Wednesday, October 7, 2015

“I never promised you a Wave Garden…”
The Surf Snowdonia Phenomenon

I've been watching the hype around the Surf Snowdonia Wave Garden in Wales with piqued interest. I perused the first real edit on ( and was suitably impressed by the wave, the POV shots, ubiquitous drone angles and fresh water fantails of spray but something loomed large; perhaps veiled by the slick marketing drive and a flurry of astutely rationed video posts. It was the marked absence of an essential ingredient, and it's been tugging at my leash like kelp at low tide Elands ever since I watched the first few leaked clips selling an endless Gaelic summer, give or take 364 days of low visibility grey!

Here's the rub, after countless video refreshes, the wave and its environs looked increasingly less appealing with each video refresh, not entirely artificial, but more like a perfect meal lacking a crucial ingredient, as glaringly obvious and simple as salt. The video edits seemed to desaturate to more natural tones, the sky paled and the wave began to look more and more like a pre-Photoshop supermodel. The proportions were perfect; even the wave looked groomed and temptingly ripable, but my Wave Garden fantasy ended with me wishing I was back home and about to suit up for some summer onshore bowls. Admittedly, I've probably made a sizeable contribution to the depletion of our planet's fossil fuels in search of surf, and the destination has often been far more disappointing than the journey. A planet dotted with Wave Gardens should come as a welcome relief but in this case, sadly not! Yes, Wave Garden acolytes wax on that “this green wave (green wave? - This was the first red flag for me!) is a 2m high barrelling wave (This remains to be experienced…). During your free surf (free surf? – Is there such thing?) there will be maximum of 3 surfers, alternating surfing the wave. During this 1 hour free surf you will each catch up to 20 waves." What's more, apparently Surf Snowdonia was built on the site of a former aluminium factory – though it has been decontaminated since, and approved by Welsh environmental regulators, which in terms of possible pollution levels, probably matches most SA urban beaches. 

I must add that their promise of a 'maximum of 3 surfers' and '20 waves' per session brought a wry smile to my face. At the very least it meant no import of any inked-up Hawaiian heavies to bring some semblance of order to the line-up ("Do Wave Gardens have a line-up?) and zero crowd factor brought sweet relief, until of course those wave gardeners realise that the three surfers per session rule is not financially viable. Cue the circus music! No doubt these are mere developmental speed bumps on the road to Wave Garden perfection, amongst others, such as the local weather, on-going financial sustainability and inevitable lawsuits. Then there's that lattice of support poles running adjacent to the wave's face. It looks a leash and kook trap and should have any liability suit lawyer rubbing his hands in glee, but I'm more than likely way off the mark here.

Before you deride me as a party pooper, I would love to give a Surf Snowdonia lip a bash or two with a couple of mates. The experience of "good" waves is a given, the frigid water temps will mean I will have my hoodie and 4/3 at the ready and I'll have more than my fair share of waves; and then a siren will sound and it will all be over - sans any risk of entering the food chain or hope of being consigned to Davy Jones’ Locker. The biggest risk of surfing Snowdonia is to your pocket, or your coronary well-being. The Surf Snowdonia experience will have all the trappings of a theme park, presented in neo-bourgeois hipster friendly hues (judging by the website styling) and probably to the ditties of that fireside musical bore-adour, Jack Johnson, or some or other unplugged beard. Perfectly packaged, sanitised and meeting every last sub-clause of a 500 page odd Health and Safety tome; all driven by complicated hydraulics and hum of a distant generator - nothing we South Africans are unaccustomed to. To boot, there's an Activity Lagoon for the sugared-up kids, complete with obstacles and an array of floatables, a coffee bar, and even a camping site planned for the expected 75 000 visitors. The Activity Lagoon will more than likely be a magnet of misery for surfing parents keeping an eye out for their precious water babies, all the while watching a 20 something rubber person weeding the "cr*p" out of the Wave Garden. Yes, so much for fresh water surfing nirvana!    

