No Board or Wax Required: The Ancient Art of Body Surfing in Hawaii

by Audrey on March 28, 2017

Surfers choose their sport for the way it lets them connect to nature. Riding a towering wave all alone with nothing between you and nature’s raw energy but a board that you propel through the water, offers a high unlike any other. There are those who feel that the contact with nature could be even closer, however, and the high even higher.

Taking up body surfing

Body surfing is an ancient Hawaiian sport that has the surfing enthusiast applying a balance of skill and strength to float on and glide across waves. There is no surfboard that helps; it’s just the surfer swimming on the inner surface of a wave as it speeds along. To body surfing enthusiasts, there is no other experience on earth that offers humans a chance to feel and converse with the forces of nature the way this sport does.

While body surfing has grown in popularity in recent years, it is still a relatively obscure sport, especially when compared to regular surfing. To a person who has dependable swimming skills, body surfing can be a wonderful sport to take up. According to Hanalei Surf School, it doesn’t require much by way of preparation. It only needs a willingness to keep trying and to keep learning. Since it involves using your body and not a piece of equipment, the learning curve is typically shorter, especially when one has the guidance of a qualified instructor.

Finding the right beach

It’s easy to learn body surfing on small waves about four feet high. Many beaches in Hawaii have gentle slopes that are ideal; the island of Oahu has Sandy Beach, Point Panic and Pipeline, for example. There are great body surfing beaches in other parts of the world, too — Oceanside Pier and Newport Beach in California and Narrabeen Beach in Australia, are well-known.

You’ll know you have the right kind of beach when you find a place where you see mid-sized waves break some distance out. If you can walk into the water and find the slope leading to neck-deep water within 50 feet or so with no abrupt drop-offs, you’re in a good place. You’ll find that large, crashing waves turn up well away from water that’s too shallow, and you can get started.

Body surfing those waves

As you stand in water that’s neck-deep, you wait for a high wave that arrives with considerable speed. As it reaches you, you propel yourself off the sandy floor and launch yourself into the inner surface of the wave. You aim for an angle where you have your feet aimed at the crest of the wave, and your head at its base, with your left arm extended for balance. With the wave constantly driving you forward and the water’s buoyancy keeping you afloat, you propel yourself, using your feet to kick for extra balance. That’s all there is to it.

It’s important as you move forward to use the arm extended for guidance and to feel for the shallow, sandy floor. The moment you feel it, you need to get back on your feet before you crash.

Body surfing with equipment for better buoyancy and control

Flippers or fins are the number one choice for external equipment. Different designs exist, including the odd ShinFin design that extends halfway up the shins. The primary aim of these pieces of equipment is to help with additional power and control. Kicking with fins on can help with propulsion and balance.

Handboards are another piece of additional equipment. They are strapped on the hands much the way baseball mitts are. The purpose is to increase usable hand surface area and help with additional guidance power, speed, lift, and control.

You should probably learn to body surf before you use a board

If you’re just starting out learning to surf, you might believe that you should use the conventional method first, and start on a board; body surfing can seem too advanced. In reality, though, people who learn surfing tend to learn much faster when they body surf first.

Having the entire body in the water helps the learner understand the dynamics of the water and waves. Learning with a board first, the beginner is out of the water most of the time and naturally finds it hard to internalize the way waves work.

Body surfing can be great fun and is a safe sport. Starting off with a trained instructor can be the fastest route to the most fun that you can have.

Libby Metcalfe is the ultimate surfer chic! Lucky enough to be living in Hawaii for several years, she is a real outdoor type of girl who spends most of her time in the water.

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