Perspectives: World Bodysurfing Championships
Why I hate them and why I’ll never miss a year.
The World Bodysurfing Championships is a yearly bodysurfing contest held at the Oceanside Pier in the middle of August. It is hard to overstate how polarizing this contest is among dedicated bodysurfers. There are many riders who refuse to participate. There are also many bodysurfers who have been attending for 20+ years. To better understand the dilemma, let’s examine some of the elements from the oft criticized competition.
What makes a contest legitimate? The first answer is impartial and accurate judging. The good news is that Oceanside gets it right most of the time. The judges are mostly bodysurfing enthusiasts who are “trained” each year. The good thing about the WBC format is that in each round the top three performers move through to the next round. With each heat consisting of 6 bodysurfers, it would be a rare occurrence if the best bodysurfer didn’t make the cut in the early rounds. In this regard the contest is more of a bodysurfing marathon, measuring the ability of the bodysurfer to maintain performance over the course of two days. This format is efficient, but not without fault.
The limited judging pool must tire after so long a focus on bodysurfers spinning in the whitewash. It is easy to sort the talented bodysurfers from the recreational, but when the semifinal or final heat is stacked, the judging needs to be at its top to parse the nuanced differences. It isn’t always. All heats are judged by the same criteria with the exception of the Grand Finals. Both the Women’s and Men’s Grand final heats are judged differently, in that the criteria is completely thrown out the window. The competitors are instructed that the judges will simply determine who is the “best bodysurfer of the heat.” As you might imagine, these vagaries seem a bit unsettling to the habitually competitive. It seems like a tough line to draw for men and women who are committing 75$ and two days of their time to compete. Some people don’t realize the prizes have changed over time as well. At one point, the grand champion would win a trip to Hawaii.
The waves are the most scrutinized aspect of the contest. Each year the waves fall somewhere between toe and shoulder height. How could you possibly consider someone “World Champion” when they were bodysurfing one foot waves? These are legitimate concerns. The title is dubious when the waves are hardly contestable. A second wave “problem” is that all the final heats are held in the afternoon when, with very few exceptions, the wind is absolutely ripping apart any chance for the surf to be above average. Even on the days when Oceanside has a beautiful pulse of combo swell, the wind is not to be overcome. The waves are victim to the unavoidable trade-off when holding a surf contest sans a holding period. The lack of a holding period is an economic decision and the only sure-fire way to drum up a crowd of 300+ bodysurfers. And there’s the kick.
Having no holding period and a stomach for less than ideal waves is the only viable option for the largest gathering of bodysurfers in the world. Every year, I meet competitors from other continents stoked to be a part of this event. It may be a result of self-claiming the world champion or it maybe the contest’s consistency and longevity. No matter the cause, I’d regret missing out on seeing legends like Fred Simpson, Cunningham and Stewart. Do I have to reset my competitive thought process? Yes. For the sheer volume of bodysurfers, WBC does a great job. The heats have to be 15 minutes long and run all day. That doesn’t mean it is the best venue/process for determining the best bodysurfer or “champion” of the world.
In the end, I’m able to swallow my qualms with the contest. Each August I get excited again to see the teams and once-a-year friends. It makes me smile to see board surfers blow-horned and pushed aside for a single weekend. Even for the habitually competitive, we can recognize what this event is really all about. This is the tribe weekend and there is nothing else like it.