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Seeking the Surface

Bodysurfer Kalani Lattanzi on the physical and mental preparedness required to charge Nazaré and Jaws…sans-board.

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Big-wave bodysurfer Kalani Lattanzi is commonly mistaken for a sea creature. That’s the first impression many observers have when they see him from a distance: a tiny speck swimming amid gigantic surf at setups like Jaws and Nazaré. 

Born on Maui to Brazilian parents, Lattanzi received his name when his mother plucked it out of a local dictionary because she liked its sound and, especially, its meaning: “gift from heaven.” He would prove from a young age to be a gifted child with an innate talent to be at ease in intense ocean conditions. Ironically, that talent wasn’t nurtured in his birthplace, known precisely for the forces at play when huge swells meet its shoreline. Instead, when Lattanzi was only 6 months old, his mother, Claudia, separated from his father, Plinio, and flew back to Brazil, bringing her son with her. 

The move positioned the family near Itacoatiara, a beachbreak known to produce some of the heaviest waves in Brazil, where bodyboarders and bodysurfers excel in hollow, sucking conditions. As a curious kid, Lattanzi would watch the thumping walls of water and, through pirated downloads of footage of Mark Cunningham and Mike Stewart, began to internalize the planing techniques that would serve him later. 

With time, he became a standout bodysurfer in Brazil, then, eventually, a champion bodyboarder as well as a very competent paddle and tow-in surfer. In recent years, however, it’s been his quest to bodysurf the largest waves on the planet that’s elevated him from obscurity into a global object of interest. 

In 2020, Portuguese filmmaker Nuno Dias directed a short documentary tracking this journey, titled after Lattanzi’s namesake, Gift From Heaven. The film focuses on its subject’s conquests at Nazaré and the resultant respect he’s garnered among its community of big-wave riders, including Ross Clarke-Jones and Garrett McNamara. The New York Times also recently profiled Lattanzi, now 28, in a feature laced with glowing accolades from his peers and heroes, Cunningham among them. In one section, hell-man Nic von Rupp describes Lattanzi’s approach to bodysurfing big waves versus stand-up surfing as “hanging from the wing of an airplane while everyone is sitting inside [it].” The anchor quote in the piece is supplied by Kelly Slater, who calls Lattanzi’s tube at Jaws from 2021 “one of the all-time rides in the surf world.”

Kalani Lattanzi. Illustration by Richard A. Chance.

AK You first appeared on the world scene bodyboarding that giant wave at Puerto Escondido in 2015. But bodysurfing came first for you, right? 

KL When I was 12, all my friends were bodyboarders, but I was traumatized by trying a bodyboard that was too big. [Laughs.] I said, “This is not for me. I’ll just take up bodysurfing.” I spent a whole year watching videos of Mark Cunningham and Mike Stewart, and going to the water daily. There was a gnarly crew of bodysurfers at Itacoatiara. One guy in particular, who was in his fifties, Pedro Tibau, was big, strong, and would ride these crazy waves behind the peak, and yell at the surfers. He’d be screaming, “Hello, hello—don’t drop in on me.” In bodysurfing, it’s difficult. The crowd doesn’t respect you very much. If you’re not very good, you won’t get waves. 

AK Why did you stay with it? 

KL Without a board, I felt more comfortable going under a wave. But you must know the technique to take advantage of the wave, and few people have this technique. A lot of people say they can bodysurf. I ask, “Do you really? Can you ride the wave all the way to the end, for five seconds or ten seconds? Or do you just go for the drop and take the closeout on your head?” Bodysurfing’s technique comes with some secrets to get you flowing. Having swim fins helps a lot. Surfing big waves without fins is almost impossible. But the true secret is consistent positioning and creating a planing base with your hand, your torso, and following the line of the wave. After years of watching guys like Mark and Mike doing it, and imitating them, I managed to improve and evolve. 

AK There are incredible images of you getting tubed on surfboards in Puerto Escondido. When did you start standing up? 

KL I was about 19 years old. I started to like it, but surfboard surfing is much more expensive, especially in places like Itacoatiara and Puerto Escondido, which both can break a lot of boards. A bodyboard lasts a year. It can get to three years if you don’t do much maneuvering. A surfboard often doesn’t last even a day. Your body can obviously last much longer if you take care of it. 

AK How do you manage to catch giant waves to begin with? How do you generate the speed at the takeoff without a board or a ski assist? 

KL It’s the positioning. I’m more on the inside because I don’t have the necessary speed. But I’m putting myself where a wave will probably break and sweep me away. In bodysurfing, the space in which it is possible to catch the wave is minimal. Paddling a surfboard, you have more options of where to get on the wave. It’s much easier. Swimming, I have to put myself right under the peak and look for that best moment. It’s a slight chance. There was a day at Nazaré, which Ross Clarke-Jones spoke about in Gift From Heaven, when I was the first to enter the water and was out for four hours, just to catch four waves. 

AK Four hours of nonstop swimming…

KL There are moments when I can float and take a rest. If the current catches me, I’ll swim until I get out of the current, but when I get out of the current, I take a rest. I try to enter a meditative state. But I don’t usually have much time to relax. I’m always swimming to one side or the other, chasing the wave or trying to escape it. 

AK What’s it like to be out in big surf with only fins—and take four or five waves on the head? 

