They’re Gnarlier Watermen Than Anyone
A view of bodysurfing from the standup world ...by Michael Zerman - April 21, 2001
Imagine an unbelievably gorgeous Australian beach, encircled by a natural amphitheatre that’s perfect for wave viewing. Picture a lineup of pulsing three meter faces formed by southern hemi swells emanating from the Antarctic shelf. Feel the warmth of a perfect autumn weekend for the opening event of the 2001 professional surfing tour (WCT).
Ah, the Rip Curl Pro at Bells Beach on the south-eastern coast of Australia-- a big wave location with a thirty year history as an international surfing event. We’re talking deuterium here.
Bells Beach at Easter is such an iconic event in the pantheon of standup surfing that it’s the perfect opportunity to pitch the bodysurfing question. So I’d arranged an interview with Nick Carroll , surf journalist and author, about the perceptions of bodysurfing by the mainstream surfing community.
Nick writes for Surfing magazine (USA) and Australian Surfing Life as well as providing features and daily news for the Swell.com website. He has a pretty good handle on the politics of the surf world, being a former competitor and the elder brother (and sometime trainer) of two-time 1980s world surfing champion, Tom Carroll.
ZERMAN: I first asked Nick about his bodysurfing experiences.
CARROLL: Well, I’ve body surfed ever since I was a tiny kid-- it seems almost more of a natural thing to do than to go surfing on a surf board. In the last five or six years I’ve been doing a lot of ocean swimming for training, in bigger surf. After I’d finish my training swim, and the surf’s four or six feet, then I would just hang and body surf for ages-- I’ve really enjoyed getting better at it. It’s such a great skill to have if you are a surfie, something like being a fish. It’s pretty cool.
ZERMAN: Last November tales of bodysurfing under the full moon at Hawaii’s Pipeline were first published online. A month later, with the North Shore competitions in full throttle, you and six times world standup champion, Kelly Slater, bodysurfed Ehukai and Pipeline under the next full moon. What’s the interest ?
CARROLL: It’s fun to surf at night but it’s also a bit dangerous-- harder to orient yourself with your board and you can get hurt with the surfboard flying around. So body surfing is the bitchin’ alternative, especially when you dive down and have a look under the water and the moon’s shining brightly.
ZERMAN: Many Australians live near the coast, learn to swim at the beach and can body surf almost naturally. But they never think of themselves as bodysurfers.
CARROLL: This is interesting. I think it’s one reason why Australians are such a sporty race-- we go down to the beach at an early age and end up doing Nippers (the pre-teenage members of Australia’s volunteer lifesaving clubs). This year at Newport, my home beach in Sydney, there was something like 250 nippers enrolled. A few of my mates and I had our kids at the Nippers and we were just flashing, "this is why Australians have such an extraordinary level of sporting achievements". Even when you are a little kid you go down to the beach and you are fricken doing things, and you are doing them in the water and that naturally leads to an easy relationship with the sea. It’s a huge contrast with the European heritage.
ZERMAN: Some Hawaiian and Californian bodysurfers are much more the big wave types, either bodysurfing the reefs at Pipeline in 15 to 20 foot faces or surfing the Wedge and dropping 20 feet into a sandy bottom. Then there are people who choose to bodysurf in four to six foot conditions or smaller.
CARROLL: Well it’s horses for courses really and it’s where you grow up. In Hawaii there’s a whole incredible mythology about Pipeline and that’s going to dominate your life if you grow up bodysurfing on the North Shore. In California I imagine it’s quite difficult to be a bodysurfer because most beaches don’t have waves that are very good for bodysurfing. So you have a specialized place like the Wedge and they get this whole mythology and it’s the big thing. In Oz, most beaches I surf at have pretty consistent waves that are good for bodysurfing-- they’re sharp edged, quick, peaky and hollow. So it can just be a part of your life and it’s probably not quite as mythological.
ZERMAN: When you’re body surfing as part of your ocean training do you have a sense of the body as a rail, a feeling that’s different from being on a stand up board?
CARROLL: The body is like-- it’s a tool you know, the same as a board, and you have to use different parts of your body. I’ve watched Don King on many surf trips and he’s just an excellent bodysurfer. I notice he’s a very long thin man with long arms and long legs and so he’ll use his body length really well. And then me, I’m kind of shorter and stumpier, so I’ve got to use different areas. I’ve used my stomach wall as a planing surface and I’ve used the latissimus [muscle]…
ZERMAN: Carroll points to the side of his torso…
CARROLL: I use that as a short, but gnarly rail line. I am only at the fringes of bodysurfing as a technique, but I imagine it’s different for every bodysurfer-- as dramatically as it is for different kinds of surf boards.
ZERMAN: You’ve been involved with surfing for more than twenty years as a journalist, editor and writer, and you’ve observed the growth of the championship circuit. Does the board surfing world have a perception about bodysurfing?
CARROLL: I don’t think many of the professional surfers really consider bodysurfing to be a sport in the way that they’re involved in a pro tour. But they also know that they aren’t very good at it. When they see guys who are good, like Mike Stewart (multiple world bodyboarding champion and ten times winner of the Pipeline Bodysurfing Classic) or Mark Cunningham (multiple winner of the Pipeline Bodysurfing Classic), they just get baffled.
I mean, I’m baffled.
In Hawaii this season I went for a surf at Rockpile, and Rockpile is a gnarly wave-- it’s thick, breaks quite a way out to sea and it’s really dangerous inside. So I’m paddling out (on my board), it’s an eight foot day and I’m thinking, "this is great, there’s hardly anyone out there". And I noticed this head bobbing around and I thought, "God is there a photographer out here?" And I paddle closer and it’s Stewart and he’s just out there bodysurfing.
ZERMAN: By himself?
CARROLL: Yes, totally.
So if standup surfers see bodysurfers in any way, it’s like me seeing Mike Stewart. That is, at the peak level they are gnarlier watermen than anyone... really
An article nicked, stolen, thieved etc..apologies to everyone..all rights and kudos to Michael Zerman