At times, it is hard to pinpoint and other times the differences are striking. With each wave you stumble to or with every grainy youtube video you devour, you may have noticed variance in bodysurfers’ style. The way a person bodysurfs a wave, much like the human gait, has a long list of factors. Biology is one. Imagine Michael Phelps and Danny Devito bodysurfing head-to-head, they simply aren’t using the same tools. If both wanted to maintain the optimum speed on any given wave they would need to utilize different styles. Despite this, many riders of differing heights and roundness seem to have developed stylistic similarities within the confines of unique waves.
An important component in understanding the practicality of bodysurfing styles, is a basic understanding of hydrodynamics in relation to the speed of a bodysurfer. Speed is likely the most crucial aspect to catching and staying on a wave. A bodysurfer’s speed is primarily determined by kicks, drag and floatation. These three variables are not independent and are intentionally manipulated by skilled bodysurfers.
The resulting style is not particular to region or even community, but a particular wave. There are magnet waves, that pull bodysurfers from across regions. These waves break in a distinct manner according to their bathymetry and swell windows. Due to the specific break, you can understand why many of the waves’ expert riders share stylistic similarities. Each commonality serving a particular purpose in riding each particular wave to its maximum potential.
An infamous magnet-wave is the Wedge of Newport Beach, California. Described by it’s riders as a freak, proper Wedge has a focused breaking point amplified by the refracted backwash of earlier waves. Long-time Wedge Crew member Tim Burnham describes, “The takeoff at Wedge is extremely critical. It breaks really fast and is super steep and the key to riding Wedge well is to hold a high line and maintain speed.”
If that wasn’t difficult enough, “Not only does the acceleration of the Wedge-peak force riders to seek a highly streamlined form, but the powerful and at times unpredictable backwash, can send bodysurfers over the falls if they haven’t gotten a full head of steam.” Longtime riders of the Wedge know this to be fact and have adjusted accordingly.
Wedge riders extend from fingertips to toes. The longer and straighter they are able to hold their body, the faster they will cut through the wave. Every inch of their body pulled into a tight line to reduce drag. To reduce trim, Fred Simpson and the rest of the 70’s crew began rolling their bodies onto a single hip and extending with their lead hand. They tucked their opposite hand near their armpit and the Chicken Wing was born (some riders leave their opposite hand near the waist which is also referred to as the broken wing). This stylistic adaptation is primed for dealing with pitching, nasty, unpredictable Wedge.
The Chicken Wing could also be called a modified Layout. The Layout was born, as most adaptations are, to accelerate. By expanding the rider’s flotation, the Layout increases a bodysurfer’s speed. In a Layout, the rider increases their body’s planing surface across the face of the wave. The greater the area of a planing surface, the more flotation and consequently, the more speed you can generate.
Mel Thoman, Wedge Crew member for the last four decades stresses, “(the) ultra importance of …putting the most pressure for speed and stability on the lead hand as it literally has all the lift and control during your ride.” You may see riders with their palms up or reaching out for a handshake, but this will not fly at the Wedge. Your hands are vital to providing lift, control and speed in the belly of a Wedge monster.
Over 40 years, the Chicken Wing has evolved. With each new generation of Wedge riders, the Chicken Wing is fine tuned. Some members of the Wedge Crew in the 80’s and 90’s began showing a mechanical-like rigidness when flashing the Chicken Wing. The rigidness is highlighted by a physical flex and release cycle.
The Flex: When a rider needs more speed they turn their head slightly away from their lead hand. This motion allows their trailing shoulder to roll on top of their lead shoulder, forming the body into a flexed line. The angle of their lead arm and torso is increased by this roll. With an increase in this angle, the rider’s body is a more efficient planing surface. The chest and stomach float easier because your center of gravity is shifted towards the head. The Flexed position is the part of the cycle most easily identified as The Chicken Wing.
The Release: According to feel, a rider may release the Flex to a prone riding position. The Release position is categorized by a more acute angle of the lead arm and torso. The head is facing down the line. In the Release position, the rider can look at their line and make decisions about whether or not to hold or return to the Flex position. Some riders will pull their chicken-winged hand to their front and use it as an additional planing hand.
In the video below provided by Tom Lynch, you can see Matt Larson with total control of his speed. Matt has been riding Wedge since the 80’s. He is still a standout in the line-up. Pay close attention to the first two waves in the clip. Matt uses the Flex position for speed and the Release position to judge his line and target velocity.
The newest group of bodies eager to ride the liquid bucking-broncos embrace the Chicken Wing as much as anyone. They understand through blood and bruising how important form is to their craft. There’s even rumor of them going so far as to add a chicken head to their wingin’ ways. Ridiculous props aside, these guys are carrying on a well-founded tradition through style and dedication.
There are innumerable waves across the world. Each with it’s own unique bathymetry and swell window creating thousands upon thousands of liquid mountains. As we wander from peak to peak, we will continue to evolve in pursuit of harmonic slides on each new face. We’ll learn that the wave you ride ultimately determines the way you ride it.