A surfing half-life
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 twenty 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 me, 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.’
Alex and I both have beards that are beginning to go silver, but I am average height and skinny while he is tall and rangy, muscular. We are both only children, sort of, both loners who like having someone to play with, now and then. We both have outlandish surnames that nobody can spell or pronounce.
After sessions which 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 fifteen minutes.’
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 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 two-foot shorebreak off the Milnerton lighthouse carpark, 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 Queen’s Beach, the Gat or the Hoek; online in YouTube clips: Nazaré, Mullaghmore, Mavericks, the endlessly spooling Go Pro barrels of Skeleton Bay – and the prolonged humbling that the middle-aged kook (beginner) must endure.
When we were younger, Alex did a school exchange and as a result still holds the Scottish under-16 record for high jump. Many of us remember how he would sail over that bar in a state of grace. That strange, floating, corkscrewing motion was not only physically impossible for me, I also didn’t have the vaguest notion of how it might or could feel in the body: it was literally unimaginable. Much like surfing a fast wave, where you must train your body to do the opposite of what seems natural or instinctual.
Alex played club football in Cape Town for many years with great focus, forbidding anyone he knew to come and watch him. He venerates the one-time midfielder Zinedine Zidane and in fact looks a bit like him: craggy and intense. His mother is suffering from Alzheimer’s, as my mother once also did: something we have discussed far out to sea in a wave field of grey glass and mist, or in a howling blue offshore that whips our words away as soon as they are spoken. It seems the only memory that his mother has left of me is of school sports days when all those who didn’t qualify for anything else were placed in a 1500 metre race at the end of the day, a sort of hold-all charity event.
‘And I remember how he used to wa-a-a-a-a-a-ve when he went past!’
This is what she would say; and he liked to regale me with it, since a bit of good-natured ribbing and outright emotional abuse is a key component of longstanding male friendships.
‘With a big grin on his face, so happy! W-a-a-a-a-a-ving to the crowd.’
My only claim to sporting prowess was a brief period in which my tennis was good enough, or infuriating enough, to earn me the nickname ‘The Wall’. And this difference between Alex and myself – not just in athletic ability, but also in what might one call sporting philosophy – has played out in interesting ways during our surf career to date. To put it simply, he wants grandeur, the Romantic sublime, feats of perfection and beauty. He has known them in his youth, and so expects them, hopes for them again. I expect humiliation and bathos: being whistled off a wave by a seven-year-old, or chucking your board and diving for the bottom as the next set rumbles in near the Koeberg nuclear plant, on a day when no-one else is in the water and your car window’s already been smashed, when you start hyperventilating to get enough air into your system ahead of what you know is coming: the slow underwater somersaults and icy pirouettes of a long, glorious Atlantic hold down.
‘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. What one needed to learn, he said, was a consistent wave without too many changing variables. One needed the closest natural equivalent to Kelly Slater’s wave pool in California, recently constructed and consistently delivering perfect, identical, mud-coloured inland tubes in front of all the Budweiser stalls and corporate boxes. Working with chaos mathematicians, the ex-world champion had engineered the surf equivalent of cracking the human genome: really we were living in the end times.
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 he was now moving along the face, describing thoughtful curves, his gaze far ahead and down the line, looking to any tricky sections that might need to be threaded. Back knee stylish kinked and one hand a little raised with palm facing down, as if to say (to both the ocean and the mammals that were sporting in its cooking swells): let’s keep it tidy folks, let’s not get too carried away.
Though not yet thirty, Coach brought great emotional intelligence to bear in 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. Snorkelling once in those parts had been enough for me. As I dropped from a rock ledge down through water so planktonic and full of nutrients that it was almost soupy, I had a strong bodily sense that something was near. Perhaps this was an evolutionary flicker from the long history of humans along these protein-rich coastlines, but the intuition was fizzing in my bones: that something was aware of me, was watching me, something big. It could have been a seal or a whale – or it could have been something else.
Coach downplayed such dangers, of course, and said these breaks were the only places left where surfers 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 over themselves 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. Offshore winds ‘wreathe waves in glory’, writes William Finnegan in Barbarian Days: ‘They groom them, hold them up and prevent them from breaking for a crucial extra beat…On a good day, their sculptor’s blade, meticulous and invisible, seems to drench whole coastlines in grace’. His epic memoir of a surfing life ranges from the warm-water tubes of Hawaii and Bali to the cold-water bombs of San Francisco and Madeira; and since the author spent some time teaching at a school in Grassy Park during the 1980s, the book even touches on Muizenberg. Vaguely embarrassed to even be thinking about waves at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle, Finnegan quickly dispenses with it as ‘a wide, shapeless beach break, which I surfed when I wasn’t too busy grading papers or planning lessons.’ It stung a little, I have to say, seeing (in a book of 500 pages) the venerable Surfers’ Corner reduced to a mere four words.
