June 01, 2020 5 min read

In her last guest blog in the series, Leticia Parada explores the ancient, and more recent, history of Brazilian bodysurfing, from the days before the Conquistadors to the pre- and post-war evolution from bodybashing to donning fins and sliding sideways.
Read on, and discover why 'catching alligators' isn't just a metaphor...

How did bodysurfing come about in Brazil?

At what peak and in what year it was practiced in our land?

For these and many other questions, there are still no proven answers to be found in historical documents.

As we know, the wonderful city, in fact the entire State of Rio de Janeiro is a great sports and cultural showcase for our country. Some reports indicate that bodysurfing in Brazil would have been practiced for the first time in Rio de Janeiro, more precisely on Copacabana beach.

That's because Brazil had little beach culture to speak of, that is, people had no habit going to the beach for recreation or playing sports. It was in Rio de Janeiro that such culture started to develop and little by little it spread from beach to beach.

But how then did bodysurfing come about?

Talking to some bodysurfers from Rio de Janeiro “from the old days”, I came up with some information that, despite not having proof, is very interesting. One story is that bodysurfing would have manifested itself naturally through the Indians who lived near the beach in Rio de Janeiro and frequently played in the waves. The indigenous Tupinambás people of the region had a sub-tribe called Yacaré, meaning 'alligator', who lived in the southern region of Rio de Janeiro. These Indians were swimming warriors who lived by gathering and fishing, harpooning animals on rocks and often encountering alligators on the beach due to tidal movement.

On the other hand, Luiz Antonio Pereira, an experienced Rio bodysurfer, reports that during World War II there was already bodysurfing in Rio and that even his father caught a wave at Leme beach in the '40s. However, it was practiced without duck feet [as the Brazilian often refer to fins] and in a very simple way: going down the face of the wave wave and going straight in toward the beach.

When the sea got big, practitioners used a narrow plywood board, approximately 1 metre long, with two handles sawn into the middle of the wood itself to hold on to. These board were made by a shaper who lived in Leme exclusively for the guys who bodysurfed in the area.

After the Second World War, the Americans made a project of expansion of American culture, where through the media the "American way of life" was propagated in several countries. But years earlier, in 1940, the American sailor Owen Churchill made a major contribution to bodysurfing.

Churchill designed and patented the fins that took his surname and are still readily available today.

It was in 1946 that the first flippers arrived in Rio de Janeiro. People started to surf with this equipment, no longer body bashing directly towards the shore, but choosing to traverse the wave face, with this newfound advantage.

And what is the explanation for calling bodysurfing “alligator”? Luiz states that the term “alligator” came about as follows:

People who were on the sand or who were passing by the beach realised that whoever caught waves only with the body looked like an alligator because only their heads were visible above the surface. From a distance, only a small amount of them could be seen above the water - just like an alligator.

From another perspective, bodysurfer Kleiber Sequeira reports that in the '40s and '50s, in the so-called vala de Constante Ramos in Copacabana, a bodysurfer from Rio by the name of Tubarão often could be seen bodysurfing the waves that were also very frequented by alligators, yes the animals! At that time, the military who were observing the region from above in a hilltop fort, noticed people who were floating only with their heads showing and who seemed to be alligators. It was there that another term emerged, the “jacaré” (alligator), given to those who went to the beach to catch waves, something that at that time was not seen as leisure, but as a vagrant lack of occupation.

Unlike the past where the only beaches frequented were Copacabana and Lame, the “alligator”, or bodysurfing, spread and became part of culture of the State of Rio de Janeiro as a whole.

For Rodrigo Bruno, bodysurfer from Rio de Janeiro for many decades, “the State of Rio de Janeiro has a large unfortunately poor population. But when making a comparison with the other modalities of surfing, you realise that the one that requires least resources to be practiced is bodysurfing. You don't even need fins. You can really just surf with the body. Therefore, the ease with which the bodysurf culture expands in the world and is present in Rio de Janeiro occurs due to little need for resources for you to practice ”.

Nowadays people most refer to it as bodysurfing or chest surfing, but the most common and widely-used name throughout Rio de Janeiro is still the alligator. That's because, as Rodrigo states, there is a much greater identification of the sport with this term - that is, the people know exactly what it is to “catch an alligator”, but many times they don't have any idea what bodysurfing or chest surfing is. The strength of the alligator name is very interesting.

However, not everything is black and white, and the same goes for bodysurfing. Luiz says that chest surfing is still very much an underground movement. “It is the last in line. No specialised magazines - digital or print, no sponsors, and so on. And it's like that also in the waves. I mean, if you have surfers and bodyboarders, we usually only catch the surplus waves”.

In my humble opinion, little by little, we have earned due respect at sea. We see bodysurfers “fighting” waves outside with other surfers, completing tubes, performing manoeuvres and so many other feats that many people doubted it was possible to do with just a pair of fins.

But above all, the most interesting thing is to observe the rise, or better, the return of the bodysurfing, which every day gains fans around the world. Overseas, Brazil is seen as one of the countries that best represents this culture of bodysurfing, with Rio de Janeiro as a great highlight and considered by some like the green and yellow “birthplace" of the alligator.

Silvia Winik
Alemão (já falecido), que também era bodysurfer
Luiz Pereira by Arthur Meier.

Text written by: Leticia Parada | www.youtube.com/c/ElaNoMar

First published: Aloha Spirit Club | alohaspiritclub.com.br