I was in conversation with comix artist Andy Mason (aka N.D. Mazin) at the launch of his graphic novel The Legend of Blue Mamba at the Homecoming Centre in Cape Town during the Comic Fest at the Open Book Festival, 8 September 2013.
The genesis of the graphic novel was in the comic work produced and published in various print, surfboard art and online since the mid-1990s. The first appearance of the Blue Mamba character was in the first issue of the now defunct African Soul Surfer in August/September 1995. This was my first encounter with the Blue Mamba’s subaltern surfing adventures.
My interest in The Legend of Blue Mamba is how Mason takes a countercultural and environmental activist surfing identity and creates an anti-brand through Blue Mamba in a surfing world where lifestyle consumption drives how the image of surfers, and surfing, is manufactured and maintained by the surf industry and surf media. The Legend of Blue Mamba is a cautionary tale of the commodification of the surfing dream.
Other themes addresses in conversation were: the character of Blue Mambas as “an empty signifier of meaning and identities”; how in the post-apartheid era progressive cartooning has taken to satirical critique of brands as they represent and determine lifestyles today; how surfing can be used to offer critique to consumer and highlight environmental injustices; why the Sixties is still politically and culturally relevant today; representation of the “author” in cartooning, especially as “a character is not the author”; the idea of parallel narratives in comics and how that can drive the storytelling; and how the graphic novel draws from the realism of the experienced world adds to the comic imagination.
I presented a research in progress paper entitled “From Femlins to Saltwater Girls: Sport, Lifestyle and Femininities in South African Surfing Culture, c.1965 to the present” at the Stellenbosch History Department Seminar Series on Wednesday, 24 April 2013. This paper was then presented on Saturday, 29 June 2013 at the 2013 Southern African Historical Society Conference held in Gaborone, Botswana. This working paper forms part of my doctoral study on gender and politics in the history of South African surfing culture.
A further iteration of this paper was presented at the Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA) at the University of Cape on Thursday, 28 August 2014. This work in progress paper was titled: “From Femlins to Saltwater Girls: Surfer Girls and Lifestyle Sport Consumption in South African surfing magazines, 1965 – present.”
Summary of the paper
This paper seeks to make visible the histories of women’s surfing in South Africa as a counterpoint to the persistent discourse that the sport of surfing is a male activity. It attempts a pro-feminist, new cultural history reading of the surfing archive taking into consideration both textual and visual sources to recover the representations, voices, experiences and agency of girls and women who surfed or continue to surf in Cape Town, Durban or elsewhere along the South African coastline from the mid-1960s to the present. This paper seeks to document how South African surfing femininities negotiated complicity within the gender order or, through a surfing identity, challenged the gendered nature of power in society and within surfing culture itself. It explores both the local and global iterations of surfing femininities as shaped by or shaping cultural, social and commercial processes. In particular, the role of surf magazine advertising is examined for how it maintained a youthful, sexy, athletic yet objectified heterosexual image of the “surfer girl” over several decades. In locating this study within the study of hegemonic femininities in southern Africa this paper explores the complexities of gender relations in the social construction of femininities: how these femininities were themselves historically contingent, fluid and contested by girls and women who surfed, constructed in relation to men in the surf and on the beach, located in relation to a discourse of a femininised ocean, and socially differentiated based on the culture of beach leisure and access to leisure time, sporting prowess, the nature of sportisation through organised sport, and the consumptive ethic of a beauty culture associated with the emergence and consolidation of surfwear as mainstream fashion. In short, in reflecting on the role of gender and lifestyle in South African surfing history, the conditions for the emergence in South Africa in the 1990s of the global phenomenon of the “Surfer Girl”, with its Californian and Australian roots, is considered within the context of the democractisation of South African society. Yet, this history also illustrates some of the limits of social and cultural change at the beach as women’s surfing in South Africa has largely remained a white sporting activity, despite the promise of change in the prominent roles of black girl surfers in the Hollywood DVD Blue Crush 2 (2011), set in KwaZulu-Natal and the eastern coastline, and the locally produced Amaza (2013) television series filmed in Muizenberg, Cape Town.
I presenting a paper on how black surfers have been represented in South Africa’s surfing print magazines since 1990 at the Work/Force: South African Masculinities in the Media Conference held at Stellenbosch University on 13th & 14th September 2012.
Summary of the paper
The idea of the “surfer boy” in the South African surfing imaginary is no longer primarily white, male and youthful although Zigzag (since 1976) and thebombsurf (since 2008) surf magazines continue to maintain that white, heterosexual hegemony within their textual and visual representations supported by surf industry advertising expenditure. Nor is surfing nostalgically looking back to the halcyon days of the Californian inspired Sixties and Seventies. Rather, through grassroots initiatives, surfing development programmes linked to organised surfing, and pressure from the national sport ministry, that same surf media and several surf movies are constructing the idea of surfing in Mzansi (the South) at established and emergent surfing centres along the South African coastline, such as at Durban, Mzumbe, Port St Johns Jeffreys Bay and Muizenberg, where black male surfers and white girl surfers are visible. In many ways it is the new possibility of these postcolonial surfing sites that have provided the greatest challenge to the historically white and male South African surfing imaginary and opens up possibilities for new male identities and gender relations on the post-apartheid beach and, through sporting and recreational practices, in the surf. This does not mean that the surf media is not without producing social tensions in what is said and not said (and what is seen and unseen) about race and gender. The former surfaces as race trouble in negotiating new identities that attempt to masked social fractures within surf culture. The latter shows fissures in the production of a white South African surfing masculinity historically used to supporting its dominance in society through a sporting practice. In these ways, the South African surf media provides a useful lens to critically explore competing masculinities within a marginal aquatic sporting tradition that point to social transformations on the beach in the years after apartheid.
A posting on making snap judgments about selecting waves (i.e. a surf blink) while competing in a SUP surfing contest which prompts ponderings on research methods and the history of the surfing’s present.
