Catching the Waves by
(87 Stories)

Prompted By Aunts & Uncles

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Makapu’u Beach on the windward coast of Oahu. Photo credit: Robert Linsdell, flickr.

I don’t know what my Uncle Larry was thinking, taking me to Makapu’u Beach for my first time bodysurfing. Knowing my uncle, he wasn’t thinking about me at all. He wanted to bodysurf at Makapu’u. I was just along for the ride.

"It's really a blast," I wrote in my travel diary. That was high praise in 1966.

Honolulu was the last stop on a three-generation Asia trip with my grandfather who, in his later years, wanted to see the world. Three years before, he had taken me to Europe and Israel. Now it was 1966 and I was 15, taking three weeks off school because travel is, you know, broadening. We had already toured Japan, Bangkok, and Hong Kong. A final few days in Hawaii were the cherry on top.

President Obama bodysurfing

President Obama exhibiting excellent bodysurfing form. Photo credit: sfgate.

Bodysurfing, for the uninitiated, is like surfboarding without the board. In fact, your body takes the place of the board. You swim out just beyond the break and tread water, looking for a swell just about to crest. You turn toward shore and start swimming, looking over your shoulder at the wave, and at the right moment you kick like mad. If you’re lucky, the wave catches and carries you in mid-swell, one arm extended like a knife, for two or five or ten seconds of pure exhilaration.

But learning how to bodysurf at Makapu’u is like learning how to rock climb at Half Dome. I was a good swimmer, but my ocean experience was limited to playing in the two-foot waves of Miami Beach on childhood winter vacations. Makapu’u, warns Hawaii Magazine even today, is for experienced bodysurfers only. “The shore break and riptide here, even on a day of mellow surf,” it adds, “can be challenging.”

I knew nothing about these warnings, but I liked water sports and this sounded like fun. When we arrived, the waves were 5 or 6 feet high, as I recall, and several people were out riding them. As soon as I got in the water I felt the riptide tugging at my feet, trying to suck me out to sea. We were not in Kansas anymore.

We swam out past the break and Uncle Larry showed me the ropes. There are two critical points in bodysurfing: catching the wave and getting out of it. Catching a wave takes good judgment and timing, but if you don’t time it quite right, the wave just rolls over you and you move on to the next. No harm, no foul.

Getting out is more problematic. If you know what you’re doing—and remember, I didn’t—at the right moment you curl up and simply roll out of the wave. Otherwise you wipe out, tumbling over and over in the surf until you slam into the sand or bob to the surface. It can take some time for the wave to let go of you, so I learned to take a deep breath before going under and hold it. Even so, I often came up spitting out water, sand, or both.

But I loved it. As I wrote in my travel diary—of course I kept a travel diary! of course I still have it!—“I caught a few good ones. It’s really a blast.”

We came out to rest. By the time we went back for more, I wrote, “the waves had built up and they were a lot higher”—more like 8 or 10 feet. “I caught one good one,” I reported, “and I was exhausted!” Translation: I wiped out royally and was barely able to swim back to shore.

John bodysurfing

That’s me, bodysurfing in Boca Raton in 1982.

But I was hooked. Bodysurfing was indeed “a blast.” It was one of those addictive activities, like pinball or cheesecake, where finishing one wave/game/bite just makes you want to go back for another. Since then, I’ve bodysurfed at beaches all over Hawaii (including Little Makena Beach on Maui, a nude beach where not only is the break ideal but you don’t get sand in your suit). I’ve surfed in the Atlantic off Florida and in the Andaman Sea off Thailand.

The last time I bodysurfed was a few years ago at DT Fleming Beach on Maui. The break was close to shore so the rides were short. I caught one wave only to wipe out and tumble head first onto the sand, hard.

I stumbled to my feet, taking inventory. I felt my head. It seemed intact, but the word “concussion” leaped to mind. Suddenly, on the high side of 60, I felt a lot more fragile than I did in my teens or thirties. The risks were no longer worth the rewards, I realized. It was time to retire after a satisfying career.

Uncle Larry was crazy to take me to Makapu’u Beach for my first bodysurfing lesson. But I’m grateful that he did.

Profile photo of John Zussman John Zussman
John Unger Zussman is a creative and corporate storyteller and a co-founder of Retrospect.

Tags: Bodysurfing, Makapu'u Beach, Oahu
Characterizations: funny, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    You make bodysurfing sound like a blast and truly exhilarating. Love the archive photo of Obama with perfect form, and you in Boca years ago (funny how photos add so much to our essays). But coming up sputtering for air, or hitting your head hard on the sand does not sound like so much fun, so I’m glad you are taking good care of yourself now.

  2. muzziesgirl says:

    You make body surfing sound like fun. I remember feebly attempting to do something like it at the beach in Atlantic City. I didn’t know about putting one arm out, etc. as you describe. We just tried to catch a wave coming in and getting a little ride. Even that was thrilling. I can’t imagine waves the size of the ones you describe. As someone said, “With age comes wisdom.” In your case I guess a bonk on the head brought you some wisdom.

  3. Suzy says:

    Great story John! I love that you kept a travel diary, and that you still have it. That would certainly help a lot in bringing back these old memories, which I’m finding harder and harder to do. Great picture of you in Boca too, you look just as good as Obama!

  4. John Shutkin says:

    Terrific story, John, and very well written. That said, I kept waiting for the near-death experience that was somehow transformative — or at least cautionary for a previously fearless teenager. You know; like Garp and “Beware of the undertow.” In some ways, I was relieved it never happened, but it speaks terrifically of your presentation that I kept expecting it to be lurking after the next sentence or two. And, of course, with the theme from “Jaws” thumping in the background.

  5. Lutz Braum says:

    Great reminder of knowIng when to quit – I’m glad you waited until your 60s. I broke 2 ribs while bodysurfing at Martha’s Vineyard when I was 49 and decided to quit then. But oh what an exhilarating feeling to catch a 10-foot wave (at least that’s how tall it seemed to me!).

  6. Alexander says:

    John, your story moves at the speed of waves. No place for slackers or the faint of heart. I retired much earlier than you after donating facial and shoulder skin to the sand gods. Hats off to you; you get the gold medal.

  7. Oh, boy, John. Did you get me there! And what a great lead: “I don’t know what uncle Larry was thinking…” Indeed! I loved the way you described your embrace of that “uh oh” moment when you felt the power of the surf. And that comparison — Makapu’u and Half Dome had me downright sobered up. I also appreciated how clearly you described what it takes to body surf, especially the “rolling out” part that I never managed to master, preferring instead, I supposed to get the crap knocked out wiping out in a cyclone of sand and foam. All power to uncle Larry, John!

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