Wed, 29 July 2020

You don't often go for a surf without catching a wave. Not even one. A solid swell prompts Spike to go for a fun surf. Nooit. None of that. Sometimes the ocean says no. Neptune 4. Spike 0.


FEAR FACTOR: What really lies behind our reasons for feeling scared in big seas? Photo Unsplash

From the top, it looked okay. A new groundswell with grunt had arrived. It didn't look bigger than eight feet. The ocean had a mildly raw, jagged look to it. Lumpy, in surf parlance. There was no wind, and a predicted light northerly was due to clean it up further. A neap high tide suggested enough water for an easy-ish paddleout.

After the long jog through the fynbos in a hazy half-mist, the first clue came via a pair of Blacksmith Plovers beadily guarding their eggs in the sandy shrub. All I got was a single muted squawk. Normally it's a cacophony of indignant shrieks, much histrionic flapping, and red herring bluster.

The second clue flew right over my head like a stormy petrel darting across troughs of swell. Three fit young surfers were pretending something other than the ocean was preventing them from going out.

I had seen them on the mountain half an hour before, a certain buddy bravado in their excited chatter. Now the bearded dude was swimming to shore in the kelp after losing his board trying to paddle out. Another guy was on the rocks “Surfers have a perfection fetish. The perfect wave etcetera. There is no such thing. Waves are not stationary objects in nature like roses or diamonds. They’re quick, violent events at the end of a long chain of storm action and ocean reaction. Even the most symmetrical breaks have quirks and a totally specific, local character, changing with every shift in tide and wind and swell.”
- William Finnegan, Barbarian Days
looking for his mate's board. The third guy was sitting on his board in the sea just off the rocks, pondering his immediate future.

"Is this where you paddle out at this spot?" he asked, as I paddled past.

"Yes," I answered, "Hey, why don't we paddle out together?"

Mmm (I thought to myself), You're in for a little bit of an experience if this is your first time here. But I was stoked to have some company.

"Okay," he said.

After five minutes I reached the mid-zone ledge. The waves were pounding non-stop. After paddling for another five minutes without moving forward, I did not bother to look back to see if Dude #3 was with me.

During 30 minutes of constant paddling, a barrage of white water kept me pinned in the kelp. It was relentless. Eight foot high swamp things would, well, swamp me. Just as I gained a few metres, another plundered the foaming inside, sending me scudding sideways with the bent kelp. You know the drill. Finally, a brief lull enabled me to paddle up to the last line of the ledge. A smaller set came through, and I was able to swim under three six foot waves, and sneak out into the safety of deeper water.

Then I realised. "Oops. That 6ft set was a lull?" As I paddled towards the outer reef, I saw a distant flash of white water in a patch of sun that had stabbed through the grey haze.

It was a rather large behemoth rumbling 200 metres out to sea. Then it disappeared, dropping beneath a large swell in the foreground. "Hier kom kak," I thought, and began to paddle lustily out to sea. When you see that here, you know. They reform, then suddenly rear up in front of you like a foaming Brown Bear stepping out from a rock. The second time the big ones break, they break properly, with a brutality difficult to describe.

I felt like I was floating on a moving piece of ocean the size of a rugby field, like a giant current, only my arms were ploughing a field, trying to dig a deep trench. It felt like the far end section from the 22 yard line was the wave, and 3-D modelling software was curving it upwards towards the sky. A wide concave cathedral wall loomed above. I scratched up the face, cresting the ridge of the wave in slow motion, before drifting weightlessly down the other side. In truth, I made it with loads to spare. I was in the flippin' shipping lane after all.

Scarpering as far out to sea as I could, I was taking no chances. Then I realised there was no way I was going to catch a wave with such wuss-like behaviour. The inescapable conundrum of surfing large (ish ... okay okay) waves is that to catch the big ones, you have to be in the way of the big ones where Scratching around for hours on end dodging big set waves in a no-mans land caught between a phantom deep reef and the usual takeoff zone was not a thought that caused too much comfort.they can break on your head, which is not always easy to achieve on a mental level. But I was out here alone, and no-one would know what happened if I fluffed the takeoff on my 6' 8" and went to see Davey. I thought of just sitting there all day until the swell eased. Bobbing about. Waiting. There was something unusually violent and vigorous about this swell, as though Neptune was listening to thrash metal with the volume set high. Had I caught it just as it peaked or something?

My idea wasn't great. Scratching around for hours dodging big set waves caught in a no-mans land between a phantom deep water reef and the usual takeoff zone was not a notion that evoked fuzzy feelings. So I waited for a lull in the really big ones, then began paddling shoreward, arms set to turbo. As I approached the normal takeoff zone with about 40 metres to go, my head turning warily for signs of another brutish shadow on the horizon, I tried unsuccessfully to catch a smaller one. But I was still too far out to pick up even the eight footers.

With pride tucked into my hoodie, and head rotating backwards more times than Linda Blair in The Exorcist, I kept paddling until I was right in the hissing white water of the main impact zone. Luckily I didn't get a giant lip on the head, but did get steam-rolled by a ginormous roiling white water that swatted me aside like a rolling melon klapping a fruit fly. Multiple bollemakiesies underwater through the kelp between the outside and inside reef was the funnest part of the 'session'.

Fun because I was happy in the knowledge that my day was returning to normal, that the suggestion of a safe return to terra firma was now a definite possibility. The adrenaline subsided as I got washed in like a spent turtle on to the seaweed off the rocky shoreline.

Now, I know to some grizzled big wave vets, this may sound a little lame, but I claim it for myself. Either way, it beats a day at the gym.


Grier Fisher
0 #4 Wave LoveGrier Fisher 2020-08-07 01:21
Classic read , know the feeling oh to well . Best line out of William Finnegan's book Barbarian Days "wave love is a one way street"
Roy Fenton
0 #3 MistahRoy Fenton 2020-08-04 21:54
Great piece Spike ,perfectly captures that feeling .sounds like a day I had at Puerto Escondido one time except this Turtle had a 200 person reception commitee taking bets on wether Id be dancing with the Dead .And ja not even 1 wave to speak about.
Matthew Pinker
0 #2 WordsmithMatthew Pinker 2020-08-04 10:40
Ha ha - wonderfully self-depricating and vvivid!
0 #1 DrFeelgood 2020-08-01 07:54
Sounds like just another day in the year!
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