Chris Kalima underwater takeoff World Bodysurfing Championships

Porpoise: The Underwater Takeoff

The way by which a bodysurfer enters into relations with each new wave can open up a range of options or significantly limit them. Once you have mastered your takeoff I would suggest mixing in the porpoise to experience bodysurfing differently. This maneuver is not only beautiful to observe, but a sensory delight.

The aptly named maneuver has been around a long time. Judge Robert Gardner wrote about the Underwater Take Off in his 1972 classic The Art of Body Surfing. He writes, “The underwater take off is another rather spectacular and popular technique-but a lot of good waves have been lost by people who don’t know how to do it properly.” This maxim holds true today.

I can remember first seeing some old timers doing it at a State Park beach. As the wave approached, their bobbing heads submerged and they would punch through the wave face as it began breaking. This was new to me and I was left in awe of their ability to put their bodies exactly where they needed to be without being able to see the wave breaking in front of them. This is the same thought, I suspect, many gawkers have when they catch a glimpse of the porpoising bodysurfer for the very first time.

The standard porpoise takeoff begins as the wave is approaching. Rider will swim to the spot and then turn to face the beach. Just prior to the wave’s approach, the rider submerges diagonally to the water’s surface drawing arms above the head and fins in a ready position. As if there were a wall to push off from, the rider then pushes/pulls at the precise moment the wave’s energy has reached them. To the uninitiated, it will be surprising just how easy it is to utilize the swell of energy beneath the wave’s surface. Once the rider’s body is moving in the right direction and at a speed congruent to the wave it is almost a feeling of the wave taking over. There is a sweet spot behind the surface of the breaking wave where the Ocean pulls the rider along. In the traditional porpoise take off the rider uses this energy to burst through the face and then continue their ride in whatever manner they wish.

There are, as always, variations on this maneuver. Some bodysurfers milk the underwater action until the last possible second before breaching as the wave is breaking. If you attend bodysurfing competitions, you’re like to see bodysurfers porpoising in the middle of a ride. Occasionally you’ll see a rider breach in a reversed position as they submerged.  It does take practice and skill to master these moves, as each requires utilizing the wave’s energy perfectly so as not to squander a good wave.

As you explore new riding techniques stay safe and have fun. Expect that you’ll mess up a few waves and with this technique especially, you’ll go over the falls once or twice before you get the timing right. It might be a good idea to try this first where you can push off the bottom to gain speed easier. Obviously this puts you closer to the ground when you come bursting out of the wave, so prepare accordingly.



Spin to Win

The most resounding criticism of modern bodysurfing contests is the inability to hold the event with pumping surf. Many contests have very short windows and some have no window at all, scheduling the contest on the same weekend each year. Spectators wanna see bodysurfers come screaming out of head high barrels and do Rollos of the lip, but in knee to chest surf bodysurfers are forced to resort to the tried and true Spin. It has become so predictable as to have created the phrase, “Spin to Win.”

There are several variations on the spin, but the most used version has the rider turning their forward shoulder toward the face of the wave. This is technically easier to complete because the rider uses the wave’s energy to turn their body. It requires less deliberate action from the rider to complete. Competitors should be wary of just spinning to spin, because a spin is only as good as your execution. Judges are looking for spins to utilize the energy of the wave and be a part of an overall ride.

Photo by Brian Yee @808macua2makai

The standard spin can be executed in a number of ways. One way is to let your forward hand slide up the wave and dip your opposite shoulder and arm, fall onto your back and let the water turn your body the rest of the spin. Some riders utilize their hands as rudders to control the speed and others focus their energies completely on their core and leg maneuvering. Up and coming progressive rider Kanealii suggests “It’s kinda like watching figure skaters spin in one spot. To spin faster you have to tuck your arms closer to your body. That’s why guys like Kai Santos spin so smooth, super tight spins.”

