Sports

Riding the world’s biggest waves, without a surfboard


Catching a big wave requires bodysurfers to position themselves in the lineup as a surfer would, treading water until the right wave arrives. That can take a while: Lattanzi once treaded water for four hours to catch three waves off Nazare.

Once the right wave approaches, bodysurfers must generate as much speed as possible by swimming and kicking their flippers, then they use their arms, torso and legs to control direction and speed while inside the wave. Some bodysurfers like Mike Stewart, one of the few people to bodysurf a wave off the coast of Teahupo’o, Tahiti — considered to be one of the world’s most lethal — looks to seals, dolphins and otters for how to best manoeuvre in the water.

Kalani Lattanzi bodysurfing Jaws.

Kalani Lattanzi bodysurfing Jaws.

Because bodysurfers ride headfirst into massive waves, it may seem a more dangerous style than boardsurfing, especially so for novice riders, who tend to catch waves in shallow water and might not know how to avoid head-planting when the wave breaks. Whereas boardsurfers are more likely to receive lacerations from being hit by their boards, bodysurfers are more likely to come into contact with the seafloor, which can cause devastating cervical spine injuries.

But some say that experienced big-wave bodysurfers might actually be safer without a board. “It looks so much scarier, not having a board, but if you’re a strong swimmer and have fins on and know the lineup and have a high degree of big-wave knowledge, you’re better off than being on a board with no fins,” said Matt Warshaw, author of The Encyclopedia of Surfing.

Bobbing and diving through huge surf like a seal, Lattanzi is remarkably at ease, which he credits to a lifetime spent in the water. He got his start bodysurfing at age 12 in Itacoatiara, Brazil, and had dreams of charging monster waves.

“When I started bodysurfing, I wondered if it was possible for someone to bodysurf a big wave,” he said. “Then I started to grow up and I realised, ‘OK, I am the one who is going to do this.’”

By 2011, at 17 years old, he was bodysurfing in Arica, Chile, and Puerto Escondido, Mexico, a big-wave capital of the world. In 2015, he headed to Nazare, where he spent the next six years catching some of the biggest waves ever tackled by a body surfer, some as high as 12 metres, a death-defying feat akin to diving off a four-storey building. “He’s in a league of his own,” said Mark Drewelow, a competitive bodysurfer from California.

Lattanzi prepares like a professional athlete to meet the demands of his niche. He eats clean and cross-trains, lifting weights and doing yoga in order to sustain the many hours of swimming, negotiate huge waves and withstand their impact. He now has his sights set on Mavericks, a notoriously dangerous wave in Northern California that can reach heights of more than 18m, which he hopes to tackle this year.

“It takes a real tranquil mind. It takes incredible strength. Incredible lungs. Aqua Gorilla is what we all call him because he’s so strong in the water,” Masters said. “He’s the ultimate waterman.”

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When Masters tried to conquer Mavericks in 2016, he bruised a lung, fractured his neck, broke his collarbone and seven ribs, and was airlifted to Stanford Hospital. “Mavericks is just a different animal that’s unlike any wave on the planet,” Masters said. “It’s incredibly savage.”

Given the risks, some wonder why Lattanzi is willing to paddle out to the world’s most dangerous surf breaks. Even Mark Cunningham, widely considered the best bodysurfer of all time, has found himself wondering: “He’s swimming out in water I wouldn’t even consider. What’s driving him?”

For Lattanzi, it is simple.

“Because I love it,” he said. “I love the adrenaline. I love this feeling of being surrounded by water and finding the biggest barrels and pushing my limits. I’m chasing adrenaline for sure.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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