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BODYSURFING 101: The beginners guide

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how to bodysurf image at the wedge

Bodysurfing for beginners: Know before you go out there

This is a comprehensive guide on how to bodysurf and the bodysurfing equipment needed to have a great time in the water. On a side note: this article is written for someone with little to no experience in bodysurfing.  We figured if you are looking for articles on how to bodysurf, you do not necessarily know how to or would like to know more. If you are a seasoned bodysurfer, you might want to try one of our Slyde handboards to take your experience to the next level.

Where Did Body Surfing Start

Bodysurfing is one of the oldest of the man-inspired water sports, apart from perhaps swimming. Body surfing in-fact pre-dates stand up surfing by give or take a hundred years or more.   It is safe to say that without bodysurfing being practiced, it is quite likely surfing would have taken some time longer to get to where it is today.  Or who knows, it may not have even been created!

Bodysurfing Starting many moons ago in Tahiti, Polynesia, back in the good ol days of Captain Cook. Without his Google Maps just the help  of his trusty side kick Roger and the stars of course. Captain Cook initiating the sport while exploring Tahiti in 1769.

While he was in the Island chain, Cook seized the opportunity to try and catch the large waves in the area without a buoyancy aid or board Slydeing the waves on his stomach. During that period only Kings were allowed to (board) surf; However body surfing was permitted for the common people.

Because it was so much fun and the trade routes started to open up so did the popularity of Bodysurfing and it quickly spread to other countries. The sport was later banned by missionaries (we have no idea why)we speculate because bodysurfing makes you feel spiritual and the Missionaries did not like the competition. Howeverand lucky for us nowadays the sport is as popular as all ever from Australia to South Africa and all over the world,The sport is gaining some serious momentum and rapidly gaining cult status.Unlike back in the day with Captain Cook, now all you need is your Iphone and there's even an app that tells you where the good surf really is! Of course everybody else has it, so it may not as un-crowded as Capt.'n Cook session but hell it is all about getting wet.

The stoke of BodySurfing

Every surfer, from professional to the Sunday surfer should have spent a good part of their youth playing about in the shore break, trying to catch waves and learning how to bodysurf on their stomach. Bodysurfing is an essential part of the learning curve to become a good stand up surfer and all around water man/woman. Unfortunately, bodysurfing has taken a back seat to stand up or regular surfing. I say it is unfortunate because bodysurfing is the best way to learn how the ocean works, to understand the dynamics of the wave and to become a better all around water man/woman. I have been teaching stand up surfing for over 5 years, and 90% of the student that I have taught would have been leaps ahead if they had simply spent a few hours learning how to bodysurf before they tried to attempt stand up surfing. It gives you that simple appreciation and understanding of the ocean.

Like surfing, however, bodysurfing is not as easy as you may think. To get the most out of your experience with body surfing, you will need a few simple techniques and a bit of ocean knowledge before you start. If, like most inexperienced people, you have tried to body surf when you were last on holiday, or when you were a kid, you may have found yourself kicking like a mad man/woman heading for the shore and:

getting hit by wave while bodysurfing

wave on the head

You Had the wave crash on top of your head

learning how to bodysurf and handplane with an handboard

left behind

You never really caught the wave and got left behind, this normally happens in the white wash

how to bodysurf in the properly

short ride

You caught it, but you only went about 3 feet

how to bodysurf going over the falls

over the falls

Worst and most dangerously, you got sucked up and over with the wave. Not a nice feeling!

Does any of this sound familiar?

Feel like a fish out there

Watch the quick video , This is what it should feel like to be out there while bodysurfing

It is after the above experiences that you probably shy away from learning how to bodysurf again and find yourself watching the locals from the beach, wondering how they make it look so easy. follow the following Slyde Read on to find out the just how to turn your self into a well oiled Bodysurfing machine and feel like a fish out there



learn how to bodysurf before you surf

learn to body surf before you surf handplane and handboard water safteyIf you are planning on learning to surf, I cannot repeat enough how important it is that you get out in the waves and learn how to bodysurf and improve your general water/ocean skills before you add a full-length surfboard to the equation.

