It’s Always Been About the Toob

It was the summer of 2001, heading into my 2nd year of college, I rented a surfboard on a family vacation to the Jersey Shore. It was raining and the waves were ankle high. I definitely did not successfully ride a wave, but it didn’t matter. I was hooked. I wanted more.

Cory Lopez- Teahupoo 1999. I had this on my wall soon after riding my first wave. Photo: Tom Servais
Cory Lopez- Teahupoo 1999. I had this on my wall soon after riding my first wave. Photo: Tom Servais

Back in Ohio, I used the growing Internet to learn more about waveriding. Watching short clips and seeing hundreds of photos, one thing stood out immediately above all else. I didn’t care about tail-flick turns or the progression of aerial surfing. I was instantaneously fascinated by hollow waves. I stared at empty barrels and endlessly watched clips of Pipeline and Teahupoo. I would sit and think about the sensations that a surfer must experience inside.

As a beginner surfer, I quickly became aware of the difficulties in tube riding. After college, I moved to the Outer Banks of North Carolina and spent a couple years going over the falls on the hollow beachbreak waves without any success. But I was never deterred from my love of the barrel. I would sometimes stand on the sand and jump into shorebreak barrels without even knowing that bodysurfing was a thing.

My first toob photo- OBX 2005.
My first toob photo- OBX.

I then moved to San Diego and slowly became a better surfer but tube time continued to elude me. A good buddy would sometimes bring fins to the beach and occasionally bodysurf in between surf sessions. It looked like fun, so I bought fins and…WOW! A whole new world opened up and I mean literally opened up. Instead of surfing the soft, rolling reefs around Encinitas, I started swimming around local beachbreaks. My tube time started multiplying exponentially. It was all I really ever wanted from waveriding. Bodysurfing provides it and so much more.
-KSKyle Under Blue

Cylinder 20x16 canvas

Fractions of a Second

A billionth. A millionth. A thousandth. Just a fraction of second. But it can last for weeks. Slowed down, replayed in my brain over and over. Whether it is early morning as the bright light peaks over the cliff, blinding the world in crystal water or sunset as the world turns orange. Outrageous forms of bending water and crystal orange light.Empty 3

I’ve simplified my greatest joy and leisure fulfillment into fractions of a second. That’s all it takes. I do not require much more. If I can swim out into the Ocean and glide into a wave that is throwing out over top of itself and experience the inside for just a fraction of second, I am joyous and fulfilled. Anything else is just a bonus. If the tube ride lasts a bit longer because the conditions are perfect, well that’s just extra swell.

Conditions are rarely perfect. But if it’s hollow, I’m stoked. The messy, closed out days are still fun bodysurfing. Those fleeting moments on the inside of a wave. Over the course of a solid week of swell, the amount of time spent in the tube can almost be quantified. Let’s say tube rides average 1 second. Roughly 6 tubes per hour, averaging 3 hours per work day and 5 hours each on Saturday and Sunday. So with some poor math, we can say we spend 3+ minutes in the tube. All fractions of second adding up to much fun in the Ocean.AR8A2390

Time warp. The first hundred or so barrels of a waveriders life are over in a flash. But after dedication and plenty of solid womps, it all slows down. From seeing the bump outside, swimming hard to the spot, gliding in and watching the section ahead bend and throw and barrel. The sensation of speed dropping in, the feeling of weightlessness as the bottom drops out, the vision looking out, the force of the Ocean pounding… all experienced in a fraction of a second but lingering in thoughts and memories for a lifetime.


Closeout Comrades

Abandon all hope of glory

let it fall from your hand,

float through grit

and settle to the sand.

Swim on comrades

the Closeout is come.


Breathe in Earth’s aura,

the magnificent clear.

Where you go you’ll stay

held under your fear.

Swim on Comrades

the Closeout is come.


Kick with resolve

the most euphoric whim.

Hoots and shakas

Outlook is grim.

Swim on comrades

Closeout is come.


