Before the “Search”, or a Genealogy of Surf Forecasting

Searching the West Kus

The “search” is alluring even mystical for a surfer. It defines an attitude to discover, to explore, to widen one’s horizon in the pursuit of embodiment of stoke in paddling out at an uncrowded spot in clean waves. The “search” and the “stoke” of finding waves is core to the surfing experience, a part of the surfie make-up. It poses a question about how the “search” begins; what are the signs to look for before taking board and baggies and piling into the car to jouney (and increase our carbon footprint) to a surf spot.

We could look to the appeal of surfwear for a clue of the residue of the “search” as commercialised object. The surfing lifestyle has over the last decade or so become a measure of cool in South Africa. For instance, the 2007 Sunday Times Generation Next Youth Brand survey found that Billabong was voted as the top fashion label in the country. Billabong put is success down to their media partners and the fact that the brand has remained true to its roots and values – “Only a surfer knows the feeling!” is Billabong’s mantra.

Do they mean the feeling of a branded tee fitting snug to my salty, bronzed, and lean body after a late afternoon surf? I’m not sure that the fashionable drive to be a “surfer” translates into “knowing the feeling”? Neither am I sure about my ability to fit in a tight tee that nostalgically recalls my youth. This search for hip branded clothing tells me less about surfing but a lot about marketing surf apparel.

I am on a different search. Maybe surveying people demographically segmented will tell me less of “knowing” and “feeling” the surfing lifestyle. I am seeking for something else to tell me about surfing culture, about girls and boys, women and men, who choose to don wetsuits, wax up their surfboards, and strap on leashes, and then brave the waves that break along our shores (especially in places like wintery Cape Town or the frigid West Coast). How do surfers “know” when to go surfing, to capture that “feeling”, to predict when the perfect wave will break at their beach? Or are surfers simply flotsam in Neptune’s mood swings? Can we predict when next Neptune will be feeling generous with swell?

I am seeking those prophets of surf, our present day Oracles of Delphi, to tell me of these mysteries. They exist as surfcasters, I am told, elusive and called by hallowed names. They camp not with Zarathustra on the mountain but lurk behind luminous screens watching the matrix of data foretell wave height and wind speed. They plot the path of storms, they salivate when arrows twirl shoreward, when circles deepen to reds and purple arcs pulse rhythmically across the ocean. They seem to “know” through techno-magick the ways the ebb and flow of the sea, their boards at ready, ready to immerse themselves in the “feel” before the mass of mere mortals who thirst for their readings.

I have been told that a surfcaster lives among us in the southern peninsula of the Cape, who soothsays as “Spike”. He has the crystal balls of our digital age and leaning over his shoulder we gain premonitions of where to find watery wonderlands. Yet, Spike’s mystery school remains his techno-oceanic domain, a cave where shadows form from the wash of foam thaumatologically fracturing space-time as fractual ellispsises.

Yet, in my early years of surf discovery these chants and mantras were not available. For one, William Gibson’s cyberspace was more a fiction of the hyperreal than a basis for knowing by surfing with a mouse. Who would have thought that those Cold War warriors at APRANET, in the year of my exit from the womb, and who were connecting webs of information as a US strategic national defense policy against nuclear Armageddon, would open the rift and let bits and bytes flood the post-communist world by the millennium.

My search began with my cousin gave me a backyard copy of a Gerry Lopez shaped surfboard when I was twelve. The board was perfect for a little grommet to learn in the gentle waves of Addington Beach, Durban although the template was designed for Pipeline in Hawaii. Each weekend I would hassle my parents to go to the beach. I was hooked on surfing – but weekends did not always offer waves. I felt cheated after excitedly rushing to the beach to find a dam. I was at a loss at how I was to know what lay in store on my beach shore?

Holidays were different. The family went down to the southern Cape to visit my grandfather at Vic Bay. The surf was on my doorstep (literally, and sometimes with more regularlity over the years, storms drove huge waves onto the patio). I could see the surf today and I got a utopian sense that tomorrow would be no different: how could it be when the beach was my summer playground.

Yet, an ominous idol leered at me daily, a persistent bugbear to any teenager’s vacation. The barometer had pride of place in my grandfather’s lounge. I was finger-wagged with ominous predictions to match a “red sky at dawn is a shepherd’s warning” over coffee that morning or the upbeat “red sky at night is a shepherd’s delight” with a nightcap of whisky.

As a kid I didn’t give two hoots about tomorrow: I was at the seashore, I will wake tomorrow to more waves to surf on my ’80s day-glow thruster (which replaced my start-up wave-rider). Yet on many occasions youthful optimism become downright frustration as conditions turned small and onshore and brought in a flotilla of bluebottles. I was pulled aside with elderly wisdom: “Told you so, the barometer never lies.” Sure, the needle was now somewhat further from rainy and closer to clear, but that really meant nothing to me.

In my surfed-out salt encrusted haze I would fall asleep directly after dinner and not see TV weather report. Night-time gave answers to the next day with a routine of synoptic charts, with corresponding matching arcs with barbs and “L’s” and “H’s” circling like maelstroms across the screen. If I hadn’t fallen asleep I would have seen a big “H” bubbling to the right of the screen – the South Easter wind was to blow and blow and blow. By day three my parents were wondering which asylum to send their surf-starved and wind-blown kid. Maybe that’s why my Mom heeded my grandfather’s barometric observations and began suggesting alternative activities a day or two ahead of messy waves. I came to realise that their holiday happiness was determined by the need to know what the weather will be like – a wahy of knowing whether I would be a happy camper sated from a day of surfing and out of their hair or a bundle of energy needing a wave-fix.

Back from holiday in my home town of Surf City I’d take what I could get: arrive to the beach and surf in sun, rain, wind, hailstorms and even with the occasional cyclone. Bus shelters were regularly inhabited in winter to escape south-westerly rain squalls. So much for looking out of my classroom window the day before at the lone whips of cirrus cloud portending swell and a sluggish smoke plum foretelling a windless day. Much schoarly wisdom was dispersed by daydreaming of perfect surf.

I soon learnt to tune into Baron Stander Snr’s morning surf report on East Coast radio (it was still Radio Port Natal in those days). Stander’s “eye witness” account of the beachfront was used to amass a knowing of when the waves were going to be “cooking” at my local spot over a weekend (as school somehow got in the way durign the weekday). Surf reports on April Fools’ Day were more problematic as Stander took many a surfer from a ride with accounts of cooking six-foot barrels at Vechies Reef. I recall my first reaction as “hey, Dad can I get a ride to the beach” and then “wait a second, if the Bay of Plenty is only three foot, then there’s no north swell, Baron’s having us on again!” But at least I listened to what the conditions were (or got lank frustrated on route school hearing about cooking waves). Baron’s predictions of flat days for the weekend probably boiled down to my then girlfriend getting to see more of me at the beach than waiting for a silhouette to return from the water.

Times have changed. Spike’s thrice-weekly emails now offer a smogasbord of data about surf conditions that can be corroberated by the Wavescape Ocean Watch model accessible via the Web and SMS. Yet, even still the “search” continues; digital data fed into my mind is mulled over and fuelled by that mysto indicator reef that I can see from my flat overlooking the Altlantic Ocean. Decisions, decisions, decisions – wind, swell, period, height, direction, tide, are mashed up to reconstruct a simulcra of surf. It is in these Warhol-liked sketches that I seek the “Real” and so move consciously toward the canvass of my next dream glide, genuflecting on route to Hermes, Clio and their surfcasting oracle.

[Originally written on June 3, 2007.]

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