How handplanes changed my life

by brian lam

I looked back and the wave was at least 5 times my height as I slid down its face. But that’s mostly because I was surfing on belly and fins, my head barely out of the water. And the rest of my body spearheaded by my new little friend, the Enjoy handplane. Most other people on short boards were cursing at how tiny the waves were.

Three months ago, I wrote about handplanes and how I was thinking about getting into them. And I did. And it changed everything for me. I don’t think it looks very cool, from the shore, but it’s hard to describe how fun it is. It changed my life like surfing did in the first place.

Everyone should have something like this. Something that costs very little, and depends on nothing else but doing it to be perfectly happy. For me, this is that: kicking into a wave and then trying to stay in the most powerful part of it, right ahead of the white water, for as long as possible. That’s it. That’s all I need. Spending time in the water is always fun, but there are certain things about body surfing I’m surprised to learn I like a lot more than regular surfing. You’re using your entire body, the entire time and you can twist your body into different shapes to ride the waves. And unlike surfing, which I’m not so great at, you don’t need to have good balance or board control. You, your swimfins and the handplane, become the surfboard. You can arch your back to take a higher line up the face of the wave and aim your arm down the face of the wave to head towards the bottom, where you’ll fly with your feet inverted above the rest of your body. I feel like a fucking dolphin.

In bigger, more organized surf, you don’t even really need the handplane to ride the wave. The world’s best bodysurfer, Mark Cunningham, a former north shore hawaii lifeguard, body surfs pipeline’s hollow surf without any, as do many other champions. For normal people, a handplane makes a difference. And yet, so many surfers have no idea what they are when I show up at the beach with one.

As I found out this Summer, the right handplane can turn a less powerful, casual, mushy wave into something else. And inches and slight variations in shape make some difference, surprisingly. My first handplane was shaped by Danny Hess, the famous wooden surfboard maker from San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, with a lot of rocker and a swallowtail. The plane I bought from him seems to work really well in more powerful waves, because of its shape, where the water has enough power to push you forward even if the handle’s hole causes a bit of drag. I met with Danny for the first time last week. Guy is kind of a genius, the way he is constantly pushing his design and construction techniques forward, like a chef with secret sauce who isn’t content to leave the recipe alone. He’d been working on some larger handplanes, one of which I saw in NY, and described it as a good plane for the kind of wave that needs a bit more speed to stay out of the foam. And the new boards I saw, well, I would tell you more, but then I’d have to kill us both. I’d love to try one, soon, though I’m not sure I’m advanced enough to appreciate his work. Though I have gone on sort of a handplane bender.

I recently picked up a few more planes by Brownfish (A beautifully stained piece of wood with an adjustable strap handle, and a Do It Yourself kit by Korduroy.TV and Cyrus Sutton (A kind of expensive block of paulonia wood.) And a secret swim training tool that supposedly doubles great as a handplane byFINIS that I have yet to test. I’m addicted to handplanes and as I have been to any piece of gear I have ever owned.

But the Enjoy handplane was the one I used the most this summer because of three things. It has a very very flat bottom and wide planing area, making it very fast even on little waves. It has a handle, and there’s no hole in the middle, so it has very little drag. And it has a GoPro camera mount, so I could take videos like this one:

It’s also just very light, and well, beautiful. Ed Lewis and Kipp Denslow, out of Leucadia California, make Enjoy planes one at a time, by hand, giving surfboards destroyed by large surf a second life, harvesting the carcasses, stripping the old finish off and re painting and re glassing them into these little planes I have a great deal of affection for.

The Enjoy handplane isn’t perfect. They’re not as tough as the wooden ones, and I dinged mine dropping it into my trunk. But you can repair them just like regular surfboards. I’m not sure how the shape will hold up in bigger waves this winter, either. And in general, handplaning isn’t always peachy in San Francisco. Being submerged in the water instead of floating on a board means three things: I get tired more quickly, I get colder more quickly and I hear plenty of jokes about sharks giving me a chomp before anyone else in the line up. But it’s undeniable that I have more fun, more consistently, flying down the face of a wave nose first, fins up, down in the water where even little waves can feel bigger.

The ultimate cool thing about hand planing is something I realized when I brought my little brother to get a hand plane in New York’s Mollusk surf shop. Without any wave experience, he got right into it. And without any practice, he was having just as much, if not more, fun than I was sliding down faces, drinking whitewater and kicking around like an otter with a jet on his wrist.

Body surfing’s cheap, it’s accessible by mostly anyone, and it’s amazing. Try it if you have the means. Because I’ve had plenty of bad days sailing, fishing and surfing, but I’ve never had a bad day handplaning.

Oh one more thing: Here’s a video of Ed Lewis handplaning last friday, with photos taken by his friend David Gray.

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