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BODY WAVES : Surfers Take to the Water Without Much Gear, Looking for a Free Ride

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Times Staff Writer

Bodysurfing’s great appeal is that it takes so little to enjoy it. It’s a free-form sport if ever there was one.

Grab a swim suit, a pair of fins, a towel and head for the nearest beach. They don’t even have to be big waves, though the more serious practitioners would cringe at the thought of riding little one- or two-foot breakers.

Forget the tight-fitting Speedo suits, expensive wet suits or multicolored trunks, wearing one fin is the height of bodysurfing chic.

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Though there are some places that are better than others to bodysurf, just about any stretch of surf and sand will do.

“The majority (of bodysurfers) just go out,” Dave Budman, a 20-year-old lifeguard from Huntington Beach, said. “They could go down the beach three or four (lifeguard) towers for better waves, but they’ll stay nearby because it’s where they parked the car.”

You don’t need much instruction either, but it does help to be a strong swimmer with at least some experience swimming in the ocean.

There are many ways and waves to bodysurf.

If you don’t like the bodysurfing conditions, wait five minutes and they might change. Shifting winds, tides and even the sun conspire to change wave conditions throughout the day.

THE LIQUID MOUNTAIN

The Wedge, a tiny strand of surf and sand at the southern tip of Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach, is to bodysurfing what Wrigley Field is to daytime baseball.

There are other places to bodysurf, but to the locals, the Wedge Men, as they are known, it’s the best bodysurfing spot in California, if not the United States mainland.

When the waves get big at the Wedge, they can rise to 10, 15 even 20 feet, where only a 100 yards away the waves are 5 or 6 feet.

But even five-foot waves here have more power and speed than at other beaches.

Bodysurfers can thank the city of Newport Beach for creating this wave machine.

In the 1930s, workmen added 100 yards of rock to the jetty on the west side of the channel that allows passage into Newport Harbor.

As a result, the waves roll into the jetty at an angle, bounce off and create a second, trailing wave. As the waves near the shore, they merge into one peak often doubling in size and strength.

Bodysurfers speak in reverent tones about the Wedge. They know how the extra rocks changed the conditions. They know how the waves break. They tell and retell stories of the days late in the summer of 1975 when the waves reached 20 feet and how you could look over and see over the jetty into the channel.

“The Wedge is an amazing place,” Greg Deets, 32, a former county resident now living in El Segundo, said. “On a really big day, the peak increases in volume, height and speed. It’s a horrible mutation, a liquid mountain.”

The Wedge is best when swells roll in during the summer months from storms in New Zealand and Antarctica. The waves travel across the Pacific and create ideal conditions.

Deets, a 20-year veteran of bodysurfing in Southern California, constantly watches weather conditions around the Pacific.

“The Wedge is a summer wave,” Deets said. “In the winter, it’s flat as a flounder.”

Deets has bodysurfed all along the California coast and in Hawaii, but said the Wedge waves are the best.

“It’s such a beautiful thing on a really good day when you’re on and the waves are on,” he said. “I’ve ridden a kneeboard and a long (surf)board, but I’ve always come back to bodysurfing. It’s that feeling you have on the wave, hydroplaning across the wave on your arms and back.’

EQUIP THYSELF

In order to be a successful bodysurfer, you need not invest in any sort of equipment. However, a good pair of swim fins are essential if you’re going to bodysurf the big waves.

“It matters how big the waves are, whether you wear one fin or two,” Duane Wellhoefer, a lifeguard at Sunset Beach, said.

There also is a gizmo called a hand gun. It has nothing to do with shooting, however. A hand gun is a small, flat board that bodysurfers wear on one hand. Wearing one makes for a faster ride, but it’s basically an additional burden to carry in the water.

“If you’ve got fins, wear them,” Budman, of Huntington Beach, said. “If you’ve ridden a lot of waves and your body’s dragging, it makes it easier to (swim).

“I like using two fins. It depends how deep the water is. The deeper it is the more fins you need.”

HELICOPTER SPINNERS

At bodysurfing contests, riders are judged on their entry into the wave, tricks performed while on the wave, how they get out of the wave, the length of the ride and their choice of waves.

Among the tricks riders perform are a variety of turns and spins.

“The basic criteria at the Wedge is you have to do spinners only with both hands on the surface of the wave, it’s so much harder,” said Terry Wade of Corona del Mar. “If they do it without hands, just flip their body around, we call that helicopter spinners.”

But some bodysurfers say contests are not a good judge of one’s talents.

“They (competitors) are avid bodysurfers, which I love, but I remember going to Hawaii and someone asked, ‘How are you rated?’ meaning, how did I do at a particular contest,” Wade said. “I really don’t think you can take a bunch of people, stick them in a little wave for six minutes and say whether they’re the best in the world or not.

“It’s a joke, really. You have one- to two-foot surf, and then you try to judge people in some of worst surf possible. It really doesn’t show who’s the best. There are too many variables to make it that exact.”

STYLE

The basic formula for catching and riding a wave varies and that’s the beauty of bodysurfing.

The first step requires a swim out to the surf line, carefully choosing the right position from which to catch the waves. Too far out and the waves will roll past you. Too close and the waves will break and you’ll be left with nothing but white water.

The second step is determining the proper spot to launch yourself--fully extended--into the wave. Too soon and you miss the wave, too late and it breaks on top of you.

One style of riding involves heading straight toward the beach. Another is following the wave, either to the left or the right, as it breaks, staying just ahead of the white water.

“You can do anything,” Wellhoefer said. “There’s millions of different ways of bodysurfing. I keep learning new ways to do it.”

The style of bodysurfing is that there is no established style.

“Bodysurfing is just you and the wave,” Budman, the lifeguard, said.


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