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.
I 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.
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.
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.
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.]