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Prepping For The World Bodysurfing Championships: New Zealand Handboarder Mike Baker

8 min read

Hi, my name is Mike Baker. I live in Nelson, at the top of the South Island in New Zealand Aotearoa. Nelson (with a little bias) is probably the prettiest city of its size, in the country.

Coming originally from the UK and Europe to me, Nelson is a small town - population:
46, 437, but it enjoys city status because it has a cathedral. The city hosts a vast range of serious outdoor activities - it is widely regarded as one of the finest kite-surfing destinations in the southern hemisphere; the Western Ranges across the bay houses the Nettlebed cave system, the most extensive navigable system in the southern hemisphere.

The coast has great sea kayaking as well as surf, world-class mountain biking; a ski field an hour and a half away; top trout fly-fishing and three National Parks on the doorstep. Nelson is nestled among and below a range of mountains on the edge of the great Southern Alps, facing North.

This means that we are in the rain shadow of the prevailing SW winds - those Roaring Fourties that you hear so much about, which send up those deep, long frequency swells which you enjoy in Southern California. From that direction bad weather gets dumped on the Western side of the ranges, most of it never reaching Nelson at all, with the result that the weather here is pretty perfect all year round.

We surfers wait patiently for the lows and depressions which approach from the North - weather systems which come into the Tasman Sea above us. This gives us great, long distance ground swells which provide our best conditions for surf and in January through to April we get Tropical Cyclones, which come down the East coast of Australia to us - a real bonus! We also have access, three hours away, to great waves down both the East and West coasts of the South Island. 

What is The Bodysurfing Scene Like In Nelson?

Mike baker on his handboard in Nelson New zealandI am it. Lol, seriously ... that`s me. I am the only serious bodysurfer/handboarder in the South Island that I know of. I have been working hard to enthuse local friends of mine who are into ocean swimming and some boardriders as well, with growing results. Unlike California and Hawaii, Australia and France, New Zealand does not have a strong bodysurfing culture, even in the North Island.

You may get the odd person throwing themselves into waves recreationally up north, but the only other bodysurfer I know who is committed, like I am - who lives and breathes bodysurfing and is fiending into getting out there all year round - surfing reefs, points, rivermouths and beachbreaks, is another Slyde Ambassador based in Mt Maunganui in Tauranga. They may have insight into other locals up there but I never hear of any. So bodysurfing in New Zealand, especially down here in the Roaring Fourties, demands major commitment, single-minded fortitude and above all ... major STOKE!!!

In the winter, as in right now, I wear a top of the range 3/4 steamer, dry gloves from the UK with woollen gloves inside, fin socks, a helmet and a heated rash vest with temp settings - the most important being HOT! This gives me between 3 and 4 hours in the surf mid-winter, but without the heated rashy it would be 1 hour tops. 

What is Your Favorite local break?

Schnappers Point, lies just beneath my house. I built it here 20 years ago so I could sit up in bed and check the peak. Its a solid boulder reef which gets nice and hollow at low tide and holds a wave as big as it gets, which is about 10 foot, with 100 meter rides. Another top wave is just around the headland, Hororangi- a hollow left-hander breaking, again, over a boulder bottom.

Then we have our favorite secret spot which I cant mention in detail and spots which break closer to town on the Nelson Boulder Bank - Little Rincon by the Lighthouse, the Cut entrance to Nelson Haven and across Tasman Bay, Rabbit Island and Ruby Bay - beach breaks and points. Because of the vast area of dunes and sand extruded at the tip of the South Island, to the north, Farewell Spit, we don't get SW swells, so we are wholly dependent upon northerly conditions to bring us waves, but when we do get  a good groundswell, its as good as anywhere in the country. 

How did you 1st get into handboarding?  

In the 1980s in Devon in the UK, a friend and wave-ski designer and glasser, Al Neighbour was designing and making handboards from foam cores, laying up small fins on them and glassing them to perfection. He called them Handguns. I still have vivid memories of watching him fly across low-tide walls at my local break, Croyde. I was heavily into the competition thing then and shortly afterwards surfed for Britain, so I left those handguns behind, but I never forgot them.

Around 7 years ago, I injured my sacro-iliac joint and took time out from boardriding and thought again about Al Neighbour`s handguns. I bought myself a cheap one off the internet, grabbed a pair of snorkeling fins and went out at my local on a two foot, onshore day and ... the rest is history. I was totally unprepared for the sensations, which I experienced and I never looked back. All my mates couldn't understand it and I tried to describe how it felt not to be on a 5'10 or a 6'4. You have to do it. You have to feel it. 

