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Surfing practices

Searching the West Kus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Originally written on June 3, 2007.]

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.]

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