Competitive Swimming and Bodysurfing

Olympic_Rings.svgWith the Summer Olympics upon us, we are reminded of the highest levels of human athleticism. Swimming is an event closely related to all bodysurfers. At an Olympic level, swimming is an incredible display of technical aptitude, endurance and will. Many talented bodysurfers have experience as competitive swimmers.  

Maybe it is because they are comfortable swimming in chilly water at 5 in the morning. Maybe it’s their comfort level in a speedo. It is definitely their ability to move through the water in the most efficient way possible. If much of bodysurfing is first swimming to the best spot on a wave, competitive swimmers have an immediate advantage. Bodysurfers without technical swim training sometimes appear to fight the water instead of gliding through it. It is no guarantee that a swimmer has the Ocean sense to find the right takeoff spot. But once they acquire that knowledge, swimmers are all solid to excellent bodysurfers.

There are prominent examples of world-class swimmers translating their water skills to bodysurfing. The father of modern waveriding, Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku, won 5 Olympic medals including 3 gold.  After his Olympic career, Duke traveled the world performing swim exhibitions and is credited with introducing board surfing to the United States and Australia.

Aaron Peirsol of Irvine, California is a seven time Olympic medalist including 5 gold medals. Peirsol is considered the greatest backstroke swimmer of all-time. He retired from competition in 2011 and began bodysurfing the Wedge in Newport Beach. Peirsol quickly made an underground name for himself with unmatched skill in the water. He is now an ambassador for the Surfrider Foundation and bodysurfs frequently.

The most comparable swimming event to bodysurfing is the 50m freestyle. Freestyle swimming is defined with the fewest regulations, meaning the competitor is free to choose their stroke. The stroke that is most universally chosen is the front crawl. Also known as the Australian crawl or with kick modifications, the American crawl. This stroke involve alternating arms, up and out of the water and then pulling through the water. We use this frequently as bodysurfers, although our head is usually out of the water scanning with our eyes to find the spot. Conditions change, waves move unpredictably so swim speed is important for maximizing each wave. 

Swim endurance is also an important factor. Long sessions in heavy surf are exhausting. Bodysurfers that spend hours in the pool or distance swimming in the Ocean are better suited to swimming through strong currents for long periods of time.

The ability to see a wave approaching and maneuvering quickly to the right spot is fundamental in bodysurfing.  The Olympic record in the 50m freestyle is 21.30 seconds set by Brazilian Cesar Cielo in Beijing 2008. I do not know about Cesar’s wave knowledge (although he is from São Paulo), he could certainly get “to the spot” with speed and efficiency.

2015 WBC Grand Final. Tom Marr in the middle, red trunks.
2015 WBC Grand Final. Tom Marr in the middle, red trunks.

Australian swimmer and bodysurfer, Tom Marr, grew up learning the finer details of swimming from his swim coach father. Tom says, “I highly recommend that all bodysurfers should do some form of pool swimming at least once a week to maintain aerobic endurance in the water. It will not only enable a better swimming technique but also provide increased power in the water that comes from doing laps in the pool.”



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.


Playing in the Ocean


Let’s not take ourselves too seriously. We’re all just playing in the Ocean. No matter if you ride foam, wood or your body; have as much fun as possible. Unless you’re chasing a World Title or requalification points, your Ocean session ultimately has very little value outside of your fun. But that does not discredit the importance of that fun. Many of us know that there are few things on Earth more fulfilling and meaningful than an epic day in the Ocean.  

Sunrise with friends

Bodysurfing does not have a World Tour or points.  But we do have the Ocean and friends and waves and offshore mornings and barrels and sunrises with omelets and sunsets with beer afterwards. “The best surfer in the water is the one having the most fun,” cliche, yes, but there is much truth there. As bodysurfers, we should quantify our talents with joy and hoots and exasperating fun. Sure there are a few contests that crown winners and champions, but these events are less about cutthroat competition and more about enjoying the camaraderie and celebrating the Ocean.

It is simple and pure recreation. Guru Mark Cunningham says in the seminal surf movie Sprout, “It’s just bodysurfing. Its just swimming. It’s not rocket science. It’s a beautiful, elegant diversion.” There is no pressure to perform or get the shot or succeed. Very few, very lucky people make an actual living playing in the Ocean. Yet, there is great fortune in having the Ocean as our daily playground.

I grew up in Ohio. My annual family vacation to the Jersey Shore was circled on the map and looked forward to for 51 weeks at a time. I would wake up at dawn and annoy my family all morning to go to the beach. I would spend entire days simply splashing and “bodysurfing” in the waves. When I finally rented a surfboard in high school, and kind of rode my first wave, I knew instantly that I wanted to live forever near the Ocean. There are millions of landlocked people that love playing in the Ocean. We should not take our coastal geography for granted. Utilize it, take advantage of it. Appreciate the opportunities that we have to play in the Ocean.