But something about the Surf Snowdonia experience continues to irk me. No doubt there will the inevitable traffic jams, weekend crowds, snaking queues, iniquitously priced craft beers and countless sunglasses (despite the sunless gun metal sky) watching you fumble an otherwise effortless take-off you've made a thousand times before in actual salt water, and then there it was, like a rail in the gonads - the Wave Garden experience is entirely fabricated; it's utterly predictable to the height and tideless push of every wave. Besides, driving inland with boards strapped to the roof of a rental should be illegal - full stop. By the way, Surf Snowdonia is eight miles from the Welsh Coast, which brings me to my next point.

For most, surfing is a total sensory experience; it's entirely immersive. There’s the dominating presence of the ocean, the arcing gulls, smell of salt water, those first anticipatory notes of cold as you drop your board in the sea, the slap of fibreglass against the sea, yes the sea, not some chemically treated expanse of fresh water, that possibly served as a water supply to an aluminium plant. I would like to think that surfing is a holistic endeavour; the sea with its many moods and vast array of life is attached to us, it's the sum of all those parts, even the life-threatening parts of reefs, heavy waves and submarine businessmen in grey suits that make our obsession unique and incomparably addictive. Swinging a tennis racquet, golf club or pumping at a clipless pedal simply misses the mark by a light year or two. Surf Snowdonia is special, but not that special, and much like a round of golf, its pleasures are all realised within fabricated and somewhat sterile natural surroundings.

Consider the individual who grows up "surfing" a Wave Garden and then encounters the ocean for the first time. The art of paddling, mastering a well-planned duck-dive, reading the elements - all vital survival skills for any surfer worth the dried salt on his eyebrows, will not be available to our intrepid Wave Gardener. It's more than likely he/she will immediately realise that the Wave Garden back home and the ocean are two vastly different quantum universes, one governed by an unforgiving and relentless set of laws, and the other is more akin to a Xbox game or playpen.

So fellow surfers, don't feel too outdone by all the Surf Snowdonia hype, it's no Forgotten Island of Santosha, Bruces, even onshore Dairy or dare I say Muizenberg ruffled by a light side-shore; it's a golf course for “boards riders”, it's more artifice than wave face. It will quantify your stoke by means of an annual membership card that will guarantee 250 or more waves, and I predict a rather unfathomable loss of boundless fun, compliments of Surf Kookonia, apologies, I meant Surf Snowdonia. Oh yes, kayaks and SUPS are welcome at Wave Gardens. Cue that circus music again…

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Pulling at granite roots

Love hovers in the mist,
it smells of salt,
a crisp sheet
spread across your body.

To hold you and let you go
the way kelp grapples rocks at low tide
pulling at granite roots,
till the rubbery grip tires
and leaves float,
swaying to an oily surface.

Who knows when
Love begins it’s journey?

Perhaps it’s with the simple absence of a breeze,
and the future marked
by a drunken thread of footprints
along a beach.

The Wedge

At sunset,
knee deep in the salt blur
and cut of the South Easter.

Edged out to sea by a West swell
and fiberglass chatter,
to cathedrals,
fish flecked with gold green
and feathered vaults of salt
that spill the smell of raspberries
across the sky.

Happy with the prospect of you,
so dry, so warm in our Friday evening
of take-aways and movies.

Losing You

Looking back across the dusk sand,
a pink wind dusting the surf
into veils of salted rain,
I thought of our last time
among the peaks,
not a soul out,
just the prismatic minutes
and euphoric glide towards the beach.

As the years pulled us apart
it became evident,
clear as resin,
something had diffused the days
to a thin fear,
a strand of inflexible kelp
brittled by the sun.

With imperceptible stealth
fear bulged from the black metres
into dead eyes of rubber,
that turned bone to sinkers
and muscle to jelly.

Simply gone,
our moments carried by the offshore
to another time,
another bay.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Far from the Maddening SUPers?

