a. Swim to THE Spot
b. Glassy: Neal Miyake
c. Terminal Velocity: How big is too big?
d. Ode to Winter
e. In This Place
a. Swim to THE Spot
b. Glassy: Neal Miyake
c. Terminal Velocity: How big is too big?
d. Ode to Winter
e. In This Place
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.
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.
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.
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.
Backdooring 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.
Ten years ago I got assigned to write about a surf spot. I’m actually still working on the article, but along the way I’ve had the pleasure to connect with a different subculture of waveriders: bodysurfers! They are a “chop suey” mix of personalities, ethnicities, and skillsets, many with styles that reflect the surf spots they frequent, but all without an industry or pro scene mentality.
From a photography perspective, I’ve found that shooting bodysurfers is fricken difficult. Because their bodies are literally slicing through the water, it is hard to get clean shots without spray. I guess it makes the photos you do get that much more precious.
So here’s a look at bodysurfing on Oahu, Hawaii, from my perspective.
At many contests on the North Shore, the Hawaiian Water Patrol crew regularly provides water safety and security with jetski and life-saving support. But during breaks in the action, they sometimes launch into a few (poho bumbay (otherwise waste)). Here’s Mark Cunningham on a sweet insider during the 2009 Pipe Masters.
Mike Stewart, Don King, Mark Cunningham, and Kaimana Stewart, Ehukai, 3/21/14. The term waterman is thrown around too casually nowadays, but these three are true legends of the ocean. Champion bodyboarder, award-winning water photographer, celebrated lifeguard. Oh yeah, and they are all pretty decent bodysurfers too, with 19 Pipeline Bodysurfing Classic titles between them. Mike’s son Kaimana has good pedigree, keeps good company, and is already on his way to being a fine bodysurfer in his own right.
Unknown, Sandy Beach Bodysurfing Championship, 5/22/10. Even in contests, it’s all about style. This guy’s got it. Straight down, head first, back to the wave. And look at his hands; delicate, subtle style.
Mark Cunningham, Pipeline, 1/16/10. Even on the most streamlined, fat-free bodies such as Mark’s, the flowing water creates unusual ripples across the body. Colors got filtered out on this shot so I chose to convert it to black & white.
Rodrigo Bruno, 2006 Pipeline Bodysurfing Classic, 2/1/06. This is not a wipeout. Brazil’s Rodrigo Bruno is purposely throwing a 360 on the takeoff while being lip-launched. He actually made it to the trough of the wave, but lost forward momentum and got overrun. Still, it was a ballsy effort.
Point Panic, 10/12/13. Douglas Palama, an avid bodysurfer and photographer, passed unexpectedly on September 2013. Friends and family got together the following month for a very touching paddleout at Point Panic in his honor. After his ashes were spread into the ocean, Dougie’s fins were given to the sea, and back to Dougie. Also, short paddleout video can be found here.
Sean Enoka, Point Panic, 5/18/13. Sean’s a great guy, already featured in this magazine (Fin Quiver). Here he is at Point Panic, the only surf spot on Oahu dedicated exclusively to bodysurfers and handboarders. Located near the heart of Downtown Honolulu, Panics is a popular summertime destination when the south swells roll in.
10/26/13. Here’s a manini’s eye view of us humans at play. The curves are compelling.
Unknown, Point Panic, 6/27/09. Whether it be a rubber slipper or a custom-shaped board (with attached GoPro camera), handboarding is alive and well.
Mark Cunningham, 2006 Pipeline Bodysurfing Classic (PBC06), 2/1/06. I actually entered this contest just for fun and bombed terribly. Afterwards, I spent more than four hours straight in the water, shooting some of the most amazing bodysurfing I had ever seen (to date). Had to turn off my point-and-shoot cameras, delete photos, and conserve my physical energy throughout. I captured this classic shot of Mark in the final. In most every performance sports discipline, style can be conveyed by the hands. As you can see Mark oozes style.
Unknown, Sandy Beach, 11/14/09. I had broken my back two weeks prior so was landlocked. I was jonesing to take pictures, especially with a solid east swell on the offer, so I shot Sandy Beach from land. Guys were out there charging as usual. Nice visuals, inspirational, and a good way to recover.
Mike Stewart, PBC06, Pipeline, 2/1/06. He is mostly known as an iconic bodyboarder, but Mike may actually be an even better bodysurfer. Still frames really don’t do justice to his dynamic style, flow and technical wizardry.
About the photographer: Neal Miyake is an electrical engineer turned “suit” for the government. He has been an avid waverider and enthusiast photographer for most of his life, and currently enjoys blending the two through water surf photography. Pipeline is his favorite photo studio. Oh, and he’s a terrible bodysurfer who just tries.
We have all watched massive Jaws, in awe of the surfers who claw their way into cavernous walls of water. Whenever I see surfers pushing the limits of board surfing I am pulled back into the limits of our own persuasion.
What waves are bodysurfable?
