Dream day for bodysurfing at dreary Ocean Beach


Bruce Jenkins competes in a bodysurfing contest at Ocean Beach in San Francisco, Calif. on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2011 on a day when the Rip Curl Pro Search surfing competition was delayed because of weather.

Photo: Paul Chinn / The Chronicle

Dream day for bodysurfing at dreary Ocean Beach

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Did you ever fantasize about taking a few rounds of batting practice with Buster Posey? Shooting hoops with Michael Jordan? Heading down to your local skate park with Tony Hawk?

I had a dream fulfilled at Ocean Beach on Saturday: competing alongside Mark Cunningham and Judith Sheridan in a bodysurfing contest at my local break.

We’re in the middle of a very special two weeks in Bay Area surfing, featuring the Rip Curl Pro Search (no competition Saturday) with Kelly Slater and other stars of the worldwide tour, and this weekend has been about bodysurfing. The featured film of the Save the Waves Film Festival, held Friday night at the Victoria Theatre in the Mission District, was Keith Malloy’s elegant tribute to bodysurfing, “Come Hell or High Water.”

The bodysurfing community is a small but close-knit group, rarely able to assemble as one, and Malloy’s film put us all in the mood for the first San Francisco Bodysurfing Classic, scheduled for “somewhere at Ocean Beach” Saturday morning. The call was for the foot of Lincoln Avenue, just south of the Beach Chalet, and we gathered around 8 a.m. to find some of the worst conditions imaginable: large, unruly surf with the dreaded northwest winds and chilly weather.

By day’s end, we had magic. The wind went calm, the sun peeked through the gloom, the waves cleaned up in the 6- to 8-foot range, and it turned into quite a show.

Most remarkable was the turnout itself. Ocean Beach is my spot, the place I target every time I get a chance to hit the water, and over the past 15 years, I’ve come across just two other bodysurfers on a regular basis: Eric Gustafson and Sheridan, a woman of exceptional ability. And yet, 78 people signed up for this event, spread out over 13 six-person heats. That’s 78 people who wrote down their names in the early morning, when a fresh cup of coffee sounded a lot better than a swim through Ocean Beach’s endless lines of whitewater.

They came from all over Northern California. Some of Newport Beach’s finest – Lewis Bradshaw, Tim Burnham, Thomas Malum, Sean Starky and Chris Kalima – drove up to represent the Wedge, that fabled break known for its crazy-talented crew. One man, a chef named Chad Callahan, flew in overnight from New York, saying, “I used to live here (Mill Valley), I always loved bodysurfing, and when I heard this contest was on, I knew I couldn’t miss it.”

I owe a big favor to Danny Hess, the local surfboard shaper who organized the contest, for putting me in the fifth heat with a couple of legends. Cunningham is the face of this sport, a longtime North Shore (Oahu) lifeguard and world-class swimmer who bodysurfed the famed Pipeline with such expertise over the years that he was viewed as a sort of deity by every great surfer from Gerry Lopez to Tom Curren. A lot of men and women bodysurf with great skill and courage; Cunningham’s performance is a dance, at once sublime and forceful, an execution of style so distinctive as to be instantly identified from great distances.

As for Sheridan, let’s just go with her first name, because any mention of “Judith” is synonymous with respect among Ocean Beach regulars. She comes from a family of elite swimmers in Michigan, but she was the rebel, preferring the thrill of the ocean to competition in a pool. She relocated to La Jolla, learned how to bodysurf at Boomer Beach (which is sort like taking your first ski run on a Squaw Valley black diamond) and eventually found her way north.

I’ve been out on some pretty big days at Ocean Beach, but when it reaches that triple-overhead range, when only a few stand-up surfers are willing to meet the challenge – and I’m whipping up some fish tacos – Judith is there. Whether it’s near Sloat Boulevard, Santiago Avenue or up at the north end, she’ll be out somewhere. She even made a run at Mavericks a few years back, on a massive day with 40-foot faces. She didn’t bodysurf a wave – the very notion seemed suicidal – but she confidently swam under some giants and had everyone in slack-jawed amazement.

Right around the start of our heat, the conditions improved tremendously, and we all got great waves. I watched Judith swim out to the lineup with astonishing speed, Cunningham saying, “Let me be the first to say she kicked my ass – and I’m not using my age (56) as an excuse. She simply blew right past me on the way out.” (Fittingly, Judith was given the “Ocean Beach Legend” award at the end of the day.)

Cunningham staged his usual fluid performance, with proper reward. There were no semifinals or finals; the judges simply came up with the day’s top three performers, with Cunningham on top. The second-place finisher, Oakland’s Joe Sloggy, went out only in a pair of Speedos – that’s right, no wetsuit in the 54-degree water – and dazzled everyone with a repertoire of spinners…

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