Stand-up paddle boarding

I put on my water activist cap on at the 2013 Slide Night hosted by the Wavescape Surf Film Festival on Wednesday, 11 December 2013 at the Two Oceans Aquarium at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront. The format was a 10-minute talk to slides on an ocean-minded topic.

Slide1I spoke about the Peninsula Paddle and reflected on my experience of paddling on a stand-up paddleboard (SUP) from False Bay to Table Bay to highlight an ongoing conversation about creating visibility for the polluted state of Cape Town’s inland waterways and coastal waters.

Glen Thompson on the Black River, 2011 Peninsula Paddle

Glen Thompson on the Black River, 2011 Peninsula Paddle

For more on the annual Peninsula Paddle community initiate held in June see their website. The paddle route via Cape Town’s inland waterways and short sea leg can be seen here.

Guy Bubb and Glen Thompson paddling the Steenberg Canal, above Zandvlei, 2011 Peninsula Paddle

Guy Bubb and Glen Thompson paddling the Steenberg Canal, above Zandvlei, 2011 Peninsula Paddle

One of my waves. Photo by Ben Day

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, 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.

I wish to return to a posting on the 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.

Southern Cape SUP session May 2010

Spike from Wavescape asked me how I got into SUP. Below is my response that I emailed to him:

“Earlier last year (around April or May 2007) I came across an article in The Surfer’s Journal (Vol. 15 No. 6, 2007) on stand-up paddle boarding by Todd Bradley entitled “Upright: The Revival of Beachboy-Style Surfing. I was intrigued: it tweaked my historical sensibility to explore a new way of interacting with the ocean while reconnecting to a wave-riding practice from Hawai’ian surfing’s yesteryear.

While the modern SUP boards are shaped more like a tandem surfboard, it also reminded me of the late 1930s and 1940s Crocker Ski that Baron Stander Snr had on display in the Timewarp Surfing Museum in Durban – an unwieldy beast of a board, more like a door wrapped in canvas, tapered to a point up front and a two-sided paddle tied to the front deck of the board. How those guys rode waves with them still boggles me; not to mention taking a South Beach breaker on the head …

Needless to say I wanted to know more: I started to read up more about SUP online, and downloaded a few YouTube video clips. I got an idea of the dimensions of a board and was now determined to try it myself.

I had two notions of what SUP would mean for me: as I hate going to a gym and prefer outdoors activities, I could keep fit and in the water during flat days by paddling the Atlantic Seaboard; I could also take it out on small days when my longboard would struggle; but it was the lure of actually taking it out into larger surf – a point or reef break preferably as getting out through insistent beachbreak looked tough.

I hadn’t seen anyone stand-up paddle boarding in the Cape Town surrounds (although I do recall seeing a paddleskier once stand up with paddle in hand in Durban in my teenage beach days). I wondered how the sport would relocate to the wetsuited climate of chilly Cape Town waters.

The price of importing a SUP from the USA was beyond my means so I made some enquires in May at some local surf shops. I came up against: “well, we don’t have a template for it” or “the blanks are too small, we’d have to import them” or “we’re thinking about it, but there isn’t enough demand really.” I eventually chatted to Volker at Surf ‘n Sport in Cape Town in June. I had some dimensions and a shape in mind for the SUP and he contacted Spider Murphy, SA’s top shaper based in Durban – and someone who has shaped many of my surfboards since I was a grom lurking in the shorebreak of Durban’s Addington Beach in the early 1980s.

Spider agreed, even though he had not tackled shaping a SUP before, and we had a few chats about what I lwas ooking for in the board – just paddling or do I want to surf waves? We agreed on aircraft carrier dimensions – 11′ in length, 29″ wide and 4’ thick with a slight diamond tail and triple stringers – using the usual surfboard non-environmentally-friendly materials (note to self: there are alternatives, must investigate) -. Sport ‘n Surf arrange for a paddle to be made fand brought down from Dakine’s factory in the Eastern Cape. I was in for a couple grand in all.

When the board arrived, I was gob-smacked at how big it actually was. A longboard is long, sure, but a SUP is a beast of board. How was I to pick this thing up with giving myself a hernia? Thankfully no hernia appeared as I got it onto my little Fiat Palio’s roof racks and then into the sea for its first outing.

Session #1: Late October was in slightly cross-shore Muizenberg was a whole new learning curve. I got to backline on my knees after floundering trying to stand up in the inshore ripples. I did catch a wave that day, it was a small foamy, but I felt the turning potential of using the paddle to steer the board. I was hooked … and exhausted after dragging myself and board back the few metres up the beach.

I had no real reference point besides the digital images: no coach, no mentor, in my late 30s I returned to gromhood with trepidation. I have now met or heard of a few Cape Town guys who had got into the sport – some of the Kommetjie crew were paddle surfing across the way from Long Beach; Reinhardt Fourie of Dakine, the first to ride SUP in SA who had pointed out a useful “how to” DVD, and Ivan van Vuuren “veteran” SA SUP’er recently returned from Hawaii; and there a few more SUP had been sighted more regularly in Muizenberg, Camps Bay and the Bloubergstrand waters of Cape Town.

I have had several more forays into the Cape Town waters – traversing Camps Bay beach or looking for some small Atlantic surf in wind-sheltered coves. I am getting the hang of paddling into a wave standing face forward to the beach, using the single blade to paddle with stokes alternating on the left and right to build momentum, and then switch feet into a surfing pose. It is this and the fact that you paddle from dead stop just in front of a swell and then drop into the wave standing up that makes SUP so different from surfing a shortboard where you paddle in lying down and then jump to your feet. On the SUP your perspective of depth and the ledge you are going over is completely different – it’s like taking a skateboard down a half-pipe, except here you are standing midway along a very long ironing board. But when you slide into the wave, shift weight to the back of the board, paddle in hand, dragging a watery arc into setting up for a down-the-line ride that the beauty of stand-up paddle surfing becomes sublime.

My best moments are being out in the water just as the sun has set, stroking into an Altantic wave reflecting the pink-orange hues of a day fading to twilight.

So in summary: a past surfing style reborn using modern surfboard materials, rekindling my surfing stoke by taking in the waves from a new vantage point, stand-up paddle boarding is a superlative surfie experience.

See Steve Pike’s article on “What’s SUP?” from the Sunday Argus, 13 January 2008 on Wavescape. The Weekend Argus, 12 January also carried a piece on Stand-up paddle surfing.

[Text originally posted on my old blog on January 29, 2008.]