As predicted, the SUP (Stand Up Paddleboard) was going to become popular, ├╝ber popular. Spend a Sunday morning at the backline of Muizenberg Corner and you'll witness the sort of marine mayhem best left to a Sponge Bob Squarepants cartoon.

Besides a plethora of other watercraft in use or misuse, the SUP phenomenon is something of a focal point for a number of reasons. Besides the sheer scale of the craft, the whole act of SUPing draws unnecessary attention to itself because it's fundamentally ungraceful when compared to other “surfing” activities. Perhaps it’s due to the proliferation of neophyte SUPers at spots like the Berg; experts do look somewhat less cumbersome. For me, there's the endless ungainly shovelling married to that jittery muscled pose best suited to tightrope artists, and let's not venture near the murky territory of SUPing apparel! SUPers are undoubtedly made of ”The Right Stuff” - they have little need for neoprene the world over. Whether they are waddling between North Sea ice flows or lolling about at some Balinese dreamscape, SUPers only require baggies and a rashie. These hardy fashionistas are redefining surf fashion; I couldn’t help notice a particularly fashion conscious gondolier donning what appeared to be a pair of undersized Calvin Klein briefs with an Hawaiian floral print. There’s no refuting these guys (and gals) are sculpted of the same stuff as their carbon fibre oars (sorry, "paddles") which bear an uncanny resemblance to Maori traditional weapons, but I digress!

SUPs look and act like nuclear aircraft carriers; I wouldn't be surprised to see an F-18 on short finals having mistaken one for the USS Nimitz. My issue is that they demand respect without earning respect, particularly at a surfing nursery such as Muizenberg. Congregants tend huddle beyond the break, which is great, and compose an almost picturesque tableau against the rising sun over False Bay, but it's when the sets arrive that all goes awry.

SUPers tend to ignore the direction of a breaking wave; perhaps it's once again the sheer scale and easy paddle-in of their Arthurian steeds that preclude them from committing to ride only left or right across the face of the wave. I spent some time watching them weave a tapestry of mayhem through all the other watercraft with little or no concern for anyone but themselves and their preppy SUPing spouses. They scoop left, then shovel right, feint, grunt and then fade into something that looks like a 50s drop-knee cutback married to a bout of constipation, followed by another directional switch with no regard for the host of other water users, most of which are now fossilised by the fear of being mowed down.

Most SUPP rides end with an almost palpable air of supreme accomplishment followed by a flurry of digging to make it back to the take off zone somewhere near the Kalk Bay harbour! It's not so much the sport of SUPing itself, each to their own, but rather their insistence on governing an already excessively congested line-up with no concern for those further down the take-off chain! It's pointless competing with a SUP in full oar swinging commitment down the line, unless of course you have some form of nuclear deterrent or an afterburner!

What constantly puzzles me, besides the bewildering pre-SUP yoga routines in the inter-tidal zone, is that they seem to be sub-consciously drawn to the busiest areas of the line-up, and then waddle on the outside, monopolising the break as if they are of Royal Hawaiian descent. It's all a tad confusing to an average aging surfer like me, but surely a demarcated zone at certain beaches for these behemoths would go a long way to alleviate unnecessary tension, that inevitable lawsuit or serious injury. Perhaps, in the case of Muizenberg their reluctance to scoop further down the beach is dictated by real practicalities.

Yes, lugging a SUPP 300 metres down Muizenberg beach would be punishment enough for their sins, but the upside but would allow SUP jockeys to show off the benefits of their impressively toned core muscles. The other obvious issue is of course sharks, but given the iniquitous price of their gondolas and the tangle of obligatory peripheral devices, a Sharkshield would be de rigueur, and preclude the need for any Sharpspotters in a SUPers only zone. Perhaps a daisy chain of Sharkshield donning SUPPer's could offer similar protection as shark nets, by offering a compromise of sorts, and forming a protective shield for all other water users. This symbiotic solution would mean that SUPers could remain in the normal surfing area providing they don a Sharkshield and practice a modicum of surfing etiquette.

