I am a surfer. Condemn me if you must, but there it is.
I do other things, too, of course, because I am now too old to earn a living from the sport. Sure, I could make surfboards out of compressed marijuana and export them to Europe, but that would be so 1974. June, if memory serves me correctly, was a big year for green boards being shipped out of Durban.
So I’m writing about surfing this week. If you’re not interested, go read something else. Or write your own damn column. Good luck with that.
Surfing, possibly more than any other sport, has changed dramatically over the last fifty years. Or rather, the equipment has changed. Surfers themselves have remained more or less the same since Fred Crocker designed an 18-foot wood and canvas barge. I wish I had been around back then. It must have been awesome going for a wave at South Beach and having to dodge the velociraptors still off their faces after pulling an all-nighter at the Lido.
When I look at photos of that old posse – Maxie Wetteland, Ant van den Heuvel, Dereck Jardine, Dux Coetsee – I realise that surfers have, in fact, changed over the years. Those dudes didn’t have an ounce of fat on them. They were ripped to their weirdly gay bathing trunks, had short hair and serious don’t-fuck-with-me faces. They looked more like soldiers than surfers.
In the January 1966 edition of South African Surfer, editor Harry Bold said of surfing, “There is nothing better for building a sound body and a sound mind.” Forget that the magazine carried full-page ads for Lexington and Lucky Strike. Back then, cigarettes were good for you.
By the time I had worked my way up from the small waves of Addington to the serious surf of Bay of Plenty, there didn’t seem to be a sound mind in sight. The locals (I won’t mention names because most of them are still alive and they will hunt me down and feed me ganja cakes until my brain melts) were no longer the clean-cut kids of 20 years earlier. This crew wore long velvet coats, purple suede boots and funky hats. They drove dented, airbrushed Kombis that, upon arrival at the beach, would disgorge packs of giggling girls and clouds of doobie smoke.
These days, instead of a promising goofy-footer doing the sensible thing and telling his parents that he is bailing from school and going to live in the Jeffrey’s Bay campsite for the rest of his life, he finishes matric and goes off and does something ridiculous like study law. Or, worse, gets a job.
Speaking of changes, I was in Muizenberg recently and spotted a surfer wearing a black and white stripy wetsuit. I’d never seen anything like it before. His board had a similar zebra pattern on the bottom deck. He said it was meant to be a shark deterrent. Apparently sharks hate stripes. For them, stripes are, like, so 40 million years ago.
But how do we know this for sure? Great Whites eat a lot of seals. Surfers in Cape Town dress like seals. Perhaps the only reason they aren’t chowed in large numbers is because sharks are sick of seal.
“I can’t possibly eat another seal. I could throw up just thinking about it.”
“So what are we going to … hey, look! A stripy thing. Wonder what that tastes like.”
“Word on the kelpvine is that Raggie George on the east coast says stripy things are really good. A bit crunchy. But they fill you up.”
“How is Raggie George? I heard he was banging a Tiger from Mozambique.”
“Nah. Just a rumour. He’s seeing a hammerhead from Margate.”
“Smooth or scalloped?”
“Does it matter? Don’t be sharkist. Hammerheads are people, too.”
That’s the problem with Great Whites. Once they start, you can’t shut them up.
I suppose we could ask the Sharks Board or the Save our Seas Foundation if wearing a stripy wetsuit will save your life. After all, they’ve been studying sharks for many years now. I suspect, however, that the answer will be along the lines of, “Funny things, sharks. We know they can give a nasty bite. And they do well in water. Beyond that, we can’t say for sure.”
I had my own new innovation to try out. It was something I’d dreamed of for years – a surfboard with its own propulsion system. It’s called a Wavejet and the distributors down on Muizenberg beach offered to let me give it a spin.
I was handed what looked like an oversized watch to strap to my wrist. It looked a bit like one of those gizmos the Men in Black used to erase peoples’ memories. I pressed the button and said, “I was never here. Nor was the board I am about to take.” The jets on the mini-mal started whining, sucking air. “Don’t do that,” said the owner.
I picked the board up and heard something crack. I don’t know if it was my knees, hips or shoulder. I hadn’t carried anything that heavy since my wife passed out. A ten-year-old girl asked if I needed a hand. I would’ve cuffed her playfully across the head if I hadn’t needed both hands to carry this beast to the water’s edge.
Once I was waist-deep, I got on and pressed the button, setting off a noise deeper than a whine but softer than a roar.
The board picked up speed, sending me smashing through the first and second shore breaks, the small middle break, the medium middle break and the big middle break, then the fake backline, the intermediate backline and, finally, the back backline. At Muizenberg, if the surf is anything over three foot, it can easily take half an hour to paddle out. I did it in under a minute.
I was having such fun that by the time I remembered to press stop, I was half way to Shark Island. That was fine. Sharks hate jet-propelled surfboards. Or do they? Perhaps seals in distress make the identical sound to a Wavejet? Or, worse, that’s the noise made by female sharks in heat. I couldn’t afford to have a Great White attempting to mate with me in front of all these people. I had a reputation to uphold.
I motored towards a pack of surfers at a cracking pace of almost 20km/h, feeling as fresh as a – well, if not a spring chicken, then certainly an autumn chicken.
Suddenly, the pack began scratching past me. I glanced over my shoulder and saw a set on the horizon. I yawned. Picked at my wax. Squinted at the sun. Then, when everyone was almost out of sight, I hit the button. I reached the first wave of the set before anyone else. Swinging around, with the engine still running, I angled the nose left and, as the swell lifted me, casually got to my feet.
Instead of kicking out to save myself a long paddle back out, I rode it to the beach. And, without paddling once, made it back out in time for the next set.
Everyone was looking at me. Being a delusional narcissist, I thought they were looks of envy and adoration. I smiled and waved. They didn’t. They were looking at me is if I were a child molester.
I didn’t understand. Were they jealous because they couldn’t afford one? I couldn’t either, but I could hardly paddle up and down the beach explaining to everyone that this was a one-off freebie.
I spoke to a few people and they all said the same thing. “It’s cheating.”
One guy said he couldn’t decide who he hated more – me or the stand-up paddleboarders. I told him he should hate the SUPs more because they would always be able to out-paddle a Wavejet. Besides, there were a lot more of them. We agreed that we might as well pack it in and go home the day jet-propelled SUPs make an appearance.
* I have just discovered that Wavejets are already being fitted to SUPs. I might have to take up golf.