Flailing around in the foam: my life as a terrible surfer
If only Alex and I had taken some tips from world champion Carissa Moore when we were carving up (literally) Vic Bay
Thirty-six is no longer young, or promising, and even as a teacher or writer (careers more forgiving of slow starters), it can barely be called emerging. It’s one year too late to be a member of the ANC Youth League, and 20 years too late to start surfing, especially in the wild and freezing waters around Cape Town. ’
All that lost time weighs on us, Alex and I, as we watch teenagers or outright children paddle onto some heaving Atlantic swell, make the drop, cut back, carve some shapes along the purling, blue-green wall and then kick out like it was the easiest thing in the world.
“Poets,” he would say, beard in hand, as we watched from a car park in the depths of winter, when the swells come in. “There are poets among us.”
After sessions that had gone more than usually badly — when we had fluffed a take-off in front of coach, or our boards had gone vaulting over the white water, or (worst of all) we had pretended to paddle and miss a wave when in fact we were too chicken to actually take it — Alex could be less philosophical:
“All those years, doing what? Jerking off in Constantia, when I could’ve been at Long Beach in 15 minutes.”
All those years, doing what? Jerking off in Constantia, when I could’ve been at Long Beach in fifteen minutes.Alex
His new cold-water hood made him look somehow Nordic, Icelandic. Hooded, bearded, grizzled: he looked, I guess, better than he was. Out in the back-line, he seemed to get the kind of respect I never do. He looked like the kind of Kommetjie big-wave surfer who might get towed onto a hillside of a moving, crumpling ocean out by Dungeons or Sunset reef, and then talk about the experience in humble monosyllables: “It’s a team effort out there, I rely on my guys.”
But the fact is we were struggling to deal with a mushy three-foot shore-break off the Milnerton lighthouse car park, where the water tasted of phosphates and Alex had at one point emerged trailing a nappy from his leash. And this gap was getting to him, to us: the gap between our surfing aspirations and abilities. Between the utter sublimity of what we were seeing — up close at Queens and Elands, or online in the endlessly spooling Go Pro barrels of Skeleton Bay — and the prolonged humiliation that the middle-aged grom must endure.
“Five years,” said Alex, who had been googling, “Five years to get to a decent level. If —,” and this was the kicker, “you surf every day.”
Coach believed there was still time for us. He grew up near Vic Bay, one of the most reliable point breaks in the country: endless afternoons of peeling rights. Coach’s build was compact, muscular, perfect for surfing. He had that mystical quantum of extra time afforded the athlete. When catching a wave (seemingly without paddling — he was always at the right peak at the right time) he would do a sort of mini cobra pose, a half-press up, looking left and right before deciding whether to pop up. If yes, it was already done, and now he was moving along the face, describing thoughtful curves, with back knee stylish kinked and one arm a little raised.
Though not yet 30, coach brought great emotional intelligence to bear on the role of surf mentor. Never too quick to praise nor to blame, he was a master of understatement (to Alex’s annoyance he would never specify how big a swell was in figures), and a paragon of back-line etiquette. On his own time, he mainly surfed the feral, kelpy breaks near Cape Point, since (he said) these were the only places left where anyone had any manners. But for a year or so, right at the start, he graciously accompanied us to wherever the wind was offshore.
The on/offshore question is the fundamental binary of surfing; it determines everything. Onshore winds are pure evil: they mush and mangle the swell, breaking ranks, knocking waves on the back of the head, spilling them into a grey-brown mush. Offshore winds are godly: they comb the swell into stately lines, with spray pluming behind, walls going green and barrels hollow. Because Cape Town is at the head of a coastal peninsula, you can, in theory, always find a break where the wind is offshore. If the summer southeaster is turning False Bay into a pewter-coloured, foaming algal mess, it will be producing epic, crystalline A-frames on the other side at Dunes or Llandudno. If the winter northwester has reduced Glen Beach and Off the Wall to a disgusting slop of storm-water and sewage blow-back, then Muizenberg will finally be coming into its own, queued to the horizon in noble blue ranks.
But there is a problem with learning to surf in this city, or at least with advancing beyond beginner. Yes, there is the broad, sheltered, multi-denominational church of Surfers’ Corner, where young and old, short-boarders and long-boarders, stand-up paddlers and package tourists can all have a grand old time getting in each other’s way and being very decent about it.
“Too happy-clappy for me,” says Alex. “It’s like Sunday school out there.”
But as soon as you want to move out and up a step, there is no intermediate stage. The remaining options are the bone-crunching breaks of the exposed west coast, where waves are fast, steep, hollow and (like the local crews who dominate them) generally unforgiving. My closest break is Glen, just five minutes up and over the hill from the city apartment where I live. During one session, I tried to duck-dive under a set and failed; or at least the wave somehow took and pushed me about 50m backwards, all of this underwater, like a cold relentless hand against my forehead, pushing me until I was almost back on the beach. I bobbed up near a local who was just beginning his paddle, and spluttered out an apology.
“F..k,” he said, looking straight at me. Not “F..k you” or “Fing hell”, just “F..k” — as if the disbelief, or maybe just the cold, was so intense that he couldn’t bring himself to go any further.
Having witnessed all this, Alex had to walk back to shore and lean on his knees, he was laughing that hard.