If you are planning on full-length surfing, it is important to be comfortable with the board. Over the years that I have taught stand up surfing, many of my students tend to view the board as a life saving device because they are not comfortable in the ocean. I have seen firsthand the damage a board can do to someone without the general water skills needed to learn surfing. I have seen everything, even a student having a wave lip break directly on his back, breaking the board in two under him. Fortunately, he was unhurt and we had a bit of laugh about it. The same cannot be said for another student, who held onto a board while being sucked over a small 2-foot wave and was pile driven into the sand headfirst. All these could have been prevented if they had previous experience with the ocean and had practiced some safety techniques.

Now, obviously knowing bodysurfing is not a fail-safe to prevent yourself from getting hurt out there.  However, it makes you far more competent and more importantly, more comfortable in the ocean. In addition, as I say to many of my students, the easiest part of surfing is the standing up! The hard part is understanding the ocean, reading the waves, figuring out where you should be positioned to catch the wave, etc. The best way to learn this is to be in the ocean a lot by yourself, without a board. In addition, the ocean is always changing and unpredictable.  The more you are out there, the more instinctual and knowledgeable you will become.

Bodysurfing Across the Globe

Top Tips for bodysurfing

Bodsurfing preparation stretch out and be prepared


Some would say bodysurfing, surfing and any sort of ocean water sport starts in the ocean, but it is the preparation before you enter the ocean that will ultimately decide how successful you are at the sport.stretching like with any physical activity is really important

how to bodysurf equipment checks before you go out


From your costume to your fins always make sure you have your equipment is in good order malfunctions can either be embarrassing or dangerous

how to bodysurf keeping fitness up for watersports


Be prepared! Long before you get to the beach, it is important to be in good physical shape when you go out into the ocean. Bodysurfing keeps you very fit however You will be using those reserve energy supplies. check out our blog for great surfing fitness article. It’s all about the cardio.

how to bodysurf handplanes and holding your breath for underwater


You are in the ocean! It would probably a good idea if you could hold your breath for more than a couple seconds before you decide you are going to Slyde down the face of a 6-foot wave. We have a great section that shows you the finer points of how to hold your breath for longer and has great breathing exercises to incorporate into your fitness routine that will have you breathing like a big wave surfer in not too much time at all. check out how to hold your breath longer

bodysurfing Dangers

Before you head in, take 5-10 minutes to inspect what is out in front of you. You would not cross a road without looking, so don’t go into the ocean without inspecting what you are about to walk into.  Keep an eye out and be aware of

how to bodysurf beware of rip currents

Rip currents

Take note of possible rip currents and sideways water movement. The telltale signs for these are usually noticeable from shore as rough churning water. These rips, as they are commonly referred to, have the ability to send you out to sea in the blink of an eye. If you are inexperienced in the ocean, we would advise not even going in unless there is a lifeguard on duty. Then, you should let them know you are inexperienced. They will advise you on where it is best for you to bodysurf / swim. This is also why we recommend using bodysurfing fins. Believe us when we say that getting into trouble in the water happens much quicker than you can imagine, and it is too late once you are in the water to think of precautions.

how to bodysurf beware of set waves and high surf

Set Waves and high surf

For the more experienced watermen / women, set waves are a very complex and varied set of circumstances. If you wish to read a more in-depth article about set waves, Sean Collins has written a very informative article here. For the less experienced, simply put, set waves are the name given to a set of bigger waves rolling in. If you have ever watched the ocean and noticed a calm sea and then all of a sudden the waves start to get bigger and rougher, you are looking at set waves. Set waves vary in size from day to day or even hour to hour. Once you start to notice them, you will notice they have a consistent time lapse depending on the beach and break type. Be aware that "set" waves are bigger than the in-between waves.

