Hand Guns at Dawn

Thu, 14 January 2010

When Robin Möhr goes surfing, he takes a hand gun in case things get heavy, writes Spike.



And they do. A lot. Sometimes, in scary impact situations, he carries four or five. He keeps them locked and loaded in the boot of his car. This makes him feel safe.

He seldom fires his hand guns in anger. When he makes a hit, it is cold and calculated. Once he made three near Hout Bay, South Africa. One was a monster. Took time to bring that one down.

When he takes a hit, he draws a deep breath, and hides in the underworld. Then he slips away on a wet bike driven by a mad, bald guy with a wild smile.

To say he's a killer may be overkill, but he's as fit as a trained assassin should be: wiry, intense, controlled. He is a hunter. A hunter of waves. Big waves.

Robin Möhr, 45, is the first crazy mullet to body surf Dungeons, the Hout Bay reef where a growing band of pioneers are steadily ticking off the milestones. Excluding the decades it took to be paddle- and tow-surfed, in just a few years, Dungeons has been body boarded, SUP’ed, surf skiied, and bodysurfed. Bring on the rubber tube and Dave Rastovitch on a door.

To throw yourself off a 30 foot cliff using the undercarriage of your body and a small fibreglass disc attached to your hand takes guts, so to speak, or the same shiny-eyed insanity big wave men have.

Möhr, a sandy haired fitness instructor and estate agent, is driven like a djembe drum to a keening tautness by his passion. He is a guy who keeps his barely controlled reckless streak on a tight leash. He fights the dizzying pull into the abyss by a careful regimen of planning, training, and austere observation. This is the drill he uses to prepare for each hair-raising adrenal burst of endorphin.

His first surfing experience provides perspective to his persistency, and more than an inkling as to the source of the mullet moniker. In 1994, he ran a small business in Bloemfontein, finding his solace in the east coast shores of the Wild Coast, East London and Durban. “Most surfers take the sight and sound inside the barrel of a wave for granted!” he bemoans. But “live in the Free State for the greater part of your life and the mystery can become a sleep depriving obsession”.



Möhr surfed the point at Second Beach in Port St Johns for five years. He dodged lead sinkers as they whistled around his head.  "Often surrounded by dolphins and occasionally just avoiding getting hit by a sinker accompanied by large chunks of sardine, I spent many hours of bliss in that isolated utopia." Utopia for toothy cartilaginous residents too.

His personal motto is FIFO (Face it Flat Out). Now you might ask how much speed one can generate on a hand gun to ride a 20ft wave 'flat out', but it's more the attitude than the outcome. As body surfers will tell you, reaching the speed to catch the wave, let alone ride it, is a challenge. In the early days, Möhr didn’t believe it possible.

He didn’t think his training record was good enough. Good enough? He can run 10kms in 36 minutes, and a marathon in 2:26. He can hold his breath for almost three minutes. The benchmark for a big wave surfer, some say, is a minimum of three minutes. This gives you precious seconds to safely negotiate the bathymetric basement of big wave surfing. Apart from understanding the suckdowns, you need to know how to bide your time in the aerated underworld of the broken big wave.

Möhr knows this. Riding a one foot board instead of an 11 foot gun is a big difference in equipment, maybe the biggest in surfing you will get. How does our tough guy, this wiry strongman, train his lungs to keep them in peak condition? "I put shampoo in my hand, take a breath and wash and rinse my hair twice before I breathe again."

Say what?

"A weird one that really works is deciding to find a toilet in a mall before being allowed to breathe again; called a “mall hold-down”.

Okay, now there’s cause for concern. Gawping aunties and shocked moms walking poodles or podgy toddlers do not conjure terrifying images of a muscled Laird with the sun glinting through blond locks. Comeback with the third exercise: "I hold my breath while doing a 60 push-up sprint session lasting 60 secs."

You might feel the urge to tease him, but chances are he will out run, and out scare you. Can you do 60 pushups at one a second while holding your breath? When was the last time you rode a 20 footer?

Robin is a middle-aged grommet. He had his first big wave experience with two mates at Betty’s Bay barely two years ago. “Something happened that changed my way of looking at life and surfing.”



A solid 20-25 foot winter swell was hammering the coastline. Running up the dune path they were greeted by awed surfers staring at the sea.  The backline 100 metres further out, and the beach was a mass of foam and fresh kelp ripped off the reef. “We had to go out.”

