We all ask ourselves the title question at some point during our bodyboarding lives. What is it about this sport? I think the answer lies way back to the first time you experienced riding waves. For many of us, that happened at a very young age- maybe on vacation with the family, or if you were lucky enough to grow up near the beach, perhaps a carefree summer day with your friends led you to the sport.
That last word, "sport". When we start, it's really just an "activity". For me, my earliest wave riding memories were around age 9 or 10. I grew up about 150 miles from the coast in Maryland, and our family would take summer vacations in Ocean City, Maryland. We grew to love it so much, my parents eventually bought a condo at the beach and we started spending weekends and entire summers there. One of those summers, I made friends with another kid around my age who was also a "summer local" as we called ourselves and his dad took us out on inflatable rafts and pushed us into our first waves. I'll never forget the thrill one day when the waves were big (at least they seemed big at the time, but were realistically probably only about 3 feet) and I was terrified, but he shoved me onto a set wave and I screamed in excitement as I careened down the face of the biggest wave I had ever ridden.
From that point on, I was hooked. By age 12, I was working my first job at a beach rental stand that my parents owned. The job entailed renting beach equipment, including rafts, to beachgoers by the hour or the day. There was a lot of down time, and the kid that ran the stand next to me, Richie Barr, was about my age, so we would inevitably get bored and paddle out on our rafts and ride waves. He was the one that enlightened me by showing me how to "angle" across the wave face instead of going straight, and it was then that I first remember pulling into a closeout barrel. I took a drubbing, but that boosted my stoke to the next level.
I worked the beach stand for 3 summers and in the third year, bodyboards started taking the place of rafts. They offered a LOT more durability- they didn't bubble in the sun, didn't pop and you could fit a lot more of them in the storage box for rentals. My older brother Mitch became somewhat of an accomplished bodyboarder (known as a "boogie boarder" in those days before Morey Boogie Bodyboards started enforcing their trademark on the term "boogie board").
In the summer of 1979, the pivotal moment happened. It was a solid 3-4 foot day and my brother encouraged me to try his board instead of the raft I was so accustomed to. I paddled out with my new Churchill Makapuu Swimfins and kicked into my first wave ever on a bodyboard. It was nothing short of an epiphany! The speed, the control, the ease of maneuvering. It was time to retire the raft and get myself on a bodyboard.
Fortunately for me, our family had been planning to move permanently to Ocean City the following summer after my 10th grade year was complete. While most kids would probably be devastated to have to start a new school in a new town for their last two years of high school, I couldn't wait. The promise of going for a surf after school every day was like living across the street from Disneyland for me!
That final year living inland, I was a different person. I immersed myself in surf culture. I bought the clothes, read the surfing magazines (no bodyboarding magazines back then), and basically postured myself as a hardcore surfy type in contrast to my inland friends that I had grown up with. I'm sure they thought I was a poseur of the highest order, but I was going all-in in preparation for my future life as a surfer/bodyboarder. This was going to be my life, not just an activity I did for fun.
So, in June of 1980, we packed up and moved to our house in Ocean City. I had just gotten my driver's license about 4 months prior, so I took full advantage. Didn't have time to surf before school, but after school, I was right out there if there was anything to ride- rain (or snow) or shine, windy or not, warm or cold. Didn't matter to me! I couldn't get enough! Every session was a learning experience. Try something new, learning something about the ocean. There were no videos, no GoPro stuff, no internet to learn from...you learned by imagining something and just giving it a shot. It took weeks or months to learn stuff that riders today learn in a couple of sessions.
Here's what was so magic about those early days for me. A lot of guys rode surfboards. Not many rode bodyboards. So, I wasn't merely mimicking something else's moves. I was innovating. I could imagine something I hadn't seen anyone else try, and go for it. If I made it, who knows...I might have been the first-ever. I liked that feeling of "marching to a different drummer". Yes, in those early days, a lot of the older surfers didn't take too kindly to us prone pilots. They viewed us as an infringement to the status quo, as people that took the "easy way into the lineup" since we didn't have to stand up. So, they gave no quarter. For me, I had to earn my place in the lineup in Ocean City with the established crew. I simply paddled out no matter how big, how cold, and how gnarly, kept quiet and didn't drop in. Before too long, I cracked into the pecking order. Many of the crew still gave me a ribbing, but the more friendly tone told me it was all in fun.
I continued to relish the unique and individualist vibe I got from riding bodyboards. I felt like part of a small brotherhood with my good friends Mark and Scott Thomas, Mike Strawley, Glenn Brown, Matt Whaley, Matt Engle, Bill Wilkins, Jay Hall and other fin-footed fanatics that shared my passion in our little town.
I began riding surfboards too, but the bodyboard was always my first love, so if it was hollow and big, out came the boogie. I've had many successes on that rectangular piece of foam over the course of the past 37 years (I write this on the eve of my 53rd birthday).
My love affair with the ocean, while intrinsically tied to the bodyboard, goes well beyond the vehicle itself. For me, the ocean is a sanctuary. It's where I go every day to escape the stress of daily life. No one can reach me, tell me what to do or where to go. It rejuvenates me. It is my balance. I don't know what I would do without it! I am still in the water more than 200 days a year. But the ocean has brought more than contentment. It's the people that I've met over the years in my travels...friends all over the planet, many of whom are still friends today as we breach the gates of old age. One thing is abundantly clear- our bodyboarding days were, and still are, the best days of our lives!