Bodysurfing a big Closeout

Spilling, Surging, Plunging: The Science of Breaking Waves

Photo: Adrian Ramirez Lopez
Photo: Adrian Ramirez Lopez

Breaking waves. We fantasize about them. We chase them. We ride them. We mythologize them. But we often overlook the incredible forces that create them. Why do waves break? One allure of riding waves is the unpredictable nature of their breaking. We can study Oceanography to understand the mechanics. We can dedicate ourselves to a spot for years, knowing it’s every mood. But no two waves are exactly the same. At the same spot, during the same swell, even within the same set. There are many forces acting to move water in that beloved motion.

The energy comes from far away; thousands of miles of open Ocean. Differences in atmospheric pressure push air in an attempt to equalize. Wind transfers kinetic energy into the water forming surface gravity waves. They propagate and organize as they travel through the Ocean as swell.

Oscillating wave energy.
Oscillating wave energy.

The waves of energy oscillate through the water, returning each particle back to where it started. Water molecules are spun in place without traveling with the wave. But when the energy approaches shore, gentle wave motion becomes violent water motion. The energy reveals itself, modeling the breaking wave after the bottom contours or bathymetry of the beach.

Photo: “Wind Waves at Sea Breakers and Surf” U.S Naval Oceanographic Office 1947

The process of the wave base slowing down on the Ocean bottom is called shoaling. Long period swell energy travels deeper in the water so it shoals before shorter period swell. Because waves usually approach land from an angle, known as swell direction, one part of the wave feels bottom before the rest. Waves always bend and refract toward shallower water. This causes waves to wrap around pointbreaks and focus energy onto shallow reefs and sandbars.


According to NOAA, “Wave steepness is the ratio of wave height to wavelength and is an indicator of wave stability. When wave steepness exceeds a 1:7 ratio; the wave typically becomes unstable and begins to break.” Wavelength is the distance between wave crests. A 2 foot wave with a 16 foot wavelength has a 1:8 steepness ratio and will not break. But as the wave shoals and wavelength decreases, the ratio changes causing the wave to break.


Oceanography textbooks list definitions for three types of breaking waves. Surging breakers rush up a very steep beach without dissipating much energy in the beach layer known as swash. Some of the energy moves back to sea, often appearing as backwash. Spilling breakers move along gradually sloping bottom contours. The crest spills down the wave face.

A Plunging breaker moves toward a steep beach, the energy spinning at the bottom of the wave feels the bathymetry. The base of the wave slows down as the crest forms upward and continues to spin.  The wave front becomes concave as the trough forms below and the crest thrusts forward.  The spinning energy completes its cycle, forming a cherished hollow wave.

Pipeline spilling out the back and plunging on the inside.
Pipeline spilling out the back and plunging on the inside.

Many of the world’s best waves are dynamic combinations of these textbook principles. Pipeline spills at 2nd Reef before the ultimate plunge at 1st Reef. Because of reflection off the jetty, Wedge can be pure chaos: surging, backwashing, plunging and dumping waves coming from every angle. Point breaks often spill for multiple sections before plunging through fast, hollow sections. Beachbreaks are especially variable; constantly changing depending on tide, wind, swell direction and sand movement.

Tide changes can alter the type of waves on many beaches. Lower tides might focus the energy in shallower water, creating plunging waves. While deeper tides can create softer, spilling waves. Many of the world’s best shorebreak waves prefer higher tides that create a combination of surging and plunging breakers on steep beaches.

Offshore wind blowing into the barrel of a plunging breaker.
Offshore wind blowing into the barrel of a plunging breaker.

Local winds also impact breaking waves. Onshore wind can prematurely blow the crest over, creating a spilling wave. Offshore wind blows up the face of a wave, suspending the crest in a rainbow of spray and holding open the plunging barrel.

After their long journey through the open Ocean, waves show their true glory when shoaling and breaking onto the beach. Much of the energy is transferred kinetically into the sand or reef, some oscillates back to sea. The remaining energy is released as that familiar sound with the formation and popping of millions of bubbles.

