Keith Malloy’s New Bodysurfing Documentary Debuts in Encinitas (

[Originally posted on]


A hushed whisper sweeps across the hundred surfers assembled before the La Paloma theater in Encinitas, California. We all peek to catch a glimpse of Mark Cunningham, the silver-headed star of tonight’s movie, Come Hell or High Water. Our reverence for this legendary waterman would be nothing unusual, except that Mark rarely touches a surfboard — he’s a bodysurfer.

Come Hell or High Water, The Plight of the Torpedo People is the first “surf” film entirely dedicated to surfing waves with no board. It’s the brainchild of ex-pro tour rider Keith Malloy and features all of the legends of what has been hitherto considered largely a post-surf pastime. Malloy has brought together the world’s best body surfers with the help of two sponsors, Nixon and Patagonia, the latter having an immense underground following for their cult-documentary 180º South.

So what’s the fanfare about? Like surfing, the art of swimming in the waves originated thousands of years ago with the Polynesians. It was similarly adopted by Americans in ’50s Hawaii, but it never garnered the widespread following that surfing did. Today, over 100 surfing magazines exist — but not one publication is dedicated to bodysurfing.

Malloy presents bodysurfing not as an offshoot, but as a pursuit of its own. The film’s star quartet provide a glimpse of the possible as they glide through the water as effortlessly as dolphins, pulling back-to-back barrel rolls, getting tubed, and making 15- to 20-foot bare-belly drops down the infamous Wedge of Newport Beach, which one veteran bodysurfer describes as “putting yourself in the path of a bull that rips your clothes but doesn’t kill you.”

In Come Hell or High Water we find a sport devoid of competition, where people still play purely for fun. We meet those atop bodysurfing’s underground hierarchy and follow them to their favorite spots, from Hawaii’s less-filmed South Shore to San Diego, Santa Cruz, and as far as Tahiti and the rivers of Montana. Malloy tastefully ties together the variegated locales with a mellow acoustic soundtrack and the bare lens of a 16mm camera.

The crowd stepped out of the theater an hour later visibly refreshed from a film so heartfelt, soulful, and raw. Many in the audience enjoy surfing as a way to commune with nature, but that night we saw bodysurfing take it one step further. The ten-time world champ, Kelly Slater, was impressed, as was San Diegan surfing legend, Rob Machado “I haven’t heard so many hoots during a surf movie for a long time,” he said with a beaming smile.

The hoots were warranted. In an age when much of surfing has become dominated by big airs, PWC-assisted tow-ins to monster waves, and corporate surf labels, a return to the purity of waveriding was widely appreciated. Mark Cunningham said it best, “It’s not about getting the biggest wave or the hugest barrel; it’s just about getting in the ocean and having fun.”

In the question-and-answer session afterwards, it became clear that there’s a conspicuous absence of brands in a sport for which you can’t sell any equipment beyond fins. Perhaps that’s why it’s stayed so underground — much of the popularity of surfing is sustained by surf movies sponsored by board and clothing manufacturers. It’s still unclear if the sport could become similarly popular given the inherent lack of commercial potential in such a direct experience with nature.

One of the last questions addressed the inevitable query in our consumer society. A would-be bodysurfer raised his hand and asked the legend Mark Cunningham, “I want to get started, what brand of fins should I buy?”

Cunningham looked at the others and smiled. “Just wear whatever feels comfortable.”

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