It’s Easter long weekend and I ended up doing embedded research on the SUP scene up in Plettenberg Bay in the Southern Cape and taking time out from thesis writing on South African surfing and the Sixties which will go toward a paper on the “Californication” of South African surfing culture for a forthcoming history conference. This is not a posting about those themes; rather I’m in search of methods for thinking about the past in the present and how to translate subjective experiences while surfing waves into a phenomenology of social acts which emerge from a consciousness of being in the surf. Put simply, why did I chose that wave rather than another during a SUP surfing heat which just happened to take place at Lookout Beach in Plettenberg Bay.
Mindful of the switch between historian and playing part of the making of a new sport of stand-up paddle boarding (called SUP) in the country, I was a participant observer to the inaugural Off The Hoek SUP Classic, a contest with lagoon and sea paddle races and a wave-riding event. For my surf journalistic take on the event, and visual evidence of the happenings over 22nd to 23rd April 2011, read my article on SUPHQ.com, a locally based web portal for SUP community. This frames some context for what follows.
On route to the contest, driving my board laden car, I was listening to Malcolm Galdwell’s audio book version of his 2005 book, Blink. The book is about rapid cognition and covers examples from knowing from a glance when a ancient statue is a fake to making snap decisions about a person, a couple or a situation. It is about how we “thin-slice” encounters and contexts, a psychological process whereby a person uses limited amounts of information to seemingly use intuition (which developed as experience or expertise) to make sense of something or someone.
I was intrigued: how would Gladwell’s ideas translate into a situation that I was most familiar with – such as selecting waves when surfing in a contest or, for that matter, wave-selection when free surfing outside of the contest rules of an event, as the one does inform the other through the skill gained through hours of spending time surfing and “reading” waves – what I’ll call “surf blink”.
Surf blink is informed by three things: an understanding of one’s board and body in the waves. Spending time on one or more different types of boards (for example, bodyboard, shortboard, longboard or SUP) also plays a role in what surfing proficiency is developed, as each board type is designed to allow for differing wave-riding experiences and styles across a range of surf conditions. The surfing act then could be defined as a process of embodiment, the experience by which a living female or male body dances on a wave mediated by the technology of a board (and in the case of a SUP, a paddle is included in the act of the glide).
Taken together then, the following factors play a part in wave-selection: board type, proficiency as a surfer (which may be determined by age and agility), and surf conditions. In a contest environment there are several other considerations: time (how long is the heat – usually 20 minutes in the initial rounds, and 30 minutes for a final), contenders (how many other competitors are in the heat with you), the judges’ gaze (the objective and subjective criteria used to judge your surfing against the other surfers in the heat), the shouts and clapping of spectators on the beach, and how the surf media represents the event in narratives published online or in print as story, photograph or video. Add “contest nerves” and adrenalin into the mix and you get a charged psychological moment that closes in on one’s personal performance in the waves. These factors would generally apply to a world-title contender and a novice to the contest scene (although their expectations and experiences of a heat would be vastly different).
These considerations start to engage with a discussion of the “surfing body-self” and non-representational theory pertaining to peak experiences in Nick Ford and David Brown’s Surfing and Social Theory (2006) – a seminal reader in locating surfing studies within academic practices of knowledge production. Ford and Brown’s points in Chapters 6 and 7 direct me to consider “surf blink” further as “kinaesthetic performance” and “expanded awareness” that enables a surfer to act through “non-cognitive dimensions of embodiment”. Here the interest is in surfing as experience and how the surfing body acts, not as set of signs representing social or cultural dimensions. In looking to research embodied practices in surfing, I am steering toward the idea that the instinct of riding a wave is learned bodily skills performed on the canvas of a wave (yet these skills have been developed in social and historical contexts). So too, if this non-cognitive surf blink applies to surfing the wave (making snap judgements of what move to perform), then it should also apply to wave-selection as a the precursor to anticipating the dream glide.
But this is the realm of social theory rather than historical studies. Maybe I should start to consider a surf contest heat as a ritual of non-cognitive embodiment. This ritualised space is the commodification of surfing’s transcendent experience and what can best be told as a history of the outcomes of one surfing body against another. I still feel there is something missing here. That is part of my quandary with surfing studies: my own practices in the present may cloud my understanding of surfing’s past – especially when it comes to thinking of surfing experiences in the waves over time. How then to write a history of surfing stoke in relation to politics, society and culture? This question may find some answers in where my interest in the historical and psycho-social dynamics of surf contests began?
Before embarking on my doctoral studies I had started studying the institutional contexts of power in which of surf contents, as part of organised surfing culture, were gendered as masculine. In one study, “Judging Surf Culture” published in the Journal of Natal and Zulu History, I focused on the judges’ gaze and the criteria for defining good surfing as part of a process of creating a hegemonic surfing masculinity during the first South African surfing championships held in Durban in July 1966 – which was a founding moment in the making of competitive surfing in South Africa. In another study, in Rob Morrell’s Changing Men in Southern Africa (2001), I provided a social contest for the emergence of professional surfing in South Africa as a white, male sport.
A back story to these studies was my antipathy for surf contests during the 1980s and 1990s. This stance had developed during my school years as a grom surfing along Durban’s beachfront as my initial thoughts of surfing stardom faded through middling showings during school inter-house surf contests and an attempt at a Natal development contest in the late 1980s. This was informed by a further desire simply to surf unfettered by any constraint – possibly why I made the following statement in my final year at high school in an English oral: “It is in this watery playground that I have found a place to escape from all the tensions of everyday life.” Leaving the question aside of what those everyday tensions were for another thesis chapter, my surfing experiences into my twenties tended toward that of a soul surfer rather than the competitive in so far that I even stopped reading Zigzag surf magazine and preferred the short run of African Soul Surfer, took little interest in news of the world titles, and avoided watching the annual world professional surfing contests held in Durban and Jeffreys Bay.
Disengaged from organised surfing at an aesthetic level, I entered into a study of South African surfing’s history where most of the records available were (and still remain so) on surfing contests and the surfers who gained recognition in that arena. I was interested in the silences, the histories between the surf contests, the history of surfing’s everyday in South Africa marred by beach apartheid and how gender relations were shaped within surf culture. These themes continue to inform my research although I started from what knowledge was available in the “surf archive” and I am now slowly filling in the gaps through my current research programme.