When we are considering what waves are makeable we need to define some terms to guide our quest. One important distinction is to establish what it means to “make” a wave. While swimming with massive waves is a feat unto itself, for the purposes of our research we will say that “making a wave” involves a rider maintaining control of their body from the paddle, through the drop and on the wave face.
There are a whole host of factors involved in making large waves. Generating enough momentum to “get into” the wave is the first to come to mind. Fitness and swim training can only get a person to a certain point. Just as there are limits to the speed a surfer can paddle, so too are there limits on the maximum speed a bodysurfer can swim. There are several groups of bodysurfers experimenting with tow-in bodysurfing with mixed results. Getting dropped by the ski does not solve the entire problem. This problem with “speed” is most directly expressed through the terms of Terminal Velocity.
Terminal Velocity is the point at which an object is moving so fast that the drag (either of air or water) causes it to stop accelerating. If you imagine a skydiver jumping from an airplane, you can imagine as he or she jumps, they will immediately begin accelerating due to the force of gravity. As their falling speed increases the wind resistance also increases. There will be a moment during the freefall when the force of gravity is matched by the wind resistance reaching an equilibrium. At this moment, the skydiver’s velocity levels off and they will continue to travel at that speed with all other variables remaining equal. They have reached their Terminal Velocity.
Water is about 1000 times more resistant than air. This tells us that our maximum stable speed through water is much slower. There are many ways by which the best bodysurfers limit their resistance/drag in the water and therefore maximize their terminal velocity. The human body is not a surfboard. All the designs that make a surfboard fast in the water; smooth surface, tight rigid frame, sharp rails, are all missing from the human evolutionary design of the body. We do our best to mimic these designs, reaching with arms and legs, flexing our bodies, and some even wear slick speedsuits.
As our bodies move faster through the water, the buoyancy force pushes our bodies out of the water. Bodysurfers have been known to skip down the face of a large wave because the surface of their body was “grabbed” by the surface of the ocean. If you haven’t personally witnessed this you can imagine a bodysurfer being dragged behind a jetski. At a certain speed that rider will begin bouncing out of the water and the “pull” on the body becomes greater because it is matching the riders’ velocity through the water.
So, how big is too big? There are teams of guys pushing this envelope week after week. We hear whispers of Mavericks or Jaws from time to time. But in all this searching we know that the best way to navigate the tirade of obstacles is timing. Catching the right wave at the right time. The shape of the next big bodysurfing wave will be the true hero of the equation. The wave has to be steep enough for the bodysurfer to maintain speed without pushing beyond his or her terminal velocity in the process. As we watch bodysurfing evolve with the next generation of wave riders we’ll keep our eyes on the horizon and hope that you are a little more prepared for the challenge.
Sure the days are short and morning’s cold.
But the Exhilaration!
Stripping off warm layers…
To enter a wet, clammy wetsuit…
in freezing offshore wind…
Big, purple blobs flood NPAC models.
The Harvest Buoy spikes…its coming.
Butterfly stomach excitement.
Impending glory rides…
The North Pacific Ocean.
The Polar Jet Stream.
Massive, spinning tempests.
Spraying swell from-
Hawaii to Alaska to California.
Entire weeks of head-high+ surf.
Consistent, pumping sets.
Surfed-out, thinning crowds.
80° weekends in January.
The thrill of enormous storm surf.
Less traffic, more parking.
Glorious, desperate rain.
Maybe, possibly, perhaps …
the run-off bacteria strengthens our immune system?
Sam punches the clock at eight. Shortly thereafter he crawls through a web of memos in passive-aggressive tones. Upcoming deadlines dot his plain desktop calendar, so he fills another cup of joe. Tuesday’s powerpoint and quarterly review roll in and out of memory. Sam’s glassed over eyes would draw attention, but all are focused on the suits. He blinks and lunch is already gone.
Drones, fueled by coffee, tap away at their keyboards through the afternoon to keep the machine churning. Sam closes his eyes and can almost liken the sound to the surf washing over shallow sands, but it is not yet time. He is bound to this place, these buzzing fluorescents. The starch of Sam’s shirt, the very tie around his neck constricts his lungs and yet he dons them day after day. Hours have given way and Sam is speedwalking out the shiny revolving door.
Sam’s white civic darts from lane to lane as he races the sun to the horizon. He arrives at the portal to his other life. The familiar chill of damp rubber stretching over his skin brings Sam’s mind back into the present moment. His fins in hand, Sam jogs across the sand. Ocean rushes to greet him and he rolls around the shore break for a fleeting moment of regression.
He swims out through the breakers, squinting into the quickly fading orange glow. Reaching the place where the swell’s energy loses touch with the Ocean’s floor he settles his body across the choppy surface. Sam melts into the sway of the sea. The emails, handshakes and starchy shirts are all someone else’s memories, foreign. They’re no more able to touch him in this place than the clouds reaching for the Earth. He aches for the Sun to hang still in the sky, for the tide to forestall its retreat and for his last wave to stay open and glimmer just a few moments more.