Fortunate Geography


How to Get Enough Speed

Bodysurfers are slow. In the world of wave riding, we are at a clear disadvantage. Surfers, spongers, mat’ers, and SUPers all move faster in the water. This is an objective fact. The design of these devices give the user increased flotation, which in turn reduces drag. We, dedicated watermen, wanting to be conscious of our own efforts, look to maximize the efficiency of our movements through water. We can borrow knowledge from swimming science and infuse it with our own purposes to increase proficiency in our craft.

Part 1: Kick

The first and most obvious driver of acceleration is the bodysurfer’s kick. In typical swimming, the athlete’s propulsion is approximately 80% arms and 20% legs. This ratio changes significantly when you throw a pair of fins on that same person. Given the more than doubled surface area of the fin-covered foot, we can easily tilt the conversion to 50-50. Bodysurfers should rely on their kick for other reasons as well.

Kanea over the turbine

We aren’t swimming in a flat pool. Bodysurfers attempt to propel themselves onto the face of a curved wave. When we use our arms we change the shape of our upper body and risk creating drag and losing sight of the wave. Beginners often use their arms for too long, taking one too many strokes into a wave.

Some people choose specific fins adjusted to their preferred kicking style. Generally, we can describe fins in terms of how much leg drive it takes to move them. The longer and stiffer fins take longer and stronger strokes to “get moving,” while the shorter and more flexible fins are quicker to move and provide less propulsion per kick. A rider’s choice of fin is often based on the size of waves they will be riding, but ultimately what we do know for certain, is that there is a direct correlation to how much energy is exerted through kicking and a bodysurfer’s acceleration. To improve your kick power you can complete workouts focusing on the specific muscles involved in swimming (listed below) or you can bodysurf more.

Not all muscles listed are shown.

Upper Leg:

Gluteus Maximus (butt muscles), Abductor magnus (groin)

Lower Leg:

Quadriceps (front of upper leg muscles), Hamstrings (back of upper leg muscles), Gastrocnemius (calf muscles), Tibialis Anterior (shin muscle), Abductor Hallucius (foot muscles), Abductor Digiti Minimi (foot muscles), Flexor Digitorum Brevis (foot muscles).


Part 2: Drag Reduction

Once you have your motor running, you can shift your focus to the art of reducing drag. The amount of resistance of an object can be calculated through the following formula:

R = 1/2 DpAv^2

R is Resistance, D is the constant for the viscosity of the fluid, p is the density of the water, A is the surface area of the body traveling through the water, and v is the velocity of the body.

As you can see from the equation, the velocity is squared. This leads to an exaggerated effect of the velocity on how much resistance a body receives in the water. The velocity of a body through water is exponentially “pushed back” or resisted. With this understanding, we look at other systems for drag reduction.

Dolphin Streamline

The body of a dolphin is a great example of low trim. They are able to fly through the water due to evolutionary adaptations in their physiology. The dolphin’s most forward appendage is smaller than the rest of its body. The nose disrupts the water with less resistance than if the dolphin had a large, round cranium like humans. For this same reason, we see swimmers start their race in the streamline position (shown below).


Speedo BodysuitIn following with nature, the swimmers are pulling their body into a tight formation, maximizing the momentum from their jump into the pool. It reduces their surface area and with this in mind we take a page from the swimming coach’s book. It all starts with the forward hand in a motion I call “the reach.”

When you are in position and starting your ride down the wave’s face, a long reach with your forward hand starts a chain of physiological adjustments that all help to reduce drag. To be precise, the reach of your hand should be making contact with the surface of the ocean. Your forward shoulder will follow suit and the angle between your arm and torso will increase, pulling that section of your body into a tighter line. While your arm and shoulder are flattening toward the surface of the ocean, your lower half will be drawn upwards pulling your whole body into a more horizontal position. As we established earlier, the more horizontal we can make our bodies, the less drag we enact upon it moving through the water.

Large surf teaches us another lesson in reducing drag. What could be better than reducing your surface area? Eliminating contact with the water all together. Bodysurfers who have managed to negotiate bigger waves can attest that when they really get movin’, their body is fully planing. In this state, water is only “dragging” on the parts of the body still in the water and our maximum velocity is greatly increased.

Bodysurfing provides an experience for athletes to be lost in the movements of Ocean. For lifelong swimmers many of these technical tenets come naturally, but no one swims perfectly. There are subtle manipulations of body posture that can mean the difference between a perfect in-and-out and a trip over the falls. As each rider navigates the wide, blue ocean, we can find the techniques that serve our purposes alike. In any case, a deeper understanding of our bodily interaction with the Ocean is always a worthwhile endeavor.


Swimming Propellers: History of the Swim Fin

Swim fins are the tools of our passion. We wear them for hours at a time. We often have bloody holes in our feet from the incessant rubbing. Wounds that constantly remind us of recent pumping swell. Fins make land travel difficult and often humorous, but when we enter the water, swim fins instantly transform our terrestrial physiology aquatic. They are rubbery adaptations that allow us to power through heavy surf and into heaving-fast peaks. In this article, we will examine the history of the swim fin.