I have been a martial artist and dancer all my life. I have practiced a range of soft, internal martial arts like Aikido and Judo, but have concentrated on T`ai Chi Ch`uan for the last 39 years. I have been a Contemporary Dancer focussing on Contact Improvisation Dance for many years and formed, directed, danced and taught in my own Company, Coriolis for 10 years.

Four years ago, I completed my Masters in Dance and Video, so a passionate love of movement has always played a central role in my life. I guess, after 48 years of boardriding, I was looking for something new - a different feeling in the water; a different way of being and I translated my affinity for dance into a passion for bodysurfing. Much has been written about bodysurfing but a definitive description still remains elusive.

I think this is as it should be, for the feelings which surround bodysurfing are unique to each individual. For me, I feel closer to the source of each wave, I feel alive and connected to the ocean in ways which were never quite there when on a surfboard and ultimately, I feel free. To be able to swim around the line-up on an overhead day for hours without getting tired, to pick up any wave you desire and to not mind getting soundly thrashed - this speaks of freedom for me. When on a surfboard, I often felt that there was another way - something more, close by but which always remained just out of reach. When I swam out the back with a pair of fins on, I found what I had been looking for. 

What advice would you give to someone who's never handboarded before?

My advice to someone who is curious about handboarding is aligned with what the great and legendary Mark Cunningham might say - jump in and try it! 'Its not rocket science - its just swimming', (A Broke Down Melody) but it is swimming in ways that you cant imagine and that you have never done before. I consider myself a handboarder rather than a purist bodysurfer. In many ways handboarding is easier, less exacting and more forgiving than bodysurfing without a handboard and perhaps for a beginner, more fun with a greater return for your efforts.

Personally, I love the sheer speed of handboarding and being able to carve all over a wave as well as get thoroughly shacked! That says it all. Today, when we surround ourselves with so much technology in a climate of complexity, it feels good to be able to keep my time in the ocean, simple. 

How does it feel to have so many people support your trip to the World Bodysurfing Championship in California?

Mike Baker in New zealnd on Slyde HandboardI have been an Ambassador for Slyde Handboards for the past year so already have some connections to California, but never expected to be able to meet the Slyde Crew in person. When Vince Askey of the Del Mar Bodysurfing Club contacted me and invited me to bodysurf in their team at this year`s World Bodysurfing ChampionshipsI was speechless - a first for me.

I could not afford the air fares nor accommodation but I put it out on Facebook that I had been invited and was then stunned by the level of support from my partner, my son who is a bodysurfer and body-boarder, my family and all my friends, all over the world who were determined to see me get over to California. A best mate offered to pay for my return ticket as long as I paid him back, so I set up a Givealittle page and all my friends donated into that.
Three weeks later, I have just paid my best friend back from everyone else`s donations. How does it all feel? Humbling. I am utterly overwhelmed  and incredibly grateful for the love and support of my partner, family and friends.  I had my 60th Birthday last week and this has turned into the best Birthday celebration I have ever had.

I have been inundated by goodwill and welcoming connections from many of the Del Mar Club members and some of them are being amazing in billeting me for the duration of my trip. I feel privileged and honoured to be invited at my time of life, in such a low-key, down-to-earth way and very grateful that I am able to realize the dream.

Local businesses in Nelson, Riverside Pool have contributed with free swim-training time, City Fitness Gym with a month of free training and there are others as well. I am being sponsored by the top New Zealand Wetsuit company, Seventh Wave and Mike Smith from NZ`s Ocean Hunter Swimfins is working with me right now to design a first bodysurfing fin for his company, which hitherto, has focussed upon free-diving, spear fishing and underwater hockey.

So I feel privileged and blessed in so many ways. All my family and friends have been amazing and the California crew have been so welcoming that I feel as if I am already old friends with them all and will have lasting friendships with them in the time to come. It will be incredible to swim out to bodysurf with them, regardless of the contests in which I am entered and which, ostensibly was and is the principal reason for traveling to California.

I want to thank Ken Robbins and his wife, for his kind support and offer of a bed in Hawaii and maybe a session out at Point Panic on my return journey back to New Zealand. Very grateful thanks to Ken`s brother Bruce and his wife for putting me up over the World Championship days and the other Del Mar Club members who are billeting me - Meredith Rose and Hayley Nemeroff, Stephen and Trish Condon and Merrily McLennan.

Thanks so much all of you! I am especially grateful to Vince Askey for this once-in-lifetime opportunity embodied by his and the Del Mar Bodysurfing Club`s invitation and for his incredible support through this lead-up period. Thanks Vince and the Del Mar Bodysurfing Club! 

Catch Mike Baker Live in Oceanside California at the World Bodysurfing Championships August 22nd & 23rd 2015! 


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