Although they have a lot in common, body boards and surfboards are treated as two separate and distinct tools for wave riding. This divergence has become something of a rivalry, in which bodyboarding is usually maligned for its appearance, learning curve, and legacy. In fact, bodyboarding has an extensive shared history with surfing. By shedding light on the origins of bodyboarding, we can better understand and appreciate its challenges, thrills, technique and even artistry.
As the original Polynesian and Hawaiian wave riders took to the surf, the line was blurred between what we now treat as two separate sports. The original British explorers who “discovered” surfing on the shores of Hawaii reported seeing locals catching waves recreationally, in a variety of poses and with a range of equipment. Some rode the swells sitting in canoes; many others rode on boards lying prone like modern bodyboarders. More advanced riders went partially raised on their knees, and the most adventurous rode while standing. Eventually the standing form took root as the ‘true’ way to surf, but it’s fair to assume that somewhere in the world, people were still riding surfboards or other buoyant devices in a prone position. Bodyboards did not re-emerge as a separate design or product until the early 1970’s.
The modern creation story of body boarding revolves around its development as a safer and more accessible alternative form of wave riding. But today, bodyboarding has progressed and is just as technical and dangerous as surfing. The practice of big wave riding, in which the rider is towed by a jet ski into a wave too big to catch just by paddling, was originated by surfers but is now practiced by bodyboarders as well. These waves, often found tens or hundreds of miles offshore, can reach as high as 50 or 60 feet. Because bodyboards stick the rider straight into the water, there is something especially gripping about body boarders tackling the biggest or most dangerous waves.
Record-breaking waves aren’t the only challenges faced by bodyboarders. All wave sports are unique in that they’re practiced in a shared space, on a level playing field. Unlike an exclusive golf course or private gym, most spots with good waves are available and open to anyone who is there. Yet over time, at some of the most popular surf spots around the world, a pecking order or accepted order of supremacy has emerged. It usually situates surfers at the top, bodyboarders in the middle, and swimmers and body surfers at the bottom. Despite the similar challenges and dangers once the rider is on the wave, this has been the pattern at both informal recreational gatherings and official high-level competitions.
Despite the obstacles faced by bodyboarders within the world of ocean sports, it continues to grow and thrive. There have been regular competitions since the 1980s, and many professional riders compete in an annual world circuit. Major gear sponsors, blogs and web forums, and countless enthusiast groups in all the countries and regions where bodyboarding can be practiced agree that despite its underdog reputation, bodyboarding is here to stay.