The Charge of the Big Wave Brigade

Cape Town is fast establishing itself as an epicentre of big-wave surfing. Our reefs and shores,
lashed severely by deep At lantic storms, throw up some of the biggest waves that the planet has to offer. 021 meets some of the wave warriors brave and crazy enough to ride these gnarly beasts.

Cape Town is a city of superlatives. We’ve got the most gruelling long distance swim (The Cadiz Freedom Swim) and the world’s largest timed cycle race (The Argus). Here’s another: the best choice of the biggest waves within the shortest distance. Given the right conditions, on the 15 km stretch between Misty Cliffs, Kommetjie and Hout Bay, there are three world-class waves that entice wavehounds to brave their slippery slopes, dubbed by bigwave surf enthusiast Barry Futter the Prince, Queen and King respectively.

The Prince can be playful but can dish out some serious power. It’s a reef break at the Crayfish Factory, where the big-wave surf scene first got going in the 60s. Then, a big-wave surfer was someone who could handle 10-20 ft waves. Nowadays, to earn the title you must regularly slide down the face of 40-50 ft waves. The measurement only refers to the height of the wave face
and typically translates to an actual wave height of 50 ft. The Prince usually hovers around 8 ft and gets too busy for big-wave surfers, who consider it a training ground for the real battle zone.

The Queen is at Sunset reef in Kommetjie, and is spoken of with admiration and open longing. It generally fires in summer, throwing up a perfect A-frame peak wave that consistently breaks on one spot. But don’t be fooled by this most perfect and beautiful of waves. Hell hath no fury like a woman – especially a queen – scorned, and when you come a cropper at Sunset, you fall hard. Josh Redman, one of the younger big-wave surfers admits: “I only surfed it once and I got really broken. I nearly cried. I caught one wave that smashed my brand-new board.”

Then there’s Dungeons – the King: huge, powerful, respected and preferred because of the longer ride and huge arcing wall it produces. It was discovered in the early eighties by big-wave surfing elders Pierre de Villiers and Peter Button as they were driving around Chapman’s Peak. After watching it with curiosity from the Sentinel, one day, in 1985 and unable to resist any longer, they walked down the hill, scrambled over the rocks and paddled across the deep water channel.
Once out at the back they got to enjoy, alone and for the first time, a 20 ft wave standing up like a fortress.

On the right day, Dungeons is just huge. Jem Johnson – an up-and-coming talent from Hout Bay, describes it as “like the whole ocean is coming into that spot and then exploding.” It’s not just the size of the waves, but their unpredictability, that makes Dungeons so unruly. In Barry’s surf lingo: “It throws up shifty peaks that are very hard to read.” As Jem remarks wryly: “The
whole environment’s pretty scary. It’s not like Hawaii with palm trees blowing in the breeze.” The cold water adds to the inhospitability. And then there’s the presence of a nearby seal colony acting as a shark magnet. But as Jem says: “There’s so much else happening that you don’t think about sharks.” Simply put, there’s nothing easy or inviting about this wave. It adds a new dimension to the adjective ‘difficult’. Trying to convey its magnitude, Barry says, “You’ve really, really got to want to be out there – there is no space for pretending or putting on a brave face.”

Firstly, it’s inaccessible. To reach Dungeons, you’ve got to hitch a ride with one of the seal-watching boats, to the amusement of Japanese tourists who love to photograph the ninja surfersin their black wetsuits and headgear. Others take rubber boats. However, the preferred method, for those who can afford it, is to ride in tandem on a jetski. The hard-up and really determined walk through the Hangberg fishing village and over the mountain to the base of the Sentinel. It’s a haphazard, dangerous scene that thrives in the midst of South Africa’s lawlessness and could never happen in other nanny states, like America, who insist on safety legislation.

Once you’ve got out there, the next challenge is catching a wave. As Barry says, “You’ve really got to be committed. It’s like jumping on the back of a beast.” Getting to the bottom of the wave isn’t the end of the ordeal. What makes Dungeons so tricky is that it’s what Barry calls “a huge playing field”, a wide zone within which you must remain in a state of hyper-vigilance. Waves come from every direction and a moment’s distraction can mean tonnes of water on your head. The bottom line is that at Dungeons something is going to happen.

