Riding a wave using only the body as a planing surface; the original and purest form of surfing. Prior to the invention of the surf leash in the early 1970s, all surfers were adept bodysurfers, as nearly every wipeout was followed by a bodysurfing ride to the beach to pick up the lost board. In the 1990s, bodysurfing was being described as "the lost art," but in the new century, following along with the sport's neo-retro movement, it had a significant uptick in popularity. "It's just so complimentary to what the wave is doing," bodysurfing ace Mike Stewart said in 2009. "To me it's the best interaction between man and nature that exists."

Nothing factual is known about the origins of bodysurfing, but it's possible that humans were inspired to emulate wave-riding sea animals such as dolphins and seals. Bodysurfing certainly predates board-surfing, which itself, University of Hawaii anthropologist Ben Finney suggests, may date as far back as 2000 B.C. Recorded bodysurfing history, however, begins after that of board-surfing. In 1899, Australian Fred Williams was taught to bodysurf by Tommy Tanna, a Polynesian islander brought to Sydney to work as a gardener; Williams in turn taught local "surf-bathers" how to ride waves.

Bodysurfing was first popularized in the United States during the mid-'20s by Olympic swimmer Wally O'Conner of Los Angeles, who would visit local beaches and draw an audience by diving underwater while facing an incoming wave, do a push-turn off the sand, then burst out of the shore-bound white water. (USC football player Marion Morrison, an early California bodysurfer, tore ligaments in his shoulder while riding the surf near Balboa Pier in 1926; finished with organized sports, Morrison made his way to Hollywood and was renamed John Wayne.)

In 1931, Los Angeles bodysurfer Ron Drummond published The Art of Wave-Riding, a 26-page primer on bodysurfing basics, and the first book of any kind on surfing. California surfer Owen Churchill visited Hawaii the following year and noticed that locals were able to increase the power of their kick stroke—and therefore catch waves easier—after fixing palm fronds to their feet with tar. Churchill kept the idea in the back of his mind, and in 1940 introduced what would become a bodysurfing equipment standard: the Churchill "Duck Feet" swim fin. In another breakthrough, around the same time, Santa Monica lifeguard Cal Porter taught himself how to ride at an angle across the wave face rather than straight to the beach.

Tens of thousands of coast-dwelling Americans had by that time taken to waves. A bodysurfing article published in 1940 by Life magazine, "Surf-Riding is a Favorite Summertime Sport," noted that "almost every boy and girl [in California] is an expert surf-rider." Board-surfing, mat-riding, and bodyboarding would all become popular in the years and decades to come—and gain far more attention—but bodysurfing, practiced mostly by tourists and day visitors during the warmer months, has always, quietly, remained the most popular form of wave-riding.

Beginning bodysurfers ride near the shore, in water shallow enough to allow them to catch an incoming wave—sometimes already broken—with a jumping push-start, followed by a straight-for-the-beach ride either with their arms tight against their sides or extended out before them. Intermediate and advanced bodysurfers catch unbroken waves and angle in one direction or another across the wave face, usually extending the wave-side arm and using the palm of the hand as an added planing surface. (A variety of handheld planing aids, called "handplanes," ranging from a simple plywood rectangle to plastic-molded devices with straps and tiny fins, have been used and discarded over the decades; the 2000s saw a sharp increase in their use.) Swim fins retain an essential piece of bodysurfing equipment, as they allow the bodysurfer to catch waves in deeper water, and can also provide a burst of speed while riding.

While bodysurfing for the most part involves trimming along the wave face and riding inside the tube whenever possible, maneuvers such as spinners and barrel rolls are fairly common among advanced riders. Some of the best waves for bodysurfing are steep, fast, tubing beachbreak waves that are often unsuitable for boardsurfing; two of the best known are Sandy Beach and Makapuu on the east shore of Oahu in Hawaii. The Wedge, in Newport Beach, California, a ferocious sand-pounding peak wave aptly described by Sports Illustrated in 1971 as "a great big screaming shorebreak," has for decades been bodysurfing's most fearsome and famous break. Each year the Wedge is responsible for dozens of neck and back injuries; some permanent.

Bodysurfing has always been the least-publicized form of surfing, partly because it offers little to marketers and also because the act doesn't have the same visceral impact as boardriding. Several bodysurfers have nonetheless distinguished themselves through the years, including Buffalo Keaulana and Barry Holt of Hawaii; Californians Bud Browne, Candy Calhoun, Larry Lunbeck, and Mickey Muñoz; Wedge riders Fred Simpson, Terry Wade, and Mark McDonald; and Australians Don McCredie, Tony Hubbard, Max Watt, and Michael Fay. Hawaiian lifeguard Mark Cunningham, a sublimely smooth master at the board-dominated Pipeline, was unanimously regarded as the world's premier bodysurfer from the mid-1970s to the early '90s; nine-time bodyboarding world champion Mike Stewart then become the sport's dominant presence, and was the first to do a barrel roll at Pipeline.

The 2000s brought a renaissance for bodysurfing, thanks mostly to a renewed interest among young surfers in riding alternative surf craft. (It didn't hurt that presidential candidate Barack Obama, during a break in his 2008 campaign, bodysurfed with great style at Sandy Beach.) By 2010, beautifully designed artisanal wooden handplanes were being sold online and in surfshops around the world. California pro surfers Chris, Keith, and Dan Malloy developed a serious interest in bodysurfing, and in 2011 Keith Malloy released Come Hell or High Water, a beautifully-shot film devoted to bodysurfing; The Plight of the Torpedo People, a hardcover book documenting the making of Malloy's film, written by Dave Parmenter and Bruce Jenkins, was released in 2013.

Bodysurfing has no organized contest circuits or leagues, or a definitive world championship. A limited number of individual contests, however, have long been attended by a small international cadre of full-time bodysurfers. Two of the biggest events, both founded in 1977, are the Oceanside World Bodysurfing Championship, held in midsummer, and the Pipeline Bodysurfing Classic, usually held in January. The Pipeline Classic, long regarded as the sport's most prestigious contest, became the first professional bodysurfing contest in 1980, but soon returned to amateur status after organizers were unable to find sponsors. Record-keeping for the Pipeline Classic has been spotty; available results are as follows:

1981: Mark Cunningham
1982: (no results available)
1983: (no results available)
1984: Mark Cunningham
1985: (no results available)
1986: Bob Thomas
1987: Jame Jonsson
1988: (no results available)
1989: Mark Cunningham
1990: Mark Kalaugher
1991: Mike Stewart
1992: Don King
1993: Mike Stewart
1994: Mike Stewart
1995: John Fink
1996: Larry Russo
1997: Mike Stewart
1998: Mike Stewart
1999: Mike Stewart
2000: Mark Cunningham
2001: Mike Stewart
2002: Mike Stewart
2003: Mike Stewart
2004: Mike Stewart
2005: Todd Sells
2006: Steve Kapela
2007: (not held)
2008: Mike Stewart
2009: (not held)
2010: Mike Stewart
2011: Mike Stewart

Included among the small number of bodysurfing video titles are Primal Surf (2000), Pure Blue (2001), and Come Hell or High Water (2011). Bodysurfing has also been featured in more than a dozen surf movies and videos, including Barefoot Adventure (1960), Gun Ho! (1963), The Endless Summer (1966), Going Surfin' (1973), and We Got Surf (1981). The Art of Bodysurfing, a paperback book offering both history and instruction, was published in 1972.