Itacoa Legends 2017 – World Cup of Bodysurfing

Part I

By Tom Ekman

Rider: Bruno Napoleão ( @brunonapoleao06 ) Photo: Fernando Amorim ( @zerodoiszoom )

In its 3rd year running, Itacoa Legends 2017 -- a.k.a. the World Cup of Bodysurfing – saw a huge gathering of rare bodysurfing talent and good vibes. Day one of the event, featuring qualifying heats for all 72 competitors, started glassy with 3-foot faces, and by the afternoon was blowing offshore and head-high, with Itacoa’s famous barrels unloading left and right.

Highlights of the Qualifiers

The cariocas (Rio locals) are true showmen and women, pulling off blindingly-fast spins -- often before they even drop in. Jaoa Foca pulled off 6 clean spinners in one wave, which is impressive at Itacoa, a thumping, hollow beachbreak that rarely permits more than a couple of point-generating maneuvers.

The waves started to really turn on mid-morning for the women’s heat, which many thought was the best of the qualifiers. In the nascent women’s division, 3 super-skilled bodysurfing ladies – Yana Vaz, Francisca “Chica” Libertad, and Briguitte Linn -- took the boys to school. Briguitte tapped one hot wave after another, showing perfect form and commanding spins. Local gals “Chica” and Yana Vaz, a professional bodyboarder, represented Rio well as they both logged time in the green room.

Francisca “Chica” Libertad of Rio. Photo: Fernando Amorim ( @zerodoiszoom )

Francisca “Chica” Libertad and Yana Vaz.

The culminating moment of the qualifiers occurred at the end of the day, as Renan Talarico and Lucas Nelli rode in side-by-side after their heat -- right into a two-man barrel.

At one point earlier in the day, Fernando Vasquez of Peru was taking off on a left when a surfer rode a thruster into the buoyed-off contest zone and almost hit him. The entire Legends gathering of almost a hundred erupted in screams of outrage and Portuguese obscenities, heckling the offending kook until he paddled clear of the area. The day was ours.

Kook violates the marked-off contest are and almost hits Fernando Vasquez of Peru.

Rider: Cleuser da Silva Photo: Fernando Amorim ( @zerodoiszoom)

 A Range of Styles

This year’s Legends featured competitors from South Africa, the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Peru, Argentina and, of course, Brazil. The range of international and home-grown talent was impressive.

On one hand, you have riders like Marcelo Zampieri, a geography professor from a city 200km from Rio, who brings an extremely clean, technical style. The Zampieri-level guys are like half-pipe riders who fine-tune their tricks to perfection. Then there’s those like J.C. Rodriguez, a Posto 5 regular who hails from a rough favela (where he evades, among other things, machine guns….true story), a local standout who distinguishes himself by being completely fearless on huge drops.

Itacoatiara local boy Kalani Lattanzi is an all-around big wave waterman who spends several months at Puerto every year, and is pushing big wave limits at Nazare, Portugal. Kalani rides everything from his palm to a stand-up paddleboard, and placed an incredible third when the professional bodyboarding circuit held a contest at Itacoatiara in 2015.  At only 22 years old, Kalani’s well on his way to being one of the foremost big wave riders on the planet (see the photo below of him looking like a red speck on a Zicatela monster, and you will get the idea).

Kalani Lattanzi, Puerto Escondido. (Note the absence of a wake...can you say “air-drop”?)

Rider: Kalani Lattanzi Photo: Gabriel Menezes ( @gpmgabriel )

And then there’s Mark Drewelow of San Diego, who brought a completely maverick style to his second year in Legends. One of Mark’s moves (which I call “the flying squirrel”) is when he generates great speed underwater using a tandem dolphin kick, and then completely breaches out of the wave. Mark’s an accomplished bodysurfer in all sorts of conditions, but he’s only added aerials to his repertoire in recent months.  

One of the things that Mark explained to me is that when you pop into the air, the human reflex is to pull your arms close to protect your core as you fall. Mark is now training to keep his arms outstretched in the air through the landing -- a full-on bodysurfing Superman.

Competitor Francisca Libertad a.k.a. “Chica” commented that after Mark’s heat, his eyes were wide with excitement, and he couldn’t stop grinning. Mark ecstatically proclaimed: “Itacoatiara has got to be one of the top five bodysurfing waves on the planet!!” At age 53, Mark is a seasoned boat captain that has surfed all over the world. If anyone has been around enough to bestow “best on planet” status to Itacoa, it’s Mark. Mark placed second in his heat, and will compete in the semi-finals next Saturday. 