Oscillation beneath a breaker. Photo: Adrian Ramirez Lopez
Oscillation beneath a breaker. Photo: Adrian Ramirez Lopez

Breaking waves have an enormous impact on the Earth. They perpetually change our coastlines through weathering, erosion and deposition. They are dangerous and destructive. They sink ships and take lives. But when we swim into a breaking wave, locking our bodies into the spinning energy, nothing is more exhilarating. Bodysurfers chase weird, bending, hollow, plunging waves. We seek the shoaling, spinning forces and strive to feel the changing steepness. All of these forces focused on the seafloor below us:  truly a blessed experience!

NOAA Glossary
SECOORA Waves Glossary
Environmental Oceanography by Tom Beer
Descriptive Physical Oceanography: An Introduction
Wind Waves at Sea, Breakers and Surf” U.S. Naval Oceanographic Office 1947

Tripping Fins: Dynamic Coast

Depart Encinitas 8:30pm Friday evening: seven hours straight to Eastside Santa Cruz urban camp. Breakfast with Homeboy Eric and Homegirl Rachel then northbound to Ocean Beach, San Francisco to meet up with our buddy Dallas. Sloat St. swim: overhead and super fun. Snagged a couple solid peaks in the strong drift. Dinner and spectating in the Haight. Chat with Child: coffee shop drug dealer representing “Dead Nation.” Vibrant humanity.

Urban camp at the Pacifica Pier. Sunday 6:00am Kelly’s Cove check: not working and no orange swim cap. Back to Sloat: overhead+, catch a rip way outside. Plentiful swimming, as expected at OB. Sets on the head. Luck into a beauty of a right wall: nice speed, sensational feel.

Photo: Rachel Newton

On to FP- too much tide- Crissy Park nap. Awake to dropping tide-rising swell. The Point woke up. Thought it was novelty, discovered a legitimate wave. Head high and incredibly dynamic. Sets swing swiftly into rocks. EJ charges. Once heard a big-wave icon say he can instantly decipher who truly has the proverbial “Right Stuff” by the way they react to an approaching set…EJ is the guy swimming into the guts of It because It “looks fun.”

EJ under the bridge and dreaming.
EJ under the bridge and dreaming.
Photo: Rachel Newton

Say goodbye to dear friends. Stretch out solo. Cruise the Piers and Wharf: clam chowder and people watching.  Urban camp Stockton St. downtown San Fran. Next morning to Pier 39 for whale-watching cruise to the mythological Farallon Islands: decomposing granite monoliths 28 miles offshore. Homestead of innumerable seabirds, pinnipeds, intrepid biologists and the largest of great white sharks.

No whales today but more than my money’s worth. The reefs at Indianhead and Mirounga Bay firing with 8-10ft of raw NW Ocean energy. Apparently never ridden…the last California wave frontier. It’s out there, if you want it bad enough.

Mirounga Bay- Farallon Islands

Our vessel, The Kitty Kat looks like a plague cruise. Seasick zombies stumble to the “Ralph” spot and unload, immobilized by sheer misery. Make new friends: literature teachers from Paris: Ocèane and Aurelie. They didn’t have much fun on the cruise, but we made plans to discuss Rimbaud and Sartè later in the week. Drive over the Golden Gate to the Marin Headlands…overlooking everything. Stunning views abound.

Big Set
Big set from the Marin Headlands through binos.
Dynamic City
Dynamic City

Next morning to Point Reyes National Seashore. San Andreas Fault heartland. Exposed to North Pacific fury like few places in California. Steep blowing sand shorebreak at South Beach. Double overhead+? on the outside…head high warping wedges on the sand. Chilly swim, washed down the beach, exhilarating wompy visions. Cruised the dairy farms way out to the Lighthouse and Chimney Rocks. Fascinating physical oceanography.

Point Reyes
Point Reyes National Seashore

Southbound down iconic Route 1 back to the city. Muir Beach sunset. Quick stop back to Fort Point.  Dirtbag shower in the bathroom before meeting up with new friends from France. Found them perusing the poetry at a classic Beat bookstore.  Intellect and cute French accents make for a late night.