KL There are many different situations. It depends on where and when I take it on the head. Often, a huge wave will come from way outside, already feathering and ready to roll me. When I see a triangle already forming at a place like Nazaré, I think, Damn, that one is going to break without giving me time to go over it, so I start swimming for the shoulder. You have to get away from the energy peak of the wave. You don’t want to be there to take that bomb on the head. 

AK But because of the current at places like Nazaré, it’s not as simple as you’re making it out to be, even in your case, as a well-prepared athlete. 

KL It’s just something I’ve normalized as someone who spent ten years training at Itacoatiara.

“The difference between Jaws and Nazaré is like if you have to fight with a wolf or a lion. Nazaré is the lion.”

AK What’s more important: mental or physical preparation? 

KL The physical aspect is more important than the mental aspect because if you’re confident physically, that will put your mind at ease. But I also know people who aren’t physically fit and who still do well because of their mentality. They’re the real crazies; they’re taking a certain extra risk. People say I’m crazy, but I train a lot, and I feel comfortable. I’m not “surviving.” I’m having fun and catching waves. 

AK Do you try to take the last waves in the set to avoid beatings? 

KL No, you have to go on any wave you can. I need to take the entire set on the head many times. As I mentioned, when you’re bodysurfing big waves, you don’t have many chances. You have to take advantage of the ones that come to you. If a wave appears and you are well positioned, you have to go. 

AK What do you do if you get into one, but it’s clear you’re not going to make it? How do you escape? 

KL My theory is always to penetrate the water, to go under and behind the wave and the turbulence, then up. You have to go even deeper if the wave takes you too far down. There are countless situations. It’s difficult to explain. The secret, the tip I always pass on to others, is to seek the surface. Everyone says you should relax when taking a wipeout in heavy conditions. You must relax your mind, but not your body, because if you relax your body, the wave will grab you and never let you go. You have to project your body upwards and seek the surface. 

AK Did the release of your film change your career? 

KL Yes, a lot. There was also the Jaws wave, which attracted a lot of attention. 

AK Tell me about your experiences at Jaws. 

KL I’d already filmed at Jaws, in 2015. We were doing a series for a Brazilian cable channel. I believe we were the first team of bodysurfers at Jaws. I went along with Henrique Pistilli and Caio Santos. It wasn’t giant, scary Jaws. It was about 12 to 15 feet, which was good because it let us get a feel for the place and an understanding of the vibe. But it left me with an aftertaste of wanting more. So in November of 2021, after six years in which I had evolved, this new opportunity appeared and I went for it. After Nazaré, which is horror, Jaws was a beautiful thing. Nazaré is a beachbreak. There are many waves everywhere, cold water, and no channel. The difference between the two waves, between Jaws and Nazaré, is like if you have to fight with a wolf or a lion. Nazaré is the lion. 

AK But at Jaws, the takeoff spot is much tighter. You have to compete with the surfers. It has its difficulties. 

KL At Jaws, there are a lot of empty waves going by. Sometimes the surfer on the outside paddles hard, and the guys on the inside don’t even paddle much. If he can’t get in, the crowd doesn’t have time to turn at the last minute and go. So I’ll look for that, and try to stay in the right place, just waiting. 

AK Tell me about your tube at Jaws— the one that went viral. 

KL Inside the tube, the foamball sucked me in, and I went to the top of the wave and plummeted along with the foamball, which threw me out of the tube. I remember that the channel was packed with people watching on jet skis and on boats, and I was bodysurfing the biggest tube I’ve ever caught. It was a blue cave. While I was inside it, I was focused on getting out, of course, but I heard everyone screaming very loudly. Typically, when riding a wave, I go a little deaf, but this time I couldn’t help but notice that the shouting was very loud. Afterward, everyone wanted to know who I was. 

AK Did you end up getting more waves that day? kl I took several. That one was the most special because I completed it. There were others that I completed as well, but they were not the same. In the first two, I was behind the foamball because I positioned myself wrong at the time of the drop, missing the right moment. Then I took the one that became famous, and four more after. It was a victory. 

AK And now you’re looking to go to Maverick’s? 

KL I’ve wanted to go to Maverick’s for a while. 

According to Lattanzi, bodysurfing big waves is about situational opportunism, technique, and a level of comfort with fear and drubbings. Battling the animal at Nazaré. Photo by Helío Antonio.

AK Are you planning on doing some special training for it? 

KL I’ll keep up with my regular training. I’m focused on cross-training and yoga—nothing different from what I usually do. 

AK Are you a goofy or regularfooter? Does it even matter to you as a bodysurfer? 

KL It makes no difference to me. Having a preference for a particular arm in front is a mental block. You have to believe that both arms are the same. I’m right-handed, but I have no problem going left. 

AK Aside from Maverick’s, which other waves do you want to surf? 

KL I haven’t been to Teahupo‘o yet. I really want to go. 

AK Have you ever bodysurfed Pipeline? 

KL Yes. Pipe is the perfect wave for bodysurfing. 

AK Finally, which wave scares you? 

KL The Wedge. The wave is an animal. You can die there. It’s easy to break your neck.

[Feature Image: Foundational planing trim at The Wedge. Photo by Fred Pompermayer]

This interview was originally published in TSJ 31.6. Click here to pick up your copy today.
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