Bodysurfing legend Mark Cunningham in Tahiti. Photo by Chris Burkard
ONE OF MY FAVORITE LINES in Come Hell or High Water (the first feature-length documentary about bodysurfing, and the origin of the book Plight of the Torpedo People) is, “There’s no future in bodysurfing.”
In a time when things like surfing, and even “travel,” are looked at by growing numbers of people as potential “careers,” arenas of competition, and commerciality, Plight of the Torpedo People celebrates something primordial and (you would hope) incorruptible: the pure, instinctual joy of being in the water.
For those who love surfing, Burkard’s imagery (along with select other photographers’) alone makes this a sweet coffeetable book to own.
There’s an insane amount of stoke captured throughout: sunlit explosions out the back of waves, moments of underwater zero-gravity, crazy drops into the Wedge, and hurling Tahitian reef breaks.
But what I love the most — and what makes this a great book for anyone who loves art and the ocean — is how the images and accompanying stories convey what’s important about life.
Excerpt from section by John R.K. Clark:
I always notice the sea birds when I’m out in the lineup, waiting for waves. On the south shore of Oahu, where I bodysurf most, I see manu o ku, or white terns, doing their aerial acrobatics. I see iwa, or great frigates, hovering almost motionless high above. But the birds that I really like to see are the kaupu — the brown boobies who fly fearlessly through crowds of surfers. Kaupu love to ride waves, and they get everyone’s attention as they skim through the lineup, wings spread wide, surfing the air currents along the face of a breaking wave. Native Hawaiians called their flight kaha, or gliding, and this is the word they used for bodysurfing: kaha nalu, wave gliding. To me this is the essence of bodysurfing: gliding across the face of a wave. Bodysurfers are wave gliders whether they’re making a death-defying drop at the Wedge, powering through a perfect barrel at Pipeline, or just cruising with their kids in the shorebreak at Makapuu.
In 1902, Augustin Kramer published a book called Die Samoa-Inseln, or, The Samoan Islands. One of his photos shows about 40 people in the ocean, bodysurfing in small waves on a shallow sandbar. He captioned the shot “Das Wellengleitspiel (Fa’ase’e),” which is “wave gliding sport” in German, followed by the Samoan term for surfing, fa’ase’e, which literally means to slide or glide. This unassuming photo of men, women, and children riding waves completely captures the surf stoke of the early Polynesians. It’s the same enthusiasm they’ve shared with the rest of the world, the same surf fever that lies deep within everyone who bodysurfs. The bodysurfer who really brought this point home to me was our president, Barack Obama, who, like many teenagers growing up in Hawaii, learned to bodysurf in the pounding shorebreak at Sandy Beach. During a brief vacation in 2008 before his run for the White House, he made time to bodysurf at Sandy’s and showed that his skill in the waves was just as good as it was when he was in his teens. The same surf stoke that lives within all of us lives within the President of the United States.
Copies are available at torpedopeople.com. Please check the video below for more.