

The torpedo people compete in the frigid waters of Ocean Beach

| posted on November 07, 2011

The Bodysurf Classic finalists, holding their respective hand-crafted trophies. Photo: Campbell

By Mark Lukach

“I can’t remember the last time I spent 6 straight hours at the beach,” a guy whose name I don’t know said to me with a laugh. “It’s probably been decades.”

It had been a long time for me too—probably since childhood. Back when I used to spend hours on end splashing around with my siblings in the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean. We rode waves for one pure and simple reason: to have fun.

But there I was standing with a guy I didn’t know, and we were draped from head to toe in thick neoprene rubber, on a frigid day at Ocean Beach in San Francisco, with the wind whipping off the menacing Pacific Ocean. And even though the waves were kind of crappy, the weather even crappier, and we didn’t know each other, we both spent the entire day at the beach, with a bunch of other people whom we did or didn’t know, and we loved it. Because we were at the Bodysurf Classic.

We were huddled against a graffiti-soaked cement shack that everyone calls the Pill Box. Just a few hundred yards up the beach stood the bright orange tent city of the Rip Curl Pro Search. It was a lay day for the big show—no surprise there since Ocean Beach has far more bad days than it has good days. But the organizers of the Bodysurf Classic, which was the local, organic, tongue-in-cheek counter-contest that was put together in response to the Rip Curl Pro Search, had decided that there’s no such thing as bad bodysurfing conditions. So despite the cold, and despite the steady onshore winds, the contest would go on.

We met at the Pill Box at 10am. People had come from as close as a block, and as far away as Hawaii and New York. There were a lot of people there that you’ve never heard of, and a lot of people there that you’ve definitely heard of, but that didn’t matter. We were all there to ride waves.

And let’s not forget that we’re talking about bodysurfing here. A striking contrast to the theatrics of what the world had watched the pros do a few days earlier when Ocean Beach was warm, sunny, and uncharacteristically surfable all day long. Now we were bodysurfing. Where rides typically last a second or two, but for some reason that one or two seconds of sliding down the face of a wave ends up eliciting a disproportionate amount of exuberance.

The rules of the contest were simple. Heats would last 30 minutes, with six bodysurfers per heat. There were colored swim caps to identify each competitor. Top two waves were scored, and top overall 18 scores would advance to the semis, with the top six from there going on to the finals.

I was in the second heat. The wind continued to howl and the outside peaks shifted erratically. By the time I made it to the outside, I had already drifted 200 yards south. I picked off a quick left and then lost my green swim cap on my second wave. Miraculously, another guy from my heat—a water polo player who appeared to be about 15 feet tall—found my cap, and swam it back to me. We spent the rest of the heat splitting a peak, hooting for each other’s rides, utterly stoked.

There were 13 heats in total, which meant I had to wait five hours to find out if I had advanced. Five hours of watching bodysurfing, five hours of huddling together with friends and strangers to swap stories about the waves we rode, and five hours of a freezing cold beach day. And it was just as fun as any beach day that I had as a kid.

In the water, we stripped away all pretense and merely rode waves, plain and simple. One of bodysurfing’s most liberating strengths is that there really isn’t much that you can do to “shred.” There are maybe four moves you can do as a bodysurfer. For the most part, you just go with the wave.

As the day progressed, the crowd sentiment quietly but noticeably turned against the idea of a semi-final, or even a final, and so with only a few heats left, the whole structure of the contest was scrapped. There were a few awards given out for best barrel, best performance—stuff like that—but the competitive element had clearly taken a back seat to the goal of having fun. So instead concluded the day with all the bodysurfers swimming out together in a massive expression session. It was exhilarating and bizarre to swim out surrounded by so many bodysurfers. I mostly bodysurf alone, or with one other friend, so to look around and see other guys in swim fins was kind of weird. Kind of like how it was weird to look back to land and to see the Rip Curl tent city staring back.

Ocean Beach had been unexpectedly thrust onto center stage in the world of surfing, and in a similar way, with the Bodysurf Classic, bodysurfing had unexpectedly become the cool way to ride waves, at least for the day. We kicked a bunch of surfers off a peak, and had one of the most memorable sessions in the water that I’ve ever had.

I think it’s an overstatement to call the Bodysurf Classic the “anti-contest.” I think instead it was more like the fun contest. Not to say that the Rip Curl Pro Search hasn’t been fun. It’s actually been really fun. But at the Bodysurf Classic, points (and mistaken point tallies) don’t matter. Who you are doesn’t matter. Brands, sponsors—none of that matters. What matters is that a few hundred friends and strangers hung out on the beach all day when Ocean Beach was at its ugliest, and 78 stoked individuals rode a bunch of fun waves. One guy even went out wearing only a Speedo. He got the loudest hooting of the day.

There’s an old adage that says that the best surfer in the water is the one that is having the most fun. And for the most part, that’s a pretty stupid statement. Well at least to us jaded, cynical grown-ups it’s a pretty stupid statement, But not so much to kids. Back when we were kids, the goal of wave riding was all about the fun of it. And not so much to bodysurfers either, and certainly not at the Bodysurf Classic. For a day, the ethos of fun was all we had to live by.

