Going topless in California was a big step for me. Going for a paddle in the Pacific too. But I was taking one step at a time. The sand was hot.
My professional “bodywhomping buddy” was a West Coast stereotype. One of those hyper-sexualized American Alpha Males. They are endemic around San Diego.
His name was Greg and he was tall, young, tanned, and muscular, had plenty of great-looking hair, great skin and didn’t need prescription glasses to ogle the local Dimples of Venus.
He conspicuously lacked man boobs and clearly didn’t suffer from arrested genital development. We were slight opposites.
I’m not an obvious big wave type. And he doesn’t garden.
“Hi!” he said, beaming perfect teeth and smiling the smile of a laid-back activist in the fat acceptance movement. With strong feelings of body shame, I lied that it was really nice to meet him.
“So you’re coming to the Snow Zone then?”
“Mmm,” I answered , trying to keep the morbid dysmorphic body disorder out of my voice. He led the way to the ocean. The classroom.
“In an hour we’ll have you ready for La Jolla and maybe even the Banzai Pipeline too.”
As we strode down the beach, I tried not to look an avoidant personality. For years I’ve been scared of water and suffered terrible panic attacks that I would lose my artificial hair integrations in a riptide.
Every step I felt female eyes dilating at Greg. And frowning at my shoulder fur. The background sound was either the surf. Or retching.
No amount of vigorous scrubbing with a long loofah or positive self-imaging could ever transform me into Greg.
I had left La Costa, one of America’s largest health spas, ready for the beach and to blend in as best I could with the beautiful hardbods and babes of south California.
A volleyball landed at my feet. I picked it up to throw back. And broke wind. With no great virility.
Southern California is bad for your self-esteem. It’s most people’s ultimate beach holiday destination. And the surf centre and water sports capital of the world.
“You need the right body configuration. A cute profiled tail and hard concave bottom are musts,” I was told earlier by the barmaid at The Rockin’ Baja Lobster, a coastal cantina in the Harbour Village in Oceanside, 40 minutes from San Diego.
I wasn’t sure if she was referring to surfboards or beachgoers.
The whiteboard menu offered sizzling Cast Iron Mussels, Tequila Lime Shrimp, Lobster Bites and the house speciality, Kick Ass Cerviche.
Oceanside used to be a R&R, party town for Marines on their way to Vietnam and has undergone a stylish revamp.
Less crowded than other surf towns and plenty of “oceanfront elegant dining options” as well as the snazzy La Costa Blue Fire Room Grill nearby, Oceanside is up the North Coast Freeway from downtown San Diego. There’s also a train connection.
It’s becoming popular with Irish holidaymakers keen to indulge their Baywatch fantasies by running through the surf in slow motion. Grace is possible. There are no pebbles.
“The ocean is what Oceanside is all about. The water’s all people care about here,” said the bartender-ess passing me a Horni Tequila. Behind her was a sign: “Home of the Big Bucket”.
I had already visited the California Surf Museum and seen photos of surfers shooting the pier on Huntington Beach and riding snaps and long cutbacks on the famous Newport Wedge.
A guy had filled me in on the legendary watermen and dudes like Mark Cunningham, Peter Peterson, Dudie Miller, Mous’ Robb and Duke ‘Dropknee’ Kahanaokiu.
“You got cutbacks in Ireland?” the guy asked.
“Sure,” I nodded, thinking politically.
I had hung out over a submarine sandwich at The Longboarder and met the locals who told me there was good glass.
And that the shorebreak was “macking and gnarly and solid six foot swells were really stomping and pumping in. And there was some mifty nugs to be caught and rooster tails to carve”.
“Cool!” I replied attempting a peace-out sign but muffing it badly.
It came out more like my watch had sand in it. Then it was time for my whomp.
“You gotta learn between mushy junk and killer A-frames,” said Greg as we stood at the water’s edge. “It’s all about wave selection.” The ones in front of us must have been at least a foot.
“We call that ankle slop.”
Every August, Oceanside hosts the World Bodysurfing Championships. Greg rides for the South Jetty Swells. Which means he can Dolphin Pop and Porpoise.
But he wasn’t expecting me to Sperm.
