La Jolla Cove has grown from 10 feet to 16 feet in the last hour, and Mark Drewelow is sprinting to get outside. Between a pocket beach and two ugly rocky outcrops is a very bad excuse for a “channel” – a small gap in the explosive swells that opens for a few moments, and then is swept by angry sets that explode into the cliff. I’ve never seen anyone swim so fast.
“I’m just gonna go say hi to the guys outside,” he tells us before jumping into the 56 degree water. He’s referring to 5 guys sitting way, way outside on guns. None of them has tried to surf a wave yet – it’s simply too sketchy.
Mark gets smaller and smaller, and then I can’t tell if I’m looking at Mark, or a seagull bobbing in 16 foot swells. Of course, Mark has no board – he’s a bodysurfer. The only thing you can see is his head in a black hood. Once in awhile I catch a glimpse of pink -- presumably his face. And I’ll be damned if Mark isn’t now sitting in the pack, a bowling ball in the water next to guys sitting high on 10 foot guns.
Mark is the real deal. And he’s about to do something that may revolutionize bodysurfing as we know it.
* * *
This all started last summer in Rio, which has been called the North Shore of bodysurfing. Copacabana and Ipanema create sick, sucking cylinders that 300 hardcore bodysurfers wantonly throw their bodies into, again and again, to a backdrop of g-strings, high-rises and soaring granite domes. Mark was down there to compete in the 2016 Itacoa Legends comp. (Mark placed an insane 4th, beating out dozens of world-class freesurfers from all over South America.)
One day Mark found himself at Posto 5, the Pt. Panics of Rio, in a beefy swell. You can see him surfing that day in his Facebook headshot. It looks like he’s surfing below AK-47s in Port-au-Prince. Life-or-death commitment on a wave so thick it makes my testicles shrink.
Mauricio Jordan, a keystone of the Rio scene since the ‘80s, saw this unfamiliar guy charging out there and paddled out to introduce himself. They started chatting, and discovered a shared interest in technical, high-performance bodysurfing. Mauricio proudly offered to let Mark try out the new fins he had designed and manufactured.
Mark – a seasoned, 40-year bodysurfer himself -- had never seen anything like them. Among other things, the rails on the sides of the fin were separated from the footpocket. But once he tried them out, Mark described getting twice the purchase from each kick. (So much power transfer, in fact, that Mark – who is a ridiculously strong swimmer and former Div. 1 water polo player – describes getting cramps for a few days before his legs adjusted.) Mark was even more surprised when Mauricio explained that these fins were not designed for the normal, offset kick, but rather for a tandem, dolphin stroke-like kick. What?!
Mauricio named his Leblon fins after a famous beach in Rio, but he didn’t invent them there. In fact, they come from a completely different part of the world altogether: Germany. A few years back, Mauricio found himself landlocked in Berlin, going stir crazy for lack of surf. He became obsessed with a sport called “fin swimming”. These slinky, European uber-athletes are posting record times swimming underwater. The key is a snake-like, full-body underwater stroke that produces explosive snaps at the end of every kick.
Mauricio studied the fin swimmers. He started to talk to eggheads – engineers, physicists, mathematicians – to understand the hydrodynamics involved. He extensively studied videos of their two-fin, tandem kick. In one video, a guy is swimming hard against the current in one of those stationary swimming pools (kind of like a treadmill for swimmers). The guy’s legs are so torqued each time he produces a snap that you can see his tibia bone bowing!
Mauricio wondered: how could he take this revolutionary swimming technique and bring it to bodysurfing?
The answer is now going viral, with new videos of Mark using Mauricio’s new Leblon Fins to enter the wave early, swim inside the wave, and then pop out of the water -- completely breaching and airborne. After seeing Mark pop out and re-enter the water several times in a row, you start to wonder, “is this dude a man? Or a fish?” Mark looks uncannily like a dolphin.
The videos are an important adjunct technology. “Jacuzzisurfer” is a talented San Diego filmographer who has become obsessed with using drones to film Mark and other surfers. His spectacular videos are not only sunlighting our sport to the masses, but they also give technical guys like Mark and Mauricio lots of footage – e.g., shots from 50 feet above looking right into the throat of the barrel. These guys geek out on every detail – how close Mark’s arms are to his shoulders, his exact depth underwater down to the inch, minute amounts of side drift…and so on.
Other bodysurfers out there are serially breaching and re-entering the wave (like Kane Tsunameh at Panics). But Mark’s whole suite of extraordinary water moves is uniquely underlaid by his super-early takeoff inside the wave using a tandem kick. “When you’re in the center of the wave, that’s where all the energy is,” he says. Swimming underwater is a huge part of the deal.
Most radical is that Mark is now catching waves long before they break, gathering speed and momentum and and “popping up” before any boardsurfer. Mark may have solved the Achille’s Heel of bodysurfing: that our lake takeoffs always put us at a disadvantage in lineups. We end up settling for the scraps. But what if you could get into the wave before the pack?
This is what I mean by revolutionary. Every time there has been a quantum shift in outdoor sports – think parabolic skis, surf leashes, mountain bikes – there is a concomitant improvement in technique. For example, the moment I saw the deep, concave bottom of a Sole Handplane, I realized that bodysurfers could now do something I thought was only the domain of boardsurfers: trim high up in the pocket, and surf as far down the line as the wave will take you. It suddenly made the impossible, possible.
With new equipment (which is really new technology) and advanced techniques that allow us to surf inside the wave – a place boardsurfers will never go – we may now be witnessing the birth of a new type of bodysurfing. And if we can beat boardsurfers to the takeoff, then suddenly the world’s best lineups are ours to tap. Rincon, anyone?
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Tom 'Major Dong' Ekman
A celebrated author with a fascination in the application of physics and technology and love for bodysurfing
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