Since starting on my doctoral research in 2009 I have also plunged myself into surf contests – longboard and SUP surf events at regional and national levels as well as one local event where I entered three divisions: SUP, longboard and retro. In the former two the boards are over 9 feet in length, while the retro was on 5’8″ Fish twin-shape from a 1970s template. In all, I’ve surprised myself with my placings at these events, which have at times has been a top three or four placing in a board category or age division. Mostly I would say I am erratic in surf contests – winning a first round heat and then dropping out in the next. That is embodied performance based on results which ,in their own way, enter the annuals of surfing’s records.
Part of me qualifies this as embedded research in surf culture, another part has come to enjoy the thrill of being judged on surfing performance within a heat to gauge my level of proficiency in the sport of surfing. In many ways, I am now on the receiving end of the judges’ gaze that I was so critical about in my paper on “Judging Surf Culture”. I have moved from seeking to understand surfing as representation to thinking and acting within surfing in a more non-representational (embodied) manner. The challenge to see how to bring the two back into an historical perspective.
One way that non-representational practices and experiences could be historicised in riding surfboards that emerged from earlier eras of surfing’s history; such as a longboard or SUP – albeit these shapes have become influenced by modern materials and aesthetics, so the “pure” essence of the board is lost. Nevertheless, there is a kind of historical memory located in these boards which is remembered in films like The Endless Summer (1964) or photographs that are displayed of surfing’s Golden Years. I have also taken up the practice of riding boards shaped for prior generations of surfers to attempt to get a feel of how one’s surfing must change in relation to how the board fits with the wave and what manoeuvres one can do. A question I ask myself here is: am I seeking nostalgically for a surfing past that is different to my present? Or do these old designs help me imagine the past as I write South African surfing’s history?
Yet I have digressed, well not exactly. Surf blink has a personal history for each surfer; the above are some of mine which came into play during the SUP surfing contest during the Off The Hoek Classic in Plettenberg Bay. I recall the twenty minute first heat going passed at a steady pace – I was surfing against five others in my peer-group. I too up a position at backline, facing my SUP out to sea and waited for waves to come to me. The one thing with a SUP is that you can see what swell is coming more easily than from the lower vantage point of a prone paddling surfboard. Also, on a SUP you can cover more distance than on a surfboard to an approaching wave due to the advantage of a paddle. I usually like to take a wave soon after the heat starts so as to get rid of any contest nerves and take a psychological lead in knowing that I was one wave up on the others in the rotation of getting back out to backline after the wave. This time I received a beating from a set that broke further out than usual, so I was in catch-up mode for the remainder of the heat against contenders, some of whom have beaten me during previous surf events. I saw them catching great rides. But I took off on five or six waves; and felt surfed then well in getting moves in and a length of ride. Most of these waves were the set waves, the bigger ones. Even during the dying moments of the heat, with five minutes and less to spare, I still waited and let smaller waves go by before selecting the wave I wanted. My overall sense was that in that heat I was calm, having fun, and was making turns on the waves with less effort than usual, despite riding a new Naish Hokau 9’0″ SUP, with less volume and length than my other board. In short, I felt confident and the results showed it; by very narrow scores, two of the three judges placed me first over Gary Van Rooyen.
In my next heat I came unglued and took a fourth placing, and so missed the opportunity to go through to the final round. The primary difference in this heat was that I had to swim for my board after the leash came undone (or rather I had not tied it to the board properly before paddling out). This threw me off; the swim was long, I lost time and felt physically exhausted. In trying to catch-up I made selected waves that were not the best in just trying to get my wave count up. In that rush I fell off a wave and then misjudged the arrival of a set before the end of the heat. I had entered the heat with high expectations and washed back in with those hopes dashed. That is the nature of a heat – it can go your way or not. In this second heat, after the swim, I felt frustrated and rushed and out of rhythm; in stark contrast to the first heat despite only an hour or so separating them.
So, what does this mean for an understanding of surf blink in a contest? I know that my best contest strategy is to look for the set (the biggest) wave available, and am prepared to wait for this wave. I am aware that I have some proficiency on the wave but I am not a surf or SUP champion. I rely on my wave selection to boost my placing in the judges’ eyes during a heat. If I take the biggest wave and surf it well enough, in relation to the other surfers in the water during the heat, I will advance to the next round. And sometimes it is not winning the heat that matters in advancing, getting a second place in a heat also puts you into the next round – aiming for first is not always a good psychological advantage if you place more pressure on yourself to perform better, or on par, in a next heat after winning the previous one. Of course, once you have demonstrated a placing into the next heat, then the crowd on the beach is watching you more intently with expectations of your advancing to the next round, dependent on who is in your heat. These psycho-social factors play there part with the rapid cognition of wave selection during a heat. In that contest space, I am fully aware of the moment in the surf, what my competitors are doing, the judges’ gaze, the need to perform well, the crowd watching, and the adrenal rush. I am also aware that things have slowed down. A ride on a wave is maybe 20 seconds on average but it rushes by in screen grabs of turns off the bottom and the top of the wave.
Then when back at backline in the take off zone, waiting for the next wave, I am shifting my vision from the horizon to where are my competitors sitting. I am looking for that spot where the next swell will rise up out of the depths and offer a dream glide. I am imagining it coming but not what I will perform on it. I wait. I have a sense of the water temperature, a seagull flying by, the sound of the waves breaking inshore, the feeling of the contest vest over my chest, the current swirling below as I balance standing with paddle in hand on my SUP. A three wave set approaches and I am in position. The first goes by under my board as I paddle over it (its too small), as does the second (its going to break too fast), but for the third I turn and paddle – I know this wave will unfold and allow me to flow. That begins another surf blink, on surf blink, on surf blink, during the instinctual ride along the wave selected.
It’s a sad state of affairs when the one’s thoughts has continued through many months not to document a word. Does that lessen the fact that I have been studying surfing’s history at all as participant and observer? I hope not but I do feel that “the writing interregum” as a period within a research process is now shifting from contemplation to thesis writing output.
