They say that bellyboarding is perhaps most people’s first taste of surfing. It could just be true, considering this riding activity dates as far back as 2,000 B.C. Most historians regard it as the original form of board surfing.
Bellyboarding is making a comeback as another exciting water activity to try. Pure nostalgia, you might think – from its early days in Polynesia and Hawaii where children used bellyboards as training tools to the 1937 Great Western Railway poster that showed two women in scarlet bathing suits riding a wave on wooden bellyboards.
What is it about bellyboarding? And, why is it considered rescuing fun in an uptight world of aggressive surfing world?
What Is Bellyboarding?
Bellyboarding is a surface water sport that involves riding waves on small wooden boards. Riders take advantage of the white water to come into the beach – very dissimilar to surfers and boogie boarders that go out of their depth.
This ancient recreational practice originated in Hawaii and arrived in England in the early 20th century. Since then, it has conquered the globe and never disappeared.
The Bellyboard History
A bellyboard is a small buoyant board, usually less than three or four feet long, used in bellyboarding. The oldest known bellyboards are sized between 4’ to 4’5” from the 18th century. They are wooden planks with a slightly elevated round nose and a flat-cut tail.
There are no fins and traction pads. Also, there is no leash since the bellyboard is easier to manage and keep in hand.
This pure and straightforward wave riding tool has evolved with the explosion of surfing. So much that when it spread across the world, it gained new designs and reconquered its spot in the hearts of collectors and retro surfing aficionados.
In 1960, American surfers integrated stabilizing fins to their plywood bellyboards. They rode these sticks for fun at Newport Beach’s The Wedge and Oahu’s Makapu and Sandy Beach. Surf companies like Dextra and Newport Paipo attempted to launch a few foam and fiberglass models.
However, the hype faded, and the good old bellyboard went belowground. Production of these boards decreased with the development of bodyboards on polystyrene boards and the art of actual surfing.
In an attempt to revive this retro slide, the World Bellyboarding Championships held each year since 2002. The first session took place with 20 participants. More than 150 competitors from different countries like Australia, USA, and the British Virgin Islands participated a few years later.
Quick How-To Guide for Bellyboarding
The first thing you need to remember with this water activity is that – the bellyboards are not floatation devices. Proficient swimmers and surfers ride them, while beginners should be under adult supervision. Always bellyboard at lifeguarded spots, between the red and yellow flags.
If you’ve ridden a boogieboard before, you’ll realize they are almost similar but not quite. Generally, bellyboards are designed to keep you afloat. The difference is, bellyboards are made from plywood which has no floatation. These boards act as a planing surface on top of the water.
Step 1. Position in thigh-deep water
Between the red and yellow flags at a lifeguarded beach, position yourself in thigh-deep water. This spot allows you to dig up a strong push off the bottom.
To do that, push the tail of the bellyboard onto your hips while you hold it as close to the nose as possible. You may have to stick your behind out a little. You can practice at home before heading to the beach to get used to it.
Step 2. Pick the right wave
Experiencing a good ride relies greatly on wave selection and timing. It is critical to pick a sound and powerful-looking wave that will drive and thrust you forward with the right amount of speed.
You can try to pick a wave that has only just broken but still has power left in it. Wave selection is not as simple as it seems. It has to be learned over time. This is the reason you have to practice because picking the right waves can be learned through experience.
Step 3. Timing is everything
Just before the wave hits you – probably about a second before it does, jump forward onto the water in front of the wave. If timed suitably, the tide will push you along, and you will be bellyboarding in no time.
Timing is everything in this activity, so you must calculate and get the pacing right. Jumping on too early may leave you sinking with the wave passing over you. Too late, and you will – well, miss the wave you waited. Be patient. It can take a few attempts if you’ve never tried it before.
Be sure to hold the nose of your board with your arms extended out-front of you. Your belly and chest should be positioned on the lower half of the board.
Step 4. Enjoy the ride
Wave riding is a lot of fun, so enjoy the ride and do the same thing repeatedly until you master it.
Bellyboards Are Built To Last and Are Eco-Friendly
There is a shared purpose from the wave of responsible manufacturers within the surf industry to protect the beaches from plastic pollution.
One of the most famous names in the bellyboards industry – Dick Pearce, commits to promoting and continuing the culture of bellyboarding for generations to come and to keep the beaches clean. His team sources wood from sustainably-managed forests in Europe.
His commitment includes making sure his boards are lovingly produced to last a lifetime, so much that you can pass your board on to the next generation.
Best Bellyboards You Can Check Out
The popularity of bodyboards and polystyrene surfboards somehow left bellyboards underground. You may not be able to find one on Amazon or at your local surf store. Instead, you may reach out to custom shapers and well-known bellyboard manufacturers.
Surfing Green is a Queensland-based bellyboard-shaper that uses sustainable surfing products to protect the ocean we all love. Their bellyboards are fast and fun. You can choose from 2’, 3’, or 4’. All of which come with a single deep concave with nice sharp rails and a slightly parabolic tail.
Dick Pearce produces his bellyboards from his small workshop at Hope Yard, Newquay. His team aims to make long-lasting and sustainable products. All of Dick Pearce’s bellyboards follow the same templates and designs passed down through generations. Despite that, each one of them comes unique and individually handcrafted.
Tom’s love for surfboards and intense interest in surfboard history made him the master shaper he is now. He has perfected the building of hollow wood surfboards. A big part of his surfboard world belongs to the bellyboard. He started with replicating the ancient Hawaiian bellyboards, surfed them, and improved the design and concept on his own. One of his famous works is his bellyboard named “Surfie.”
Bellyboarding may just be another way to enjoy riding waves on a piece of wood. But, its colorful history and how it is entwined with British surfing history are also reasons why they are still around despite the presence of modern surfboards.