Watch for a little while to allow the sets to roll through and make a decision based on their size, not the in-between waves’ sizes! Sets can be sometimes double or even triple the size of the in-between waves. In addition, keep in mind that a six-foot wave doesn't sound too big but remember you are viewing it from lying position and it is a good rule to follow that what you see from the shore will be double from in the water.

When it comes to wave height, if you are inexperienced and it looks intimidating from the shore that is probably because it is! Follow your gut on this. Again, when you are out there, it is too late to decide if it is too big as the lip of the wave hits you on the noggin. If you are a beginner, we suggest sticking to waves in the 1- to 4-foot range and avoid waves that crash too close to shore, or beaches where there is a sharp drop-off in the depth of the water.

how to bodysurf on shallow reef and beware of exposed rocks

Rocks and Submerged Objects

If it is your first time body surfing at a spot, it is always a good idea to ask the lifeguard on duty if there are any possible submerged objects or, if there are no lifeguards, do the Surfline or Google thing and know before you go! Please keep in mind the ocean is very dangerous and can kill you. Never underestimate it! In addition, if you do not have fins or a handboard, you are much more susceptible to currents and backwash than if you are on a surfboard because you are essentially swimming and do not have the board to keep you buoyant.

bodysurfing positioning in the water wedge newport beach

Positioning in the water

Always be aware of your position in the ocean while you are bodysurfing. A good tip is to choose a stationary object in front of you on land, such as a building, lifeguard tower, etc and do the same to the left or right of your position. By doing this, you will always know where you are and can act quickly if you see yourself moving in either direction. Being washed out is probably the most dangerous thing that can happen to you. It’s not fun and happens quicker than you can possible imagine. Be prepared and aware and you will dramatically reduce your risk in the water. Treat the ocean with respect and you should not have a problem!

Bodysurfing get out there its epic

bodysurfer slyde ryder pulling in at the infamous wedge So now, I have hopefully sold you on the importance of getting bodysurfing under your belt as a budding waterman/woman. Without further ado, let's move on to the techniques that are going to make it easier to master the finer details of how to catch and ride that wave further when you are bodysurfing. Please remember there is no substitute for experience, so practice! Now that you have taken the appropriate precautions, it is time to have the fun. It may seem like a lot to remember when you are starting out, but most of the prep is common sense. So let's get out there!

Let me just add that bodysurfing is not rocket science and does not take much to do.  All you need is yourself and a pair of fins. Bodysurfing in all it’s forms across the world is literally gliding across the face of the wave toward the shore. It is possible to do without fins.  However, you will find yourself having more fun and being a lot more successful using fins than not using swim fins.  Therefore we really recommend them. We have a section on choosing the best fins soon to come. Also, not using fins can really be done successfully, only it must be done closer to the shore where you can push off the ocean floor.  Fins also don’t have to be used if you are a very powerful swimmer and you are attempting to do it further out. You can view our bodysurfing video of Will Pleskow handboarding without fins here. Will is a very experienced surfer and waterman, and is also using a Slyde handboard, which makes it look a lot easier than it is.

Bodysurfing has been referred to many as more of an art form than a sport. I think it has it has an equal quantity of both. Bodysurfing is a pure communion with the ocean and it takes some finesse and art to be perfected, just like surfing. However, spend an hour out in the water and tell me it's not a sport.  It is one hell of a workout, and many big wave surfers like Mark Visser and Mark Healy use bodysurfing as an integral part of their preparation for their big wave surfing. I think it can be called both a sport and an art form.