Coming later in life to this doctoral study with my own sense of nostalgia for a youth surfing past, I’ve pondered why – and been asked the same question by others on numerous occasions – this historical project on gender and politics in South African surfing culture. A short answer would be: an interrogation of my past as a surfer and an attempt to understand, over time, the agency of other surfers in periods structured by the experience of apartheid and interwoven by the gender order to frame social relations and identities.
If I look at my published writings to date on surfing, only the latest of these on how the international sports boycott against apartheid shaped competition surfing in South Africa begins to take a broader time period into account. My other pieces have been more focused on key founding moment in South African surfing’s sports history – the inaugural South Africa National Surfriding Championships in 1966 and the emergence of Shaun Tomson as an exemplar male surf icon in the late 1970s. Both pieces analysed how a hegemonic masculinity around competitive surfing was constructed and maintained. The writing on gender and surfing however goes far beyond its masculinist pretenses, and as I work through material from the 1950s through to the 1990s I am finding evidence for shifting masculine and feminine identites over time, and even with periods.
Here the 1960s have become a fascination for me and I am currently working on conference paper, for the forthcoming Southern African Historical Society Conference in Durban, to think through how global surfing can provide a lens to look at how local black and white surfers could turn to California and Hawai’i for new configurations of social identity under apartheid. This brings the theme of gender and politics together in a manner that I have only hinted at in past papers.
Pondering this theme has also been much of the reason (beside other distractions, including spending time in the water surfing for leisure or sport) why the interregnum has dragged on for some months. Looking at the surf studies forecast, there’s a swell of writing to come …
I wish to return to a posting on the SUPHQ.com Forum I made on April 09, 2010. This comment was made within a debate within the local SUP community about the increased incidents of social tensions from stand-up surfers in Cape Town waters and that the local surf media “shunned” SUP riders . I have a view that these tensions point to the fragile hold stand-up surfing has on promoting itself as the pinnicle wave-riding experience: surfing’s hegemony is being challenged by the emergence of SUPs on the waves, a challenge not unlike other forms of wave-riding craft (bodyboards, wave-skis). The epiphenomena of this hegemonic challenge can be seen in the discourses about access to waves, skill, and water safety. Factors which mask some of the material (market) forces at play in the surf.
I have some ideas that go beyond SUP vs surfer in the line-up and will speak as a wave-rider who also calls himself a surfer, an identity I have nurthured since a grom.
So, a quick view of some of my thoughts, what is expressed in these posts and in other surf media is part of a bigger picture:
Thesis 1: The boom in the surfing market and the waning power of shortboarding: Since the 1990s, the revival of riding waves on any type of board – especially the revival of longboarding – has threatened the social hieracrchy that is being precariously held onto by shortboarding (this is not just at the individual level but also how the surf media and market promote what surfing is seen as kewl). Longer boards with increased paddle power and more people with a range of surfing abilities in the water competing for the same waves at popular (or even less popular) breaks make for increased tensions in the water.
Thesis 2: New kids on the block are seen as kooks: The arrival of SUPs in the line-up adds to the mix described above, and as the new kids (although the demographics of SUPpers is less youthful in age overall) SUPs are the most visible in the line-up (in terms of size of board, with a paddle, and already standing) and hence take the most ire from surfers who feel threatened. Adding to this is the rapid uptake of SUPs among not just proficient surfers, kiters and wavesailers but new entrants to the SUP lifestyle so there is a range of ability out in the water. However, abilities are averaged out and SUP riders are classified/perceived as the “kooks” in surfing’s social mix both as having come late to the wave party and still considered as gaining proficiency in water. Yet, these “kooks” are taking off deeper or further out so this is a further challenge to the surfing social order described in Thesis 1.
Thesis 3: Its all about perceived and real concernes about water saftey. While there is currenlty a challenge to surfing’s status quo, what motivates most wave-users is a concern that they may be injured by an out of control SUP. It is about the space that is required to ensure one feels safe in the water (what has been termed the kill-zone” in much of SUP media). Its about the size and weight of boards, length of leash and the added factor of a paddle that influence when someone feels they are in danger of getting hurt. These fears among non-SUPper are in part due to their inexperience with the equipment. So, add more people to the surf zone (compouded by perceptions of Thesis 1 and 2), then add boards with larger potential “kill-zones”, and the result is a rise in anxiety in the water about their personal safety. This plays to psychic fears which get translated into social fears of SUPs and loop back into the current surfer backlash against SUPs.
So, while respect for others in the water (as a surfer and a SUPper) is key to good wave-riding relations (the only histrocially tried and test answer I can find besides find an out of the way spot to ride waves), at present the debate is quite loaded (and puts SUPS on the moral low-ground). Also, we need to take the view that is is not all surfers but only a few who respond negatively to SUPS. So I hope in looking at other social factors (and there are others – e.g. are SUPs a challenge to surfing’s machoism?) we can start addressing and talking about what is making for the current state of increasing tensions at some spots. Dialogue is a good and first step toward better understanding for all wave-riders.
I’ve been surfing in Cape Town with a woman surfer who is openly lesbian but, to my knowledge, I have not shared waves with a gay male surfer. What is it that has made South African surfing so homophobic that gay men do not readily “surf out” in the line-up?
While South African competitive surfing in the past has been somewhat tolerant of women surfers coming out, any questioning of a male surfer’s sexual preference has been, and remains, closely patrolled by the surf media and industry to be shown as hetrosexual. Youthful surf fashion, it seems, cannot allow for gender slippages. Nevertheless, this is not just a South African trend as globally there is an unspoken homophobia within surfing circles.
In looking for answers in writing a gendered history of surfing culture in South Africa – one that is critical of how the idealised images of hetrosexy boys and girls have come to be the normal way of representing surfers – I was recently directed to a link to a gay surfer online resource that was advertised in a German surfing magazine.
Gaysurfers.net (which can also be found as a Facebook group) aims to foster a gay surfing social network as well as provide a site for creating awareness of the need to fight homophobia in the surf by encouraging tolerance of gay surfers at local breaks. In “Surf’s Out“, a story published in DNA, an Austalian gay men’s magazine, in June of this year, Nick Cook writes of how membership of the Gaysurfers website has grown (to date there are 1,500 members globally). He also profiles some of the men who have come out, their attitudes to surf culture, and their reflections on why they think surfing is anti-gay.
