Bodysurfing may be the only sport that can trace its history to
the time before life's migration from sea to dry land. After all,
dolphins do it, and it seems fair to presume they didn't pick up
their moves from bodysurfing videos. Yet ever since people have
gotten themselves up on two feet--and especially since those feet
have been on surfboards--bodysurfing has been on a downhill ride.
Most people think of bodysurfing as a dive into a wave from a
standing position, something a hard-core bodysurfer would call
"playing in the waves." Big-wave bodysurfing is far more
sophisticated and dangerous, practiced by a diminishing cadre of
fin-wearing devotees who hurl themselves across the faces and
through the barrels of tremendous waves that crash over reefs or
into shallow water. "When I tell people I bodysurf, they always
say, 'Hey, so do I,'" says veteran competitor J.T. Nickelson,
shaking his head. "It's like meeting a NASCAR racer and saying,
'Hey, I drive too.'"
For bodysurfing--a sport that carries on without
commercialization, or recognition, or any reward beyond the
pleasure of its doing--there is no pro circuit, but each winter
since 1971 the best wave riders have congregated on Oahu's North
Shore for the Pipeline Bodysurfing Classic, the sport's most
prestigious event, such as it is. Mark Cunningham, a 48-year-old
lifeguard lieutenant and four-time Classic champ, calls the
event, at which winners receive only plaques, gift certificates
and T-shirts, "a gathering of an endangered species." Certainly
there is no promotional hype. "Getting sponsors for this event,"
says organizer Alan Lennard, "is like trying to find a prom date
for your ugly sister."
The Classic was actually in jeopardy of being canceled this year,
as an increasing number of surfing and bodyboarding competitions
vied for Pipeline time. Because of permit delays, Lennard was
only able to announce contest dates a month in advance. Despite
the uncertainty, contestants this year came from as far away as
Australia, Brazil and France. A few years ago Hank Harris set the
standard for travel: The California native and contest regular
flew 11,000 miles from Nigeria, where his work as a ship's
engineer had taken him. Surfing stars have been known to show up
as well: In 2002 six-time world surfing champion Kelly Slater
graced the field and made it to the semifinals. Slater heaped
praise on bodysurfing in his 2003 autobiography, describing the
feeling as "much more intimate than riding a surfboard."
Not that surfers and bodysurfers always share the ocean
peacefully. If waves were highways, surfers would be 18-wheelers
and bodysurfers bicycles. In the days before the Classic,
bodysurfers had to hang out far down the Pipeline, catching
leftovers that surfers had bailed out on. Two bodysurfing videos,
Primal Surf and Pure Blue (about the 2000 and 2001 Classics,
respectively), feature skits with a gorilla (actually Nickelson
in an ape suit) throwing rocks at surfers who, thanks to creative
editing, appear to be wiping out under the barrage.
February 23, 2004
Such fantasies are cold comfort for practitioners of the original
water sport, who attribute the thinning of their ranks to two
1970s inventions: the surfer's leash and the bodyboard. The leash
meant surfers didn't have to learn to ride in after their lost
boards; bodyboards, the much bigger culprit, gave nonsurfing
water rats a simple and fun way to play in the waves.
It's ironic, then, that the man who dominates the Classic, Mike
Stewart, 40, is more widely known as a bodyboarder. Stewart was
the first to bodyboard the big reef breaks on the North Shore and
on Maui; he is also a cinematographer, and he filmed the majority
of the water action scenes for the surf film Blue Crush from his
bodyboard. Stewart had won nine of the last 13 Classics coming
into this year largely because he can execute bodyboarding moves
without a bodyboard. His trademark move is the El Rollo, in which
he rolls with the tube of the wave as it breaks. That would be
impressive enough, but then he disappears and reappears farther
down the wave, ahead of the break. It's as if he has jets in his
Stewart's chief rival is Cunningham, who worked the Pipeline
lifeguard tower for nearly 20 years. Cunningham's riding style
features none of the spins that other riders employ. He sails
gracefully and powerfully across the wave, absorbing as much
propulsion as the water can give. "Tricks are for kids," says
Cunningham with a smile. He last won the Classic in 2000 but had
finished second or third behind Stewart seven times coming into
this year's competition.
This year Stewart and Cunningham started in opposite brackets in
a field of 34 that included one pro surfer, Keith Malloy. Malloy
stalled out in the semis, while Stewart and Cunningham made their
inevitable march to the six-man final, which also included two of
the field's younger competitors: 27-year-old Hawaii native James
Duca and Rogerio Schefler, 30, a former member of Brazil's
national water polo team. Schefler is the rare bodysurfer with a
sponsor, albeit a frugal one; his backer, Brazilian surf gear
maker South to South, purchased a discount plane ticket that took
Schefler from Sao Paolo to Oahu by way of Toronto.
Stewart opened the final heat with an impressive El Rollo, and
despite a soaring highlight-reel ride by Cunningham, the
bodyboarder collected his 10th title. Cunningham, sitting on a
table in the beach park where the results were announced, said of
finishing second to Stewart yet again, "It's like that movie
Groundhog Day." When informed that it was Groundhog Day--the
contest took place on Feb. 2--he let his head drop in his hands.
This is not, however, a contest at which the runners-up mope.
Later that night Cunningham and Stewart went with a large group
of friends to North Shore haunt Haleiwa Joe's, where they dipped
straws into an oversized rum cocktail called an Outside Double
Even lower finishers enjoyed the day. Steve Kapela, a muscular
5'9", 247-pound Hawaiian known as Vanilla Gorilla, talked about
how much fun it was for bodysurfers to have the Pipe to
themselves for once. "The contest," he said, "is really just an
excuse to get everybody else out of the water." For one day no
surfboards or bodyboards clogged the Pipeline tube, and the wave
became the exclusive province of a bunch of mammals splashing in
the water. Just as it used to be.
"When I tell people I bodysurf, they always say, 'Hey, so do I,'"
says Nickelson. "It's like telling a NASCAR racer, 'Hey, I Drive