If It Swells, Ride It

This fall I’ve discovered a new passion. Or, perhaps I should say happened upon an old one.

Body surfing.

It’s a simple sport. No board or flotation device is required, just the human body and some waves that have been traveling thousands of miles across the Atlantic to reach the Delaware shore.

My mother introduced my brother and me to body surfing on Miami Beach when we were little boys. A quintessential 50’s Florida girl, blonde and blue eyed, she was always at her best at the beach, be it at a fancy beach club with the future governor of Florida and his wife or on a public beach where Cuban families brought their picnic suppers after a hard days work.

I’d almost forgotten how enjoyable it is to body surf, so accustomed I’ve become to rocks and waves that break sharply at the shore as a result of Rehoboth’s el-cheapo beach replenishment effort a few years back. “Rocky Horror” is how the New York Times recently referred to Rehoboth’s beach in a recent article about replenishment projects and the difficulties of finding good quality sand. State officials have even grudgingly admitted they didn’t expect so much gravel would still be around years afterward.

The description is pretty accurate. How many of you have come out of the ocean scraped up or bleeding? I have. A friend of mine refuses to go into the water at Poodle Beach anymore, so fearful is he of becoming a public spectacle by being reduced to crawling out of the surf on all four because he can’t stand up on the sharp stones when the waves break.

Body surfing by its nature is risky. You really have no control over what that wave is going to do to you. Personally, I feel more unsafe in the outlet mall parking lots. The replenishment, however, has made it especially dangerous to ride the waves in Rehoboth because it changed the slope of the beach and created a different shore break. Beach accidents have increased and I’m surprised the town hasn’t been sued.

So you might be wondering how I’ve rediscovered body surfing under such conditions. Two words: Tower Beach. It’s part of the Delaware State Seashore just south of Dewey Beach. If you haven’t visited you should. I can’t believe it’s taken me twelve years to find it.

The French have a phrase “se resourcer” which means something along the lines of a trip which returns one to something authentic and pure and restores ones physical and spiritual strength. That’s what a day riding the waves at Tower Beach does for me.

Its restorative qualities are in its rusticity — if that’s a word. Golden sunshine. Clean water and soft sand. No rocks! The state opted not to replenish this natural beach. There isn’t much of a crowd at Tower Beach, either, just a few sand crabs, some Monarch butterflies, and cute surfer boys and girls riding the long rolling waves. The sky even seems bigger when there are no ugly houses or hotels to cheapen the view.

The secret to body surfing is learning how to judge the waves and pick the ones that propel you forward rather than crashing down on you. It might seem counterintuitive, but the biggest ones don’t always give you the best ride. With a little practice you’ll soon figure how to catch one at just the right swell so that when you launch into it’ll carry you a good ten yards or so right up onto the shore.

Oh sure, the hard core body surfers – the guys who ride the 30 footers on the north shore of Oahu – would probably look down their noses at Delaware body surfing. But, hey, there’s still something exhilarating about man riding nature.

Even more so au natural. Now I’m not a “Nekedist” and I don’t enjoy sitting around in hot tubs, but there’s something primal, liberating, and satyr-like about body surfing naked. I know, I know. You’re not supposed to do that. And I am not advocating it. But, if you are so inclined, my advice is to walk south on the beach during the late afternoon during the week. In a few minutes it’ll seem like the whole beach is yours alone. Once you’re in the water, just slip off your trunks. Put them around your neck if you’re afraid of losing ‘em. How are the park rangers going to know that the waves didn’t pull off your lose trunks while you were riding waves and that you’re lucky to have recovered them?

If it swells, ride it. So say the surfers. So say I.


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