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 south-easter is turning False Bay into a pewter-coloured, foaming algal mess, it will be producing crystalline A-frames on the other side at Dunes or Llandudno. If the winter north-wester has reduced Glen Beach and Off the Wall to a disgusting slop of storm water and sewage blowback, then Muizenberg will finally be coming into its own. Pulled over near the Shark Spotters booth uphill, you will see noble blue walls queueing up to the horizon, the kind of lines that would make Hawaiian kings and queens decree a sacred holiday – all other business suspended when conditions are this right – and which now cause 21st-century pilgrims to begin talking about emergency board meetings, and extricating themselves from whatever plans they might have had for the day.
There is, however, a problem with learning to surf in this city, or at least with advancing beyond beginner. Yes, there is the broad, sheltered, multidenominational church of Surfers’ Corner in Muizenberg, 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 icy, bone-crunching breaks of the west coast, where waves are fast, steep, hollow and (like the local crews who dominate them) generally unforgiving.
‘The close, painstaking study of a tiny patch of coast’, writes Finnegan, ‘every eddy and angle, even down to individual rocks, and in every combination of tide and wind and swell – a longitudinal study, through season after season, is the basic occupation of surfers at their local break. Getting a spot wired – truly understanding it – can take years. At very complex breaks, it’s a lifetime’s work.’
My local break is Glen, just five minutes up and over the hill from the city apartment where I live. I have been conducting a longitudinal study of it for ten years now – first as bodysurfer, then surfer – but the results remain inconclusive. It is so fickle, changeable, powerful – by turns sucky, wedgy, peaky, slabby – and full of the city’s best surfers. During one session, I tried to duck dive under a set and failed; or at least the wave somehow took and pushed me about 50 metres 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 sputtered out an apology.
‘Fuck,’ he said, looking straight at me. Not ‘Fuck you’ or ‘Fucking hell’, just ‘Fuck’ – 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.
Over beers afterwards, I was tempted to broach the issue of the ‘poo-stance’: a derisive term for beginners who do a bent-kneed squat on the board, and which is more prominent (and hilarious) with a taller ‘poo-man’ like Alex. With typical ambition, he would crouch down on a narrow, five-foot something, high performance board that I christened the Toothpick; whereas I (five ten) went for a seven-footer: longer boards are more buoyant and easier to paddle. But this kind of teasing was against the advice of Coach, who had said that the question poo-manning ‘was a sensitive issue that needed to be delicately handled.’
Coach had, through subtle mind games, even managed to lure Alex back into the water after my co-pilot got trapped inside on a biggish day, then stormed out of the ocean and began a six-month, anti-surfing sulk during which I was left to plough the choppy furrows of False Bay alone. There were tantalising moments that winter, glimpses of greater things: there always are. One day the ragged lines resolved into a long, grey wall that delivered me all the way from back line to shallows, a full minute’s worth it felt like, until I dived ecstatically off the board way out beyond the old pavilion. Some days I even scored a little whoop or two as I angled the Mini Mal through the crowds, finally able to swerve out of someone’s way.
But a surf session often proceeds according to the law of diminishing returns: as your arms tire out, you are less and less able to paddle onto waves, or under them. Sometimes I would reach a kind of disorientated fugue state out there in the grey wash cycle, towed along the coast by strange rips, far from shore, not knowing quite where I was or what I was hoping to achieve. Where were the outputs, the deliverables, the take-homes? What was there to show for this outrageous amount of time devoted to sitting on a seven-foot fibreglass raft while the world burned? You should have called it after that last decent ride; but you don’t, and then there is the ultimate humiliation of paddling back to shore, or having to catch the foam in with the shrieking toddlers. At certain points that winter, I remember being almost too exhausted to pull off my wetsuit. There I would be, towel round my waist in the car park near the railway line, wetsuit round my knees, freezing, thinking: what am I doing?
At the time, Alex was focusing on his job as the founding principal of a small primary school in Philippi. I had driven out there a few times to give the Grade One kids ukulele lessons, but I couldn’t make much headway amid the general after-school chaos and hilarity. Principal stalked around in his skinny jeans and long coat, six foot plus and mock serious amid all the kids who would mob his car when he arrived each day, shouting his unpronounceable name with delight. I put it to Principal that Muizenberg was actually very close, for an after-work session, I meant. But he spoke disdainfully about all the tourists clogging up the water now that summer was coming, and bent his head back over Singapore maths, saying maybe we could try Derdesteen, if traffic wasn’t too bad.
