Deep And On The Rocks: Inside Bodysurfing’s Radical Renaissance
Ray Collins’ reinvention of wave planing.
There’s an energy in the air. You’d be tempted to call it crazy but it makes too much sense for that.
“You’re riding a vibration!” begins Ray Collins, eyes bulging, hands gesticulating as he demonstrates his technique in an industrial warehouse in Bulli, south of Sydney.
Behind him is a wall of photos, fins and hand-planes as part of an exhibition on bodysurfing. He’s also fresh out of a sensory deprivation tank where he’d spent two hours in absolute weightless, darkness contemplating the universe and his place in it, which might explain the cosmic nature of his verbal calculations.
“The only thing separating us is skin! Otherwise, we’re almost saltwater anyway,” he continues. “So we are floating in this thing that is so much us, that it’s hard to blur the line of where we are and where it is. To be feeling the energy from it, it’s like being home again.”
Ray and his partner Chris Anderson, from Ecto Handplanes, are expounding on the multifaceted, multidimensional mind, body and spirit benefits of bodysurfing. It’s a time honoured past-time, but recently they’ve taken it to a new frontier—charging some of the heaviest waves on Australia’s east coast.
A couple of days earlier I’d made the trip to a notoriously urchin-encrusted rock slab to watch them play. It made perfect sense. At any world class reef break there are countless inside runners and nuggets too small or too close to the rocks to be ridden by stand-up surfers and bodyboarders. These are the ones Ray, Chris and their posse get.
Bobbing around near the impact zone, they duck under surfers and scoop into steroidal-sidewinders, serpentining across, propelled by the foam ball, as the wave cracks along the rocks. It’s feels as trippy as it looks, says Ray.
“You’re riding energy created by a storm thousands of kilometers away and it’s just you, no board, nothing. So you feel that energy when you’re on the wave and that energy is transferred into you. It lives on inside of you,” he says, adding, “You are the fin, you are the rudder. I don’t wanna keep saying the word pure, but it is. It is the epitome of purity.”
“I’m there to shoot them, but it’s like ‘Fuck, I’m not gonna let this wave go through unridden.’” -Ray Collins.
You might already know Ray as the brain behind several of the most breathtaking images ever to come out of the ocean. A supremely talented tube-pig bodyboarder in his early days, he became a household name in surfing for his daring approach to shooting the world’s best in the world’s heaviest waves. Later he turned his attention to capturing tripped out lineups and empties, earning him widespread acclaim in the broader arts world.
While doing all that he tired of watching perfect waves go unridden when surfers either fell off or pulled back. So he developed a way to mop up the scraps by bodysurfing with his chunky water-housing tucked behind his back.
“I’m there to shoot them, but it’s like ‘Fuck, I’m not gonna let this wave go through unridden.’ Often you’d be out of position for the next one, but I got 20 barrels myself as well as taking photos of everyone else,” he says.
These days, Ray spends most of his spare time bodysurfing. Often he’s joined by an odd collection of watermen aged from 16 to 60 known as the South Coast Bodysurfing crew. They’re one of several groups that have sprung up around Australia and the world, organising sessions via text messages, social media or word of mouth, and meetinh up at obscure rock slabs, beach breaks and wedges. Arriving at the crack of dawn they spend up to four and five hours in the water gorging on crisp, sweet, aquatic bliss and racking up more tube vision than most stand-up surfers, professional or otherwise, get in a lifetime.
“You get to know the barrel so intimately,” says Ray.
Both Ray and Chris are at pains to distance themselves from the tag, ‘pioneers.’ As they point out, bodysurfing is one of the oldest and most profound joys known to man, with roots dating back to the first caveman to get up-ended by a shore dump and come up grinning.
In more modern times, bodysurfers have pioneered some of Australia’s least friendly waves, like Piker’s Hole, better known as Cape Solander or “Ours,” which was bodysurfed by a hardy crew of locals decades before surfers attempted it. Elsewhere, the likes of Mark Cunningham, Mike Stewart and dozens of little-known though no less talented Hawaiians turned bodybashing into an art-form throughout the islands. The Wedge at Newport, California, is arguably the birthplace of consequential big-time body-whomping, where backs and necks have been broken, and serious mainstream publicity and respect gained.
Since turning his attention to bodysurfing, Ray has hand-planed his way through Indonesia, surfing everything from Macaronis (“the dream bodysurfing wave”) to Greenbush (“terrifying”). That it’s going through a renaissance in 2017 makes a lot of sense, says Chris.
“For me, it makes perfect sense that the lustre of the thruster, if you like, has lost its shine a bit for new age people,” he says, exhibiting the kind of buzzed out wordplay the pair have been sprinkling over me for the past hour.
“We’re at a time where the world is so complicated, and there is so much social media, maybe we really just want to leave the phone in the car and go for a swim and have no distractions,” he says.
Chris studied design at Wollongong University, south of Sydney, and was an avid surfer throughout his childhood, teens and early adulthood. Beset by mental health issues in high school, he found bodysurfing to offer a frivolous judgement-free alternative to modern surf culture, which too often found itself eroded by ego, an obsession with performance, and Too. Many. Fucking. People.
“I think it’s refreshing to evaluate achievement in surfing, like, ‘what is the true achievement?’ Let’s enjoy this first-world country and that could be as simple as having a swim,” he says, adding, “I’ve stripped out achievement as a criteria of judging what I’m doing in the ocean. If I’m scooping into energy, that’s what it is, that’s why I’ve always surfed.”
This season, Ecto Handplanes will be rolled out in 24 David Jones stores around the country and by the time this goes to print Chris will have appeared on a major television network evangelizing his idea to Australia as part of a game show. He is squeamish about pushing his passion into the mainstream, but reasons that if it can bring joy and purpose to the lives of others, that can’t be a bad thing.
“I’m trying to find a balance between wanting to get people into this and enjoying the ocean on my own…it’s a toss up, do we want more people in the water? I dunno, it’s crazy, it’s in Australian culture, everyone is gonna go to the beach anyway.”
Bodysurfing has proved similarly therapeutic for Ray, who survived a public housing upbringing in Bulli and the unimaginably traumatic episode of finding his father dead by suicide. Just a few meters away from the bodysurfing exhibition, he points to a fully operational shaping bay stocked with boards and blanks that belonged to a friend of his who took his own life recently, leaving behind a wife, three children and the house he’d just paid off.
The ocean has been the only constant in my life. Even as a child, when issues that were too big for me to comprehend at the time – like my dad hanging himself when I was 8, being raised in a single parent, low-income housing commission dwelling, helping mum by being the ‘grown up’ for my little brother and sister, going to a dozen different primary schools –
I always felt like I had a place of safety and understanding, somewhere I could just be a kid, surrounded by something so giving and cleansing,” says Ray.
“Swimming in the ocean taught me respect, patience and how to overcome – or flow with – situations of adversity. Things that a father would have,” he says.
As we struggle to come to grips with the vagaries of mental illness and suicide it is pertinent to ask what becomes of a man or woman once their main passion or purpose in life – be it surfing in this case – becomes a crowded, competitive, judgmental nightmare. The answer, as far as these guys were concerned, was to find a new passion, and with it a community of likeminded souls.
“It’s fucken sick,” says Ray. “It’s the funnest thing in the world to do. We’re not pioneers, we’re not doing anything that hasn’t been done before, we’re just fucking enjoying being in the water. We’re having the most amount of fun with the least amount of things,” he says.
“You’re riding energy created by a storm thousands of kilometres away and it’s just you, no board, nothing. So you feel that energy when you’re on the wave and that energy is transferred into you. It lives on inside of you.” – Ray Collins
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