  • jdubbs29

    Sorry, without sponsors to make this legit, I’m not sure how you monetize this sport. What style sunglasses were you wearing? What brand of beanie? We need something to emulate for this to be cool with the population.

  • CJ

    Thank you Danny Hess and Participants for creating an event that produced the natural, genuine fun of wave riding along with the enjoyable interaction of all those on the beach. Hope this becomes an annual event. CJ

  • Enough Already

    The next person that tells me how cool bodysurfing is, I am going to kick their ass. Alas, the last fundamentally spiritual/minimalist thing to do in the water has finally been taken over by the new Jack Hispters of the world. With their handplanes, Da fins, and organic beards (grown, 100% local) these new spudsters of leftist propaganda are now infiltrating every peaceful beachbreak near you. New bodysurfing cool guy, Keith Malloy has now made sure that sliding on your belly is cool. Mark Cunningham is so cool. Speedos are so cool. Bodysurfing in San Francisco is so cool. Man, I am so cool. Dude, bodysurfing is so cool. Cool. Yeah, cool. Gosh, Patagonia is so cool. So are Central Cal guys with beards and bears. So cool. I am losing it. That is cool.

  • kill yr idols

    Best story Surfer Magazine has ever posted online…

  • Mike

    Have to agree Enough Already, when everyone all together tries so hard to be “different” guess what you end up being the same. First it was fishes, then SUPs, then… I guess I must be so uber cool and retro because I still ride a 6’2″ thruster.

  • MULC

    Great article! I could feel the joy.

    I am confused by the bodysurf cynicism. The ocean is a gift. The waves a vehicle to express appreciation for the stoke. All surfers ride differently. All watermen, and amateurs, should have the freedom to individually explore the stoke without criticism.

    Some of the best surfers I know are great body surfers (and enjoy both mediums). They are not mutually exclusive.

  • Matt O’Brien

    haters will always hate.
    I for one think it was as cool as cool can get to have a bodysurfing comp. in the cold waters of the Pacific ‘Central’ West. I hope that more of these pop up and down the coasts of US (and all other coasts too for that matter) AND people start having home-grown bodysurfing classics to keep the community/stoke alive and well. Not to mention the awesome feeling of bodysurfing that can be passed onto the next generation(s)… In full-wetsuits no doubt (although I heard one dude – got 2nd i think – wore a speedo! in SF!!) If you’ve never bodysurfed waves other than shore pound, go try it. you will be amazed!!! Looking forward to watching Keith Malloy’s bodysurfing Epic: Come Hell OR High Water: playing @ Arcata Theater Arcata, Humboldt County, CA thursday 11/10/11 (sorry for plug, couldn’t help myself). YEWWWW!!!!

  • Rik Cederstrom

    hey, jdubbis – get a handboard from Danny, can’t have anything cooler to emulate than that! Except surfing anything around here without a wetsuit…too cool (literally)

  • Jesse

    @Enough Already – Learn how to appreciate more than just yourself. There is absolutely no reason to threaten violence because a whole bunch of people want to have a good time. Bodysurfing is fun. Some people love it. Why bring em down? Don’t be a drag. Enjoy the ocean.

  • StanTheMan

    I don’t get what all the anger is about. If you’re out riding waves and having fun, isn’t that the point? If you’re mad, you need to get out of the water and reassess your priorities. Who cares if someone’s trying to be cool or not be cool. Longboard, shortboard, boogie, no board, it doesn’t matter. We’re all out for the same reason: fun! Get over yourself and enjoy the waves

  • $uckaFree

    Enough Already…Are you even from the City? I doubt it, if you aren’t don’t come… You have no idea what’s good! Talkin’ about kicking peoples asses. Why you need to hate, you can’t even surf I’m sure. You sound like that jock surfer everyone hates, that paddle battles for a 2ft close out…Hand Planes, and Da Fins are the shit by the way, I wouldn’t mind taking one of my Da Fins and slapping the shit out of your face with it…I can’t stand people like you….It’s funny that you hate on Bodysurfing so hard, but yet you know about Come Hell or High Water…
    Try surfing everything and every way aside from on your 6’2 Thruster — which are super fun, but I’m just sayin’…

  • ABW1790

    does anyone know when the 2012 contest is? i really need a good reason to take a break from school.

  • ZBear

    Just saw the article today, so I’m way late to the party.
    My two-cents worth?
    I feel so sorry for anybody who didn’t learn to surf in the pre-leash days (yeah I’m that old). Anybody who could bodysurf well got way more waves than anyone else. Those who didn’t had bigger and more dings from the rocks (yeah I learned to surf in Santa Cruz).
    It’s fitting that this contest was heard at Ocean Beach. If you can’t bodysurf, you really shouldn’t ride a board here either because sooner or later your leash will snap and you can wave goodbye as the rip sucks you down the beach.
    So much for an old guys’ rant.