As I slowly improved – very slowly, and not without major relapses – I also began trying out the occasional bit of surf lingo and surf hauteur, which is full of mockery poked at beginners and laments about crowds and tourists. But to disparage tourists while being a tourist, or traffic when you were traffic, or crowded breaks when you were part of the crowd, this was, Coach had once pronounced (in a phrase that stuck with me) ‘the way of the barbarian’.
The remark was not directly related to Finnegan’s book, but somehow it got tangled up in my reading of it – one of the most immersive literary experiences I’ve ever had. Spending a lifetime searching out the greatest breaks in the world and then writing about it (and then winning a Pulitzer for it), Finnegan has to reckon with the interminable paradox at the heart of surf culture: that the mythic quest for the perfect, unridden, uncrowded wave inevitably contains (when photographed or written or bragged about) the seeds of its own downfall: surf tourism. As a young man, he is one of the first to surf a paradisal reef break on a remote island off Fiji; towards the end of the book he returns to the region, now a surf lodge full of social media streams and spectator boats.
Finnegan is wonderfully ambivalent about the world he describes. He doesn’t even seem sure if he likes surfers, or surf culture. Living and paddling out along San Francisco’s forbidding Ocean Beach, he is steadily writing about other things: finishing his books on 1980s Cape Town and travels with black reporters in Soweto, still feeling ‘mentally flayed’ by his time in the country. To write about surfing was something different, and closer to home: it risked losing the ‘sizable tract of unconsciousness’ near the centre of his life, the self-enclosed, non-verbal quality which means that most surf line-ups are quiet, with everyone cocooned in their own space and silence, not places for the loud or garrulous.
And then there is so much waiting, watching, continually adjusting position, scratching towards the rising or setting sun, squinting into the glare. Waiting, wasted time, frustration, sometimes aggression: the disjunction (Finnegan goes on) between ‘the natural-aesthetic glories of surfing and the ugly chauvinism of many surfers’. In New Zealand, some travellers had been shot at from shore while surfing at a secret spot off some remote headland. In Mauritius, a local crew called the White Shorts had become notorious for their violent behaviour in the water. They, grown men, had beaten up a fourteen-year old, and then when his father took issue, him too. Another time they ordered some kids out the water, insisting that they climb out over the jagged coral rather than paddle back to shore. It turned out, of course, that the ringleaders were all surf tour operators.
Stacked five deep (I noticed) in my local surf shop, Barbarian Days must itself have been directly responsible for unleashing droves of bookish, middle-aged groms like me on the already crowded line-ups of the English-speaking world. And it is, of course, within the surf shop that such contradictions reach a particular intensity, since they are run by locals who are resentfully kitting out kooks (from the Hawaiian kuk, meaning shit). The proprietor was clearly not amped to be selling me a wetsuit, given that it might enable me to ruin his wave later that day.
‘Your arms are thin all the way up to the shoulders, so this one isn’t tight enough.’
I soon realised that it was a broad-based misanthropy though: nothing personal. When another customer walked in, they soon established they were both from Durban, where all you needed was boardies and at worst a rashie. The shop owner began a litany of complaints:
‘It’s shit in Cape Town. First it’s kak cold, then you have to drive everywhere, it’s always a mission. In summer it’s the wind, in winter it’s too big. I’ve got ear infections bru – three operations now. In Durbs you just stroll on over.’
‘But Glen?’ said the punter, ‘That’s nearby?’
‘It’s a kak wave.’
Eavesdropping on this, I felt a little hurt on Glen’s behalf, even though I could barely surf it.
‘Those sandbars move around, then there’s all that churned up kelp, all those little bits. And the stream running in there – disgusting. All the shit they pump out there. No man, it’s a kak wave, literally.’
Drone footage from concerned ratepayers had repeatedly shown plumes of raw sewage being released just off the city’s most expensive beaches, just a few hundred metres away from the bungalow mansions and anchored party boats. Kalk Bay snoek were full of Ibuprofen, according to reports, Hout Bay anemones packed with Vermox. Sea urchins off Sea Point were showing high levels of anti-anxiety and heart meds: just some of the many drugs that filtered daily through bladders and pipes and then out to sea. Every sea creature was full of caffeine, apparently, and probably cocaine too: what must that be like? And several of the desalination plants meant to rescue us from drought couldn’t run: the water in the docks was too polluted, and on the other side it was algal blooms, red tides and diatoms.