Spin purist and long-time WBC judge, Dan Williams let us into the mind of a bodysurfing contest judge. He is watching for, “the spin being utilized to make the most of the wave being rode and a signifier of the overall skill-set of the rider…if a rider throws a spinner to adjust their position in the wave for a better ride it scores higher than spinners thrown in the white water. Basically I’ve always judged spinners as an indication of the riders wave knowledge. As a past judge, if you throw a spinner off the top into a section, throw one to perfectly slot yourself, can be graceful enough to slow spin an/or snap spin to compliment the wave being ridden you will be rewarded with a high score. if the rider simply throws spinners to throw spinners it’s usually pretty obvious, they are not penalized but they most likely will not garner those extra points that a rider who really utilizes a spin to maximize the wave at hand.”

With summer contest season coming to a peak, it’s time to get out there and throw your body around in the waves. The key to progressing on any given trick is to practice and experiment. There is no substitute for trial and error. You get to have a good time and your buddies get to laugh at you getting tossed. To get it right, get it tight. 


One Less Stroke

The entry to a wave is the fundamental driver to wave riding experience. A smooth and precise ingress is a clear indicator of a good wave to come and a skilled rider. There are a number of ways to duff your take off. You could set your lead hand in the wrong direction taking your momentum straight down the face or off of the wave face entirely. Some bodysurfers don’t kick hard enough or don’t hold a straight enough torso. All errors which could shut down a long ride before it began, but the most prevalent miscalculation I see in bodysurfing entry is the “one extra stroke” fallacy.

The bodysurfer is in the spot ready to take the drop and thinks I need more speed. The bodysurfer may decide to take one or two more swim strokes, but I would posit this to be the worst course of action. The main reason this works against the bodysurfer is timing. In those precise moments as your body is collected skyward by the wave’s energy all of your momentum should be moving in the direction you want your body to go. Taking another swim stroke acts against that momentum. When swimming on a horizontal plane, your swimming arms exit the water while moving forward and enter the water to pull against the water’s resistance to move your body forward. You are also twisting your torso to maintain momentum. This action is not compatible with swimming down a wave face.

The twist of your torso on a flat surface doesn’t create resistance, but when on a tilted plane of water your torso will block the flow of water under your body and therefore slow down your progression. This is also the reason why you don’t see bodysurfers swimming with their arms while riding waves. The two are incompatible.

Instead of going for the extra swim stroke, I would suggest bodysurfers focus on maintaining or gaining momentum by “getting long” and kicking like hell. Getting long is a reference to extending the forward planing hand in the direction they wish to go. As covered in previous articles, getting the forward planing hand out on the water and extending the body into a straight and flat surface we are able to maximize our movement over/in water. The second focus requires little explanation. Kicking like hell could mean big powerful strokes or short quick burst strokes, but either way you are adding speed to your person. It is important to note that a kick is more efficient in this position because both the up and down strokes add velocity to the bodysurfer. Doing both simultaneously is key because if you’re just kicking like hell, but your body is not acting as an efficient rudder you’ll make little progress.

Ultimately, if you’re having fun, then you’re doing it right. But for those looking to be a more efficient wave-riding hominid I suggest trying these tips out. If you’re still finding the entry difficult you may need to practice swimming to the spot. Either way, it’s never a bad time in the Ocean.


Ride More Waves in the Crowd

The goal is to ride in the best waves. Some of us live near bodysurfing protected spots like Point Panic or Wedge, but the rest of us are tasked with finding our own way through the surf crowd. This doesn’t have to take the jam out your donut, navigating surf crowds is a practiced skill and here are a few things to keep in mind when navigating the lineup.

  1. Don’t be too proud to take scraps.

You’re not going to tread out to 8-10ft Pipeline and find yourself dropping in on the peak in the middle of 60 surfers. Quit daydreaming. You can however sit on the shoulder of great waves and score head-high perfection. Some of my favorite bodysurfing sessions have been on maxed out beach break days when all the surfers are scrambling way outside because they don’t want to get caught inside by a set. We bodysurfers had slightly smaller, but far better shaped 5-6ft waves all to ourselves. I love a big wave as much as the next guy, but there are days when the scraps are really the main course so don’t let your ego ruin the chance for an amazing session.


