Stoked on Supers
As Women's Month draws to a close, here is a female perspective on the Corona Open J-Bay by Lollo Wollheim, who covered the event for Wavescape as someone not versed in the nuances of the WSL tour.
From the moment I received the media accreditation email, I was excited and nervous. This was a new and somewhat alien challenge as I began to plan my road trip and work out how best to capture the magic of J-Bay's iconic waves, the surfers who would no doubt ride them with skill and grace, but most importantly, the emotions and reactions of the public to their salty heroes.
What I did not know – after only seeing this strange world from a distance – that my journey would blow away any perception that it was only a banal and commodified world. Instead, beyond my expectation, it was filled with thrills and excitement, of making heartfelt connections, and a sense of personal growth as my shutter clattered to the rhythm of professional surfing.
With my cameras charged and ready, my furry canine sidekick Odin the American Bully aka the Hippo who could crush a human with his motley mass, I hit the long road from Cape Town to Cape St Francis.
Lady Luck was on my side. I was invited to stay with Paul and Kate O’Connell in their off-grid house in Paradise Beach. Surfers may remember Paul for his role as Manager of Team SA to the World Longboarding Championships in 2018.
Their home is a haven of sustainable living, perfectly nestled amidst nature's beauty with killer views of the Indian Ocean. From solar panels to rainwater harvesting, their way of life is inspiring and a refreshing break from Cape Town’s hustle and bustle.
I was greeted each morning by Hugo the bushbuck and his gazelle-like girlfriend, grazing in the fynbos just outside my window, much to Odin’s despair of not being able to go and “play”.
When I finally got to the Casa Corona and surrounding wooden structures at the hub of the event, I was amazed at the spectacle. The atmosphere was electric in this ampitheature of amp - this vertiable hippodrome of hip - that looks down upon the sweeping lines of swell below, while above throngs of beanie-bearing pundits ebb and flow up and down myriad wooden walkways.
According to members of the production team, it takes 10 days to build this pre-fabricated marvel of wood and tubed steel scaffolding, but only two days to strike it all down. Apparently it takes more than 10,000 screws, tons of slats, beams, planks and decking, and many metres of steel tubing, and a whole lot more, after it is pulled from its warehouse once a year.
Throngs of fans clogged not only the walkways, but the viewing stand, full-on upstairs bar and balcony overlooking the action, a restaurant and coffee shop, judging tower, athlete’s zone, VIP section, and commentators box.
The buzz was not only contagious, it was to become an antidote for the icy weather after the opening rounds took place on an absolutely gorgeous Eastern Cape winter’s day, with clean, glassy 4-6ft lines barrelling down the point in warm sunshine.
The Corona Open J-Bay brings together surf enthusiasts from all corners of the world. Meeting new people and forming connections with such a diverse crew of humans was an unforgettable aspect of the journey. In those fleeting moments, we shared a love for the ocean, which transcended language and cultural barriers.
A personal highlight of the adventure was the groupie moment with the legendary Carissa Moore. I had been hanging with my buddy Shani Judes, director of the Wavescape Surf & Ocean Festival, in the media booth firing cameras from the balcony at the pros shredding the sweeping blue walls below.
The Wavescape crew were hanging with the inimitable film director Peter Hamblin (Remember the movies Let’s Be Frank, RISS and Sweet Adventure?), and Peter brought Riss over for a chat and an interview with Steve Shooter for his podcast.
Carissa loved the Kelly Slater-painted portraits on Wavescape artboards painted by Marty Lund – and hung out with us, laughing and chatting and goofing around wearing Shooter’s funky sunnies. There is a hidden magic that connects surfers. It doesn’t matter how famous or how good you are.
An unforgettable moment was to witness the frothing Shani, Shooter, and Marty when they met Kelly the Goat to get the surfboards signed. Their eyes sparkled with admiration, and it was a reminder of the profound impact of having heroes in the surfing world.
This adventure also served as a personal awakening. For nine years, I had allowed fear and insecurity to keep me from fully embracing the magical surf spots of this famous point. Fear of the rocks, and the power of the waves, had built up into a wall of insecurity. Deep down I was clinging to past struggles of feeling inadequate and not belonging. However, with the support of Shani and Spike, that changed profoundly. We paddled out at Albatross on a 3ft day. Catching those waves was a catharsis – and I shed the burden I had carried with me for so long.
And then there was the surfing – the type of surfing only the best in the world can bring to us.
Another highlight for me was to see the unique stoke and support amongst the female surfers amongst each other after their heats. In this women’s month, that was heart-warming to see.
As the rain poured over the last day for the finals, the public and the “forever groms” remained undeterred as they gathered to watch their heroes carve, shred, and cut back chunks of ocean with massive hacks and huge spumes of spray.
One of the other highlights was to be around at some of Steve Shooter’s interviews for his podcast. His humorous and engaging style adds an extra layer of entertainment to the event. Gone are the monotonous and predictable questions, replaced with laughter and candid responses.
The Corona Open J-Bay was one hell of a ride, in the water and on the land. It was special, and only serves to deepen the bond and affinity one has to the ocean and this amazing surfing community.
And to close off just how special this small part of the Eastern Cape is, we went to the Cape St Francis resort on the weekend after the circus left town to help Spike with the screening of "The Birth of the Endless Summer," the untold story of how it all began.
The documentary left the packed audience with a renewed appreciation for the wonderful place they get to call home – and the poignant connection that the Cape St Francis community have to a deep and meaningful historical legacy.