Wednesday, March 11, 2009

New York Times Article- Body surfing Hawaii

The Challenge of Surfing the Big Ones

Published: September 5, 1999


"Body surfing, known to the Hawaiians as he'e umauma, is one of the freest and most unencumbered of sports, requiring no equipment but a pair of swim fins. According to David Parrish, a lifeguard, poet and bodysurfer, ''It's like flying into the wind.'' It's also a great aerobic workout, because you're constantly swimming.

Body surfers, however, can sustain injuries just as serious as those of board surfers, particularly to the neck and back, when taking waves in shorebreak. Also, surfers have some added protection because their boards serve as flotation devices and can shield them from impact. But when it comes to getting outside of the impact zone, I personally prefer to dive under waves while body surfing, rather than having to push through them with a board.

No matter where you go into the water, the lifeguards warn, observe conditions: the tide and wind; rocks, reef or hidden hazards; rip currents, which look like crosshatched lines; water depth (shallow shorebreak is for experts only); what kind of rides others are getting; where they enter and exit the water, and how big the waves get. Be sure to watch for at least half an hour before getting in, as the sea can lie deceptively flat for 10 to 20 minutes between sets.

Mr. Cunningham teaches the acronym SOAK: Study the ocean; observe conditions; ask the lifeguard -- or, if the beach is unguarded, a local surfer -- about conditions and the level of skill needed, and know your limits. ''When in doubt, don't go out,'' he added.

A handy guide, ''Hawaii's Best Beaches'' by John R. K. Clark (University of Hawaii Press, 1999), reviews 50 beaches based on their physical environment, amenities and water safety conditions.

It was Mr. Parrish who recommended we try Shipwreck's Beach on Keoneloa Bay on Kauai, its steep, crisp waves peeling off a low rock point in front of the Hyatt Regency resort. Facilities include a public parking lot, restroom and showers, but like many Hawaii beaches, Shipwreck's is unguarded. Signs posted in the sand warn of dangerous currents and shorebreak, so this is no beach for beginners.

The water at Shipwreck's feels fresh and almost alive, with a strong current pulling laterally to shore, pushed by the prevailing trade winds. At the water's edge, the white sand turns into a field of loose, head-sized rocks. We were glad that Rory showed caution the first few days, but on our last morning he relaxed and took his first big outside wave, grinning in response to a Hawaiian kid's praise, ''You got barreled, man!'' After that we couldn't get him out of the water, and nearly missed our plane back to Hono ulu.

There are no schools for body surfers. You learn by observing. One of the most dangerous mistakes neophytes make is trying to ride the wave straight in. In Hawaii's steep shorebreak, that results in going headfirst over the falls, straight to the bottom, and possibly getting a broken neck.

''A Hawaiian wave is like a spinning cylinder. You start at the top, and you have to drive in and turn, get into that cylinder right away,'' Mr. Parrish says. Taking off, you basically do a thrusting sidestroke -- to launch yourself laterally across the wave -- and ''kick like hell to match the momentum of the wave,'' adds Mr. Cunningham, a fellow lifeguard, who is also a champion body surfer.

Another Hawaiian word for bodysurfing, kaha, means to engrave or slice, which is what a skilled bodysurfer does on the wall of the wave, often getting tubed, or barreled, as it curls about a hollow center. In the short independent film ''Waves to Freedom,'' made in 1989, and in the autumn 1994 issue of The Surfer's Journal, Mr. Cunningham, nicknamed kaku, or barracuda, can be seen plying his skinny 6-foot 4-inch body like a surfboard on huge six- to 10-foot waves at Pipeline on Oahu's North Shore (experts only).

SOMETIMES a body surfer can make it to a wave's shoulder and push out over the top, the way a boarder does. More often, the wave collapses and you have to duck out the bottom, finding the ''dead spot'' and letting the wave pass, like a tornado, over you.

Where on Oahu, I asked Mr. Parrish and Mr. Cunningham, would they advise beginners to go? They started off with where not to go: the North Shore in winter, including Pipeline and Ehukai, where waves can rise from 2 to 12 feet in an hour, with a deadly rip current; Sandy Beach's snappy shorebreak on the southeast shore, ''the broken neck capital of the world,'' where bodysurfers have gotten paralyzed in two-foot waves. These are good places to learn by watching from dry land.

The first rule for visitors, beginner or not, should be to swim at guarded beaches. Makapuu Beach Park, about four miles past Sandy Beach near Oahu's easternmost point, is fun and manageable when breaking one to three feet in late spring and summer, but when it gets bigger the currents can be lethal. Ask the lifeguards.

If Makapuu is too gnarly, continue following Kamehameha Highway north around three miles, to Waimanalo Bay State Recreation Area, which has lifeguards and offers gentle waves over a sandy bottom. And back at Waikiki, young tourists and locals body board at a break called Wall's, to the left of the Kuhio Beach jetty. Crowds are the main danger here.

One Sunday, when fierce trade winds had kicked Makapuu into a current-laced boil, we drove with Franny and her family to Waimanalo Bay State Recreation Area, also known as Sherwood Forest.

It was reminiscent of the excursions of my childhood, when my mother and her best friend, Pauline, the wife of Uncle Shippy Kealoha, would pile us kids into two cars and make a picnic day of it.

When we arrived, the late-morning light was amazing, flickering like a flame as we walked to the parchment-white beach through the dark ironwood pines. The water was classic Waimanalo turquoise, luminescent and several shades greener than the sky.

Although Rory turned up his nose at first at the smallish waves, once in the water he threw himself into the two-foot sets, getting satisfyingly crunchy tube rides. There were no rip currents. A blue-footed booby swooped overhead, and Kenny floated on his back in the inshore wat ers, basking like a Hawaiian monk seal. "

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