  1. Keep your head on a swivel and be in position.

Know your positioning at all times. We’ve all swam with guys who are “swell magnets.” They seem to always be in perfect position. These are the bodysurfers who are listening to what the waves are saying. They started watching as soon as they pulled up to the break, taking mental notes of where the waves are breaking best. These cerebral wompers are also watching which surfers are making the drop and which are not. All this information is vital to success because what you can see from the water is just a snapshot of what the entire break looks like. Getting yourself to that sweet spot is a combination of understanding the wave and being aware of the surfers around you. If you can find the area where you can remain while still monitoring the surfer dropping in at the peak, then you have the potential to score amazing waves when he chunks the takeoff. This strategy does retain a certain level of risk and to be safe you have be certain that the surfer will not make the wave, but if you can juggle those factors you’ll find yourself on some of the best waves of the day.


  1. Be loud to be safe.

When a bodysurfer is propelling into a wave most of their body is submerged. This presents an obvious difficulty for surfers to identify a rider coming down the line. Some surfers simply don’t respect a bodysurfer’s right of way, but I would argue that most drop-ins happen as a result of ignorance. Since our presence is often masked visually, you may have to resort to being heard rather than seen. A quick hoot down the line will make any surfer down the line aware of your intention. It is an unfortunate, but often times necessary safeguard since bodysurfers are keenly exposed to the trauma of a dropping in surfer. If you intend on using this technique at a premiere wave you should also intend on following tip 4.

  1. Make your waves.

If you are hooting and hollering when you make your drop, you can be sure there will be some eyes on you in a crowded line-up and just like any surfer if you can’t make the wave you’ll lose respect instantaneously. So, make the wave. There’s no better way to lose access in a crowded spot than to call guys off and then pop up 15 feet down the line. Like it or not, surfers are always sizing up the other guys in the water, so commit to your waves with vigor and you’ll find yourself with a fair size of the pie.


  1. Choose the right break.

There are waves that are great for bodysurfing and there are waves that are not. Any wave that can be fun for you is worth a look, but if you are looking to get great waves then your ability to perform on the wave should be part of your decision making process. I would argue that to maximize a session the bodysurfer should choose waves in their goldilocks zone. If I stood on the beach and looked out at 10 waves in succeeding heights and difficulty I would choose the wave at the top end of my comfort zone. Knowing this would push my ability to ride the waves and at the same time provide maximum enjoyment. In the end, you’re the only one who can make this call and respectively the only one who is affected by your call. Good luck out there.


Swim to THE Spot

Successful wave-riding is very much about being in the right place at the right time. Sure, you might get lucky and have a wave come directly to you, but most of the time its important to be on the move, finding the sweet spot. The ability to read and understand the Ocean is vital. How to acquire said understanding? Time and experience. Time in the impact zone, time taking sets on the head and getting pitched and going over the falls and feeling the Ocean’s energy.

Trying to find the spot.

Every wave has a sweet spot. A goldilocks zone, where you’re neither too deep nor too wide. A spot that will allow for maximum control and supreme pleasure. Watch Matty Larson at Big Wedge or Mark Cunningham at Pipeline or Mike Stewart in the Ocean…wave after wave, they are swimming themselves to the perfect spot and taking off with minimal effort. They don’t fight their way into waves, they glide.

Found it!

Waveriding is hard. Innumerable variables rapidly converge in often unpredictable ways. People learning to surf are frequently frustrated by the dynamic nature of breaking waves. Paddling hard for a bump that isn’t going to break only to be cleaned up by a set out the back. We promote beginner and intermediate surfers taking swim fins into the impact zone to better understand the forces working to shoal and break a wave.

Our perspective.

As bodysurfers, our position and perspective submerged in the water allows us to feel the Ocean with a high-level of proficiency. Our view of the horizon is hampered by 2-3ft. compared to people sitting on a board but we can make up for that with hyper-awareness. We can pay attention to the surfers in the pack: are they scrambling for the horizon or shifting for a swinging peak? We navigate very crowded lineups and most of the time we ride many more waves than the board-surfers.

We feel the tide flooding: getting deeper and pushing waves inside. We feel the tide ebbing: getting shallower and ledging off the sand. We sense the wind switching. We’re aware of how many waves are in a set and how frequent the sets arrive. We can see that a set is funneling onto the peak down the beach. We sprint swim to the spot, glide into the pocket and breathlessly enjoy the ride.

