As John Shearer walked toward the water, the only sound in Manhattan Beach was the steady hum of a street-cleaning truck and the rhythmic crashing of waves.
It was just after 5:30 a.m. in late July, with the sun still hiding behind a line of two-story houses. Shearer backpedaled into a thick fog along the shoreline and disappeared into waist-high water.
He was the first one of his group in the ocean, except he wasn’t carrying a surfboard, or a skimboard, or a boogie board. Just his body, which is why Shearer and 69-year-old Dave Hazard set out at dawn to have the ocean all to themselves. Bodysurfers don’t get priority in the water, and aren’t interested in pitting their limbs against thick boards.
So they operate just like their sport does: Out of sight and out of mind, where nothing is more important than the next wave.
“From afar, bodysurfing is as simple as water sports get,” Shearer, 61, said. “It’s just you and the water, but it’s also a bit more complicated. That’s what so great about bodysurfing.”
When the members of Manhattan Beach’s Gillis Beach Bodysurfing Association go to Oceanside for the 40th annual World Bodysurfing Championships on Saturday, they won’t just be lying in waves that wash them to shore. Competitive bodysurfing isn’t a leisure activity.
It’s moves like spinners and underwater takeoffs. It’s guys nicknamed Moontan and The Pope. It’s referring to everyone else by last name, like Rogers and Cunningham.
It’s Bruce Macklin, who never wears a wetsuit and once had his whole body shaved for a big swell. It’s Bob Holmes, whose seaside condo doubles as a bodysurfing museum.
It’s winning, it’s hoping and in a lot of ways bodysurfing is life for those at GBBA. Their community is built on what some see as a bygone activity. They think it will roll on as long as the waves do.
“People may not see what we do as a sport, or think it’s dying, but it goes back decades for us,” said Mike Cunningham, a GBBA member who won the second- and third-ever World Bodysurfing Championships in the late ‘70s. “You see someone bodysurf, and his dad bodysurfed, and his granddad bodysurfed, and so on.”
Bodysurfers resent the prevailing image of their sport as a relaxing beach activity. They essentially use their bodies as surfboards. When they spot a wave they use an outstretched arm to ride it and mix in tricks like spinning in the tube or popping above water before diving back in.
Cunningham rode his first wave on his father’s back and was immediately hooked on the ocean. Shearer remembers all the neighborhood kids going to the beach every summer day, and how they were each given a pair of fins for their eighth grade graduation.
Being in the water was a rite of passage in their seaside towns. Cunningham was a Manhattan Beach lifeguard and a talented swimmer in the mid-’70s, and noticed a handful of bodysurfers by the pier. Shearer and his buddies had a spot up the beach, and he’d hear those same guys yelling from a few blocks away.
It was GBBA, and Cunningham and Shearer couldn’t ignore what they finally saw: A group not just bodysurfing, but making it look like art.
“I thought right away, ‘I want to do what those guys are doing,’” Shearer said. “And then [Cunningham] had all that success at the World Championship, and it was so exciting. I went for the first time in 1980 and have been hooked since.”
While some things have changed in 40 years, the basics of the Oceanside competition have stayed intact. It’s broken up into age divisions — starting with boys 12 to 14, all the way up to men 65 and over — and then divided into six-person heats.
From there, the bodysurfers have 15 minutes to ride their best three waves, and the most waves they can be scored on is 10. Like in a traditional surfing contest, the unpredictability of the ocean weighs heavily into results. The judging is even more shaky, since bodysurfers do most of their work inside of waves and can often only be seen from certain angles.
There have been pushes over the years to establish a formal sanctioning body, but that never caught on and the World Bodysurfing Championships remains governed by tradition.
“The beauty of it is anyone can enter,” Cunningham said. “So now my kids can go to school and say, ‘I was in a World Championship.’ And when someone says, ‘Really?’ They say, ‘Yeah, really, my dad paid the $60.’”
That doesn’t mean Cunningham, Shearer and the other GBBA bodysurfers don’t want to win, but it’s not just the results that stand out.
Sitting in Holmes’ Manhattan Beach condo, Cunningham, Shearer and Holmes lost themselves in the last four decades.
They talked about that time in 1987, when Cunningham went to the Newport Beach wedge before the finals at Oceanside, broke his eardrum and couldn’t compete. From there they moved to the first few years of the World Championships, when there was a shortage of judges and they’d pick tourists off the pier to hand out crucial scores. It was hard to take things too seriously in those days.
Then it was about that promising bodysurfer who could take on any wave, then caught the wrong one and was never the same.
“We’ve married them and buried them,” Holmes said. “We’ve been pallbearers and we’ve been best men,” Holmes said. “But what brought us together is a love of the ocean and a love of waves.”
Finally Cunningham looked at his watch and realized it was time to get his triplets to swim practice. Holmes started gathering old photos off the coffee table and stuck them back in a worn binder on a cluttered bookshelf.
Shearer was the last to go, and took a long look at the ocean before hopping on his bike. It was less than 24 hours until he’d wake up before the sun and start catching waves with Hazard, and he wanted to scout the afternoon swell.
In the morning, he’d be the first one in the water again.