Urban camp Pacifica Pier…rocked to sleep by shorebreak energy. Next morning southbound, hike to the Boneyard and pay homage to Mavericks. On to Santa Cruz. A little nook is working on the Westside- waves bounce off the backside and wedge into fast hollow peaks…super fun. Watch The Point get torn apart by a heavy Westside crew including Flea and Nat Young.

Nat Young- Steamer Lane

South to Big Sur’s golden sunset light. Camp: Ocean front forest service road. Glorious dark skies…”What’s that glow in the West?” WOW! The Zodiacal Light!  First observation, been looking for years. Dust in our solar system reflecting light…beautiful!  Morning at head high Big Sur reef.

Big Sur Gold
Big Sur Gold
The Zodiacal Light
The Zodiacal Light

Southbound: Incredible wave potential everywhere. NW swell lingers. Every turn-out offers dynamic new potential. Epicness awaits the extra hearty. Somewhere: big lefts slab over an abrupt rocky reef…mindsurf. The giant elephant seals swimming on the inside have the best view.


Southward. Cayucos is offshore and amazingly walled down the beach…400 yard cylinders. Swim out but avoid the guy getting barreled on a jetski. Pushing South into Morro Bay: volcanic plug geology and peregrine falcons. Camp: Pismo Beach, Oceano Dunes. Put the Tacoma back on sand where she belongs. Sandy sweet sleep.

Central Coast
Central Coast

Headed South early. Straight to SB: to spy enchanting spinners.  Glassy, stomach high turbines roping along the breakwall. Best barrel view in California? SB framed by the Santa Ynez Mountains. Top of the list to score solid. On to the Queen. Glassy, waist to chest and hollow at the Rivermouth. Magic point…everyone should have one in their front yard.

The barrel looks out to a mountain range.
The barrel looks out to a mountain range. Santa Cruz Island out the back.

To Oxnard with the wind and fog. Cool town and I didn’t get punched in the face…bonus. Down the 1 through the wave potential of Pt. Mugu. Here the coast changes. No more secret nooks, not much open space…masses of concrete from here to Baja.  Stop at Surfrider Beach, fogged in but can see knee high waves peeling across First Point.

Dynamic coast, excellent adventure!

Fred Simpson Bodysurfing Wedge by Ron Romanosky

Bodysurfing Wedge: The Fred

Bodysurfing Wedge: The Fred

At times, it is hard to pinpoint and other times the differences are striking. With each wave you stumble to or with every grainy youtube video you devour, you may have noticed variance in bodysurfers’ style. The way a person bodysurfs a wave, much like the human gait, has a long list of factors. Biology is one. Imagine Michael Phelps and Danny Devito bodysurfing head-to-head, they simply aren’t using the same tools. If both wanted to maintain the optimum speed on any given wave they would need to utilize different styles. Despite this, many riders of differing heights and roundness seem to have developed stylistic similarities within the confines of unique waves.

An important component in understanding the practicality of bodysurfing styles, is a basic understanding of hydrodynamics in relation to the speed of a bodysurfer. Speed is likely the most crucial aspect to catching and staying on a wave. A bodysurfer’s speed is primarily determined by kicks, drag and floatation. These three variables are not independent and are intentionally manipulated by skilled bodysurfers.

The resulting style is not particular to region or even community, but a particular wave. There are magnet waves, that pull bodysurfers from across regions. These waves break in a distinct manner according to their bathymetry and swell windows. Due to the specific break, you can understand why many of the waves’ expert riders share stylistic similarities. Each commonality serving a particular purpose in riding each particular wave to its maximum potential.

Early Season Wedge
Photo: Kyle Stock

An infamous magnet-wave is the Wedge of Newport Beach, California. Described by it’s riders as a freak, proper Wedge has a focused breaking point amplified by the refracted backwash of earlier waves. Long-time Wedge Crew member Tim Burnham describes, “The takeoff at Wedge is extremely critical. It breaks really fast and is super steep and the key to riding Wedge well is to hold a high line and maintain speed.”