Hevea brasiliensis
Hevea brasiliensis

The ancient people of Central America were known for their use of the latex extracted from Castilla elastica or Hevea brasiliensis: rubber trees. Olmec means “rubber people.” The quality of rubber varied greatly until the 1840’s when Charles Goodyear and Thomas Hancock developed the process known as vulcanization: the addition of sulphur and other compounds to natural latex along with curing at high temperature. The cross-linking of individual molecules produces the tensile strength and durability of modern rubber. Vulcanization changed the industrial world.

Da Vinci's Vision
Da Vinci’s Vision

In the 15th century, Leonardo Da Vinci experimented with various devices to improve the human physical condition: wings, vehicles and swim fins.


Young Benjamin Franklin- Skye Walker Art
Young Benjamin Franklin

Colonial Americans were not known for their agility in the water. A Boston newspaper reported, “The most frequent use of the harbor is for transport, and drowning.” But one 11 year old boy loved to swim. The ingenious child strapped thin planks of wood to his feet and hands, thus increasing his speed and efficiency in the water. Young Benjamin Franklin had discovered the swim fin.

Louis de Corlieu
Louis de Corlieu


Frenchman Louis de Corlieu began developing the modern swim fin in the early 1900’s. His 1933 patent called them “propulseurs de natation et de sauvetage (swimming and rescue propulsion device”). Known as “swimming propellers,” they soon gained use in naval military applications.

Churchill Swim Fins
Churchill Swim Fins

In 1940, American gold medal yacht racer, Owen P. Churchill was inspired by local Tahitians using handmade swim fins. Upon return to the US, he received a license from de Corlieu to produce his own rubber fins and renamed them swim fins. They were black and cost $4 dollars. Churchill Fins saw action in World War II with the British Frogmen and US Navy. After the war, Churchill’s team developed a process that made the fins buoyant and allowed for the addition of color. Green, floating Churchills then hit the market. According to Owen Churchill, “The feet and legs of a human being were not designed by nature for swimming…and the use of my invention converts the feet into swimming members of correct hydrodynamic structure and design.”

Mercury 7 astronauts. Aquatic training with Churchills and UDTs.
Mercury 7 astronauts. Aquatic training with Churchills and UDTs.

During WWII, the US Navy Underwater Demolition Team (UDT-precursor to the Navy SEALS) sought a more serious swim fin for their serious duties. The Navy contracted rubber sporting-good giant, Voit, to develop a new swim fin. In 1944, the Voit UDT swim fin was introduced. Longer and stiffer than previous fins, UDTs provided the power that the Navy Special Forces desired.

UDT at the Apollo 15 splashdown.
UDT at the Apollo 15 splashdown.

With the post-war recreation market peaking, Voit released the Duckfeet Custom Model swim fin in 1953. Shorter and more flexible than the UDT, Duckfeet became a standard fin for bodysurfing, life-guarding and recreational diving.


Greg Deets testing the aerodynamics of his UDTs.
Greg Deets testing the aerodynamics of his UDTs -Photo: Mel Thoman

In the early 80’s, Voit left the sporting goods industry as jobs went overseas. Their various products were outsourced and the quality of UDT swim fins suffered. They eventually became harder to find. A devoted group of bodysurfers, divers and water people mourned their loss. One such heavy-water bodysurfer, LA’s Greg Deets Ph.D, was not ready to give up his dedication to UDTs. He tracked down the original molds behind a Tijuana barn and began reinventing the cherished swim fin.

Vintage Viper ad with Mel Thoman, Fred Simpson and Terry Wade.
Vintage Viper ad with Mel Thoman, Fred Simpson and Terry Wade.

Fred Simpson began bodysurfing in the early 1950’s on the northside of the Huntington Beach Pier. He first wore Churchills and later Voit Duckfeet. In 1962, while lifeguarding in Long Beach, a friend told him about a hard-breaking wave in Newport. Fred checked it out and soon dedicated himself to bodysurfing Wedge. He became a standout: strong, talented and courageous. He consistently put himself, “in the path of the bull until it ripped his clothes but didn’t kill him.” But after one too many rodeos deep in the Pit, Fred decided he needed more power than his Duckfeet could produce.

Simpson soon had drawings and balsa wood models of his new fin. Local surf and dive shops expressed interest in the prototypes so he went forward with the patent and manufacturing processes.  The first Vipers, released in 1982, were 7” long, all black, with no drain holes and hard ribs on the upper and lower edges. A short time later, drain holes were added, the lower ribs were removed for easier walking and the now iconic yellow splash was added to the blade. Vipers and UDTs are now synonymous with heavy-water bodysurfing.

Mark Cunningham wears DaFins

In the mid-90’s, Aussie ex-pat Andy Cochran, living in Hawaii, developed a unique swim fin called DaFiN.  Today, there are at least a dozen quality swim fin options for the beginner to charging hellman bodysurfer. Churchills are still a sentimental favorite among some watermen. UDTs are new and “biomimically” improved. The Duckfeet Custom Model are revamped with a new flex pattern. Viper recently released the easy-to-see, synthetic Vector series. Considering the current trend of innovation, how will we propel ourselves into waves of the future?


Special thanks:  Greg Deets, Fred Simpson and Mel Thoman

Cal Porter’s Then and Now Beach Blog