Another article entitled “Queer Waves“, published last week (23 June) on the Australian online surf media site Swellnet by Dr Clifton Evers (a cultural researcher at the University if New South Wales), confirms many of the trends noted in Cook’s article despite the fact that surf culture encourages male-bonding but not male desire among surf buddies: “The policing of male-to-male social bonding and mateship in surfing is common, and is due to an ever-present undercurrent of homophobia.” Evers calls for straight surfers to stop being silent on the issue of homophobia – he notes that that silence makes one complicit in the exclusion of gay surfers from local surfing communities.
The two films noted by Evers – Tan Lines (2006) set in Australia and Shelter (2007) set in California – are worth watching (you will be able to find them in local indie DVD stores) and go far in highlighting that gay men surf despite the ostracism and denial so pervasive in surf culture. Its time for a similar South African production since I do not think the forthcoming Blue Crush 2 movie will be introducing a gay surfer into the storyline.
Word on the beach has it that the One Legged Flying Pelican has eclipsed Californian Mickey Muñoz’s late 1950s quasimodo (or quasimoto depending on your twang) as the surfing trick to end all tricks on the wave. Forget hang tens, drop-knee cutbacks and airdrops, if you want to be a progressive longboarder today you have master the One Legged Flying Pelican.
Rumour had it that this rare variety of surfing manoeuvre was to be seen in the surf near Jongensfontein at the annual Kakgat Classic on the weekend of 19 and 20 June. So I signed up for the contest to get a better view; much like a birdwatcher will take refuge in a hide to wait on the appearance of a shy avian except that I was give a pinkish (or was it red) vest that made me stand out like a flamingo on a saltpan.
As One Legged Flying Pelicans go you would think that one would stand out in a crowd. Not so easily it seemed as heat after heat passed without near imitation or a genuflection to some Captain named Morgan. The mention of the latter left me quite confused as I met no Morgan at the event nor was a Morgan on the competitor’s board although many a glass was raised during a late evening to this Captain.
So I was left to stubble on in my ornithological search for this kinesiological wonder and ponder the making of the legend which before long had become a questioning of: how did a pelican come to ride a longboard? Then I recalled that in the days of olde maps showed the oceans to be full of dragons. Just borrow Jack Sparrow’s parchment and you’ll see “Here Be Dragons” etched is wavy calligraphy as a warning for early European explorers not to wander too far beyond the horizon. So, if there can be dragons in the sea, why not a pelican on a surfboard.
And pelicans damn near look like dragons, or pterodactyls for that matter. The last one I saw swooped over the Elands Bay’s threatened Velorenvlei wetlands casting a Nazgûl-like shadow over me that I nearly toppled off my SUP in fear that I had actually entered the final battle for Middle Earth with only a paddle. Get close up to a pelican in flight and you’ll see what I mean, trust me you’ll kak yourself silly.
Which is why I watched in trepidation as I saw not one, but four, One Legged Flying Pelicans executed by “Kelly” Salter before my disbelieving eyes. I was wading in the shorebreak of a right-hand break at the end of a heat pondering why this sublime spot had been christened “Kakgat” in the 1970s, when I had my moment of truth. I have read that pelicans are well suited to gliding in the air for long distances after gaining a good altitude – this made perfectly sense as the trim, poise, and balance of this surfer with lifted arms flapping while standing on one leg held true over a shortish distance along a peeling wave. Revealed, the One Legged Flying Pelican is.
(For another take on the contest, see my article “Curios Reflections on the Kakgat Classic” published on Wavescape).
The Wavescapes Surfboard Art Exhibition ran for the fourth time in five years as the precursor to the Wavescapes Surf Film Festival from 2nd to 9th December 2009 at Depasco Café in Cape Town. This exhibit has grown each year, now under the patronage of the non-profit marine conservation group Save Our Seas Foundation for the second year, and is becoming a not to be missed event within local surfing and art circles.
The rationale behind the Wavescapes Surfboard Art Exhibition is to display surf art and then auction the artwork to raise funds for two local sea safety charities; the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) and the Shark Spotters Programme. In each year the amount of money raised by the auction has topped the previous year’s proceeds – no thanks to the cajoling of the auctioneer, stand-up comedian Mark Sampson. In 2009, a sum of R170,000
was raised as compared to R124,000 in 2008.
On a personal note, I have attended all the Wavescapes Surfboard Art Exhibition to date and have bid on surfboards. Some called me surf art collector but I see myself more as a curator of South African surf heritage – more like an archivist finding enjoyment in the discovery of old manuscripts. The artefacts I was drawn to were those that reflected a call for social change and environmental justice through more a soulful surfing ethos, namely: N.D. Mazin’s “Blue Mamba sponsored by Toxicorp” (2005), N.D. Mazin’s “Blue Mamba in the Wilderness” (2006), N.D. Mazin’s “Azaniamania” and Mak1’s graffiti art board (2008), and a contribution to the overall bid on Con Bertish’s “Ice Board Project” in 2009.
The uniqueness of the exhibition is that surfboards were the canvas on which the artists worked. This was not surf art in the traditional sense; it was not about framed painted wavescapes or celebrating surf culture from within its own point of reference. Rather, artists are invited to bring their mode of expression to a particular surfboard design.
For the 2009 Wavescapes Surf Art Exhibit the specific canvas was a replica surfboard based on the “Pipeline teardrop gun” ridden by Hawaiian surfing legend Gerry Lopez (aka Mr Pipeline) in the early 1970s. Designed to take on the North Shore of Oahu’s big, powerful and tubular waves, this 7’7″ (length) x 20″ (width) x 3″ (thick) board sported a single-fin keel skeg and enabled Lopez to develop a Zen-like style of surfing that is “still regarded as the model of wave-riding elegance and refinement” (Warshaw 2003, 344).
