Mar 28, 2018
A Lineup All Their Own
The best part is the blissful moment when the building wave picks you up and begins to toss you shoreward, the speed rapidly building, the delicious feeling of weightlessness taking hold, a shimmering watery road rising up and stretching out before you.
Who needs a genie and three magic wishes? If you want the power of flight, just go bodysurfing. And there's no better place for that than Point Panic, the bodysurfing mecca that for years has drawn enthusiastic wave-riders from Hawai'i, and all over the world, to the southern tip of Kaka'ako Waterfront Park.
Located almost directly across the street from Ward Village, this little park has quite a humble background. It began its life as a landfill when, in 1948, the city of Honolulu started dumping debris on a small bit of shallow reef that fronted the shoreline. To contain the waste, the city surrounded the landfill with a great big seawall, which still stands watch over the park today; maybe you've taken a sunset stroll along its lengthy spine. Dumping at the site came to a hault in the 1960s, and for nearly three decades, the new bit of land rising from the reef sat dormant. In 1992, Honolulu opened Kaka'ako Waterfront Park on the old landfill, and today, keiki kick soccer balls around a pleasant 29 acres of rolling, grass-covered hills. All the while, the waves kept churning around the reef pass at the southern end of Kaka'ako.
Bodysurfing itself has a humble backstory. It's the most basic form of surfing, and, though its exact origins have been lost to the murky mists of time, it surely predates all other forms of wave-riding—perhaps ancient coastal dwellers looked toward the sea and were inspired to mimic wave-riding dolphins and seals they saw gliding through waves. Eventually, board surfing came to dominate the culture of wave-riders worldwide, and bodysurfing, while still practiced, became a strange surfing outlier, giving way on the surfing hierarchy to much more serious, aggressive forms of board-riding.
But stalwarts persevered. At places like The Wedge, in Newport Beach, California, and Sandy's, and, of course, at Point Panic, bodysurfers continued to gather and practice their simple craft. While many bodysurfing spots are popular at breaks with short, fast, and brutally powerful surf—which can render the waves unsuitable for board surfing—Point Panic is a nearly perfect wave for any kind of surfing. The waves are powerful, but not too powerful. They're hollow, but not threateningly so. Fast, but no so speedy that they leave a drag-coefficient-heavy bodysurfer gurgling whitewater while the wave spins off without them.
"It's definitely made for bodysurfing," former pro surfer and current alternative waveriding enthusiast Keith Malloy told Stab Magazine about Point Panic in 2014. "It's just got the perfect push. And it's more on a normal-person's level, it's not gonna kill you. You can go out [there] when it's 3 foot and just have a blast."
You can also go out there unconcerned with the dangers or annoyances of competing with board surfers. Point Panic is strictly bodysurfing only, as enforced with hefty fines from the Department of Land and Resources.
The observant surf fan will notice that despite its simple nature, good bodysurfing is far more difficult and complex than it looks. Simply catching a wave using only the power of your flippered feet and the strength of your paddling while supported only by the buoyancy your particular brand of fitness has brought to the table isn't easy. And once you've caught the wave you've got to perform, don't you? So practiced bodysurfers employ a bag of tricks while waveriding. This might include spinning around as though one were rolling down a grassy hill, or putting their head down and their arms behind them and bursting from the trough of a wave like a dolphin, or simply trimming in place and sliding into a barrel, the most basic and most desirable maneuver for any form of surfing. Point Panic standout Kaneali'i Wilcox even throws in a front flip or two.
Bodysurfing at beaches worldwide has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, at least in part because of the popularity of Malloy's 2011 documentary Come Hell or High Water, which not only put the spotlight on the oft-ignored bodysurfing culture, but also made it look like an absolute blast—especially Point Panic's crystalline blue tubes. In the film, Point Panic's skilled riders like Steve Kapela, Mark Cunningham, and Mike Stewart show the world what the South Shore has known for decades: board surfing may be where the fame and glory is found. But for pure fun? Nothing beats bodysurfing.
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