Despite knowing all this, I somehow still retained my idea of seawater as a healthy, bracing, salty tonic – right up until the session when Alex brushed his foot against a rock in Glen and walked out with an inflamed toe, ‘so angry that it was squeaking’. Only swift medical action saved the digit, or even the foot. The staph infection required hospitalisation, and he was on crutches for a while.
After ‘Glen Toe’, he was more ready to dial things down a little, and we began leading surf outings for the kids from Philippi and Marcus Garvey. I was feeling good about this: taking kids to the ocean, suiting up, combining surfing with social outreach – what was not to like? And they were hugely excited as we guided them across the car park and into the hire shop. The man behind the counter looked up at me and said:
‘Your wetsuit’s on backwards.’
I ran out and back to the car to rip off this burning shirt of humiliation: how could it have happened, a wetsuit I had put on a hundred times before?
Alex wisely didn’t refer to this moment ever again – some things are just beyond the bounds – but he and the owner would exchange a stifled smile every time we arrived with the kids. Then we would wade out into the shallows with two or three shrieking, terrified, delighted children attached to us and try to stand them on a foam board, while also scanning obsessively to make sure that none of the others were being dragged out or under. Often we had to cut our sessions short because one of the assistant teachers would find us and say that people were throwing stones at Golden Arrow buses on Eisleben road, or that tyres were burning near the school gate, and it looked like it might get worse, so we should go now. I half suspected they were just bored waiting on the shore, but we would then drag everyone out of the water and the wetsuits and back on the bus. Then we might paddle out to the back line for our own session, and the quiet and self-enclosure would return. Thinking back to that melee with the kids in the white water – touch and go at times – I realised I had never been clutched so hard by anyone.
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 break in turn into our social media feeds. You look up from your inbox and 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 (if we even manage to make it out) 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 ten years away from those waves, at least. Not five, ten. We’re Chopsticks level, and this is Rachmaninov. We’re ukulele, and this is Stradivarius.’
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-Corbynite smear campaign, which was destroying one of the last hopes for a progressive government in the West, which hid its nefarious agenda under the patently ridiculous accusation of anti-Semitism. Which got him started on Israel and Palestine, and then the Christian Zionist lobby, then Modi, Bolsanaro and Trump, who was building sea walls for his Scottish golf courses 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 backroads as we were diverted off the highway first due to protests and then the lingering smoke of inland wildfires, that I eventually asked him, over some lasagne in Wilderness, what was actually on his mind. And he confessed that he had just learned, 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. The barbarian phase was over. The scandalous stretches of open time and space needed for the pastime would soon be radically reduced, at least for one of us. And so we needed, said Alex, to make it count.
Vic Bay bay is V-shaped and compact with steep walls, more of a cove really. On its right-hand shore, cottages line a track almost all the way to the point, which means that instead of paddling from the beach you can walk right up to the take-off zone, then pick your way across a few rocks, jump out and you’re in position. Having been schooled on the wide, shapeless beach breaks of Cape Town, where sometimes the backline moves hundreds of metres out to sea and you stare out at stepladder of rumbling white water barring entry, Alex and I could hardly believe this set up. We found a room in the guesthouse closest to the point, where 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 window of the kitchenette and chuck a UHT milk sachet right into the line-up, 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. One of us watched for a lull between sets and gave the signal, the other launched across the white water and into position.
For half an hour in the pre-dawn light, we were alone in the water. Great things were accomplished, apparently. 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 ten seconds, thirty 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.
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 that she pulled into a wave, it was clear that this was a superb surfer. The power, control and room for manoeuvre within the tight space of the pocket-sized break was extraordinary. At one point she came pumping down the line towards me, not aggressively but within supreme confidence, and then cut back mere centimetres from my face, so that 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 emailed me with the subject heading: ‘CHECK OUT 5mins47!!!!’ and a YouTube clip titled ‘Pop Up Like the Pros’. 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: Ms Moore! 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 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, the Toothpick shot skywards like a surface to air missile, and 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 with to the 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.
After the birth of his son, Alex began travelling out of the country with his partner, who is French, so that young Marcus (named half after Marcus Aurelius, and half Marcus Garvey) could spend time with his grandparents. I began getting swell updates from the coast of Brittany, which looked paradisal, and pictures of mussels cooked in cider. Then he would come back alone for stretches, resuming his duties at the school. Though I had the sense that he was winding things up there, and would soon break it to me, somewhere beyond the back line, that they were leaving South Africa for good.