When they passed the surfers on the beach, they “stopped us as we passed them again on the way to the water. ‘Are you guys mad?’ one chirped. Paddling out, the first set came like “three white combine harvesters”. As the foam settled and they regrouped, one mate bailed and paddled in.

Möhr and surfer Mark vd Merwe (39) each grabbed a huge wave that day. Möhr remembers the “glassy and smooth face” as he “carved a straight line across the huge wall”. He recalls “the most precious silence that seemed to fill me with un-fathomable calm”. He dived as the wave closed towards him.

“Before I surfaced, I knew I had to do that again; but bigger!”

And he did. Next on the serious big wave list, from the first wobbly ‘steps’ of 12 foot Betty’s Bay, was a giant day at Dungeons. But first, a little accident at Stilbaai on 30 May 2009 in 8-10ft bombs with a “group of hardcore big wave surfers” was a brief wakeup call in his burgeoning thirst for the ‘big’ time. He got caught at the base of a wave while trying to bottom turn back into the lip and three ribs tore loose from their cartilage sockets.

Ouch.

“I will never try that again. Fortunately, like an ambulance rushing to my aid, a wave formed right on the inside and I rode it all the way to the harbor wall. It is a funny feeling bodysurfing a wave with the sensation of your ribs popping in and out inside your chest.”

Double eina.

A few weeks later, with big swell forecast in False Bay, he arranged a shoot at Kalk Bay with Sam Clark from the Argus. However, the O’Neil Cold Water Classic was on, so they went to Dangers Reef. While watching the final of the CWC, Möhr met photographer Giaco Angelini, who overheard him and Sam talking about Dungeons. “Giaco invited me for a meeting the following day, and plans for the first bodysurfing attempt on Dungeons were discussed.”

He did not have suicidal tendencies, but Mohr knew this wanderlust would not go away. He began accumulating information, “reading and talking with people whose knowledge in the water I respected”. Take-off speed was a concern. Most told him it could not be done. Being super fit was a help. Was it enough?

Möhr surfed 6-8’ Paranoia Point a few times.  One day he received a phone call from a local surfer, Philip Nel, who had seen a video clip of a session there shot by his fiancé. Pointing out a shape popping out of his inside on a six footer, she couldn’t understand why Nel had pulled out for a seal. Nel could. It was no seal. It was that crazy bodysurfer, Möhr. Nel was merely obeying the ‘inside rule’.

“We watched the clip. I was amazed at the speed I could generate on take-off: a massive boost of inspiration.”

Before hiring a boat to Dungeons, Angelini was unsure whether Mohr could go fast enough for bigger waves. Some solid sessions at big Llandudno and Mouille Point resolved the issue … kind of.



The litmus test came quicker than he thought. On Thursday 6 August 2009, he drove from Strand to Crayfish Factory, arriving just after 6am. The swell was huge, but nothing surfable, just masses of foam. Chapmans Peak Drive was closed, and the Hoek was foam-smeared mayhem.

With nowhere else to go, he thought he might check out Hout Bay. It was a fact finding mission. There was no prospect of surfing. It was about 10am when Möhr pulled into the harbor. Unexplainable conversations and events ended with him and Angelini on Grant Spooner’s boat headed for Dungeons. Unexplained conversations and events are never far away when Grant Spooner is around.

The sea was heaving. Gigantic 25 foot bombs were exploding on the back reef.

“Watching and learning was the call, but after about an hour, while everyone was looking the other way, I kitted up and jumped over the side of the boat. Grant whistled at me. From the boat with me in the water, he gave me a few hand signals I promised to obey. Feeling suddenly very small, I swam away from the boat towards the place I feared most.”

He caught three waves that day. The first was a six footer on top of a table-topping monster over which he “mercifully never disappeared”. The second faded. Then Jason Ribbink pulled up on his wet bike, screaming at him to get on board. Jason told him that in a few seconds ‘this place is going to get cleaned out’. Gunning the motor they rushed off to the others. True enough, a monstrous set washed through. “I will always be grateful to Jason. I have no idea what could have happened had he not come to my assistance”.

Ribbink tried to tow him into a few, but without a board, he tended to dig into the wash behind the jetski, almost drowning. However, Jason eventually found him one, winked and said, "now’s your chance". The wave was a forgiving rollercoaster ride that gave Möhr a seven second push along a giant face before “gobbling me up in a huge mass of foam and bubbles”.

