A quick look around average breaks might suggest that the sport of bodyboarding may be going the way of the kneelo (that's right, cousin to the prone people, kneeboarding has been all but extinct for some years now ... apparently with the exception Jeff McCallum). There are no bodyboarding magazines in the U.S., little to no sponsorship from clothing companies, and no recognition from the "surf" magazines. When was the last time you saw a bodyboarding photo or advertisement in Surfer, Surfing, or TransWorld Surf?
It's that lack of support that's sited as a major factor in the demise of the one-time rival to traditional surfing. That intense rivalry is also responsible for such derogatory name calling as half-men, boogers, spongers, speed bumps, dick-draggers, lids, and the like.
But what most surfers today don't realize is that spongers are, and have been, pushing the sport by example, and promoting it with documentary skills no upright surfer has yet developed -- and they've been risking their lives to do it.
Surfer magazine staff photographer Todd Glaser says that when he encounters his former pro bodyboarding compatriots, the ones still in the game, he gives them a big hug and says, "I'm glad that you're still alive." This is because the nucleus of hardcore bodyboarders have gone nuclear in their attack on barrels, slabs, and heavy waves -- a realm so scary, most surfers merely flirt with it, and the best surfers do what they can to match it.
Nearly every heavy-water discovery in Australia over the past decade -- including jaw-dropping, new-age slabs like Cyclops and Shipsterns Bluff -- was first sniffed out by a bodyboarder.
"To tell you the truth, boogie boarders found 'em all," told Justin "Jughead" Allport, a West Oz standup slab lunatic. "They left us going hunting, we just had to scathe, and go hanging around, hunting all the spots looking on Google Web and stuff. Most of the time we'd find out that boogie boarders had already been there for awhile. That, umm, I know it sounds sad."
Then there's the spot that changed surfing as we know it: Tahiti's Teahupoo. Local Raimana Van Bastolaer put it on the map, and he did it on a bodyboard. A mid-90s trip by Hawaiians Mike Stewart and Ben Severson showed the world its potential, and it's safe to say Laird Hamilton, Cory Lopez, and the rest of the guys that charge the place wouldn't be there without some pioneering of the prone kind.
Bodyboarding has developed such a flare for the litmus edge, that its culture competes primarily via YouTube, Facebook and a handful of bodyboarding websites. "I implore you," writes award-winning photographer and bodyboarder Ray Collins, "Google 'Brendan Newton' if you have a spare five minutes."
These "lid riders" often embarrass, if only in increments, their hardcore, well-paid, standup surfing counterparts. And they're doing it on a shoestring. But this is a generous crowd, so selfless in fact, a majority of the big names in surf photography are current and former bodyboarders working hard, and often risking their skins, to put standup surfers into the moneymaking limelight. Even a partial list is a substantial chunk of surf photography's best: Scott Aichner, Chris Burkard, Ray Collins, Jeff Flindt, Todd Glaser, Tim Jones, Ross McBride, Daniel Russo, Mickey Smith, Seth Stafford, and Scott Winer, to name a few. Nine-time bodyboarding champ Mike Stewart has some impressive film credits on his resume as well, including work on Thomas Campbell's "The Presesnt." And every winner of the Follow the Light Foundation grant, an award given in honor of 30-year Surfing magazine photo editor Larry Moore, has been a bodyboarder.
There's definitely a link in the skill sets between spongers and water photographers. Scott Aicher, ten-year Surfer staff photographer and one of Pipeline's gnarliest water photogs points out that "you're used to the fins and in bodyboarding, you're constantly dodging the lip -- falling during barrel rolls, being low and timing it."
Surfing magazine's Jeff Flindt says, "Most surfers don't surf shorebreaks and crazy slabs. Shooting bodyboarding is way harder because the waves are heavier. When I shoot with surfers they want to look for good waves that are surfable, not death. When I used to shoot with bodyboarders they were looking for death slabs and the craziest wedges."
Considering the decline in bodyboarding popularity, it's easy to wonder if we're witnessing an end of an era. Surfer magazine's Todd Glaser holds out hope. "I think the sport of bodyboarding is growing in a very positive direction for the core that does it. Bodyboarders have been on the forefront of nearly every slab discovery for the past several years and will continue to do so because of their passion, lack of commercial influence, and skill. It would be very interesting to see what would happen if bodyboarders received the support that surfers receive."
It might be a tough pill to swallow, but the very wave-riders who we looked down our noses at, are not only tougher than our heroes, they're working hard to make them look good. Maybe it's time to rethink our prejudices.