After work and on weekends he would surf obsessively as a means of coping with the sudden separations, and was now clearly better than me: a strong paddler who would power through the impact zone. But our attitudes had shifted slightly, switched round a little. He had less to prove, and seemed more at peace with the Anthropocene shore, no matter how scruffy or unromantic. We met more often in the lumpy swell of Milnerton, where the beach was slowly washing away and plastic bags brushed against your feet like delicate seaweed. When conditions were glassy, a brown haze hung over the docks at the foot of Table Mountain. One day we saw a twerking video being filmed in the car park, which had attracted the attention of the guard who did a side-line fossilised shark teeth: ‘Stop it I like it!’ Which was a useful catchphrase when a clean-up set had knocked us off our boards and left us scrambling for the safety of the channel.
Whereas I was now more receptive to the moments of sublimity that surfing reliably delivers, if not in person, then at least via the feats of others. One day I was feeling blue and went to sit on a rock at the edge of the Sea Point promenade, near the tidal pool, watching the sun call it a day out past Robben Island and the queued container ships.
I see a surfer picking his way back to shore over the whaleback boulders. The swell is very big, untidy, full of frightening currents.
‘Did you get waves out there?’
I’ve never seen anyone off these rocks. Just to the north, beyond the trig beacon at Queen’s Beach, many times. But here, never, not in ten years.
‘One or two’, he says, a big man who looks local and is wearing a wetsuit that seems padded, almost like body armour – whether for extra warmth or to avert bruising in rocky conditions, I’m not sure. He picks his way back to the promenade.
A few minutes later, two more surfers approach from the prom, walking round the tidal pool, surveying the waves. For maybe a hundred metres out, swell is boiling over half-submerged rocks, the white water looking almost black in the glare. A young guy and a young woman who seem foreign: he is beach blonde and very good looking; she has brown hair, a longboard and zinc oxide on her cheeks: more like someone you’d see in a Muizenberg surf camp. Already I have concocted a story in my mind: these are tourists who have glimpsed a rare, one-off appearance by a grizzled local, and now believe that this is a normal break: prelude to disaster.
As they go past me, I almost ask: ‘Are you local?’ Which is what someone asked me early one morning as I contemplated the ocean ripping and sucking at Glen Beach, about to plunge in for a swim. ‘That’s good’, they said when I answered yes, ‘Because I wouldn’t want to see a visitor going in on a day like today.’ I thought it an elegant way of dealing with the matter. But ‘local’ carries a different, more laden set of meanings in the surf world. So I swallow the question and just watch.
They pick their way out to the whalebacks, which I have recently seen deluged with white water, and survey the scene: sun about to go down, mussel-encrusted rocks everywhere, rip tides, a six foot plus swell roiling far out. I imagined they were going to turn back. Then the princeling takes his window perfectly and runs and leaps and scoots right over the white water.
The woman stands alone, surveying his progress as he paddles wide round the impact zone, scratching towards the sun. Now another story slotted into place: he had dragged his girlfriend into surfing this dangerous spot; she was now implicated in some male foolhardiness, and desperately looking for a way out as he waved her on.
Then she picks her window perfectly, skids over the worst of the white water, a little more touch and go, not quite as strong a paddler, but soon following in his wake.
I watch as they paddle far, far out. Now I was predicting a sea rescue narrative, and even thought of calling an old neighbour who was involved in the local NSRI. Shading my face from the glare, I then see one of them, presumably King Joffrey, catch an enormous, rumbling Atlantic roller as it detonates amid the rocks, a wave (how does Tim Winton put it in Breath?) ‘as ugly as a civic monument’.
And he nails it! Perfect take off, breaking right, towards the reef, so that then he must do a cut back left and bottom turn in a wide arc around the white water to avoid being ground into the rocks – all of which he does to perfection.
Because I have somewhere to be, I tear myself away and walk back to the car. On the promenade, a guy walks up and asks if I know these people. He is also flummoxed. I tell him what I have seen (which I am also telling Alex, in France, in a series of excitable voice notes). We keep watching as he texts some friends, asking them if this spot is in fact surfable. (I did eventually find reference to it on an old website: a heavy bombora reef – from an indigenous Australian word for a wave that breaks over a rock outcrop far from shore – called Gasworks, and only woken when the swell is huge, clean and westerly: ‘Breaks in deep, dark water and grinds towards a large exposed rock. Not for wussies.’)
Now they are far, far out. The sun is low and the currents fearsome. It surely can’t end well. I begin to leave, then saunter back to say, unworthily:
‘And did I mention one of them is a woman?’
He begins to reply, saying he had noticed that one seemed to be a weaker paddler. As we are speaking, a set begins to lift up in sickening black lines through the glare, and a massive A-frame starts to break, right at the back.
And they are both on it, one going left, one going right, dropping down each shoulder, making it. A man and a woman, so far out and so much glare that they are barely visible, two tiny figures against the sun.