Bodysurf Classic

The torpedo people compete in the frigid waters of Ocean Beach

The Bodysurf Classic finalists, holding their respective hand-crafted trophies. Photo: Campbell

By Mark Lukach

“I can’t remember the last time I spent 6 straight hours at the beach,” a guy whose name I don’t know said to me with a laugh. “It’s probably been decades.”

It had been a long time for me too—probably since childhood. Back when I used to spend hours on end splashing around with my siblings in the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean. We rode waves for one pure and simple reason: to have fun.

But there I was standing with a guy I didn’t know, and we were draped from head to toe in thick neoprene rubber, on a frigid day at Ocean Beach in San Francisco, with the wind whipping off the menacing Pacific Ocean. And even though the waves were kind of crappy, the weather even crappier, and we didn’t know each other, we both spent the entire day at the beach, with a bunch of other people whom we did or didn’t know, and we loved it. Because we were at the Bodysurf Classic.

We were huddled against a graffiti-soaked cement shack that everyone calls the Pill Box. Just a few hundred yards up the beach stood the bright orange tent city of the Rip Curl Pro Search. It was a lay day for the big show—no surprise there since Ocean Beach has far more bad days than it has good days. But the organizers of the Bodysurf Classic, which was the local, organic, tongue-in-cheek counter-contest that was put together in response to the Rip Curl Pro Search, had decided that there’s no such thing as bad bodysurfing conditions. So despite the cold, and despite the steady onshore winds, the contest would go on.

We met at the Pill Box at 10am. People had come from as close as a block, and as far away as Hawaii and New York. There were a lot of people there that you’ve never heard of, and a lot of people there that you’ve definitely heard of, but that didn’t matter. We were all there to ride waves.

And let’s not forget that we’re talking about bodysurfing here. A striking contrast to the theatrics of what the world had watched the pros do a few days earlier when Ocean Beach was warm, sunny, and uncharacteristically surfable all day long. Now we were bodysurfing. Where rides typically last a second or two, but for some reason that one or two seconds of sliding down the face of a wave ends up eliciting a disproportionate amount of exuberance.

The rules of the contest were simple. Heats would last 30 minutes, with six bodysurfers per heat. There were colored swim caps to identify each competitor. Top two waves were scored, and top overall 18 scores would advance to the semis, with the top six from there going on to the finals.

I was in the second heat. The wind continued to howl and the outside peaks shifted erratically. By the time I made it to the outside, I had already drifted 200 yards south. I picked off a quick left and then lost my green swim cap on my second wave. Miraculously, another guy from my heat—a water polo player who appeared to be about 15 feet tall—found my cap, and swam it back to me. We spent the rest of the heat splitting a peak, hooting for each other’s rides, utterly stoked.

There were 13 heats in total, which meant I had to wait five hours to find out if I had advanced. Five hours of watching bodysurfing, five hours of huddling together with friends and strangers to swap stories about the waves we rode, and five hours of a freezing cold beach day. And it was just as fun as any beach day that I had as a kid.

In the water, we stripped away all pretense and merely rode waves, plain and simple. One of bodysurfing’s most liberating strengths is that there really isn’t much that you can do to “shred.” There are maybe four moves you can do as a bodysurfer. For the most part, you just go with the wave.

As the day progressed, the crowd sentiment quietly but noticeably turned against the idea of a semi-final, or even a final, and so with only a few heats left, the whole structure of the contest was scrapped. There were a few awards given out for best barrel, best performance—stuff like that—but the competitive element had clearly taken a back seat to the goal of having fun. So instead concluded the day with all the bodysurfers swimming out together in a massive expression session. It was exhilarating and bizarre to swim out surrounded by so many bodysurfers. I mostly bodysurf alone, or with one other friend, so to look around and see other guys in swim fins was kind of weird. Kind of like how it was weird to look back to land and to see the Rip Curl tent city staring back.

Ocean Beach had been unexpectedly thrust onto center stage in the world of surfing, and in a similar way, with the Bodysurf Classic, bodysurfing had unexpectedly become the cool way to ride waves, at least for the day. We kicked a bunch of surfers off a peak, and had one of the most memorable sessions in the water that I’ve ever had.

I think it’s an overstatement to call the Bodysurf Classic the “anti-contest.” I think instead it was more like the fun contest. Not to say that the Rip Curl Pro Search hasn’t been fun. It’s actually been really fun. But at the Bodysurf Classic, points (and mistaken point tallies) don’t matter. Who you are doesn’t matter. Brands, sponsors—none of that matters. What matters is that a few hundred friends and strangers hung out on the beach all day when Ocean Beach was at its ugliest, and 78 stoked individuals rode a bunch of fun waves. One guy even went out wearing only a Speedo. He got the loudest hooting of the day.

There’s an old adage that says that the best surfer in the water is the one that is having the most fun. And for the most part, that’s a pretty stupid statement. Well at least to us jaded, cynical grown-ups it’s a pretty stupid statement, But not so much to kids. Back when we were kids, the goal of wave riding was all about the fun of it. And not so much to bodysurfers either, and certainly not at the Bodysurf Classic. For a day, the ethos of fun was all we had to live by.