There are no surfboards to ride or bodyboards to rest on. No leashes to tether athlete to equipment that’s nonexistent anyway. No Jet Ski to give a motorized leg up on Mother Nature’s monsters. Just a pair of flippers, a wave and a shot of pure adrenaline.
“Bodysurfing is the most minimalistic, pared- down way that you can experience the ocean,” says photographer Chris Burkard. And he should know. For a man who takes pictures of adventure sports, far-flung surf trips to Russia and Iceland, and more static subjects—including computer equipment, cars and beer—for a living, it’s the thrill of hanging beneath titanic Tahitian waves, capturing aquatic imagery of human torpedoes rocketing through the crystal blue, that gets his pulse racing.
Burkard joined filmmaker and big-wave surfer Keith Malloy on his globetrotting trip to Maine, California, Hawaii, New Zealand and Tahiti for the 2011 film Come Hell or High Water and its subsequent companion book, The Plight of the Torpedo People. It was a passion project done partly to create the kind of art seen on these pages and partly to push the limits of the athletes who engage in this underappreciated activity that, in one form or another, has been around as long as man and wave have cohabited the planet.
“If you’ve stepped into the ocean or jumped into a wave, you’ve bodysurfed, ” says Burkard. “Everybody’s done it at some point.” Everybody, maybe, but only a rare few at the level of skill and daring of such legendary watermen as Hawaiian lifeguard Mark Cunningham, competitive bodysurfer Mike Stewart, Hawaiian surf scene fixture Chris Kalima and Dan Malloy, big-wave surfer and brother of filmmaker Keith.
“Bodysurfers are often the most experienced in the water,” says Burkard. “And usually they get the least amount of respect. They understand the currents and the sun and the tides. There’s such a connection to the ocean. As esoteric as that might sound, it’s really very true: you have to be in tune with what’s happening around you, or you’ll get seriously injured.”
That’s especially the case in Tahiti, where the wave rises out of very deep water and breaks over an extremely shallow—and brutally unforgiving —coral reef. “It’s a huge slab of water that just unloads onto the reef,” says Burkard. “It’s incredible. It’s kind of the worst wave you could bodysurf. Ever. But these guys wanted to see if it could be done. They wanted to test the limits of what was possible. It was really cool to watch.”
Indeed, Burkard had the best seat in the house for this project. “The water was the clearest I have ever seen in my life. I would take a big breath and go down and just try to catch these guys as they followed the back of the wave. I would lose track of how long I had been down and then suddenly think, ‘Oh, I’m out of breath. I’ve got to rush to the surface.’ But I didn’t want to miss a single moment, because it was unique and so abstract.”
And thus the term ‘torpedo people’. “When the guys have their arms by their sides,” says Burkard, “gliding toward the surface, they look like torpedoes.”Surf’s up, boys. Bombs away.