Tripping Fins: Canada

By Skye Walker

A year ago my buddy Lew and I had a trip planned to Canada in October. But a huge storm came through and wiped out our dreams of a getaway into the land of trees, bears and salmon… so we had to hit the delay button. So this year we decided to go a month earlier and hit Tofino in the second week of September. It turned out to be an excellent choice.

waterplaneNow, this isn’t an easy place to get to. You need to get to Vancouver, take a two hour ferry ride to Vancouver Island, then it’s a 3.5 hour drive to the north of the island. But it’s well worth it if you score. I’m not saying we scored. But we did.

We camped the whole time, and luckily we had a massive tarp over our tents and campfire, because it rained the first night. And we thought it might stay that way but the skies cleared and we didn’t see a cloud for 4 days. The weather was a balmy 75 degrees and the water felt like a chilly day in California. We only wore our 4/3 wetsuit and booties and left our hoods and gloves in the truck.

packed-truckNow I have to preface here, this was a surf trip. Boards in tow and that was the focus. But I knew there was a potential for bodysurfing, but my booties made it impossible to get my fins on. So I borrowed some XXL Duck Feet from my boy Kyle that were built like tanks, but they fit and so into my bag they went.

Our first day of surfing was late in the day, sun was setting and sets were rolling into a fun cove and as the tide got higher, the inside started to turn on. Bodysurfing was on my brain. But I was bound to my board. The car was a real hike away so I opted to stay out and surf. But my eyes were bugging out at some of the high tide draining barrels that came through. I thought I’d come back to this spot the next day and get some tube time but the winds turned the rest of the trip and this spot didn’t work again. That’s ok, other spots did.

inletIn the water there, mini islands, trees wrapped around you and rocks flowed into the sea. It’s like the coastline is hugging you and welcoming you to it’s coves and shores. It was a cozy feeling as opposed to being way off shore and wondering if you were going to drift to Alaska never to be seen again.

We took it easy on day two and had a rad camp brekky, then set out to scope the scene and find some waves. The tide was shifting and the winds weren’t good for a few spots, so we drove around and got some beta from a local guy (Canadians are the nicest people I’ve ever met!) and he told us about an early afternoon spot that was going to turn on. And it did. We scored a three hour session that was, for lack of a better word, dreamy. It was glassy, hot and the green-lit waves kept coming. And as the tide dropped, the inside got even more hollow. Again, my eyes were bugging out! But the fins were 1/2 mile away in the truck… and we were scoring… so I didn’t get them. But I knew I’d bring them the next day. Our local buddy, who we kept running into, was freaking out during our session and he kept saying we were scoring the best waves of the summer. We were already stoked, but that just reinforced our stoke meter. And seeing the joy on his face catching waves knowing that winter doesn’t always look like this, was priceless.gopro-wave-1

We were toast after our session. We crushed epic burritos from the local taco truck called Tacofino and while we had all intentions of a sunset glass-off session, it didn’t happen. The waves stopped being what they had been earlier. But we knew the next day would be fun again. Kicking our feet up in front of a campfire talking about the waves we’d ridden and adventures both past and present while stuffing our faces with s’mores was a welcome end to an already perfect day. It’s the simple things in life that make it worth living and we were being reminded of that constantly. With the phones in the off position, we were able to focus on what were doing and enjoying vs. being bombarded by work, social media or other distractions. We like this tempo a lot.wave-1

Tofino is a super rad town, with surf shops, coffee shops and local fare mixed in with a fishing culture. Not to mention epic views, lush trees and landscapes and really sweet people. Tons of campers were there to surf. And lots of beginners as well. The beaches are big and sweeping, with a lot of mellow inside waves. Even the biggest day wasn’t super heavy, 8-10ft but really playful. It’d be easy to get lost up there for a few months.

wave-tofino-sketchDay three was a repeat of day two… just a tad smaller on the waves. But we scored the same spot on the dropping tide and we were grinning ear to ear the whole time. But this time, I brought the fins to the beach. I slipped those tanks over my feet and swam out to the line-up and the few guys that were out were looking at me like I was crazy. But I swam into a few back-lit gems. The fins were very cumbersome due to the booties and the stiffness of the fins. If I’d known, I would’ve just brought my trusty Viper V5 Flex fins and not worn booties. But I was glad to have these on my feet and sliding into a few low tide drainers. And next time, body surfing will be my focus. There are so many coves and spots that, on the ride tide and wind, would light up. According to the local guy we hung out with a bit, there is no body surfing culture there. Easy to see why, your a small fish in a big pond… but I think the risk is worth the reward.

