Before the board, there was the body.
And before those fancy fiberglass slabs glided and bobbed in the sea like so much flotsam, there was also Bill Lucking, a local surfer who decided that the body and the wave were meant to be one.
Now, after four decades of communing flesh-to-foam with the icy swells, Lucking at 70 is the guru of the Ventura County Body Surfing Assn. Shunning one of the most Californian of icons, he and his dozen or so followers make a daily ritual of mounting, minus boards, the crests of the South Jetty's demanding breakers.
"We just feel as though it's a little bit more of a pure sport," said Lucking's daughter, Carly Ford, one of three generations of body surfers in the family. "It's just you and the wave. Nothing else."
That philosophy took full form last weekend as 100 surfers flocked to the jetty at Ventura Harbor for the VCBSA's eighth annual running of the Cold Water Classic body surfing contest.
Surfing purists, from as far away as San Diego and San Francisco, spent Saturday morning shivering in wet suits and flippers as they waited their turn to tame the rough waters in a series of 12-minute heats.
Judges scored them on how proficiently they entered the waves, which swells they selected, how long they rode them and what tricks they performed while balancing prone on the wave's edge.
"For many years, it was virtually a lost art," said Lucking, an Ojai rancher and attorney. "Now, it's becoming popular again. It's sort of like waltzing. It's hard to find anybody who knows how to waltz. But it used to be the most popular dance around."
Although most of the competitors were too young to be waltzers, many have played a key role in elevating body surfing to the level of a finely performed dance.
There was John Shearer, for instance, a 33-year-old high school English teacher from Manhattan Beach, who twice has won world championships at the body surfing finals held annually in Oceanside.
By selecting a large wave with a good shape, positioning himself on its crest and performing such tricks as the popular 360-degree rotation known as a spinner, Shearer said he can achieve the sensation of flying on water.
"You position yourself like an airplane, with your nose out," he said. "Your arms are the wings. Your feet is the tail . . . You're completely involved in the wave."
Mike Cunningham, a 31-year-old Manhattan Beach lifeguard and four-time world champion, also preached the pleasures of the sport.
"When you have a good ride, everybody can tell," he said. "It's just you and the ocean. You feel the water running all over your body and it's exhilarating."
Ford, 37, one of the few female competitors, said that each surfers has his own way of riding a wave.
"It's a really personalized thing," said Ford, a bookkeeper at her husband's Ventura Avenue construction equipment firm. "Everybody has his own style. I can stand on the beach and know who's riding a wave just by the way they look out there."
For the local group, such sensations needn't be put off until the next contest.
Meet in the Ocean
Every day, rain or shine, three to 15 of them meet at lunchtime to cool their tensions in the ocean and share the camaraderie engendered by their often uncelebrated endeavor.
"We're all a real bunch of go-getters," Ford said. "It does us a lot of good mentally and physically."
While their sessions may last as long as 1 1/2 hours, the surfers, many of whom are professionals and businessmen, say they usually compensate by coming to work early and staying late in the office.
Besides, they add, after spending lunchtime in the ocean, they return to work invigorated.
"It's a high," Lucking said. "And it's an awful lot better than drinking a couple of martinis at lunch."