Liz Swain 4:24 p.m., May 24
There it came once again, the salty fizz escaping, through gravity, from the very depths of my sinus cavities. Another splendid early session; now another warm shower soaking with its initial skin tingle-burn and the slow thawing of extremities with blood eventually circulating through the chilled inner core. While wetsuits extend the season and the thicker 4-3mm get-up is more flexible even than much thinner suits of years and decades past, and although my girth has further improved the length of a day’s go-out, the deep sub-surface canyons’ up-flows win over each time and we all get too cold to continue.
Bodysurfing conjures an inane vision for most non-devotees. Even hardcore watermen and waterwomen, surfers and boaters and fisherpeople of all varieties, whose diverse uses of the Pacific should arguably provide some depth of view, are as a whole ignorant of the possibilities. Most have a tourist’s eye view of what my crew celebrates. Most have bodysurfed in the most basic sense and therefore feel they have some knowledge. It’s much like completing a coloring book and calling oneself an artist, or winning in a game of tag and calling oneself a sprinter. Well, yeah, technically they are the same activities, but there are levels you know?
You want to irk a bodysurfer? Talk about “real” surfers. Talk about how cool surfing is and talk about how you’re gonna learn to do it this summer and talk about how you already know how to bodysurf and skateboard, so you want to really learn how to surf this summer, which should be very easy. Talk about how it’s “cheating to use ‘flippers,’” about the humongous wave you took last year and rode it all the way to the beach on your kid’s boogie board. Talk about how there’s someplace up north, or in Hawaii or something, where you’ve seen a video of these guys who ride waves without boards like they’re really surfing, not like the bodysurfing around here.
We’ve heard all of those exclamations. We don’t respond to them anymore despite the urge. We just know that explanation goes unheard and leads to frustration.
One of my nephews has been surfing for a few years, and at 13, is very interested in getting tubed. He swims like a porpoise, plays water polo and is one of those boys we all like to think we were—nice kid, extremely likable, smart and good-looking, and completely lacking in a fear gene. He has seen a few photos of bodysurfers locked in barrels, and asked me to get him out there to really bodysurf.
He gets it.
Tribes of BS’ers dot the coast. Some attempt formal organization; give themselves names and logos, meet regularly, socialize and enter contests as teams. There are internet groups (the intermingling made between tribes with the inception of social networking was largely responsible for an up-tick of both bodysurfing and the sharing of ideas and swell information in the 90s); there are many unnamed soloists, heads bobbing in lineups among sticks and “boogers.” There are favorite spots, hissed secrets, out-and-out lies, awkward truths, sworn enemies, uproariously funny stories—all of the thrills and joys and pitfalls of being part of any group with a common interest, particularly culturally-steeped interests like surfing.
My brother and I had a poster back when posters were the primary decor of kids’ rooms. We actually had several posters-- Roger Dean prints of Yes album covers, a black-light-painted serpent with gaping fangs… and a spectacular photo of a bodysurfer dropping into a 20-foot Wedge face. The guy was wearing Speedos. At the age we were, there was as much a fear of being seen in that bathing suit as there was throwing ourselves into that wave. The picture epitomized courage for me. To this day, I still won’t parade around in Speedos, but I will absolutely risk life and spine and lung capacity to bodysurf.
Fortunately, most of the surf in San Diego County comes in the winter, when the Gulf of Alaska snarls and coughs out frigid, thick cold brine, grey-green and menacing. We’re in the drink early, ideally just as the sun rises, wearing our full suits and any number of assorted neoprene accessories designed to delay for a slightly lengthier session, for maybe one more green-room visit, before the inevitable succumbing to the loss of thermal energy. Swimming ashore is “against our religion,” so that last bit of relative warmth provided by our black outfits needs to stay put until a transportation wave can bring us ashore to our land homes. Wetsuits, more importantly though, aren’t Speedos.