Why you should care
Because this master of bodysurfing may have something to teach us about the ocean.
“Remember to breathe in when the wave comes!” a goggled man shouts to me in Portuguese before disappearing. We are in a cove, hemmed in by a circular outcropping of volcanic rock, and the only way out is through a 15-foot underwater tunnel. Plus, the surf is coming. Trying to keep my head above water, I breathe in with the wave, out with the wave — wax on, wax off, ocean-style — before diving down just as a wave thrusts me into the tunnel. As I approach its end and see the man’s yellow flippers there, waiting, the water sucks me back into the tunnel. My heart beats hard and heavy — dum-dum, dum-dum — as the seconds tick by.
Baptism by water, if you will, into the world of “sea coaching,” a world that bodysurfer Henrique Pistilli says he created.
With sun-bleached hair and bronzed skin, Pistilli is the 36-year-old unofficial Brazilian ambassador for bodysurfing, the sport you might not have realized was one. It’s essentially surfing, except swap out the board for your own chest. A couple thousand people practice it, according to experts, and there are championship tournaments each year, but that’s not Pistilli’s bag. He’s more interested in helping people get in close contact with the force of the ocean, and he uses bodysurfing and his newfangled sea coaching as the conduit.
It’s how I ended up in an underwater tunnel — and how Pistilli ended up in the living rooms of thousands of Brazilians. The supercool Brazilian outdoor-sports channel Off, part of the massive Globo network, just started airing the second season of Homem Peixe, or Fish Man, a show that follows Pistilli around the world, capturing his dolphinlike dives in lush, underwater blues. The show features cameos by star surfers, journalists and even Brazilian rock stars like Lenine, and to Pistilli it’s a a way of helping others “experience the force of the ocean in a way that helps them also better understand themselves.” Rafael Papa, the show’s director, says the concept was a tough sell at first, but it has worked out. Though viewership numbers haven’t been released yet, Papa points to the fact that the show ended up having 13 episodes, and that another 13 were ordered, as evidence that there must be viewers enough.
Hard to deny that the man’s doing something right: He spends his days traveling the world’s most beautiful beaches and frolicking in the water before the cameras, all for the Brazilians back home to zen out watching. Initially he doubted that bodysurfing could be a career and chose a “responsible” profession — business consulting — instead. But then Pistilli had a revelation: He could marry his consulting experience with his longing for the sea. So he left it all behind — the 9 to 5, his comfortable middle-class roots, even the mainland. A few years ago, he moved to a remote archipelago off Brazil’s northeast coast to begin sea coaching in earnest. Spend a day with him floating in the water, stretching in the sand, and you’ll see that he’s fallen off the deep end, just in a lucrative way.
These days Pistilli charges hundreds of dollars for sea-coaching sessions that resemble breath-focused mindfulness practices, with the framing of the waves in and out. On the one hand, it’s high-end yoga, priced for VIP clients. How this will fly as Brazil’s economy flails about is uncertain; most Brazilians are zipping up their wallets and just trying to hold on. But luxe tourism may yet be resilient, says Adriana Schmidt, who runs an ecotourism business on the same archipelago as Pistilli. “There has been no sign of crisis here,” she says.
Not everyone (hand raising here) is comfortable with underwater challenges like the tunnel. Though I eventually gasped my way out, the experience was scary and, for a weaker swimmer, could have been work. It’s easy to lose control in a wave and tumble forward, or to not be able to get out as it crashes around you. But Pistilli considers frightening moments as opportunities to get in touch with the ocean’s great force. And his go-getterness lends his classes a kind of structure. During our session, Pistilli encouraged me to think of what goals I wanted to accomplish before we swam into the cove. “What did you think about when you were stuck underwater?” he asked me as we dog-paddled just outside the cove. Surviving came to mind.
Still, as more people become aware of environmental issues and sustainability, the stripped-down, in-touch sport of bodysurfing could become all the more appealing. It is both primitive and modern: Without the shackles of technology, usually performed simply with small flippers, it “makes you more ‘one’ with the wave and water,” says John Chamberlain, a bodysurfer from Santa Cruz, California. From Mexico to the U.K., Australia to California, bodysurfing remains popular, and Papa says Off is capitalizing on that popularity: Already they are in discussions for a third season of Homem Peixe.