As I leant on his broad shoulders to get my flip-flops off, he told me that Baywatch got its name from the dinghies used by the San Diego and LA rescue services.
He also told me that The Green Room is the middle of a wave. The Snow Zone is the same.
I paddled out up to my shins, trying not to say “It’s cold! I’m getting goosebumps!” I was immediately hit by a two-footer and lost my balance. Greg rescued me.
“You aren’t much of a seaside guy, are you? Don’t expect to spin any big backdoor barrels for a while.”
The night before I had gone on a “Brews By Your Shoes” micro-brew crawl and had several “Strong Blondes in the Oceansidce Ale Works” , a Beach Honey in the Breakwater Brewing Co and a Grief Counsellor hand-crafted beer in the Bagby.
We strode further out into the ocean, metaphorically in the direction of Waimea Beach, Hawaii. It was exhilarating when the Pacific came up to my knees.
“I’m feel really stoked,” I shouted above the crashing waves. Before being almost wiped out by a four-year-old in water wings.
“Bodybashing” or “whomping” isn’t complicated. You just lie down and wait for a wave to come along. Shoulders hunched, hands held tight to my side, kicking hard and facing the right way to optimize propulsion, I didn’t move. I was adhered to a sandbar.
Then I felt uplifted. “ I’m on! I’m on! I’m off. I’m off!” Greg openly doubted I would be scouted by top bodysurf teams, Las Escolleras or Pine Street. Grand champion Brett Templeman had little to fear.
I grabbed a half-decent one and accelerated to Greg’s feet. “Intense!” I said.
“I’m really logging up some quality tube time in the Green Room. What a buzz, man! What a rush!” I had beaten some jetsam to the shore. Greg looked at me like a piece of flotsam.
“Bodysurfing is the most natural way to use the waves. You become at one with them. It’s the easiest avenue to experiencing the great energy of the ocean. It’s the 4x4 of wave riding.”
I lay on my stomach and let the warm waves wash over me. My mouth tasted of shingle. It was time, as they say in California , “to find some trim on an open face and bust a move and show off in front of the chicks”.
Or, as we congenitally uncoordinated un-naturalised amateurs say, “Make a spectacle of yourself”.
I launched myself forward and sank again like a rock. Greg picked me out of the suds. Spitting into my goggles, I dug into the next wavelet and it carried me and I rode it.
“The high is so simplified! Great radnessness!”
The whitecaps started to crest and washed me up at Greg’s feet.
“You’ve got to use your body length more. And lose some weight. And go out farther. Out of your depth.”
He looked at my hockey shorts. “They’re way too baggy too and have pockets. They’re holding you back. They’ll have to go.”
I blushed. Greg spoke man-to-man. “ Your body may not be a great buoyancy device. But you’re a natural bodybasher.
“You’ve got it all. You’re a kook and always will be.”
The World Bodysurfing Championships take place on August 22.
How to get there: www.aerlingus.com flies to San Diego via JFK New York. Oceanside is half an hour from San Diego.
Accommodation: La Costa Resort and Spa, Carlsbad www.omnihotels.com; Wyndham Oceanside Pier Resort – in San Diego you can rent a yacht or a houseboat for an overnight stay. Close to the airport. www.californiacruisin.com
What to see: San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld, whale migration (mid-Jan is peak season), Balboa Park, USS Midway aircraft carrier museum, Old Town District State Historic Park.
Visit the Surf Museum ( Entry $5) www.surfmuseum.org . Take the Oceanside Craft Beer Tour and discover the “Bagby Beer Co’s “Wiseacre Wheat”, “Surfside Tap Room” (28 beers on tap including “Bear Republic and “Prohibition IPA” and Davin White’s “Wrench and Rodent Sea Bass Gastro Pub”.
Eat: Rockin’ Baja Lobster ( www.rockinbaja.com ) Taco Tuesdays and Happy Hour 3-6pm. Tin Fish Oceanside Pier ( www.tinfishrestaurants.com )
Potpourri Resale Boutique, Sunset Market, Farmers Market (Thursdays 9am-1pm)
Deep sea fish for barracuda and thresher shark ( www.pacificventure.com ); Whalewatching trip ( www.heligensportfishing.com )