“Be the board” is the mantra of bodysurfers. Defined by a beautiful simplicity and a oneness with natural forces, bodysurfing takes wave riding to its essential roots. It’s also a blast.
Santa Cruz boasts some of the best bodysurfing breaks in the world, with waves tailor-made for every skill level. Beginners love getting their feet wet at Sunny Cove, at the end of 17th Avenue, and Little Wind and Sea a little ways down East Cliff, while seasoned pros can get their stoke on at bodysurfing hotspots like Manresa State Beach and 26th Avenue.
Bodysurfing was around long before surfing and bodyboarding began to dominate breaks around the world. While surfing has captured international fame, bodysurfing remains a relatively low-key subculture, and largely lacks glitzy sponsors, tours, and clothing lines.
What bodysurfing does have going for it is its simplicity. No fancy equipment is required to bodysurf—you are the board. Just time your launch into a wave and pick a direction. Kick and stroke hard with your feet and arms while angling sideways and downward, and let the wave do the rest.
Perhaps this back-to-basics approach is what has led to the sport’s rise, especially in Santa Cruz. “Bodysurfing has always held a constant, unwavering kind of popularity in Santa Cruz,” says John Chamberlain, president of the Santa Cruz Bodysurfing Association (SCBSA). “But it’s definitely been growing in recent years.”
So has the SCBSA, which has been going strong for more than 30 years. The second-oldest bodysurfing club in the state of California, the SCBSA has seen a recent surge in membership.
If Chamberlain has his way, Santa Cruz bodysurfing would shrug off the subculture label and go mainstream. “We’re growing and we’re getting more sponsors,” he says.
However, the club is divided, Chamberlain says. Some members want to keep bodysurfing “pure,” and others would like to make it bigger and more corporate, like surfing.
Like all wave riders, bodysurfers have to deal with the problem of supply and demand. Mother Nature can only supply so many waves and there are a limited number of spots, especially for bodysurfers. Adding sponsored athletes and an influx of new recruits would mean fewer waves for club members.
Locally, bodysurfers sometimes find themselves pushed aside and given second-class status in the water. “Bodysurfers in Santa Cruz are the low man on the totem pole, so to speak,” says local bodysurfing pro Brenna Sullivan.
This is not the case in some other cultures, where bodysurfers and the art of bodysurfing are highly respected. In Brazil, bodysurfing, or jacare (which means alligator), is an official national sport that attracts celebrities, huge contests, and powerful sponsors. Hawaiians who practice the art of he’e umauma, or “sliding with the chest,” are admired and respected in and out of the waves. He’e umauma is deeply woven into the culture, and is considered a spiritual exercise that has been practiced by island natives for generations.
For bodysurfers in Surf City, being the low man on the totem pole means that they need to get creative about finding waves that they can claim for themselves, sharing information, and having each other’s backs on land and sea. “There always seems to be a camaraderie among bodysurfers in the line-up,” says Sullivan. “We’re all out there for the same reason.”
While bodysurfing is generally perceived as a relatively welcoming sport, information about local spots and the sport in general is hard to find, partly in order to protect beloved breaks. The digital footprint of Santa Cruz bodysurfing is almost nonexistent except for a tiny SCBSA webpage. Unless you are part of a club like the SCBSA, finding a place to body surf in Santa Cruz can be a frustrating process.
John Chamberlain admits that he loves to help those new to the sport, but also has his own secret spots that he has “earned.” “It’s up to you to go out and find your spot. One in which you feel safe, and free to ride the waves you desire,” says Chamberlain. “Any wave rider won’t announce home breaks or secrets. Knowledge like this is passed carefully along, among members of clubs like the SCBSA. Part of the pureness of bodysurfing is you going out and figuring it out. You go find it. You have to earn your entry into the water some way.”
Members of the SCBSA are pretty tight-lipped unless you’re an official member and put in some hard work to gain their trust. Some of the following spots are gifts from members of the Santa Cruz Bodysurfing Association. Others were earned.
Fins Recommended: No
Type of Ride: Right, 1-5 ft
Crowds: Crowded weekends, holidays, and summer days.
Address: Sunny Cove Dr, Santa Cruz, CA 95062
Parking: Permit required weekends and holidays. Free parking available on 16th Ave., Johans Beach Dr., and at Starbucks down the street.
This picturesque cove is where the Santa Cruz Bodysurfing Association started in1983, and was the site of its first contest in 1984. If you have never bodysurfed Sunny Cove—go! The funneling action from the ancient cliffs enclosing this little gem creates a legendary ride and one of the best rights in the entirecounty. You might have to dodge a few kids and boogie boarders during a weekend session, but it’s totally worth it. The beach itself is a splendid place for people watching too—sunbathers, college kids, and families make the atmosphere vibrant. Sunny Cove is a favorite spot for locals and tourists and can get very crowded on holidays, weekends, and in summer. Watch your step as you walk down the cliffs to the beach.
MANRESA STATE BEACH
Bodysurfing Skill Required: Intermediate/Advanced
Fins Recommended: Yes
Type of Ride: Left and Right, 3-8 ft
Address: 1445 San Andreas Road, Watsonville, CA 95076
Parking: $5 to park in the lot. Free parking available on San Andreas Road outside lot.