This board was part of that moment within the history of surfboard design called the shortboard revolution that started in the late 1960s and moved away from the nine foot plus longboards of the earlier generation. However, this board was specific to a trend in Hawaii where shapers pioneering longer and narrower surfboards ideal for their local surf conditions (Young 1983, 118). This surfboard is also a contextual sign for the making of global surf culture as we know it today. Lopez was part of the seventies “soul surfing” generation which prioritised surfing as expression (as an art) over contests (surfing as a sport) yet he participated in local and international competitions at the time. He was also influential in the commercialising of surfing as of 1970, initially through his Lightning Bolt surfboard label, that sparked the surf manufacturing and retail industries. It was the likes of Lopez that created the environment for a new generation of surfers, including Shaun Tomson as South Africa’s only men’s surfing world champion to date, to push for the professsionalisation of surfing from the late 1970s (see Thompson 2001).
With this historical context in mind, at little more needs to be said about what a surfboard has come to mean in surf culture. A surfboard represents more than simply a functional object for a surfer; it is a mimetic device projecting past surf sessions into the possibilities of the next. It is also an extension of the surfing where “the technology of surfboard design facilities the possibilities of the dance” while riding a wave (Ford and Brown 2006, 27). As late 1960s Springbok and counterculturalist surfer Donald Paarman recounted in his revealing autobiography, hydrodynamics and bio-kinetics mix with ocean consciousness through a new surfboard:
“Anyway, I got a yellow board sent down to me. It looked good but the tail-lift looked a bit suspicious. Jeezers Molly! But I was off like the proverbial rocket at Vic[toria] Bay. The locals had to make way for the new grommet … I was catching all the best waves and truly tuned into the ocean once again” (Paarman 2008, 172).
It is here that Alain Corbin’s notion of “coenaesthetic impressions” comes to mind; what he calls sensibilities “which created a sense of existence on the basis of a collection of bodily sensations” (Corbin 1994, 1). Paarman’s remembrance of his embodied experience of wave-riding on a surfboard, and other surfers will concur here, conjures up a coenaesthetics where the surfboard triggers not only a memory of a surf session but the emotions associated with it. A surfboard is more than simply a symbol that defines surfing culture as a global sport and leisure activity; it is a personal archival repository of surf narratives that give personal and social meaning to the surfer.
Unlike an object of art, a surfboard is not meant to be displayed but used as a new stage for evolving performances each time the waves call. There is thus a bit of a culture shock here for the surfie as artistic and surfing systems of appreciation collide: I have had several comments on whether I take the art surfboards in my collection out into the waves – my answer is: well, I do ride the Mak1 single-fin board (that draws on a 1970s Donald Takayama “egg” design). My motivation in using that board from a yesteryear in the surf offers me a way to re-imagine the past as I study and write the history of South African surfing.
The Poetics of Surf Art
The 2009 Wavescapes Surf Art Exhibition was a space where Corbin’s coenaesthetic impressions were evident. The display of the art surfboards shifted representations from within surf culture toward artistic expressions that used references to the world beyond the ocean yet the form of the surfboard, and its implied use, was never lost. The surfboards as functional objects become art created a sense of wonderment at the uniqueness of this Cape Town exhibit. My gaze flipped from that of the surfer’s eye to that of the galley visitor’s. As the former, I observed the rounded tail (the end of the board) or the lack of rocker (the bottom curvature) and translated an inert design into an imagined moment of flow between board and body on a wave. As a visitor to the exhibition, I experienced a sense of resonance, what Stephen Greenblatt has noted in relation to art museum exhibits as, “the power of the displayed object to reach out beyond its formal boundaries to a larger world, to evoke in the viewer the complex, dynamic cultural forces from which it has emerged and for which it may be taken by the viewer to stand” (1991, 42). In so doing, the 2009 Wavescapes Surf Art Exhibition’s evoked a poetics that placed surf culture in dialogue with art, and visa versa.
In the exhibition line-up were artists new or returning to the Wavescapes Surf Art Exhibition, some among them surfers. Artists from the Centre for Comic, Illustrative and Book Arts are Andy Mason (aka N.D. Mazin), Sue Opperman and Andre and Nathan Trantraal who exhibited alongside other well-known South African artists, namely: Anton Kannemeyer (aka Joe Dog), Brett Murray, Conrad Botes (aka Konradski), Gabby Raaff, Justin Fiske, Kim Longhurst, Richard Hart, Ross Turpin, and Scott Robinson (aka Dirty Sanchez). These thirteen artists (with some artists collaborating) were provided with a Lopez “Pipeline teardrop gun” surfboard and the final ten art objects set out four key themes that provided commentary on contemporary South Africa and local surfing culture, namely: postcolonial condition as it applies to South Africa; the place of femininities in surf culture; the imaginal as fantastic, conceptual or nostalgic; and apocalyptic warnings of the ending of the world and oceans as we know it. I will touch on each theme in turn.
Shaping identities in the postcolonial state
Three satirical artworks at the Wavescapes Surf Art Exhibition took on the political directly by opening up questions of power, identity and the Other in postcolonial southern Africa. What is important here is that the surfing media has usually shied away from the political by focusing on a decontextualised and romanticised surfing lifestyle or sport yet these artworks foregrounded surfing’s location with political contexts. This surf art was reminiscent of moments when surfboards have carried a political message. For example, when the Australian professional surfer Cheyne Horan displayed a “Free Mandela” sticker on his surfboard during the July 1989 Gunston 500 event in Durban and again in 1990 at the same event, with the apartheid government in retreat after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, his surfboard carried the political slogan: “If the people lead, the leaders will follow” (Zigzag 1990, 6). More recently, American and multiple world men’s surfing champion, Kelly Slater had “protest boards” designed for him to carry an anti-war message against the United States of America’s involvement in the Iraqi War (Slater 2008).
Turning to the artwork at the exhibit, Brett Murray’s “Umshini Wam” surfboard foisted a vision of Idi Amin co-opting Jacob Zuma’s anthem, “Umshini Wam”. In questioning how power works in the postcolonial (and here, read: post-apartheid) state, Murray offers a vision of the potential for an African military despot to emerge out of the rhetoric of populist politics and the implied violence of the song. As such, “Umshini Wam” is less a reference to how popular culture can be mobilised politically than a specific discourse of African pessimism in that looks to a possible future time in the South Africa’s history as a postcolony.