IMG_3945Backdooring sections, taking the high-line, dropping in then snapping into the curl. We know whether to be deeper for extra speed or wider on a bending a shoulder.  A bodysurfer can be capable of every possible trick, but without first knowing where to take off, the tricks are meaningless.  With heightened senses and vigilant awareness we maximize our chances of finding THE spot on each wave. We increase our time gliding in the pocket and most importantly our time in the barrel.


Proning: Riding the Roots of Bodysurfing


  1. likely to or liable to suffer from, do, or experience something, typically something regrettable or unwelcome.
  2. lying flat, especially face downward.
Bodysurfers circa 1912

The Prone Form of bodysurfing is characterized by the rider leading with the head while aligning both arms parallel to the torso. Riding Prone, the bodysurfer experiences the Ocean nose-to-surface. This raw style puts the human processing center in full exposure to the elements. While riders still drop the wings and prone it from time to time, the prone position is the root of modern-day bodysurfing.

Postcard from Australia Circa 1911
Percy Spence : Surf Bathing – Shooting the Breakers, 1911.

If you were walking the beaches of Waikiki or in the 1900’s you would likely see Proning in action. The Prone position is the classical bodysurfing form. Riders would jump into waves before they had fins and ride straight as long as possible. To show style, a rider could hold up one foot and keep riding. It is unclear who was the first bodysurfer to break from Proning straight ahead to the beach. The break from prone form most likely developed concurrently with riding parallel to the shore with the breaking wave. There are many stories of people who began riding along the shore with one arm out the way surfers rode. Whether it was an early lifeguard on the California shores or native bodysurfing peoples of Polynesia or Hawaii it is clear our roots are in the belly-down, head-up position. As late as the 1960’s (footage below found on The Encyclopedia of Surfing), many bodysurfers around the world prefer the Prone position for wave gliding.

It could be argued that bodysurfing in the Prone position is a more intimate interaction. Bodysurfing on your belly leaves the rider eye to eye with the Ocean. The rider’s head is free from spray and the rest of the body is in full contact with the water as opposed to using a forward hand to plane. When riders use a forward hand to plane they naturally rotate their torso lifting one shoulder and some of the upper torso away from the water. This also causes a chain reaction pulling the head away from the surface of the Ocean. Many riders compensate for natural tendencies and force their face down the line, but in it’s most natural presentation Proning is the bodysurfer’s choice for feel.

The feeling may be multiplied by the vulnerability of the Prone Form. The most serious of injuries occur to a bodysurfer’s head, neck and back. There is no doubt that Proning, as the name implies, leaves the rider vulnerable to injury. Without a lead arm or arms, bodysurfers will make first impact on rock, reef and sand with their head. This is one of the many reasons the evolution of bodysurfing has moved beyond Proning.

When bodysurfers are in the layout position, leading with one arm, they are able to adjust to the changing steepness of the wave. This is mainly due to the great flexibility of the shoulder joint. If a wave suddenly turns from a mushy-spiller to a round barrel the rider can compensate with the lead hand to maintain planing surface. In the Prone position, bodysurfers are one-dimensional; therefore bodysurfers who ride Prone and ride it well are demonstrating expert ability. The Prone rider must be extremely observant of shifting wave movements, and then position him or herself with precision to ride out critical waves.

There are some riders who just like it. They may turn and Prone into the late barrel knowing there’s no hope of coming out the other side. His friends might even yell, “Canonball!” at the sight of such hopeless debauchery. Other bodysurfers look both ways and know the only way to feel this wave is to lock your arms to your side and launch straight for the sand. When the wave doesn’t give you left or right, you go straight simply because its fun.

Kyle and Kanea eyes up
The rider having the most fun…

There are variations of the Prone ride. In some old footage, you will see bodysurfers using one of their arms as a rudder to stall or change direction. When riding Prone, riders also vary the positioning of their head from down full speed ahead to chin fully extracted from the water and eyes at the sky. In all variations of this bodysurfing throwback, we share the thrilling sensations of wave pioneers long gone. We carry on the oldest wave riding tradition sliding on the surface with the purest joy.




No Lives Lost: The History of Surf Life Saving Club 1908-1958 via Surf Research

Encyclopedia of Surfing

Surf Research