Cal staying ahead of the whitewater by going left on a wave between the Venice and Sunset piers, pre swimfins, Southern Califonia, late 1930's.
Cal Porter's Now and Then Blog
Cal Porter, Malibu's first Lifeguard
The purest form of surfing is bodysurfing. It is the only form of surfing where there is nothing between the surfer and the element that he is working with, the ocean wave. It is the art of riding a wave without the help of any buoyant device such as a surfboard or bodyboard. There is no other feeling in surfing quite like the sensation felt to one’s body, on its own, skimming down the face of a perfect wave and turning left or right to angle on the shoulder of the wave. The body itself, in essence, becomes a surfboard. I have bodysurfed all my life.
There is no way of knowing when or where bodysurfing originated. It probably has been practiced for hundreds of years, maybe first in the warm waters of the South Pacific, Tahiti or Hawaii. Wherever there were waves and kids some of them, no doubt, were body riding the waves in some form or other, probably long before there was board surfing. The first mention in literature that I have found is in the work of British poet Lord Byron two hundred years ago in the early 1800’s:
“I have loved the ocean,
And my joy of youthful sports was on thy breast borne by thy bubbles.
Onward from a boy I have wantoned with thy breakers.”
Sounds like he was bodysurfing to me. After all, in 1810 he swam the difficult four miles across The Hellespont, the strait that separates Europe from Asia, the first to accomplish this feat since Leander, in Greek myth, swam The Hellespont to be with his love, Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite who lived on the other side.
There are many photographs of early bodysurfers from the 1900’s through the 1920’s and into the ‘30’s, including Duke Kahanamoku and the Hawaiian beach boys, all going strait in on the waves, the object being to see if you could hold onto the wave all the way to the beach. The first surfing book ever written was “The Art of Wave Riding”, by Ron Drummond in 1932 which included many photos which also showed bodysurfers riding strait as an arrow in to the beach. That’s what bodysurfing was. In the late 1930’s I was bodysurfing in Venice, and after waiting on the end of the Sunset Pier for the biggest waves and then jumping in for one, I got the idea that maybe a longer, faster and more exciting ride could be had by using the body like a surfboard, staying ahead of the whitewater on the breaking wave, and riding the shoulder of the wave on an angle. After all, I was doing this on my surfboard on these very same waves. Well with my skinny body it worked, and it was much more fun and faster, and more could be done with the wave. Bodysurfing was never the same for me. I never saw anyone else try it for some years after. Swim fins hadn’t been invented yet so it wasn’t as easy as it is today. Luckily a photographer on the beach filmed me one day doing my thing out there and that photo has been used in surf magazines and bodysurfing books to document the first arrival of modern bodysurfing. Later, when fins had been invented, others took it up.
There are many fine bodysurfing breaks along the California Coast. Most of these breaks, Malibu, Rincon, Trestles and my favorite, Zeros (because it’s a left breaking wave) are also good for board surfing making it difficult for the bodysurfer to get a wave with so many boards in the water. There also are many bodysurfing contests during the year: Santa Cruz, Manhattan Beach, Oceanside, San Diego. The Pipeline Contest on the north shore of Oahu in Hawaii is probably the most exciting, with waves often reaching 20 feet. The Oceanside contest is billed as the world’s championship each year drawing three to four hundred surfers from as far away as South America, Europe and Hawaii. Many maneuvers are required to do well in this contest such as underwater takeoffs, spinners, barrel rolls, riding on the back, and getting tubed (rare). I have won my group many times in this contest, and used to enter most of the others. However, these days there doesn’t seem to be a category for fellows into their 85th year.
When I was a kid it was fun to take a break from board surfing and go bodysurfing there at the same break. There was plenty of room for both at most places like Malibu, San Onofre and most of the others. I used to bodysurf Zeros alone in the ‘40’s and early ‘50’s. Today you might get run over. Another trick was to catch a wave on your board and at the proper moment push off the board, dive into the wave and bodysurf it to the beach, swimming back out for your board afterward. Not much like this goes on anymore with surfers encased in neoprene from head to toe and attached securely to the surfboard with a long leash from leg to board. We had a little more freedom back then before all this stuff was invented. But there I go talking about the old days again.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Oct. 09 , 2008
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