The World Bodysurfing Championships took place either side of Oceanside Pier, California, over the weekend of the 20th and 21st of August, 2016. It was the 40th year of the contest and a special celebration had been planned for the first night; a screening of Dirty Old Wedge, a film I am embarrassed to say I was yet to see, and the presentation of a lifetime award for bodysurfing fin pioneer, and staple of the Wedge Crew, Fred Simpson.
With teams coming from all over the world, including France, Brazil, Hawaii and Australia, this truly was a ‘World’ event; amongst this, a small team of three made the trip from Cornwall, England to take part. This three was made up of me, my girlfriend Brogen Latham and our friend David Smith. While none of us went on to win (or even, really, get close), we discovered an incredible amount and came away with way more than we had bargained for.
To set the scene, the three of us descended upon Oceanside from slightly different routes. Brogen and I flew from San Francisco to San Diego where we were met by David who had driven down from LAX. From there, we drove the fabled Pacific Highway through some of the places we had grown up reading about in surf mags; La Jolla, Scripps, Del Mar, Cardiff-by-the-Sea, Encinitas, Carlsbad, until arriving at our destination; Oceanside. Having a vague idea of where our Air BandB was we decided to drive down to the pier, scope out the contest site and then head along from there until we found our accommodation.
Getting there we passed some of America’s most infamous eateries; In-N-Out Burger and their ‘secret menu’, Wendy’s and the Baconator, Taco Bell, IHOP, Ruby Tuesday and Panda Express; along with the truly America; Walmart, 7-Eleven and the California Surf Museum. The urge to stop and go ‘full-tourist’ was too much and, despite not having been in the water since we had arrived in the States, nor having any idea of the conditions that we would soon be battling in, we found ourselves pulling into the Walmart car park, grabbing a trolley and filling it with every American-style snack our parents had always deprived us of. Pop-tarts (never again), cookie dough, Bud Light, microwave Burritos, Peanut Butter and Jelly spread, Root Beer and Fruit Loops were all crammed in with growing glee.
We found our pad, unloaded the shopping and got stuck in! Several hours later, after the inevitable sugar high had passed, we decided, with some semblance of professionalism, to get an early night in preparation for the next day.
David was in the second heat at 06:30 so, to make up for our soon-to-be-learnt mistake of not getting in the day before, Brogen and I decided to head down with him to assess the conditions. What conditions they were. Solid 8-10 foot, dredging faces greeted us in the relative morning chill on the south side of the pier. Heat 1 was underway and my first thoughts were;
Within minutes of David entering the water for his heat I realised the reason everyone was sat so close to the pier. There was a proverbial river running through the line-up sucking everyone and everything, no matter how unwilling, northwards and, more importantly, under the pier. Watching David struggle against this current, I suddenly had a serious case of nerves and knew I should have got in the night before. After a valiant fight that pitched David against Goliath, and with a reluctant salute, David (the literal not the mythical) shot the pier! Before we could register what had happened he came running back round before diving in for Round 2; down, but not out.
The funny thing about 15 minute heats is that they go passed extremely quickly and, before I knew it, it was nearly time for my heat. Playing on what little knowledge I had, I decided to walk down the beach several hundred metres before getting in, knowing full well I would be seeing the underside of the pier pretty soon anyway!
The hooter sounded and we made a dash for the water, to my immense pride I didn’t trip over my fins on the way in and made it out back second in my heat. My pride was short lived! Another set came through and these waves were heavy – weighed down by early morning fluffiness and far too many corn dogs - I began swimming for a wave feeling the power as it built. I turned to catch a glimpse and saw a sand-churned wall coming towards me. I plunged down, towards what I was convinced was my death, but somehow managed to pull sideways and spin. To my amazement, I was riding this huge shimmering wave and couldn’t resist giving myself a little pat on the back. For a second, I forgot about the pier, the raging current and the other contestants and remembered my love of the sport. I felt alive. However, this feeling was temporary as I began to swim back out. I was pretty convinced I was swimming in a perfectly straight line but to my horror the pier was fast approaching. I turned and began to swim diagonally and, for about 5 minutes, I was swimming on the spot! Time was ticking - I knew I had to do something; my best option at this point was to just ride the waves and cross my fingers. Wave after wave, I got beaten, I got a thrill and beaten again but somehow managed to ride 3 incredible waves. I got out and walked up the beach feeling a little smug, I had managed to stay on the right side of the pier, and returned my cap. It wasn’t long, however, before the realisation of the danger I had just faced set in and I began to wonder how Brogen was going to manage. The results of my heat came in and next to my name write '28pts – 4th'. I felt compelled to write 'and alive' next to it!
Before I had a chance to recover from the sheer effort I had just put in, my thoughts turned to Brogen. She had sat on the beach for 4 hours convincing herself that, despite the chaos unfolding before her, she could survive and come out triumphant. It was to all of our relief when, 10 minutes before her heat and with tears in her eyes, she made the decision to pull out. I’m not sure what convinced her, it could have been seeing the guy who got a fish hook through the chin or the several people who had to be saved by the lifeguards but whatever it was, we were thankful. Seeing her dreams of competing vanish was hard, but, in time Brogen came around to not feeling embarrassed about her decision and now knows it was the right thing for her to do.
With the competition over (for us anyway) it was time to kick back and relax and we definitely couldn’t have done that without the kindness and community of Del Mar International Bodysurfing Club and particularly Vince Askey. Nothing was too much trouble for them and we soon became part of the fold, cheering on our team mates, having a beer and making friends from around the world. This was what it was all about. The real reason we had come all this way!
Over the next few days with these wonderful people we had some epic bodysurfing sessions up and down the coast, ate some great food, learnt new things, saw new places and even got a private tour of the California Museum of Surfing. In the days after the competition the swell dropped and the waves were incredible, between our team mates being in finals (and there were quite a few of these) we absolutely scored and soon the devastation from our poor performances in the competition was forgotten. Watching Dirty Old Wedge with the likes of Mark Cunningham, Mike Stewart and the Hawaiian contingent was a particular highlight – and what a film it is!
We were so inspired by what we had seen that, on returning to Cornwall, Brogen and I decided to start our own bodysurfing company called Frogs Legz (www.frogslegz.co.uk) with the aim of bringing the underground chargers of the UK Bodysurfing scene (of which there are many) together through gear, photos, stories and, working with the UK Bodysurfing Association (http://www.body-surfing.co.uk/), regular meet-ups and competitions.
Before I sign out there are some very important thanks that I need to give. Firstly to Dave Archer of Garage Handplanes who, without him none of this would be possible. Dave was the legend that helped me progress in bodysurfing from a small, cheap piece of plastic to a proper handplane and has been so supportive for the last few years. He was also the man who put us in touch with Vince and Del Mar Bodysurfing Club. This leads me on to my next ‘thank you’ – a huge thank you to Vince and the amazing people at DMBC, you are all incredible people and we shall see you and your infectious stoke next year! Finally, huge thanks to Magnus at SurfEars for his support this past year and for keeping my ears protected from all sorts of nasties in the sea!
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