Mike Stewart, who rides bodyboards for a living, spends a good deal of time thinking about waves. As a kid, he used to dream of riding a wave as tall as a mountain. Now Stewart thinks of a wave in terms of its potential: How will it break? How deep is its tube? Can he spin and flip along its face? Can he ride it—and survive?
"Under the right conditions," says Stewart, "I figure a bodyboarder could ride a wave with a 70-foot face."
Stewart, 27, is the best bodyboarder in the world. He surfs while lying belly down on a flexible piece of dense foam that's about half the length of a surfboard, using a pair of swim fins to propel himself into the wave and help him steer. He is one of a handful of full-time professional body-boarders, who compete 15 or so times during the summer, mostly in tournaments along the California coast, and about five times each winter in Hawaii, Australia, Brazil and Puerto Rico.
By spinning 360-degree circles along the faces of waves and flipping seven or eight feet above them, by riding deep in the tubes of the gnarly monsters that roll onto Hawaii's shores each winter, Stewart not only defines the sport but also makes a very nice living at it. He has won 55 of the 106 contests he has entered in the last eight years as well as the overall-points title in the Professional Surfing Association of America's (PSAA) summer circuit for four years in a row. Six times in the past eight years he has won the Morey Boogie World Championship, the sport's premier event, held each January in Hawaii at Oahu's Banzai Pipeline. In 1990, Stewart earned $25,000 in prize money, and his endorsement fees from sponsors such as Gotcha clothes, Turbo bodyboards, Free Style watches and O'Neill wet suits pushed his income to more than $200,000. Stewart spends his life on gorgeous beaches all over the world, and he owns 14 acres of oceanfront property on the Hamakua Coast on Hawaii, where he plans to build a house. Not bad for a guy who has never held a full-time job.
Stewart grew up on Oahu and Hawaii and, at five, started riding the stiff wooden bodyboards native Hawaiians call paipo boards. He switched to foam boards in the early 1970s, and since then he has surfed nearly every day, except for the years from 1982 to '84, when he was partially beached at USC.
It is an August morning, and Stewart is sitting at his desk in his two-bedroom condominium in Huntington Beach, Calif. He was up at 6 a.m. to surf for a couple of hours in the smooth morning swell, and he has just finished a breakfast of nine whole-wheat pancakes, which are cooked by his live-in girlfriend, Lisa Miller, 25, a student at Long Beach State. The condominium, Stewart's summer home, is situated within a 45-minute drive of some of Southern California's most popular surfing beaches: the Wedge in Newport Beach, 10th Street in Laguna Beach, 40th Street in Newport Beach and T Street in San Clemente. In the winter, Stewart moves to an apartment on the North Shore of Oahu, a few steps from the rolling, barrellike surf of the Banzai Pipeline.
"Surfers call 70 feet the unridable zone," says Stewart. His office is filled with drawings and clay models of products he is designing. On one wall is pinned a detailed mechanical drawing of fasteners that would replace buttons on clothes. On his desk is a four-inch clay model of a water ski board, which is a cross between a water ski and a surfboard. Stewart has patented one bodyboard design, and he has developed all the specifications—from the cut of the rails to the composition of the foam—for his $130 Turbo signature-model board. In the works are plans for objects that range from swim fins, a wetsuit and a bodyboard leash to a system of generators that can convert wind from passing cars on a freeway into electricity.
"When a wave breaks," Stewart continues, "the top two thirds pitches forward. A surfer can't drop in fast enough on a 70-foot wave, so he would get pitched out by the lip. But I think a bodyboarder can ride the air and skip out of the way of the lip. I'd love to ride that wave."
Stewart means that the curling lip of a huge wave would pitch a surfer out into the air, where he would lose his balance and fall before he could surf 40-or-so feet down the wave's face. Because a body-boarder is lying instead of standing on his board, he would have a better chance of keeping his balance while flying through the air.
Last January at a beach called Cloud Break, on Oahu, Stewart got a close look at a wave the size of a five-story building, its face "at least 50 feet," he says. "I paddled up over one swell, and all of a sudden it looked like the whole ocean had turned into a wave. It was the biggest wave I had ever seen. I had to take it." He shot down the face, bouncing, skimming, free-falling along the moving wall, cutting hard away from the pitching lip like a skier trying to escape an avalanche. "I was stoked," he says. Stewart made the wave—or close enough. The wave finally closed down and wrung him out in its angry foam. As Stewart paddled the last few yards to shore, he passed half a surfboard. Fortunately, the surfer, while thoroughly thrashed, was able to paddle in on the other half of his board a few minutes later.
The modern era of bodyboarding began in 1971 when Tom Morey, a Hawaiian surfboard designer, cut the foam core of an unfinished surfboard in half and took it into the break. Morey's goal was to design a board that would yield thrills, yet be user-friendly. His creation was finless, easier to ride than a surfboard and—because it was made of soft foam instead of hard fiberglass—less likely to cause serious injury if it clunked a fallen rider on the head. The sport grew slowly through the 1970s, but boomed in the last half of the '80s.
In the mid-'70s, Jack Lindholm first paddled a bodyboard into the huge Hawaiian surf and rode waves with 20-and 30-foot faces. He became the sport's first star. In 1983, a little-known 19-year-old named Mike Stewart won the second world championship at the Pipeline. It has been Stewart's game ever since.
It was Stewart who popularized now-common tricks like the barrel roll and reverse 360. He was the first to fly into the air and do a cartwheel with 540 degrees of rotation, and he expects to become the first to turn 720 degrees.
"It's usually a case of the innovator versus the imitators," says Stewart. "But I don't mind, because it gives me the edge." Stewart needed every bit of his edge on the PSAA tour last summer. A group of four bodyboarders who live and train together in Kauai came to the mainland and introduced bicycle-team tactics to body-boarding. By working together, they were able to set each other up for the best waves and to block Stewart from taking off on anything ridable.
"It was the ultimate form of respect," says PSAA spokesman Bill Sullivan. "The riders felt like they had tried everything else to beat Mike, and it didn't work. So they might as well gang up on him."
For the first time since 1986, Stewart won fewer than half the tour's events. With four firsts and five seconds, though, he won the overall title by 762 points (a win is worth 1,000 points).
It's 6:30 a.m. a few days later, but Stewart has already called the surf report for Southern California and he knows a small swell is rolling in from the south. "I guess we should head down to 10th Street in Laguna," he says, tossing his gear into the trunk of the car. "That's a fun wave when it's not breaking real hard." About 20 minutes later, Stewart pulls into a parking spot near the beach. He takes his wet suit out of his bag and wraps a towel around his waist. Stewart can talk about design, materials and production costs with the insight of a corporate business manager, but now he is standing in the middle of the street with the towel around his waist, yanking off his shorts and pulling on a wet suit, the rite of surfers all over the world.
"I pledged when I was in high school that 9 to 5 just wasn't what I was all about." Stewart walks toward the beach with the sun rising behind him. "I didn't know if this was possible. But I was sure going to give it my best shot. I guess I've basically pulled it off.
"Right now," he adds, "my whole life is like a vacation."
Stephen Malley is an associate editor at Sports Illustrated For Kids.