If that wasn’t difficult enough, “Not only does the acceleration of the Wedge-peak force riders to seek a highly streamlined form, but the powerful and at times unpredictable backwash, can send bodysurfers over the falls if they haven’t gotten a full head of steam.” Longtime riders of the Wedge know this to be fact and have adjusted accordingly.

Wedge riders extend from fingertips to toes. The longer and straighter they are able to hold their body, the faster they will cut through the wave. Every inch of their body pulled into a tight line to reduce drag. To reduce trim, Fred Simpson and the rest of the 70’s crew began rolling their bodies onto a single hip and extending with their lead hand. They tucked their opposite hand near their armpit and the Chicken Wing was born (some riders leave their opposite hand near the waist which is also referred to as the broken wing). This stylistic adaptation is primed for dealing with pitching, nasty, unpredictable Wedge.

    Fred Simpson years after he pioneered "The Fred," what would go on to become The Chicken Wing     Photo: Ron Romanosky
Fred Simpson years after he pioneered “The Fred,” what would go on to become “The Chicken Wing”
Photo: Ron Romanosky

The Chicken Wing could also be called a modified Layout. The Layout was born, as most adaptations are, to accelerate. By expanding the rider’s flotation, the Layout increases a bodysurfer’s speed. In a Layout, the rider increases their body’s planing surface across the face of the wave. The greater the area of a planing surface, the more flotation and consequently, the more speed you can generate.

Mel Thoman, Wedge Crew member for the last four decades stresses, “(the) ultra importance of …putting the most pressure for speed and stability on the lead hand as it literally has all the lift and control during your ride.” You may see riders with their palms up or reaching out for a handshake, but this will not fly at the Wedge. Your hands are vital to providing lift, control and speed in the belly of a Wedge monster.

Over 40 years, the Chicken Wing has evolved. With each new generation of Wedge riders, the Chicken Wing is fine tuned. Some members of the Wedge Crew in the 80’s and 90’s began showing a mechanical-like rigidness when flashing the Chicken Wing. The rigidness is highlighted by a physical flex and release cycle.

The Flex: When a rider needs more speed they turn their head slightly away from their lead hand. This motion allows their trailing shoulder to roll on top of their lead shoulder, forming the body into a flexed line. The angle of their lead arm and torso is increased by this roll. With an increase in this angle, the rider’s body is a more efficient planing surface. The chest and stomach float easier because your center of gravity is shifted towards the head. The Flexed position is the part of the cycle most easily identified as The Chicken Wing.

Picture 093
Mel Thoman in the middle of the switch
Photo: Ron Romanosky

The Release: According to feel, a rider may release the Flex to a prone riding position. The Release position is categorized by a more acute angle of the lead arm and torso. The head is facing down the line. In the Release position, the rider can look at their line and make decisions about whether or not to hold or return to the Flex position. Some riders will pull their chicken-winged hand to their front and use it as an additional planing hand.

In the video below provided by Tom Lynch, you can see Matt Larson with total control of his speed. Matt has been riding Wedge since the 80’s. He is still a standout in the line-up. Pay close attention to the first two waves in the clip. Matt uses the Flex position for speed and the Release position to judge his line and target velocity.

The newest group of bodies eager to ride the liquid bucking-broncos embrace the Chicken Wing as much as anyone. They understand through blood and bruising how important form is to their craft. There’s even rumor of them going so far as to add a chicken head to their wingin’ ways. Ridiculous props aside, these guys are carrying on a well-founded tradition through style and dedication.

Charlie McAuliffe Photo: Ron Romanosky
Charlie McAuliffe
Photo: Ron Romanosky
Parker Chicken Wing
Parker Varner
Photo: Thomas VanMelum

There are innumerable waves across the world. Each with it’s own unique bathymetry and swell window creating thousands upon thousands of liquid mountains. As we wander from peak to peak, we will continue to evolve in pursuit of harmonic slides on each new face. We’ll learn that the wave you ride ultimately determines the way you ride it.