Reading Waves

By Liam Sullivan

The language of the ocean is vital to anyone who enters. A failure to recognize a rip current or a misreading of the imminent collapse of an approaching large wave can drag any swimmer down in seconds. Comforting thought, I know.

For bodysurfers, timing a wave can make all the difference between a great ride and eating sand the hard way. Before I head into the ocean I take a look around to see how the waves are breaking, and to see if there is a noticeable rip current.

A rip current is easily recognizable — a broad strait of water that has the appearance of water being sucked out to sea. It is often bubbling with sea foam, and the water around it is rippled. The best way to get out of a rip current is to swim parallel to the shore, not toward the shore. This might sound counterproductive, but if you try to swim to shore you will only exhaust yourself. Trust me, I’ve been there.

As the saying goes, “Timing is everything,” in life, in love, and especially when faced with an eight-foot swell casting its shadow upon you. At first blush the dynamic to bodysurfing is fairly simple: Position yourself sideways between an approaching wave and the shore, and with either your right or left leg push off into the momentum of the wave, putting your arms out in front of you.

The difference between bodysurfing and surfboarding is straightforward. One puts you physically inside the force of the wave, and the other puts you on top of it, or as the Beach Boys song goes, “Catch a wave and you’re sitting on top of the world.” I prefer the former.

Like Olympic diving, bodysurfing is all about form and control. Arms stretched out in front of you, legs firmly together, and feet pointed flat behind you. The wiggle of your waist or midsection can act as a directional rudder allowing you to move left or right during the ride. The sound of the wave churning all around your body is like a 747 airplane taking off.

Some bodysurfers take a different approach to riding a wave. Once the wave has crested and is rolling along, some stick their head out of the white foam of the wave and put their arms flat against their sides, giving the impression of a water-borne bobblehead and allowing the bodysurfer to enjoy the view while riding the wave toward shore.

Not all waves are rideable. Some waves when they break are concave and look like a half-pipe curling into itself. These waves are to be avoided at all costs for bodysurfers, because the power and roll of this particular type of wave will slam you down and have you seeing stars.

Years ago a girl whom I had dated miraculously ended up renting the house next door with her fiancé. After the three of us exchanged the standard awkward pleasantries, her fiancé made his way into the surf.

While my ex-girlfriend and I were getting all caught up by the water’s edge, her fiancé was in trouble. Within a few minutes he had been dragged out and was getting nailed by wave after wave. My face dropped and my ex-girlfriend looked at me and said, “What’s wrong?”

I knew what was wrong — her fiancé, whom she was planning on marrying on that very beach in a few weeks, was drowning. I made a beeline for the water and swam as fast as I could. By the time I got to him he had that deer-in-the-highlights look and was going under. He was in shock. I was cautious and kept my distance — one desperate swing of his fist or elbow could knock me out cold, and then we’d both be on our way down to Davy Jones’s locker.

When his head bobbed up and was above the waterline I took a swing at him with all my might and clocked him square on the jaw. He probably thought I was trying to kill him, and he had that look in his eyes that said, “Hey! Nut job, this is how you save people?” Fair enough, but all I wanted to do was stop him from swinging and grabbing at me. It worked.

I put him in a firm headlock with my right arm and with my left arm I began to paddle sideways, parallel to the shore, to get us both out of the rip current. A decent-size wave came up behind us. I released him from the headlock, grabbed him by his bathing suit, giving him a nasty wedgie, and said, “Try and ride this wave. Go!” I pushed him into the wave as hard as I could. Granted, it was a risk, but I knew if I could get him to where he could stand and closer to shore his odds of survival would be that much greater. Luckily, the plan worked.

We both got out of the water and collapsed on the sand. By then a small crowd had gathered, and my ex-girlfriend was wedding-dress white. Happily, they were wed, and for my efforts I was treated to an afternoon lunch at the Clam Bar on Napeague.

Reading and riding waves for me has led to some incredible days in the surf. The ocean and waves specifically have served as a way to understand the rhythm of life. Waves make their way across the vastness of the ocean, endlessly pushing forward. On their journey waves encounter peaks and valleys. Each set of waves a generation passing through time together, finally playing out their final moments, cresting, turning white, and gently resting upon the shore. At that moment the remnant of each wave is pulled back out to sea, a rebirth begins, setting the stage for a new generation of waves to glide once again along the surface of a sun-burnt sea.


Liam Sullivan is an avid bodysurfer, musician, and writer who lives in Amagansett. His first book, “Making the Scene: Nashville,” was published in 2012. He is at work on a collection of reflections about the East End called “Reading Waves.”