After the trials of summer — crowds, traffic, wind, days of flat seas — winter is here again. Monster storms detonate somewhere between Africa and Antarctica, aftershocks of swell hit the southern peninsula days later, and these in turn break into our social media feeds. Suddenly there are galleries of old warriors and young chargers dropping unimaginably deep into hollows that, just from the wind-scoured, bottle-green of them, you know to be utterly, skull-achingly frigid: the kind of cold that sews ear bones closed.
At this point Alex will start getting excited and sending messages, wanting us to hit up Llandudno or Thermopylae, a menacing spot named for an old wreck near the Radisson, one only roused by the chunkiest westerly swell. Here we will sit on our boards and let wave after wave pass underneath us, spray whipping back into our faces and the boom of it reaching us a second later.
After several sessions of this, when there was no more pride left to swallow, I had to give a pep talk:
"We’re 10 years away from those waves, at least. Not five, 10. We’re Chopsticks level, and this is Rachmaninov. We’re ukulele, and this is Stradivarius.”
Our trip became both the peak of our surf career so far, and also beginning of its end, or at least the end of its beginning.Hedley Twidle
And when he started complaining again about the crowds and evangelists at the surf-industrial complex of Muizenberg, I reminded him that we were socialists, or at least social democrats. Or at least that he had a poster of Jeremy Corbyn on the wall, and that on our surf trip to Vic Bay he had talked my ear off about the British Labour leader and the unwarranted attacks on him by the corporate media.
All the way from Riviersonderend to the PetroSA refinery, Alex raged against the anti-Corbyn smear campaign, which was destroying one of the last hopes for a progressive government in the West, which hid its agenda under the ridiculous accusation of anti-Semitism. Which got him started on Israel and Palestine, then Modi, Bolsanaro and Trump, who was building sea walls for his Scottish golf estates even while denying climate change — the sheer anti-human cynicism, the flagrancy of these people, like being forced to eat a turd! Every day, another turd like the one we’d seen floating off Milnerton being gradually forced into your mouth!
It was such a long and impassioned performance, persisting even along the back roads as protests diverted us off the highway, that I eventually asked him, over some lasagne in Wilderness, what was actually on his mind. And he confessed that he had just learnt, just before getting in the car, that he was going to be a father.
And so our trip became both the peak of our surf career so far, and also beginning of its end, or at least the end of its beginning. And so we needed, said Alex, to make it count.
The bay at Vic Bay is V-shaped and compact with steep walls — more of a cove, really. On its right-hand shore, cottages line a track all the way to the point. From our romantic and well-appointed flatlet, the wave was a mere stone’s throw away; by which I mean you could literally lean out the kitchenette and chuck a UHT milk sachet right into the take-off zone, from where a bounteous supply of Indian Ocean swells began their even peel across the bay.
For that first afternoon, we hung back off the shoulder, sussing it out and catching a few scraps left behind by the locals; but in fact, there were no leftovers — every wave got ridden, every set picked clean. So the next morning we woke before dawn and picked our way down the rocks in the dark.
For half an hour in the predawn light, we were alone in the water. Great things were accomplished, apparently, and Alex says it was my finest hour, but it’s curiously hard to remember. As with orgasms, so much time and effort is spent chasing, talking about, analysing the moving pulse of a wave, and then, within five to 10 seconds, 30 if you’re lucky, it’s all over. Time, in my experience, does not stand still in the barrel. It rushes on and upwards and towards you like the curling water, then collapses.
So much time and effort is spent chasing, talking about, analysing the moving pulse of a wave, and then, within five to 10 seconds, 30 if you’re lucky, it’s all over.Hedley Twidle
What I do remember is that after a while we were joined by another party who paddled in from the beach: one woman and three men. From the first instant she pulled into a wave, it was clear this was a superb surfer. Several times she came pumping down the line towards me, not aggressively but with supreme confidence, and then cut back mere centimetres from my face, so I was drenched by the torque and spray of her board.
“I’ve been baptised,” I said to the other guys in the line-up, who seemed to be her entourage — maybe one of them was her husband. He laughed. “I know the feeling.”
A month or so after our trip, Alex e-mailed me with the subject heading: “CHECK OUT 5mins47!!!!” and a YouTube clip titled “Pop Up Like the Pros”. And after segments on Kelly and Jordy, there she was, hunkering down at Pipeline doing sick bottom turns: the three-time world champion Carissa Moore, resident of Honolulu! Yes, undoubtedly, I recognised the open face and the powerful stance. We had indeed been baptised by greatness, sprinkled with holy water.
Which, in retrospect, made what happened next even more amusing. As we sat there, pensive in the dawn, trying to hold our place in the line-up and maintain our dignity, Alex’s board suddenly popped out from between his legs like a piece of soap. Entirely unprovoked, and from a resting position, it shot skywards like a surface to air missile. He capsized backwards into the water right next to Carissa and her husband, her coach, maybe her dietician, the whole crew obviously on the way up the coast to the Corona J-Bay Open, where she would go on to lose (“probably the lowest I’ve ever felt”, according to her Instagram), but then stage a triumphant return the following year: “My journey is imperfect but I am laughing, loving and learning every step of the way. Thanks for sharing it with me.”
I had to take a wave all the way to shore and lean on my knees, I was laughing that hard.