Nothing more regenerating than a trip with a best friend to a new place that graced us with epic beauty and incredibly fun waves. And to find new places with amazing body surf potential just adds to the excitement.
I know I can’t wait to go back to that island and camp, explore and of course… bodysurf.


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.


Ode to Winter

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…
At dawn.

Big, purple blobs flood NPAC models.
The Harvest Buoy spikes…its coming.
Butterfly stomach excitement.
Impending glory rides…
…and poundings.

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.
Lungs expand.
Surfed-out, thinning crowds.
80° weekends in January.
The thrill of enormous storm surf.
Delightful Winter!

Less traffic, more parking.
Dynamic weather.
Glorious, desperate rain.
Maybe, possibly, perhaps …
the run-off bacteria strengthens our immune system?

Smile! Its time for winter poundings!

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.


Salty Fins: Hal Handley

Some people stumble to their place in this world, riding the wave with no consideration of the reef beneath them, nor their position on the face. Hal is not that guy.  He attacks bodysurfing with vigor and inquiry, unwrapping the most subtle movements with focused thought and repetition. Hal is described by life-long bodysurfer and all around purveyor of stoke, Mike Sullivan as, “the ultimate student of bodysurfing, if you ever wonder how to do a maneuver, Hal’s your guy.”

Hal Handley was born the son of a baseball player. His father started at UCLA and had begun his professional career with stints in the minors. Neptune had another plan for the senior Handley and he was given the gift of a baby boy. As a young teen, Hal watched his television in awe as Buffalo Keaulana bodysurfed Makaha’s waves with grace and expertise. He was hooked. Buffalo stored his fins in the fridge to preserve the rubber, so Hal did the same.

Through his teenage years Hal would hitch rides and eventually get wheels to bodysurf Wedge. His friends would go for the novelty, laughing nervously and staring wide-eyed, but he was taking mental notes and making plans for the future. The Wedge, taught Hal to value commitment. His dedication to “the Newport wonder” ended when he was 23. For ten full years, Hal would explore the wave riding world before coming full circle to his pair of Voit Duck Feet in 1982.

Hals Highline   Hals Stroke

One day that summer, Hal sat watching the Oceanside World Championship of Bodysurfing and he set two goals for himself: 1) to win that contest and 2) earn a PhD. Over the following decade he had accomplished both, becoming a Grand Champion in 1990 and earning his doctorate in immunology. Hal continued his passion for science through a distinguished career in research. His work on the molecular level has paved the way for many advancements in cancer treatments today. On the competition front, Hal has continued to pile up achievements with six age-group victories and a showing in the final of the Pipeline bodysurfing contest.

Hal has been a fixture in the La Jolla waters for over 30 years. A cerebral waterman, he has traveled the world studying diverse wave riding forms. At each new wave, the analytical gears turn and Hal picks up novel techniques. He firmly believes in the power of competition. His face turns an excited red as he describes throwing out all the stops in order to make the next heat. Hal has found himself doing things he’d never consider doing on a wave, when in the throes of competitive discourse.

Hal Somewhere in Southern California Photo: Bill Schildge
Hal Somewhere in Southern California
Photo: Bill Schildge

Despite Hal’s cerebral tendencies, he is well aware of his connection to the spiritual resonance of the Ocean. Instead of describing his connection, he painted a familiar picture. We’ve all watched a young child throw themselves into two-foot shore break. They’re tossed by the powers of the sea back to the sand, limbs tangled, laughing and gasping for air, before hopping to their feet and rushing back to do it again. With each new swell, Hal practices with tactical precision, but he also finds himself rolling helpless in whitewater, sometimes gasping for air through the laughter.