Have you ever been in the water, content on your own little peak, revelling in the first waves beyond the dawn, when suddenly an unknown figure appears on the beach and glances out to your deserted break before donning fins and kicking your way?
As a surfer, you might curse their err of judgement, choosing your 30-metre-wide patch of ocean over the kilometres of empty coastline either side. You might immediately discredit them as a ‘bloody longboarder / shortboarder / bodyboarder’ – not part of your tribe and not worthy – by some unjust and irrational standard – of your respect. Perhaps a cursory nod and some idle small talk might ensue, but some degree of barrier will oftentimes remain.
Yet as a bodysurfer, we are in a uniquely different position. If surfers are already in the lineup, we feel intimidated, out of place and bottom of the food chain – content to find our gap and collect the stray waves, but distinctly unable to compete. We feel happy enough with our company, and often accepted to some degree, but quizzical looks and the frequent amazement that you have actually made the wave you were dropped in upon ensure that you will never be part of the pecking order.
And if another bodysurfer appears at our shoulder, rather than being bitter, we are thrilled at their company and likeminded appreciation of riding waves unfettered.
As a travelling bodysurfer, we are almost unquestionably welcomed by our contemporaries: “you’re a bodysurfer? No way, me too!” We are embraced, shown the local spots, and frequently end up sharing beers or coffees post-session.
So why are we, in our fin-wearing, gut-sliding nuances and preferences, so unique? Truth is, we’re not.
Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, surfers were welcomed with open arms in just the same manner. Sure, just as today, there was an aspect of localism, but if you gave respect you’d be heartily accepted. When surfboard shaper and pioneer Bob McTavish first visited Noosa Heads, now a globally-adored, heavily populated, yet no less iconic break in the world of longboarding, he was the only person there, or so he thought until a blond-haired youth who had been sleeping on the floor of the local surf club for several months rushed down the beach towards him, extolling his gratitude for finally having another person to surf with.
But surfing did what surfing did, and now any coastal town with any reputation for good waves will offer little more than a nonplussed glance at someone carrying a board. Board surfing has become so saturated, so diluted, that the instant camaraderie of those halcyon days has all but washed away. That’s not to suggest that all surfers are cold, antisocial creatures, intent on protecting their local. Quite the opposite, with the majority still quick with a chat in the lineup and a level of acceptance for total strangers, but it doesn’t often expand beyond the waves.
Bodysurfing is in almost exactly the same position as surfing was back in those early days. We are unusual, curious, almost unique. Stroll down the beach of any one of those surf-oriented coastal towns, and chances are people will look, surfers may comment, and anyone with a pair of DaFiNs strapped to their back paws will be beaming a big, wide grin right at you. We are still fortunate enough to be able to enjoy, welcome and even relish the company of fellow bodysurfers, because when you are the odd one out, it’s always nice to have company.
Respect is always essential. Turn up to Point Panic expecting you can just paddle straight out into a frenzy of hugs and shakkas and you’ll be pretty rapidly disappointed. Same too with Newport’s Wedge. But it is because these places are established, their figures born and bred in those waves, rite of passage served. More than that, they often demand a sense of humility, the waves requiring that you offer certain reverence to the locals for your very survival. They will observe you in their own time, tell you to get the hell out before they have to pull or dazed and waterlogged body from the water, or guide you into the right takeoff spot to wait your turn.
This global camaraderie is illuminated greatest at international events. Houses are open to the visitors, beds and meals provided as would to any blood relative. Secret spots are unveiled, road trips taken, and any visitor is treated as if returning for the hundredth time, even if only their first.
Mark Cunningham is, as with so many aspects of this love of ours, the perfect exponent. He is royalty amongst our flock, yet he always comes with humility, aloha and arms full of gifts. “You must come stay with me in Hawai’i” he lilts, with the correct stutter in pronunciation of the last syllable. He asks permission before entering the water, quizzes locals on etiquette and the bylaws of the region’s lifeguards. And the whole time, every single bodysurfer is embraced like a long-forgotten friend. Mark values this kinship and is the living example of this unity.
Unlike the metaphorical surfer we opened this diatribe with, bodysurfers actively welcome one another to the ocean. They are genuinely happy to see one another, almost begging for the company.
And the beauty of it is that it is likely never to change. We won’t develop the saturated popularity of surfing, diluted to the level of ubiquitous acceptance that undermines this kinship. We will forever remain the outsiders, banding together through our individualism. We might never fit into the pervasive lineup, but we will always have a fin-wearing friend somewhere beyond the shore.