May 25, 2020 5 min read

Leticia Parada returns to the Garage Blog, delving deep into the becoming of modern-day bodysurfing on a semantic quest for answers.
Sliding waves with your body has many interpretations. Some use planes, some can't stand them, some do both, and freaks like Dave Rastovich don't even wear fins!
So what's the truth? Is it all bodysurfing, divisible only by competition regulations, or should bodysurfing and 'handplaning' be spliced and separated as definitively as shortboarding and longboarding?
Whatever your personal answer, Leticia presents a broad analysis of this quandary of definitions:

As mentioned in my previous blog, bodysurfing in its most fundamental form requires nothing whatsoever.

At first this sport was practiced without the aid of fins, that is, people literally surfed only with their bodies and nothing more.

In the early 1940s, working independently, Louis de Corlieu and Owen Churchill,  in France and the United States respectively, were the first to develop fins. Churchill even developed the equipment especially for use by the US Navy.

With the arrival of these fins, bodysurfers noticed that the propulsion and the
speed were much better when using this equipment, in addition to their other advantages such as ease of movement and the increasing safety.

The practice of bodysurfing then became more frequent and popular using these 'duck feet'. This simple innovation vastly expanded the practice of bodysurfing, and some people began to push the sport to incredible levels and in new directions. They started using restaurant trays, slippers, pieces of wood and other types of objects in hand in order to travel across the wave for more time and also with more speed and control, which also helped making riding in the barrel more acheivable.

Duke Kahanamoku | Boduysurfing

Around the 1960s, an Australian company manufactured the first handboard composed of plastic, approximately 1 foot / 30cm in length.

From then on, little by little, other handboard companies appeared, though still on a small scale. In the 90s, bodysurf popularized even more and became of interest mainly among younger surfers, swimmers and surf club members.

The big question is that the premise of bodysurfing since the beginning was a practice exempt from equipment, that is, sliding on the waves with just the body.

However, here in Brazil there has been an intense discussion about the application of the name 'bodysurf' when the practitioner also uses a handboard or handplane. That's because surfing with only the body (and the help of fins) is a very different experience to using a handboard.

In other words, a person who uses a handboard can achieve greater speed, the handplane helping to reduce drag caused by body contact with water.

And what is the importance of this seemingly semantic debate of names? In terms of competitive events, this has huge repercussions. With a handplane, the surfer not only will get greater speed, but handplanes also make it easier to catch the wave, as well as perform specific manoeuvres.

It is no wonder that in 1995, a group of bodysurfers from Alagoas, Brazil, who surfed with handboards decided to participate in a competition in Rio de Janeiro. But even before traveling, the group was informed by event organisers that they could not use a board, claiming that bodysurfing was not a sport practiced with handboard, but only with the body and fins.

The three bodysurfers - Mariano, Léo and Sivory - began to reflect on the the way they took the wave. That was when Nedda Luna, then president of Alagoas Bodysurf Association, told them that the way they surfed could not even be called bodysurfing. It should be called handsurfing. And from there the Alagoas crew adopted that name.

Over the years, Brazilians from other states then began to make this distinction between bodysurfing and handsurfing, but interestingly this is not so common in other countries. In Australia, Spain, Japan, Portugal, the United Kingdom and
many points around the world the sport is known only as bodysurfing. In the United States, some use this same term while others call it 'handboarding'. You will rarely see any practitioner being identified as a "handsurfer" instead of a bodysurfer.

Jake Rosenbrock - Australian specialist in tubes and bodysurfer for over 20 years - says that “in Australia people usually call it bodysurfing regardless of whether or not they are using a handplane. For me, names don't matter as long as you're having fun. Using a handplane it’s like bodysurfing with steroids, because you gain speed and it’s easier to catch a wave, but the feeling is still pure bodysurf”.

Following this line of thought, Cainho Seoane ensures us that “It doesn’t make sense to stop having fun and do what you like by thinking too much in names, in definitions. The important thing is to be happy on the waves!”.

On the other hand, Briguitte Linn, from Porto, Brazil, defends that “bodysurfing is only with 'duck feet'", as she endearingly calls fins. "With the board you do different manoeuvres and therefore handsurfing it is not the same thing as bodysurfing”. 

Englishman Lewis Day, based in Highcliffe Beach, Dorset, believes they are uniquely individual disciplines and prefers to call one bodysurf and the other “handboarding”.

Conversely, WSL Japan Tour shaper and speaker Ben Wei says that “here in Japan people call it bodysurfing whether you have a handplane or not”.

For Leo Curren, “pure bodysurfing is basically the same sport when the handplane is used because the manoeuvres made in one are the same as those on the other, as the spinner, el rollo, delta screw and so on. The main difference is in the speed and stability gained with the handplane. The Alagoas handsurfing I think is a different style altogether, because we perform beats, floaters and rips. Our board, which we call a palmar, allows us to do all that and more”.

Now speaking about this issue, I believe that, above all, respect is essential. We are talking about a wave sport in which the fun and connection with nature emerge as the main focus. Long, boring discussions take the sport nowhere but into disagreement and depreciation.

Is bodysurfing better than handsurfing? Or is bodysurfing with handboard more beneficial? I believe that free practice and categorisation of modalities in competitive events is important, so that there is no possible advantage or disadvantage from the point of view of equipment.

But what if we stop to think who actually practices bodysurfing, the "root" bodysurfing?

Who uses only the only the body, free of all equipment and even clothing, to catch waves? Worth the reflection.

Nathan Oldfield | Church of the Open Sky

Duke Kahanamoku | Archival
Pitstop Hill | @johnnyjungle

Text written by: Leticia Parada |

First published: Aloha Spirit Club |