This week’s Saturday surf blogging will highlight once again the great Mike Stewart.
This clip illustrates why the man is a surfing—or more precisely, bodyboarding—legend. If you’ll notice, he maximizes the possibilities of every single wave he takes. Off-the-lips, aerials, 360’s, floaters, it’s like the man and wave are one, there’s no separation. Like the spray, Stewart’s simply a further manifestation of the wave’s energy.
Years of wave knowledge and superb conditioning go into Stewart making this look so easy. I once took a close friend of mine bodyboarding on a somewhat large, stormy day in La Jolla. My friend was 15 years younger than me, very fit, and had been training to run a marathon. Yet within minutes he was utterly exhausted in the surf. Because I’d been surfing daily for months, I wasn’t even breathing hard. Bodyboarding is one of the most intense workouts I’ve ever done. And it’s relatively “safe” and injury-free because it’s low impact. Well, as long as you don’t get slammed on the bottom, on a reef, rock, or pier, or collide with another surfer or your own board, that is.
I believe Stewart surfs every sort of wave-riding board there is, from short, to long, to tow-in, to bodyboard. It’s the latter he seems to prefer, however, and on which he’s made his name.
Which defies logic for many stand-up, “hard board” surfers who disdain bodyboarders—or “spongers” as we’re called—because our boards are softer and more flexible than a fiber-glass surfboard.
They look down on us because we don’t stand up. Well, that’s not totally correct. Bodyboards aren’t designed for standing, hence the name! Although if you’re small, skilled, and light enough, it can be done. Some bodyboards are designed for drop-knee, which is a skill I’ve never perfected.
One of the forms surfers’ disrespect takes is deliberately stealing waves from spongers. In the water, where competition for surf can be intense, a strict etiquette is supposed to be observed. The first surfer on a wave and closest to the curl, which is the most critical section of the wave, has priority. Technically, the wave is “his” or “hers”.
Surfers will inadvertently or purposefully ignore the rules and “burn” one another—which means they “drop in” on another person’s wave. In a contest, if you burn another surfer, I believe you’re instantly disqualified.
It can happen accidentally even to the best of us, as Stewart proves in the clip above. He inadvertently burns a surfer at around 1:30. But when surfers and spongers are together in the water, it’s usually the other way around: the board surfers will deliberately drop in on the spongers.
And this is where “size” matters: even a short surfboard is much larger than a bodyboard. It’s more buoyant in the water, it floats its surfer higher, it’s usually faster, and it has a wicked sharp point on the nose. When confrontations in the water turn ugly, which happens far too frequently in crowded California, spongers are at a distinct disadvantage physically up against surfers. Which is another reason, I think, surfers feel free to burn us.
In Cali, I’ve found that guys who withstand the constant and widespread derision to pursue bodyboarding tend to be a helluva lot nicer than most surfers. In my experience, spongers are more tattooed, pierced, ethnically diverse, respectful, queer-friendly and all around good company than board surfers.
Having done well at both sports, I find the distinctions irrelevant. In the end, bodyboarding is a more challenging workout. The wipeouts are typically more gnarly because you’re close to the curl and whitewater, whereas when you wipe out standing up, you have a good chance of flipping right over the shoulder of the wave and as long as you don’t get sucked back over the falls, you’re fine.
On the other hand, stand-up surfing requires more practice and a different set of skills.
I’ve heard that in Hawaii, it’s all called surfing. Which is the approach I intend to adopt here.
One last thing before I go: did you notice the wave at about 2:30? It huge, and Stewart jockeys for position, riding superbly, trying to get slotted in the tube. Then the wave goes critical, sucks up, and Stewart is screwed. He’s going to wipe out, there’s nothing he can do to prevent it. Did you notice what he does then?
He bails from his board and dives hard for the bottom an instant before the huge wall of water collapses on him. The action is a mark of his coolness under pressure, his wave knowledge and his incredible physical conditioning. I’m in awe of it. Yeah, I’m sure he still got pummeled, but given his unpalatable options right then, diving as deep as he could go probably saved him from a much worse beating.