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Sessions Measured in Millimeters

Bodysurfing alone in the Pacific Northwest.

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“Getting in at Parking Lot. Be home soon.” 

Sending that text to my wife is crucial to ensure my future post-work bodysurfs. Luckily, she tolerates my 280-plus days of go-outs a year. While bodysurfing might be an odd activity here in the Pacific Northwest—know one else I know does it—there’s always surf to be had. Even on a summer’s day like today, as long as you’re willing to get creative. Wintertime sessions are a whole different matter, of course: heavy currents, relentless rips, waves that average out in the 20-foot range.

With my truck’s speakers blaring, tourists taking photos under the lowering sun, and an RV parked in front of the only path down to the beach, I change into my 3 mm hooded suit. I’ve come to find thinner rubber to be less fatiguing while swimming. No gloves, either, even in the winter. And swims can last from 20 minutes to an hour and a half, depending on conditions and how long it takes to cramp up from 7 mm booties being shoved into swim fins. 

I take one last glance at the water. A low-pressure system from the Bering Sea has sent a small pulse, and, although it’s on the decline, there are occasional overhead sets producing fast, steep, dumpy walls breaking over shallow sand. I decide to grab my handplane, then scurry around the motorhome. 

Ten minutes later, after the run down and a series of stretches, I wade out backward while bouncing my handplane off the surface of the water. My lungs begin to warm as unwanted thoughts come and go. The fishing has been good lately, the river mouths densely populated with seagulls, pelicans, osprey, people with rods, and the obvious others I’d rather not see. It’s that last group that leaves me feeling ominously cold every time I enter the water here. 

I quickly drift past my lineup point to the outer sandbar and re-center my breathing. With a deep breath and a little kick, I take off. Suspended underneath the surface, I angle my body sideways and drop down, then exhale slowly as the wave carries me across the bar until it closes out.

After ducking under a couple, I find the set wave I’ve been hunting for. Kicking and swimming furiously, it picks me up. My stomach floats to my throat as I skip down the face before catching traction near the trough. Putting all my weight onto the handplane, I track across deep in the wave’s guts. As I punch out the back, three more waves come motoring for me. If surfing is like a martial art, bodysurfing is like capoeira: Dodging and getting thrown over the falls is just as fun as riding. 

I lose my handplane eventually but stay out a little longer as the sky morphs into pinks and oranges. Then, as the light fades fully away, I head in to retrieve my beached plane, picking up a forgotten bag of dog shit in the sand. I walk up the trail and leave it next to the only Sprinter van in the lot, pretty sure it’s theirs.

[Feature image: Cold water, powerful swells, and predatory sea life keep bodysurfing a solitary activity in the PNW. And that’s just the way the author likes it. Photo by Mark McInnis]