If you’re looking to dodge the crowds and have every wave for yourself, Manresa State Beach could be your bodysurfing Shangri-La. It’s also a good place for private family gatherings, uninterrupted sunbathing, and some peace and quiet. This spot is almost always pumping, providing lefts and rights that are somewhat random and shift with the changing sand bars. It’s not necessarily a secret spot, but the white sand that stretches for miles in each direction makes any bodysurfing session feel exclusive. Most days, you feel like you have the beach all to yourself, and rarely have to dodge surfers, boogie boarders, or wading kiddies. Be aware that the waves at Manresa can get pretty big and chaotic at times. During a swell, a set of big fins and strong legs are recommended to do battle with the notorious rip currents. That may sound intimidating but beginners looking to have a good time in the water will enjoy this spot as long as they are careful and stay close to shore.
LITTLE WIND AND SEA
Bodysurfing Skill Required: Beginner/Intermediate
Fins Recommended: No
Crowds: Not many people most days.
Type of Ride: Left, 2-6 ft
Address: 22798 E Cliff Dr, Santa Cruz, 95062
Parking: Free parking at Moran Lake Park Beach parking lot
This is one of those secret spots that’s just a whisper in the wind. It’s also a break that’s perfectly tailored for bodysurfing, with a bowly little left that picks up a southwest swell and breaks consistently year-round. Find it by parking in the Moran Lake parking lot and walking across the street to the beach. Find it by parking in the Moran Lake parking lot, then walk across the street to the beach, take a right at the rock wall and keep walking until you see a brown rock outcrop jutting out toward the sea. Sound like a hassle?
It’s worth it. There are seldom more than a handful of people in the water at any time, and you can spend the entire day playing in Mother Nature’s finest work.
Although Little Wind and Sea is secluded, it can be a bit of a party spot and sometimes attracts college kids on weekends. Bodysurfers rarely have to compete with surfers here, but sometimes bodyboarders are part of the small lineup.
Fins Recommended: Yes
Crowds: Competition with a few surfers.
Type of Ride: Left and Right, 2-7 ft
Address: 26th Ave and E. Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz, 95062
Parking: Limited free parking available on 26th Avenue. More is available on East Cliff Drive.
If you’re equipped with a set of fins and are a powerful swimmer, 26th is a great place to deep water bodysurf. The hidden coves along this beach are popular hangouts for locals to enjoy pristine sands and some of the cleanest waves in the county sans crowds. The shifting beach break seems to be good for small to medium sized swells any time of year. To access, park on 26th Avenue and scope out the waves from a recently constructed staircase. If you like what you see, walk down the staircase and hang a left at the cliffs. You’ll probably see some surfers in the water, and perhaps a few alternative waveriders. Even though it’s a popular spot, as long as you show the locals respect there are plenty of good rides to be had.
BLACK’S BEACH, aka Lincoln’s Beach, 14th Ave. Beach
Fins Recommended: No
Crowds: Pretty empty most days.
Type of Ride: Left, 1-6 ft
Address: 198 14th Avenue, Santa Cruz, 95062
Parking: Permit required for parking weekends and holidays.
Want a super fun cliff break all to yourself? Head over to Black’s Beach. This outstanding semi-secret spot is set under of a pair of majestic homes just South of Twin Lakes State Beach. The Black Point rock formation that Black’s is named after creates a consistent left that turns into next level stuff during the summer south swell. When it’s pumping, the peak that forms in front of tower five will also rock your world. To reach the waves, park on 14th Avenue. Walk through the gate and down to the sand, then take a left until you get to mansions on the cliff. This sparsely-populated beach occasionally attracts a few topless sunbathers.
Fins Recommended: Yes
Crowds: Always full of surfers
Type of Ride: 4-30 ft, Left and Right
Address: 700 West Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz, 95060
Parking: Free parking at multiple lots around Lighthouse Field on Westcliff Drive.
Only the truly hardcore bodysurf “The Lane.” On a good day, Steamer Lane boasts some of the gnarliest, most powerful waves in Santa Cruz County. One of the most famous and storied break on the West Coast, there are three distinct waves that break at Steamer’s Lane: The Slot, Middle Peak, and Indicators. Veteran bodysurfers who decide to venture out into the surfer-heavy lineup will mostly gravitate towards the farther-out Middle Peak. The large waves form perfect A-frame “steamers” that promise insanely long rides. The elite few who can handle it earn serious bragging rights. Long rides, large surf, and strong currents mean fins are required… as well as skill, courage and luck.
ITS BEACH, aka Lighthouse Beach
Fins Recommended: No
Crowds: Lots of dogs and beachgoers most weekends and during summer. Few surfers.
Type of Ride: 2-7 ft, Left
Address: 701 West Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz, 95060
Parking: Free parking on West Cliff Drive
One of three nude beaches in Santa Cruz County, Its attracts more dogs than nudists these days. “The dog beach,” as locals call it, also attracts boogie boarders, skim boarders, and tons of bodysurfers. Its is Steamer Lane’s little brother, and features a south facing break below the bluff on the West Side of the Lighthouse. The solid left that bounces off the cliffs is fueled by the same rollers that supply The Lane so there is powerful fun to be had here. Its Beach can get pretty jammed with tourists, families, and roaming dogs, so if you’re looking for seclusion and exclusivity you might want to look elsewhere.