If you’re an active traveler headed to Hawai‘i, chances are, you’re going to want to give surfing a try. You’ve romanticized yourself in that iconic position: standing on the edge of a surfboard at sunset, knees slightly bent, arms extended, a wave propelling you along as it unfurls behind you. Unfortunately for most, that daydream quickly comes to an end when they actually try to stand up on a surfboard. In surfing, the learning curve is real—you don’t just show up in Hawai‘i and start shredding. It takes most people a couple sessions before they’re even able to get up on their feet.
Surfing was popularized by Duke Kahanamoku at Waikiki Beach in the early 20th century; since then, it has been considered Hawai‘i’s flagship sport. The state hosts endless competitions and has a reputation for some of the best waves on Earth. Fair enough. But take a ride around the islands and you’ll notice something: Surfing might be the area’s most glorified sport, but it is not necessarily the most popular. Visit local beaches and hangouts and you’ll notice that many people are riding a different kind of board: a bodyboard, or boogie board, as it is sometimes called.
Locals love bodyboarding because it requires no balance and is generally a pick-up-and-go activity—meaning you spend less time learning and more time having fun right away. As with surfing, the goal is to catch and ride waves, but you recline on the board the entire time instead of standing up and are aided in your paddling by thick, short flippers. Small waves are easy to catch and can be ridden safely by people of all abilities, and it can be done close to shore (unlike surfing, which requires you paddle out a ways). Because of all this, bodyboarding is one of the most widely enjoyed beach activities across all age groups.
“Bodyboarding is easy in that you can grab a board, grab some flippers, kick out, and if you see a wave coming, you can turn and go,” says Wayne Gardener, an Oahu North Shore resident, bodyboarder, and surfer. “You just have to lie down and hang on, and essentially you’re a bodyboarder.”
Gardener likes bodyboarding because the barrier to entry is low, yet it is still a sport that can be taken to the next level for both amateurs and professionals. Advanced riders can make turns and cuts the same way surfers do, and every winter there is a big bodyboarding competition, the Mike Stewart Pipeline Invitational, at the iconic Pipeline surf break on the North Shore.
Getting started is easy, but that doesn’t mean bodyboarding as a sport is any less challenging. “Getting good on a bodyboard is essentially as hard if not harder than surfing,” says Gardener. “Bodyboarding is much more about doing maneuvers, coming to the top of the wave and doing a roll or spin or a trick. And to get good at that, you need hours and hours in the water to get your timing.”
Winter is the best season for the sport, when bodyboard-centric breaks at beaches like Sandy’s or Makapu‘u produce consistent shore breaks. For the beginner, Walls in Waikiki is a nice option any time of year, as is any beach you can find with a small shore break. Gardener says that surfing still dominates the culture on the North Shore, but even still, if you head out on a big day in the summer, you are sure to see a bodyboarder or two shooting through barrels alongside the surfers.
So next time you come to Hawaii, give it a go. Your friends might think you’re crazy when you tell them you didn’t try to surf, but none of the locals will.
If You Go:
Head to the Hans Hedemann Surf School in Waikiki to learn the bodyboarding basics like catching waves, as well as more complex tricks like spinning and carving. You can rent or buy boards from most surf shops, or if you’re just looking to have fun, you can find inexpensive ones ($30-$40) at swim shops and Walmart.