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Waterspot: Yes, he’s a surfer

Bodyboards have been derogatorily referred to as everything from “sponges” to “speed bumps.” Still, nobody makes fun of them when they see a master at work on one of those prone, flexible devices. The most notable among such masters is Mike Stewart, a man who continues to amaze the most critical crew in the world, the Pipeline Underground, the guys who make Pipe their own personal gym and ride deeper than anybody — anybody but Stewart that is. But while Mike may be the best-known bodyboarder in the world, there are many others who on their day gain respect of surfers on all types of surf craft.

I once asked bodyboard inventor Tom Morey what surfing was, and he answered, “Can you name something that isn’t?” According to Morey, “everything moves in waves, and we ride them.” Morey’s profound answer becomes even more significant once you realize it was he who introduced more people to ocean waves than anyone in history.

While I generally prefer to stand on a board, I ride bodyboards from time to time. I have found that in most ways they are easier than standing on a surfboard, yet in another way more difficult.

The difficulty to me comes from having a worm’s-eye view of a wave by being so close to the water that you often lose sight of the broad expanse you are riding on. For that reason, riding a bodyboard well requires the use of more senses than just sight as you feel your way in and out of the pocket.

Perhaps the greatest reason bodyboards have not been taken seriously is that they have been unfairly placed next to hula-hoops, yoyos and plastic buckets in the toy departments of big discount stores. Because they lack the learning curve of traditional surfing, it seems that every tourist who visits the beach carries at least one bodyboard with them, and we watch them flounder in the shorebreak like so many spawning grunions in the moonlight.

Then, when you see a good bodyboarder you realize that this is an art requiring every bit as much skill as the most difficult of ocean sports.

Grauer Surf Team member Kai Stern ranks increasingly highly among North County’s top bodyboarders as his recent win in the Scholastic Surf Series on Oct. 21 illustrates. Blasting into barrel rolls and hard off the tops, it is rare to find Kai not in the pocket of whatever wave he chooses to ride. Gaining speed as he connects sections requires a comprehensive reading of a wave that leads to a number of other subtle combinations that put bodyboarders like Kai miles ahead of their weekender counterparts.

Last week’s event in Ocean Beach featured a muscular swell that required advanced skills just to paddle out, catch a wave and ride it without it landing on your head. Kai not only managed to avoid repeated wipeouts, but also launched himself beyond the pack into a whole new league, with 11 points (out of a possible 30 points) separating him from the second-place finisher.

More than an impressive win, Kai’s use of a board not much larger than a cafeteria tray made many of the hardcore stand-up surfers on hand consider bodyboarding as a fun alternative.

Personally, I wish I had discovered bodyboards earlier in life, as they are not only fun in the right conditions, but also a great cross-training tool when combined with traditional surfing.

It was certainly the right tool for the job on Oct. 21, when nobody who watched him fly through difficult sections could deny that Kai Stern is not only a real surfer, but also one of the highest caliber.

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