In the beginning, there was bodysurfing. God provided all the equipment necessary -- bodies, waves, and the inspiration to use both. Then, according to Matt Warshaw's "Encyclopedia of Surfing," some Polynesian kids decided to tack palm fronds to their feet with tar, and voila, the first body surfing fins were born (In fact, a guy by the name of Churchill witnessed kids surfing this way in Hawaii. He later invented the predecessors to those blue and yellow fins rotting in your garage). The next step equipment-wise was to gain a little lift in the planning surface, the human body. And it was probably kids just like the ones who made palm fins who decided to pick up some driftwood and evolve bodysurfing into handplanning.
Just about any flat chunk of surface works in this regard, says the man behind Brownfish handplanes Gary Murphy. In fact, that's how Murphy got into it. He found a roughed-out handplane, probably made from wood fencing, forgotten on the beach. Goofing around in shore pound with his kids one day, Murphy decided to take it out. He had a blast, he trimmed, he traveled. And as Murphy had been shaping boards on the side for a while, his design mind immediately latched on to the handplane's potential.
"I wanted to get barreled and come out, just like surfing," Murphy said. It turns out he's not the only one. Guys like wood surfboard craftsman Danny Hess and Ed Lewis and Kip Denslow of Enjoy have been supplying a dedicated group of stand-up surfers with devices for prone surfing. And through word of mouth, handplanning has caught on with some of the surf world's best. For example, Kolohe Andino, Luke Davis, Casey Curtis and a crew of Dana Point surfers have been quietly logging more tube time than they ever have on Murphy's hulls.
This is what brought me down to Cardiff Reef to meet Murphy and try my luck. I was a bit nervous because I've always sucked at bodysurfing -- I mean, bad. Some blame the invention of the leash as contributing to general decay in bodysurfing skill. I won't bother with a reason other than lack of coordination.
Scott Bass, director of surfboard expo Sacred Craft, called the current handplane movement the "anti-SUP." In terms of alternative equipment, he's got a point. It's at the opposite side of the scale in gear requirements; regular surfers aren't going to hate you because, well, they're not going to think about you; and let's face it, the SUP crowd doesn't get barreled ... often.
Murphy had been loaning his hand planes around the Cardiff crew and was down to his personal blade. So we had to walk around the parking lot looking for a spare. A friend of Murphy's said, "Just use a flip-flop, that's what kids do at Sandy Beach." It suddenly dawned on me that flip-flops were now more prevalent in the islands than palm fronds and driftwood. The guy had a point.
After Murphy repossessed one of his planes, we made the hop down to Seaside Reef. Hand planners still look for ideal conditions, just a different set of them. Size isn't an issue, but power is. A steep wave that tends to break in the same spot with a short swim is good for a rookie like me. Immediately, however, I was confronted with the act of swimming with the plane in one hand. Murphy designed the Brownfish so that you can wear the plane and swim at the same time. But there's a number of techniques. A little natural coordination is an asset. Also, it wasn't until we'd made the lineup that I began to wonder exactly how to use the thing. "A rule of thumb is to wear it on your right hand going right, and your left going left. Try to think of your body as a surf board, that's your planning surface." Also, he added, "You're going to get burned by a standup surfer, that's just the way it is."
To my surprise, the drop into a wave actually feels like the drop on a surfboard. My first wave was a left that I would have been a bit late on if I'd been strictly bodysurfing. When the hull gets up to speed and actually planes, you can feel the lift kick in as with a fish or another short, flat board. And suddenly, I was out on the shoulder, gliding, for a good distance -- definitely a first. The mind divisions of a goofyfoot or regular still seem to hang with you, however. As a goofyfoot, I discovered that I preferred the in-the-pocket view going right. Suddenly the right wall and shoulder was totally visible and the limitations erased.
On the inside, I looked up to see Murphy stalling in a green pocket at an angle and speed that any surfer could appreciate. It just looked really classy. On a left he put his right hand on top of the planning hand and became a bullet. This is when I realized the worlds of technique and style available despite the size of the equipment.
Emerging from the water, I knew I'd already out-done any body surfing session I'd ever had. The minimum goals I'd established had been met; I caught waves, caught a view, and I'd even been burned by a surfer. But something else was happening too. I found myself in the midst of rethinking the landscapes of all the breaks available to me, all those thumping insiders too small to crouch into. It was happening all over again, that kick that led me into the ocean the fist time.