The Hawaiians call it “he’e umauma,” or “kaha nalu,” which means “slicing the waves.” We call it bodysurfing, and it’s one of the freest and most intimate ocean sports. As its name suggests, body surfing requires no board or other specialized equipment – it’s just you and the waves. Body surfing is also a uniquely great form of exercise because it requires constant swimming without a flotation aid, and it exercises many muscle groups while providing a strenuous cardiovascular workout.

Most serious bodysurfers wear bikinis or Speedos, which provide the least amount of drag and won’t be tugged off by tough waves. Others simply wear surfing apparel like swim shorts and rash guards. Nowadays most bodysurfers equip themselves specialized swim fins to help them move with the speed and agility needed to position themselves to catch the waves. Some old-schoolers still go barefoot, but swim fins do provide optimal propulsion and maneuverability, and they have become standard among serious bodysurfers. The swim fins used in bodysurfing are different from those used in other activities like snorkeling and scuba diving. Bodysurfing swim fins are typically more compact, and designed to stay on even in the most turbulent water.

Unencumbered by buoyant devices such as surfboards and body boards, bodysurfers describe their sport as feeling free, natural, and intimate with the water. Hawaiian bodysurfer David Parrish, who is also a lifeguard and a poet, was quoted in a New York Times article saying, “it’s like flying into the wind.” Of course, every water sport has certain risks, and bodysurfing in particular requires a combination of skill, caution, and the right conditions to avoid injury. Lifeguards warn bodysurfers to observe a number of conditions including the tide, the wind, rip currents, and potentially hidden hazards such as reefs and rocks. It is also important to note water depth; only experts should attempt to bodysurf a shallow shorebreak.

Before bodysurfing, you should do more than study the ocean and observe its conditions for a few minutes. You should watch other bodysurfers for at least 30 minutes before taking to the water, as the waves can lie flat for short periods before suddenly picking up again. See where other bodysurfers enter and leave the water, and take note of the kinds of rides they are getting. Before going in, always ask a lifeguard (or a local surfer) about the level of skill needed to handle the day’s conditions. If there is any doubt about your ability to safely take on the waves, don’t risk it.

Although bodysurfing is one of the most exciting and challenging water sports in the ocean, it is also one of the most dangerous. When taking waves in shorebreak, bodysurfers can sustain serious injuries to the neck and/or back. Board surfers who are trying bodysurfing for the first time will notice that they are suddenly without a flotation device – the surfboard – which can also provide added protection by shielding the body from impact. On the other hand, bodysurfers can often dive underneath waves in order to avoid the impact, while board surfers have to push through them with a cumbersome board. The best advice for anyone who wants to try bodysurfing is to go with an experienced bodysurfer who can teach you the ropes. Riding a wave without a flotation aid takes some practice, but there’s nothing like it.

Bodysurfing: Unencumbered Ocean Fun – But It Takes Practice. Learn More at BodyGlove.com