Bodysurfing Equipment: What You Need to Body Surf

bodysurfing equipment

The Beauty to bodysurfing is there is not a lot you really need

Fins / Flippers (optional : We have a full section on the best fins here)
handboard / handplane (optional)
Wetsuit: if its cold

how to choose a beach to bodysurf

Choosing the Right Beach

Bodysurfing can be done on just about every beach and wave type. That's the fun part about bodysurfing: it’s accessible to everyone. Assuming you are a beginner to bodysurfing, it is better to bodysurf on a sand beach break. Sand bottom is a lot less painful to head butt than a reef. A typical good beach to bodysurf for a beginner would have a slight slope. This allows you to walk out slowly to where the waves are breaking. We would suggest that if you have to go deeper than your chest to get to the breaking wave, it might not be suitable.

how to to bodysurf and wave handplane

Picking the Right Wave to Ride

which is the best wave for you?

After you have swam/walked out to where the waves are breaking, you will want to catch a wave back to shore. Always face the direction the waves are coming from (the horizon). Waves can sneak up on you! As it reaches the shallow water, a wave will pitch up quickly and can take you by surprise.  Always be prepared for what is coming towards you. The first you will see of the wave approaching is a small mound of water moving towards you. They consistently break in the same area, so position yourself accordingly. You will want to be behind the shoulder, as shown in the image below. One of the many things about bodysurfing is that once you get the hang of it, you are able to take off on the wave a lot later than a surfer.  This allows you to get in really deep and get slotted/barreled easier.

Once you see a wave coming towards you and you are in the correct position to catch it, turn around and start swimming/kicking towards the shore if you have fins, or if it is shallow enough, you can push off the sand (we prefer using fins).

Catching the Wave

Watch Slyde Ryder catching his wave

Once you have chosen your wave and are committed to catching it, go for it and do not back down! To put anything other than everything into catching that wave will only cause injury. You have to be 100% committed to catching the wave.

When the wave is about 10-15 feet away, turn around and start swimming to give yourself enough forward momentum. As the wave gets closer, you will start to feel the wave pulling you back toward the horizon.  Hang on, you are about to take the ride of your life. Bear in mind, the wave hasn't broken yet and is still forming.  The closer the wave gets, the more you will feel it sucking back as it begins to pick you up.  The backward pull will start to turn to a thrusting forward push. Keep looking forward with occasional glances in the direction you want to go: left or right. You want to be aware of what you are in for.  Also, be aware of other boarders, swimmers and bodysurfers. Pull out if you see anything/anyone dropping in. If the coast is clear, you are set!

With the combination of the forward momentum of the wave and your kicking and swimming, you will start to feel the exhilarating rush of the wave pushing you forward.  It truly is a great feeling.  You are now bodysurfing! As the wave picks you up and thrusts you forward, extend your arm out in front of you. If you are going left, extend the left arm. If you’re going right, extend the right arm.  Lean into the direction you are going. Keep your head out of the water.  It is a little difficult to get real lift out of the water.  This is where having a handboard or handplane will come in handy to give you some extra speed and lift (you know where to get those). Continuing on your Slyde descent, you may need to continue quick short kicks, depending on the size of the wave. This keeps your forward momentum going. Once your balance has shifted downward, you are in the Slyde. Once you are on the wave it depends on your wave choice and personal skill level that determines the distance and speed with which you are going ride.

body-surfer breaking through the back of a wave

pulling out

When you get it right, (it may take a few tries), you can ride the wave for some distance on your stomach. If at any point you want to terminate or "pull out", the most successful way without getting a nose full of water is to punch through the face of the wave with the shoulder facing the face of the wave and give a few strong kicks.  If all goes well, you should pop out the back of the wave unscathed. If not, you will have a couple seconds practicing holding your breath like in the previous article. The more you practice this technique, the easier and smoother it will become. Once you have popped out the back the ride is over, you are stoked and you can begin the whole process again.  Hours of free fun!

If you want to take your bodysurfing to new levels and start filming, read our article: 

How to Film with a Go pro While Using Your Bodysurfing Handplane.

That is pretty much it.  So get out there and have some fun!  If you have any questions or comments, or would like us to feature any other interesting articles, please enter in our feedback or directly e-mail us at steve@slydehandboards.com.

Author: Steven Watts


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