Speaking from experience, Barry says, “You’re going to face your fears and at some stage you’re going to get the hammering of your life.” To surf these conditions, you have to be in peak physical condition. Other than surfing as much as possible, which for most means every day, these guys don’t have any formal training. However, many attribute the ability to survive Dungeons to breath control practice, held under the auspices of South Africa’s free-diving champion Hanli Prinsloo.

Meeting weekly at Wynberg swimming pool, they have learned how to expand their lungs and hold their breath for 3:30, 4:00 … 5:00 minutes, a skill that can save your life at Dungeons.

In a good year, Dungeons will bellow and roar about 12 times, mainly over the winter months. As it is very unpredictable, you’ve got to be ready and waiting all the time. Big-wave surfing doesn’t tolerate whim like cycling or jogging. It depends on fickle weather variables lining up. It’s a lifestyle, and to live it you have to have the flexibility to cancel any meetings at the last minute when the swell is right. Having an empathetic partner also helps.

With their 10-month-old daughter Ashley on her hip, and peeling a butternut, Barry’s wife Barbara smiles indulgently and tells me, “These guys are obsessed. I know I come second.” Every big wavebig-wave surfer has a story of the time they have been “bitch-slapped” by a wave that broke their spirits, their back, or some other part of their anatomy. Frank Solomon, winner of the 2010 O’Niell Raw Courage Psychofreak award for charging hard ruminates on “the two-wave hold-down that really preys on my mind.”

Some people take a bad tumble and never brave big surf again. Jem says, “It’s all about calculated risk. People do die out there. But if you play rugby you will get injured.” But within the tribe, all agree that the adrenalin rush – the thrill and joy of it – far outweighs the danger. Jem has been out of the water for 3 months following a snapped knee tendon. He’s managing his time wisely, but for many big-wave surfers, their biggest fear is not getting pummelled by a wave, but being stranded without a swell. “The worst is not knowing what to do when there’s no surf,” says Josh, Dungeons freshman and small-wave wizard.

The image of surfers as goofballs cruising around in battered, old VW vans is old school. Certainly, in the big-wave brotherhood there are few dreadlocks but not much dope smoke.

Hard drinking after a surf session is a firmly established ritual. Technology has permeated the sport. Like big-game hunters tracking their prey, surfers stalk the swell for days, following trusted surf reports and using instincts finely tuned by years of weather watching.

Attached to their cellphones like umbilical cords, they look at them frequently, twitching nervously as they wait for the sms that announces the surf’s up. Big-wave surfing costs. You can’t just throw on a pair of board shorts and give it a bash. No, you need surfboards specially shaped to cling onto the waves. You need 14 ft-long leashes as thick as telephone cables that won’t snap. The biggest danger is not drowning but getting knocked unconscious by a board that has gone awol … and then drowning.

Competitions have changed the sport, bringing it out of the underground into the spotlight. Purists moan but wave worshippers now have the chance to make a profession of their passion. There’s agreement that Dungeons is responsible for producing the top bigwave surfers. For the past five years, the winners of Mavericks, the world’s most prestigious big-wave surf competition, have all been people who have spent time at Dungeons.

Two top South African guys, Twiggy and Chris Bertish, are pushing the envelope of big-wave surfing and commanding worldwide respect. The wave caught by Chris Bertish on Valentine’s day during Mavericks has now become the stuff of surf legends. It’s the biggest wave ever paddled into. An awe-inspired Franks asks, “How are you going to beat that? Catch a mountain?”
It’s not just their bravery, but the camaraderie that distinguishes Cape Town’s big-wave riders, bonded together in the face of the ocean’s might. They all stress the importance of the encouragement that they get from fellow surfers. Chris Bertish says, “I’ve surfed around the world and what we’ve got is unique. We’ve got such an amazing fraternity of big-wave surfers, such a tight crew.”

So what does it take to be a bigwave surfer? Barry, laughing, declares, “Kahunas.” Reflecting, he adds, “Desire. You’ve got to want it real bad.” And are they crazy? Josh says, “We’re all pretty normal. The crazy people are the people without a passion.”
Dawn Kennedy – Jul 30th 2012, 00:00

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