by Dusty Middleton
Salt Magazine-summer 2005
On those beautiful beach days when it’s hard to see the swells through the crowds of surfers, and you just want to catch some waves and relax, paddling out on a board sometimes seems to add to the headache. Too much traffic scrambling around the peak and no one is having any fun.
It can be strange to leave your board in the car and walk down to the water swinging a pair of fins. It can be liberating. Swimming out over the shallow reef, looking into caves and chasing fish. You realize your perception has changed. Now the crowds are part of a different world. You wait, floating inside the peak… a few waves slide through the pack and line up perfectly. Your wave bulges, and as it bowls, it pulls you up into its face. A couple of kicks and you’re in. You slide down into the pocket and fly down the line. The swell bends and drags against the bottom and you feel the energy of the ride through your whole body.
This is surfing’s purest sensation, its purest form.
. . .
Todd Sells spends plenty of winter days bodysurfing Pipeline. When it’s too crowded and swinging north he’ll swim down to The Rockpile. At either spot the rides are amazing. He enjoys swimming out to Pipe as big as it gets. When Waimea is 20 feet Todd swims out at the Banzai and waits for eight footers to unload on the first reef. When the Eddie Aikau contest is on and thousands of people are focused on Waimea Bay, Todd’s alone, swimming through the empty lineup at Pipe.
Treading water inside the pack on a good day at the Banzai Pipeline is like being ringside at a heavyweight bout. It’s the best seat in the house. Huge beasts dredge against the shallows, throw giant barrels, and grind down the reef. The bodysurfers wait patiently in the middle of it all. They’re closer to the action than anyone.
On January 29th, the day before the annual Patagonia Pipeline Bodysurfing Classic, the North Shore was firing. Todd swam out for an evening session at Pipe. There were 10-foot sets hitting second reef. The winds had been a little funky throughout the day but the waves were good. There were a few other bodysurfers in the water preparing for the next day’s event.
Todd was sitting deep trying to find a wave similar to an amazing right he’d had at Backdoor a week earlier. Aaron Ungerleider, another Pipe bodysurfer had just gotten out of the water.
“It was probably 6:30. It was getting close to dark,” says Aaron. “Todd took off on this wave… one of those ones that really sucks up on the inside ledge on the first reef. One of those waves where you see it, and you know the person’s gonna hit the reef. And probably come up bleeding.”
Sure enough, Todd tried to pull back from the waves, but it was too late. He got caught in the lip and was thrown over the falls. The water is shallow there, only a couple feet deep, and Todd got slammed.
“I hit both heels, my ass, both elbows, and then waited. My head didn’t hit, thank goodness,” says Todd. “I came up. The first thing that hurt were my heels. I reached down and felt them, ‘wow, I feel some kind of meat on one, and the other’s not bad… I’ll be able to stay out in the water.’ And then I felt another pain, ‘Ah fuck, my hip hurts… I didn’t break my tailbone. I think I can still stay out.’ Then I reached for my left elbow, and the whole palm of my hand went into the wound… ‘ah fuck, I got to get out of the water.’”
Todd’s forearm had a solid chunk of flesh missing. He biked to his house at Sunset Beach with the hole in his arm dripping a trail of blood. He wrapped his wound up tight, and drove half an hour up through the pineapple fields to the hospital in Wahiawa.
“I had this really beautiful doctor- I wish I could remember her name- and she stitched me up,” recalls Todd. “She told me I had to wait about 12 days before I could get back in the water.”
Todd told her he was going into the water in twelve hours when the contest started. The doctor told him that was a bad idea.
The next morning when the call came that the event was on, Todd duct taped his arm up tight, and headed to the beach.
Pipe was good throughout the day. It was the first time in a couple years that the event had been held in solid surf. Todd made it through his heats (drawing Pipe bodysurfing master Mark Cunningham in every heat) and ended up winning the contest at the end of the day. It was the first time in years that neither Mike Stewart nor Cunningham won.
Todd’s arm got a pretty bad infection (‘nasty swelling and red lines creeping up into the armpit’). He was out for a couple weeks, but it was worth it. He bodysurfed perfect Pipe all day with just his friends. And he won the contest.
Pipe is an extreme in bodysurfing. It’s a perfect wave, but the crowd is intimidating and the reef is dangerous. For most of us, bodysurfing doesn’t need to be intense. It’s good enough playing in the shorebreak, dropping into a hundred tiny barrels in a session. It’s a nice way to relax and enjoy waves without the stress and frustration that seem to find their way into more surf sessions than we like to admit.
That time spent having fun, swimming hard, and chasing bowls translates into a strength and stamina that most surfers today are lacking. Bodysurfing in deep water is hard work. The realization comes quickly that in your average day of surfing, quite a bit of time is spent lounging and resting on the board. As surfers, we think of ourselves as healthy and strong, but the truth is that being able to swim in a wild ocean for an extended period of time takes training.
. . .
Kira Llewellyn is 21 years old. She’s an Australian from Maroochydore, on the Sunshine Coast of Queensland. She travels the globe bodyboarding. She has a passion for perfect waves and competes with the best. She does well in heavy surf, and when she’s at spots like Pipeline she prefers big swells.
In 2004 she was invited to a bodysurfing contest near Sydney. She didn’t consider herself an amazing bodysurfer at the time, but felt she had a good foundation of bodysurfing technique. Kira had her knowledge of bodyboarding through heats, and she had fun that day mixing up her repertoire on every wave. She ended up winning the women’s bodysurfing contest and coming in fifth overall.
Kira knew she was in good shape going into the event, but she found herself tired after her heats. It was more of a workout than she was used to. She realized that time spent bodysurfing could maker her stronger in the ocean in every sport and improve her all around as an athlete. Kira found that bodysurfing ended up being some of her best training (or, as she would say in her Australian slang, ‘Bodybashing is some of my best fitness’).
“You can go to a pool and dedicate yourself to swim laps. Or you can go for a bodysurf,” says Kira. “You don’t have to stare at that black line and bore yourself to death.”
Swimming out to a lineup with rip currents and challenging waves can turn a bodysurf session into hard work. The level of focus and effort becomes much greater than an average session lying on a board.
“When I’m kicking against a rip on a bodyboard I’m not as panicked,” says Kira. “Whereas, if I’m trying to swim against it, I can feel every muscle in my body working. I know I’m getting a workout and having fun on the waves.”
Getting a good bodysurf ride is a unique experience. It can take a little extra motivation and a bit more work, but it’s worth it. Swimming in the impact zone ends up being some the most intimate time you can have with the wave: dropping into nice round barrels and feeling all the juice and beauty that the swell has to offer.
It’s just the waves and you, in your purest form.