Relieved beyond words, he clawed onto the tailboard “and looked up into a wide, bald-headed smile”. He can’t recall much until they arrived at the harbour. “Everyone who punched, shook my hand or hugged me kept saying I had just become the first mullet to bodysurf Dungeons.”

The second attempt – on August 16 – was planned in a three-hour meeting between Angelini, Spooner and Möhr.



His equipment was debated. His home-made handgun was designed for power in the take-off, purchase on the vertical face and speed across the water. “We had to be satisfied with my design. Besides, it had worked fine the first time round”. His flippers were a concern, but “I had tried every other make on the market and these had given me the best drive, as well as never having been ripped off my feet. I would stay with them”. He agreed to purchase a high speed triathlon wetsuit with more buoyancy. The extra floatation proved a life-saving addition to my equipment. Spooner insisted he wore a bright yellow helmet, more for visibility but also safety.

“Towing a bodysurfer onto a wave would take more practice. However, we were ready and it was up to the sea to decide when we would get our chance.”

Sunday 16 August 2009 was Big Sunday – call it Massive Sunday – on the Cape Peninsula.  A light northwest breeze made the sea perfect, but seriously big. James Taylor had surfed what was the biggest wave ever paddled – in the eyes of those present, and they were guys who should know, such as Grant Baker, Greg Long, Andrew Marr, Chris Bertish and Mike Schlebach. Sadly, nobody photographed the wave.

It was carnage at times. Bertish and Schlebach got so worked that “genuine concern for their survival stirred a buzz of activity as they got plucked from the boiling foam after spectacular wipe-outs”.

Someone got caught by the second wave as he emerged from the first. “His knee ligaments were ripped apart. He was hauled into the boat in agony.”

After waiting more than five hours for his turn, Möhr was sea-sick and suffering from “numerous surges of adrenalin”. At last, Christo Bertish arrived on his wet bike as arranged but there appeared to be a weird glitch in communicating strategy. In Mohr’s mind, even more critical because the surfer did not have the maneuverability of an 11ft gun beneath him. “We were later to discover that Chris had a mild concussion.”

“I will never be able to explain the feeling of insignificance after being dropped in a place I had watched for five hours getting pulverised by 20-25ft waves.”

He was deep on the inside, where he swam as fast as possible to the section “I had earmarked as a possible place to have a chance of generating enough speed to get onto the wave”. He quickly realised how important it was to choose a wave and go.

“Floating around there was perilous.” Waves would appear without warning. He had wanted to spend time on the outside, gradually working his way in, but “Chris had dropped me where there was nowhere to hide”.

A wave reared. He knew instinctively he was too far on the inside to make it, but it was a wave, the chance he’d been waiting for.



For a moment he was airborne, “landing on the face of the biggest wave I had bodysurfed”. He enjoyed a moment of control, and in that instant, understood that it was possible. Then the lip smacked him clean off the face.

“I got towed back for round two. Chris took me even deeper. I frantically tried to catch the first of the next set, narrowly failing on a wave photographs showed later to be perfect.”

Then it came. The gargantuan of his worst nightmares, the sight he dreaded. A massive wave curled in slow motion, a giant church arch pitching far above his head.

Diving for the bottom he was dismayed at how quickly rocks appeared. They vanished in an explosion of bubbles. His heart sank.

“Like a moth in the jet stream of a Boeing” he was tossed viciously around. When he found air, there was time for one breath before the next thundering wall of white water swept over him. This time it rag-dolled him in the “longest hold-down I had ever experienced times three”.

With no board attached to his foot, he did not know which way was up. He felt horror as he sank through the aerated water. “Twiggy’s words to “just relax, you will eventually come to the surface”, got replayed many times. Looking closely at the bubbles, I eventually realised I had to back myself and swim what I thought was up.”

Oxygen-starved convulsions racked his body, but he was calm when he finally cleared the surface. The wet bike was on him, and he was safe on Christo’s tailboard.

“The power and feel of that bike beneath me was the most wonderful sensation I had experienced. Clear of danger, Chris leaned backwards and gave me a big smile followed by an almighty slap on my helmet. ‘That was a small one, but well done!” he said.”

“I suddenly  understood what makes these guys so special. As for me, I was done for the day.”



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