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Bodysurfers Defy Chill to Compete in Contest

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bob Burnside spun on the waves like a porpoise, riding the surf in the 58-degree water without a wet suit, his performance drawing whistles from some onshore admirers.

“Anyone 55 and older gets a lot of respect,” the 60-year-old Burnside said later Saturday as he shivered in a cold wind at the Ventura Marina. “When you get to my age, you don’t have goals. You just try to set a standard for young people to enjoy the sport.”

Burnside, a Los Angeles County lifeguard for 31 years who now lives in Palm Desert, walked away with the first-place prize for the 55-and-older age group at the 12th annual United States Cold Water Body Surfing Championship.

The competition, one of only two wintertime bodysurfing contests held each year in California, drew 101 die-hard bodysurfers, ages 12 to 60, from as near as Ventura and as far as Honolulu.

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The art of bodysurfing lies in riding a wave as long as possible while doing tricks like spinning and diving in the foam.

“It’s as close as you can get to being like a fish,” Burnside said. “You’re emulating a seal or a dolphin.”

In the end, youth won out over maturity.

Allan Fogel, a 35-year-old salesman from Manhattan Beach, walked away with the grand-champion prize--a silver-plated plaque and a chance to join an invitational competition of bodysurfers in Hawaii.

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Despite the competition’s name, only a few entrants found the water chilly.

“It was kind of warm for a change,” Fogel said as he peeled off his wet suit.

But Bob Thomas, 40, a Honolulu fire captain, said it was only the fifth time in his memory that he needed protection while bodysurfing. In the 70-degree waters of Hawaii, Thomas said, he rarely needs anything more than a skimpy swimsuit to get by.

“I hardly ever wear a wet suit,” Thomas said, pulling at the neck of his suit. “I think I’m developing a rash.”

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Except for the preponderance of wet suits and sunglasses, the competitors bore little resemblance to other devotees of Ventura County’s surf culture.

Attorneys, doctors and engineers left their professional enclaves to tumble in the waves.

There were men in their 60s, like Burnside, and teen-age girls only a few years out of grade school. One entrant was a 40-year-old mother of two teen-age boys, both of whom also competed.

Bodysurfers say a broad range of people are attracted to the sport because it requires self-discipline and endurance, not muscle, and because the only equipment needed is a pair of flippers.

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Beachside, the chatter was not about radical surf but about real estate investments, and the parking lot was filled with more Mercedes-Benzes and Acuras than beat-up Volkswagen vans.

“We yell, like AAAAAAH-OOOOOH! But the lingo’s a little different,” said Virginia Cartwright, a 33-year-old Encinitas woman who owns her own engineering company. “People here are more mature.”

Out of the 101 competitors, only nine were women. Cartwright said she comes to the bodysurfing competition in Ventura each year because the marina’s south jetty usually generates good surf.

“It can really weed out the women from the girls,” she said.

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Bill Lucking, 74, a retired attorney and co-founder of the Ventura County Body Surfing Assn., said he has made it a longstanding habit to surf every day.

When Lucking was practicing law, “the only person who could tell me I couldn’t go bodysurfing was the judge,” he said as he watched others compete. “A few of us have made a fetish out of being here on New Year’s Day and Christmas morning.”

Burnside said he still makes it a practice to drive out to the coast, even though he lives more than 100 miles away in the desert. Last year he won the top prize at the World Body Surfing Championships in Oceanside, the oldest man to do so.

“I’ve been swimming since I was a baby,” he said. “I’ll be here as long as they can lure me down to the water’s edge.”

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