How we find our joy in the ocean is as wide and diverse as the craft available to experience it.
Surfboards, paddleboards, bodyboards, boards of every shape, size and style – there’s something for everyone, every choice, every condition. But for some, and a growing number, boards just get in the way of a good time.
Bodysurfing is gaining increasing popularity among ocean-dwellers, some as an extension of their surfing lives, others as the sole focus of their aquatic pursuits.
It is surfing in its purest form, ultimately requiring nothing more than what our mothers gave us. Fins have become essential, a key component of every bodysurfer’s gear and one that – unless you’re an Olympic swimmer or part fish – we’d be struggling without.
Handplanes, on the other hand, sit on the fence. To some, they are superfluous, even viewed with a little disdain, but to others they are a precious tool to catching more waves, easier and with greater control.In some ways, it comes down to personal choice; do you want to keep things plain and simple or do you want greater maneuverability, harder hold, more control? And there’s no right answer.
This is, to some degree, leading to a bit of a divergence, similar to the shortboard vs. longboard segregation in surfing, just without all the aggro. Bodysurfing remains an inclusive community, with a ‘do it how you like it’ mentality pervading the lineup. This has much to do with bodysurfers’ existing position in the pecking order. Often viewed as little more than swimmers, certainly disregarded as fellow surfers, bodysurfers collect the scraps or move elsewhere.
But bodysurfing and handplane surfing hold their own devotees. Purists and contemporaries, recreational and full time, it doesn’t really matter how they are characterised – there is simply one and the other.
There is something classic about the plane-free approach. Closer to the unfettered purity of the symbiosis between man and ocean, handplanes can be seen as superfluous, getting in the way or redundant. Hawaii and California, the two true hubs of bodysurfing, tend to lean towards this approach, but often for one significant reason. In waves of consequence, be that the infamous Dirty Old Wedge in Newport, Ehukai Beach, home of the deadly Pipeline, or the bodysurfing-only break of Point Panic, the waves have far greater bang for their buck than the majority of breaks being bodysurfed around the world.
With the equation running something like, ‘the bigger the wave, the smaller the plane’, this commits these more substantial waves to a handplane-free congregation. With more power in a wave, the catching, planing, trimming and maintaining is far less in need of assistance. In fact, on a heavy close-out, being dragged up the face of six feet of churning, grinding ocean, the last thing you want is an added piece of floatation, something else to worry about, to be dragged from your grasp, possibly taking your rotator cuff with it.However, these testing, trying, adrenalin-infused conditions are in the vast minority of lineups being bodysurfed around the world, and for the average bodysurfer, diminutive beach breaks, mellow points or wind-challenged peaks are the best it gets nine times out of ten. So a little assistance goes a long way.
Handplanes turn weak mushy waves into a playground,” says WAW Handplanes founder, Rikki Gilbey. “They exist purely to enhance what we can achieve when bodysurfing. We all like freedom, and surfing free of all devices is an incredible feeling, but choose the right handplane and you’ll feel like you’re riding nothing at all – that’s the secret.”
That isn’t to suggest that handplanes are for novices and poor waves only. In fact, current World Bodysurfing champion, Tom Marr, rode a handplane to victory. Was it cheating? Did he have an unfair advantage? Far from it – he simply chose a different approach perhaps a little more appropriate for the day’s conditions. And for the record, he’s equally as mind-warpingly talented with or without a plane.
Handplanes allow surfers to catch waves a little easier, kick a little less, trim a little longer and have greater control on the wave’s surface. Where a bodysurfer may struggle to get onto and maintain a full-faced, high tide roller, a handplaner will be able to use that plane to pick up the wave, drawing their upper body out of the water, creating less drag to better utilise the wave’s minimal power. Likewise, in a steeper face, a plane offers a hand hold, a rail to dig in and grip onto, not only preventing you from slipping too far down the face, but also to switch direction, correct your line, rise and fall in the pocket and surf the wave in a completeness that is barely possible without.Of course, what the elite can achieve and what the average surfer are two very separate realms, and the world’s leading sliders can do incredible things without so much as a pair of fins, but that is a fantasy world beyond comprehension for most weekend wompers or casual bodysurfers.
“I believe the single most powerful advantage of using a handplane is the fact it gives the surfer that extra lift upon entry,” suggests Gilbey. “This raises the upper body clear of the water, reducing overall drag and increasing speed. This is the key to control, stability and power.”
There is no arguing that handplanes make bodysurfing easier on numerous levels. But they aren’t training wheels, a hindrance to shed when talents are achieved. Everyone in the least bit interested in bodysurfing should try them out, perhaps just to get them started, possibly as a lifelong preference, certainly to experience the profound difference they make. Some will love them, some may not, some may use them only when the waves are small and weak, leaving them on the sand when conditions align and their local beach break offers its best impersonation of Puerto Escondido.As with surfboards, different shapes offer different advantages, length, rail, tail and concaves all coming into play for their application, so a quiver of handplanes can provide greater benefit across numerous breaks and conditions.
To return to where this all began, it all comes down to choice, to preference, to how best you enjoy connecting with the wave, feeling the glide, sliding across the face in harmony with oceanic energies.
However you approach it, keep an open mind. Try going planed up or naked, test different templates and materials, surf the same waves with or without and see which suits you best.
Whatever you decide, there is no right or wrong – it’s all bodysurfing – plane and simple.
All photos: Rikki Gilbey / WAW Handplanes