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On Body Surfing

By Sam Wells

Most people think of surfing as a sport that involves surfboards - long boards, short boards, and boogie boards. You have to learn to stand up on the boards and do things like "hang ten." A recent article in Atlantic Monthly even shows how women are taking to the sport in record numbers, including big-wave attractions in Hawaii, Costa Rica, California, and elsewhere. Gidget is coming back into fashion. Myself, I am a body surfing purist. No boards, no nothing except for a bathing suit. Most people don't know dookie about body surfing, but once they see us catching some 25 to 50 yard rides they do some imitation and they seem to have a lot of fun. Body surfing ought to be a sport in its own right: it is an easy workout and it is fun.

In principle, one wants big, vertical waves for surfboard riding so as to propel you forward. For body surfing, you actually want average-sized waves that have a lot of forward power to them, since you are immersed in the water, not on top of it. Vertical waves tend to crash straight down, and if you are caught under the curl, you could get rolled, hit the bottom, or really hurt your back -- you learn to avoid the "surfer's" waves. You will find that many board surfers surf at high tide, which is wrong if you want to get good body surfing action because the waves will be at their most vertical.

Low tide is the time to body surf. Basically, you walk out into the water until you are chest-high; this might be 50 feet out or it might be a third sandbar 250 feet out from the shore, depending on the beach. A wave comes, about to break. You launch into the air, you ride. Experts will swim out to where the outer waves are breaking and do a beautiful "swan dive" that looks like fun, but it is not because it is physically grueling and because few rides are very rewarding -- plus, you're out there where the rip tide can sweep you out to sea. So we tend to stay where we can touch bottom and get some boost when we jump on a big wave, since you want to get your butt as high as you can on the wave (well, what's the wave pushing against, anyway?). A main trick is to "duck" any waves that you do not like. Board surfers cannot do this trick, since they are always on top of the water. Simply drop to your knees and go underwater -- and hold your nose if you must. The wave will go right overhead.

The longest ride I ever had was from three-foot wave down at South Padre Island -- I went almost 75 yards. These are probably known as gravity waves or some other kind of long-range oceanic wave, not being an expert on the subject. All I know is that most three-foot waves are good for a 10-yard run, and that's about it. Every once in a while you will get a wave that really has some added push to it. Experiment with opening your eyes as you come into the beach at up to 25 miles per hour. While many body surfers swim like hell when getting going, you really just need to relax because you're not going to go any faster than the wave. This is a sport where you fight to get out on the right wave, and then totally relax on the way in. What more could you ask from life?

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