In many ways, Murray’s piece is a preface to Joe Dog’s. Here a Tintinesque representation sees a black postcolonial subject carrying the balding head of the white settler on a silver platter in what may have been a postscript to J.M. Coetzee’s novel Waiting for the Barbarians. In twenty-first century South Africa, social privilege and political power has changed from earlier apartheid configurations but Joe Dog’s parody of the Empire’s caricature of the Noble Savage serving up the settler questions to whom is the platter being offered. Is it the new black bourgeoisie in their quest for empowerment or global neoliberal monetary policy that maintains Africa in a state of economic and political dependency?
On the other hand, the Trantraal Bros paint a different picture of the new South Africa: they look at how identity has and is still changing in post-apartheid society. For them, it is less about Othering and creating distance between citizens but rather seeking out what new South African identities has been assimilated from a mash-up of historical and contemporary notions of the self. In particular, what historical roots and cultural heritage has been drawn on to construct a Coloured or a white South African identity. On the one side of the orange, white and blue painted surfboard reminiscent of the Dutch settler flag is depicted a Coloured man holding the old South African flag, while the other side of the surfboard depicts a white man with a British flag. The latter’s transnationalism providing the potential for migration back to a nation of origin while the former’s specificity locates him in a past locked to the south of the African continent. In mappings these racialised identities, the Trantraal Bros seem to ask: How have the flags of our forefathers shaped South Africans today?
Searching for femininities
There was also strong emphasis on femininities among the surf art. The focus on women, although not new to this exhibit, takes on further significance when read alongside the poster for the 2009 Wavescapes Surf Art Exhibition. According to Wavescape (2009), “The eye woman arrives in the artwork of the festival for the first time. The girl in the not so itsy bitsy polka dot bikini denotes the new wave of the new era of surfing for everyone and anybody.” Despite the inclusivity of surf culture hinted at in the poster, the reality is that surfing is still a masculine domain with women and girls slowly becoming more and more visible as surfers. However, in the exhibit none of the artists depicted a woman surfing a wave; notwithstanding the advances made by a post-Blue Crush generation of women and girl surfers who incorporate an independent femininity with a sense of athleticism in the waves (see Heywood 2008).
Rather, some artists took other interpretative paths to explore notions of gender and feminine identity. Kim Longhurst’s “With every beat of my heart” was a personal exploration of womanhood stripped of its flesh to reveal a physiology of the self. While the image of the dissected women was set upon the phallic shape of the surfboard’s patriarchy, it resisted that same masculine gaze by not offering a woman as a sexualised object packaged by the dictates of surf fashion. Rather, in this post mortem, Longhurst provoked the need to look with a clinical eye at the social constructions of gender and celebrate a deep, embodied femininity in which womanhood and motherhood are seen as public and relational expressions of identity that are not hidden away in domesticity.
On the other hand, both Ross Turpin and Konradski offered the exhibition mythic aquatic femininities in the guise of mermaids. As tropes of desire and oceanic sensuality, these mermaids represent the promise and perils of the waves and ocean depths. Turpin’s more amphibious looking mermaid breaks through the surface of the seascape of the surfboard; the electric eels encircling her evoking an animistic (eco)femininity that seem to point to the prospects of ocean’s waves as a site for renewable energy. In contrast, Kondradski’s mermaid carries another set of meanings. She is either a guide to how humanity can explore to the tranquillity of the ocean beneath the waves and foster a conserving ethos toward marine life. Or she is serenely watching the drowned stares of those paying a visit to Davey Jones. Or Kondradski’s mermaid is trapped within the aquarium of the surfboard’s shape as an exotic curiosity at an art exhibition. In all these interpretations of the mermaids, femininity remains ambivalent – it is at the same time autonomous, powerful, misunderstood and exploited; much in the same way humanity may relate to the sea.
Surfing and the imaginal
Notions of the sea as sublime continue in three further artworks. Sue Opperman’s wavescape of fantastic sea creatures in an unfamiliar red ocean recalls old maps from the Voyages of Discovery with dire warnings of “Here Be Dragons” set near the edges. Opperman imaginatively captures the magic and the mystery of the ocean; aspects of the ocean’s waves that continues to enchant surfers and others to leave the beach and enter the surf. This withdrawal from the land is not simply escapism, though that may be part of the appeal of surfing as a lifestyle activity. Rather, the waves open the imagination just as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings enchanted readers with tales of Middle Earth and allowed us to feel interconnected to Nature. Ask any surfer whether they have mind-surfed an empty wave breaking at their favourite surfspot or looked at a surf photograph of an unfamiliar line-up and not imagined surfing that wave. Then, the other side of the imaginal is the wondering of what the surf is like when away from the beach, or attempting to picture the scene in anticipation on route to a surf. Opperman taps into all these sensibilities in her surf art and strongly hints that surfers are magical realists when out of the water.
Gabby Raaff and Justin Fiske’s collaboration takes the imagination in a different direction. The action of skipping a stone becomes ever widening concentric circles of wavelets. The surfboard as canvas represents both the conceptual surface for land and water for their piece as the kinetic energy of human motion is transferred to a stone and then absorbed into the ocean. There is something reminiscent of the playfulness of surfing in skipping stones. Also each stone, as each wave, is unique yet each follows natural laws of dispersal that have been coded as mathematical equations. For surfing, the modelling of waves from the interpreted data of ocean weather buoys allow for Internet based surf forecasts to predict when the next swell is to arrive – a piece of knowledge that drives how surfers determine work time, leisure and holidays. Nevertheless, the nature of when these oceanographic events occur is dependent on storm activity that is as a random as walking along a beach and deciding to pick a stone from among the multitude of pebbles on the stand and then with projecting that stone through a trajectory to skip in diminishing distance across an inshore water. The conceptual surf art of Raff and Fiske thus show that the patterning of oceanographic chaos is at the heart of what make surfing possible.