Scoring the Qualifying Heats

Legends 2017 was limited to 32 contestants in male handsurfing (handplanes), and 32 in bodysurfing (no planes), and the spots went fast.

The scoring was based on the ASP system, with three judges awarding points for a maximum of 10 waves during a 20-minute heat. (Several competitors maxed out on their 10-wave limit within their 20-minute heats, as the shorter-period swells in Rio deliver near-constant wave action). The first qualifying rounds featured four contenders, the 1st and 2nd of which made the finals. Then, the 3rd and 4th-placing contestants got a second chance to qualify in a second, 6-man heat (a.k.a. the “loser’s round”).

Itacotiara: Paradise Found

Itacoatiara (eet-ah-koh-CHARR-ah) has got to be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Flanked by Yosemite-type granite domes capped with unfurling rainforest, it’s a mile-wide mini-bay with honey-colored sand. It’s like Carmel Beach on acid. The water clarity is exceptional – light green and so clear you can easily see the sandy grooves on the bottom. It’s a remarkably pristine setting for a tiny beach town on the edge of a 6 million-person mega-city.

Itacoa’s main dome is a 30-minute climb. From the top, you can see all of Rio in the distance.

Thousands of cariocas flood Itacoatiara on sunny days.

While the morning was somewhat walled up, the waves progressively opened up as the day went on, with consistent A-frames for the last few heats. This was the cleanest day I have ever seen at Itacoa (of course, the locals complained it was too small – they prefer it to be life-threateningly). The wind was quixotic and super-variable in-day – flipping the contest tents at least twice – but by afternoon had clocked side-offshore, making for one feathering barrel after another.

The water was hovering at 68F/20C, and most contestants chose to don some rubber. Mark and Briguitte specifically wear triathlon suits to reduce drag (“I get 20-30% more speed with my suit,” Mark estimates.)   Air ranged from about 68-78 degrees – like Christmastime on the North Shore. Perfection.

When you had to take a pee, you were instructed to go wade into the water(!) Apparently, the bushes in the dunes at Itacoa are protected, and people will harass you if you relieve yourself there. It makes sense that the residents of this precious hamlet would be protective, as their little community gets flooded with cariocas every day. (There must have been a couple thousand people on the beach – dwarfing the maybe 200 people who actually live in that town.)

Did you know that Brazilian dogs can read?

The recent instability in Brazilian politics and concomitant downturn in the economy have cause a spike in crime. I was told of instances where armed men on motorcycles have been robbing pedestrians on the streets of Itacoa. But watching all the kids and half-naked beachgoers converging mirthfully on Puro Suco, the juice shop that is the community anchor, that seemed hard to imagine. Itacoa is idyllic; a real-life paradise found.

Puro Suco juice bar, Itacoa. (Note the little girl napping on the bench. Thug life.)

Carlos “The kid who’s always smiling” Henrique charging in the qualifiers. Handplane: Sole Pocket Rocket. Photo: Luciano Cabal ( @luciano_cabal )

Brazilian Bodysurfing Comes of Age

Brazilians seem to be the only culture whose lexicon differentiates between casual bodysurfing (jacare, or “crocodile”), and full-on bodysurfing (surf de peito, or “chestsurfing”).   The whomping shorebreak of nearby Copacabana and Ipanema have always generated a strong crew of bodysurfers. Then a few years ago came Homem Peixe (the “Fish Man”) -- a popular show dedicated to bodysurfing that helped the sport gain real legitimacy and momentum in Brazil. (The Fish Man, a.k.a. Henri Pistilli, competed in Legends 2016. )

Suddenly, surf de peito was not just a casual endeavor, but a sophisticated sport for powerful watermen and women. Once handplanes hit the scence (primarily in the last 5 years), the level of performance just exploded, according to Francisca “Chica” Libertad.

The Man Behind the Legends

Lucas Sawaya, an extreme sports event producer, is the founder of Itacoa. Lucas lives in Sao Paulo (the sprawling inland capital, 6 hours away), but comes to Rio to put on Legends every year for love of the sport. (Even his Mom and Dad – some of the sweetest people you’ll meet – were working full-stop to pull off the event.).

While Legends draws some of the top talent in the sport, it’s a lot more than a competition. “The main goal of the event is to bring together the bodysurfing family,” explains Lucas. And for that, Legends is wildly successful.

Thomas Ekman, J.D., M.Ed.
Thomas Ekman, J.D., M.Ed.


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