Richard Hart’s artwork shifts us in another direction, from the present to the past. It is a depiction of himself as a Lopezesque figure dreaming of the Indonesian tropical surf perfection of Grajagan (or G-land). This attempt for reconstruct the past by linking Lopez as the 1970s soul surfer icon who eschewed the crowds for the tranquillity of the Indonesian archipelago – and one that may conjure up the surfboard’s own past – seems to offer a retreat into a romanticised surfing heritage of those few avid surf adventurers who were willing to walk off the beaten track to find new surfspots. Yet, it was the same discovery of this island surf playground that launched a boom in surf tourism to Indonesia as of the 1980s (and especially to Bali and the Mentawai Islands off Sumatra). This annual migration of surfers from all nations, including South Africa, has sparked a frenzy of land and boat pay-to-surf holidays that market hollow, warm and perfect waves breaking over coral reefs. The exploration of G-land by Lopez in those early years, unknowingly, planted the seeds for today’s surf neo-colonialism where the islanders remain a pre-modern curiosity for the Westernised, global surf traveller and the waves a commodity for exploitation (for more on this theme see Barilotti 2002). So, even in Hart’s idealised artwork lie the murmurs of critique via nostalgia; the desire to return to a more naïve and experimental period within surf culture when the Indonesian waves were more rumoured than photographed.
Take off and die
In contrast to the above themes, the last two exhibits speak to endings and evoke the role of surf culture in taking a stand climate change. Dirty Sanchez, partner to Kim Longhurst, who responsible for the artwork on the other side the surfboard, gives us an ailing green-faced Popeye who acts as a soothsayer saying: “If the ocean dies will our tears still be salty?” Popeye is bemoaning humankind’s destruction of ocean life through the idea of progress as a means to an end and the fact that the closest thing to the ocean we will pass on to the next generation is our tears. Humanity is cutting off its own foot in over-exploiting marine resources and polluting the ocean. Dirty Sanchez’s pessimistic is that of an activist using popular culture to call for a marine environmental justice movement and the need for interventions to stave off the impending end of the ocean as result of human acts.
N.D. Mazin’s “Apocalypse WOW” surf art makes a similar call yet here the focus is on climate change awareness and the role of corporations exploiting the limits of surfing. In a parody of surf culture’s current glorification of big wave surfing, Mazin depicts zombified underclasses of Zurban (which looks remarkably like Durban, South Africa’s Surf City) fleeing down the main street as tidal waves ridden by three of surfing new elite adrenalin junkies lurch over inner-city high-rise buildings. This is a vision of the ultimate extreme event to end all surf events: the global surf enterprise Toxicorp’s sponsorship of the biggest wave challenge that creates a media spectacle out of devastating tsunamis and extreme storms as a result of anthropogenic climate change. Herein is the end of surfing driven by corporate greed. Unlike N.D. Mazin’s artworks from previous Wavescapes Surf Art Exhibitions, his countercultural, anti-corporate guerrilla Blue Mamba is banished from “Apocalypse WOW”. We have no redemption and are left with the madness of human-induced destruction reminiscent of the scene in the film Apocalypse Now where a beachhead is taken during the Vietnam War under orders by the American army Colonel Kilgore so that soldiers can surf Charlie’s Point. Read alongside each other, the film points to the heart of darkness within this surf art that brings to mind a 1980’s surf advert that announced the nihilist ethic of T.O.A.D.S (take off and die syndrome on attempting to surf the biggest waves) –the ultimate thrill of a final limit experience while civilisation drowns from a Gaian shrug.
In addition to these two artworks addressing themes of endings, mention must be made of Con Bertish’s “Ice Board Project”. This could be considered as the eleventh exhibit at the 2009 Wavescapes Surf Art Exhibition alongside the surf art. The “Ice Board Project” shifts our gaze to consider how a surfboard can function as a type of performance art to raise awareness among the surfing community of the effects of climate change and increasing global warming that have resulted in the melting of the Arctic and Antarctic ice caps. The “Ice Board Project” started the evening as a solid surfboard of ice and a wooden fin – of the same design as the Lopez board. Through the course of the evening it slowly melted till by the morning of the next day only the wooden fin remained. As a literal ending, the melting process of this ice surfboard was filmed as a simulation of the count-down to the end of the world as we know it, something akin to the futuristic documentary, The Age of Stupid (2009), as a challenge to take seriously the threat of climate change to the lifestyles we live today.
In re-membering the 2009 Wavescapes Surf Art Exhibition I was struck at how the ten surf art boards and the “Ice Board Project” offer a single reading. The surfboards as a representational space for artist expression provoked an embodied sensibility, something like what surfer and artist Kevin Short once noted, where “Art became a portal back; to imagine the water” (2002, 35). But then, in returning to the waves, the negation of the shore stands out. It is here the surf art in the Wavescapes Surf Art Exhibition came into it own as a discursive form to re-imagine and critique surf culture and its place in the social, political and ecological realities of the twenty-first century. Left with these thoughts and observations from the 2009 Wavescapes Surf Art Exhibition, I eagerly await for what the organisers have in store for 2010.
Barilotti, Steve. 2002. The Surfers Journal. Vol. 11, No. 3.
Corbin, Alain. 1994. The Lure of the Sea: The Discovery of the Seaside, 1750-1840. London: Penguin.
Ford, Nick and David Brown. 2006. Surfing and Social Theory: Experience, Embodiment and Narrative of the Dream Glide. London and New York: Routledge.
Greenblatt, Stephen. 1991. “Resonance and Wonder”. In Ivan Karp and Steven Lavine (eds). Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Heywood, Lesley. 2008. “Third Wave Feminism, the Global Economy, and Women’s Surfing: Sport as Stealth Feminism in Girls’ Surf Culture. In Anita Harris (ed). Next Waves Cultures: Feminism, Subcultures, Activism. New York and London: Routledge.
Slater, Kelly with Phil Jarratt. 2008. Kelly Slater: For The Love. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.
Thompson, Glen. 2001. “Making Waves, Making Men: The Emergence of a Professional Surfing Masculinity in South Africa during the Late 1970s.” In Robert Morrell (ed). Changing Men in South Africa. Pietermaritzburg, London and New York: University of Natal Press and Zed Books.
Warshaw, Matt. 2003. The Encyclopedia of Surfing. Orlando: Harcourt.
A meander down memory lane and how the art of surfcasting (surf forecasting) has changed how surfers now plan their surf-time.
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.