Paddles in sky stuff no doubt! Unless of course someone is smeared into the pelagic zone and seriously injured, the Boswell Wilke SUP circus will grow in popularity. Yes, SUPing is here to stay, it’s the new-Golf, now with oars and a lifetime subscription to Men's Health or GQ.

Come on guys, let’s set up some protocols so everyone, can enjoy the ocean because I’d like to think that FUN and not core muscle conditioning is the real reason for getting your sinuses flushed every weekend!

Monday, October 10, 2011

“What the hell is going on False Bay?”

“What the hell is going on False Bay?”

First it was whale watching; with clutches of binoculared cetacean lovers backing up the traffic on Boyes Drive, waxing lyrical over blubber and spyhopping. Now it’s Shark spotting, complete with Smartphones, HD YouTube video feeds and webcams mere metres from the shoreline. I’m watching this feeding frenzy of a digital kind in a state of utter confusion. You might ask why; well I’m perplexed that in a mere 10 years the number of shark encounters in False Bay has increased with such alarming regularity.

Despite the impeccable scientific method of local Shark fundi Alison Kock, I am not convinced that the recent behaviour of our cartilaginous friends is quite normal, and no cause for concern. We’ve all heard those Shark attack stats that cite lightning strikes, mangled car wrecks and malevolent toasters, and those territorial tales of becoming a link in the marine food chain every time we paddle out. As surfers, these cautionary notes have been long since filed and entered into the psyche of the sport.

I’ve spent the past 30 years in the surf zone of False Bay, surfing , paddling, or bobbing about at the backline like a human crouton. I’ve experienced a countless variety of conditions from howling North West gales, pea soup South East mush burgers to those sublime kelp glass days that are few and far between. From my 80s heydays of mid-winter Cemetery and the Berg, to classic cover-ups at Dangers and mutated wedges at Clovelly. Add to that the rare days when Fish Hoek or spots like Glencairn Reef would come to life, yet I have never seen a shark, nor have the many friends I have surfed, paddled, skurfed or fished with.

I’m utterly mystified by this and everyone from Sharkspotters to experts seem to be regurgitating the same processed response; that the increased activity is part of the natural predatory behavior of Carcharodon carcharias. My reply has become increasingly skeptical when I hear, “Hey guys, it’s normal for this time of the year” or “Great Whites have been doing just this for millennia”. Well, if that’s the case where have all the sharks been on the countless clear days that I have surfed these very spots, or sat contemplating my existence while watching the ocean from Boyes Drive? I consider myself a fairly observant and situationally aware individual, so surely I would have encountered, or at least observed a Great White from afar by now? Was I just blissfully unaware of my precarious predicament, or was it mere benevolence on the part of my maker?

I’m bewildered and perplexed by the benign response of everyone. All this scientific evidence just doesn’t add up. What has transpired in the past decade to change the status quo of the 70s, 80s and 90s? Are we paying for the sins of our fathers? Is this a precursor to a complete collapse of the marine ecosystem, a harbinger of things to come, where huge schools of Snoek “go Pirhana” on grannies taking a dip in ankle deep water?

Something or someone has pulled the trigger, but no seems to be “stepping up to the plate” to deal with this issue head on. The Sharkspotting programme has been a massive success and is to be lauded and supported. They should be receiving huge amounts from that fiendishly subtle taxation system on the poor called the National Lottery. There’s no doubt that the Sharkspotting programme has saved countless lives, but in essence they are merely monitoring the symptoms of a bigger issue, and let’s be honest, the merest puff of a Southerly or South Easter puts a huge dent in their efficacy.

So here’s a list of possible causes or triggers:
- The proliferation of Shark Cage Diving outfits and Shark related eco-tourism.
- The protection of Great White Sharks by Law
- The depletion of fish stocks in False Bay
- The increase of recreational water users
- An increase or decrease of the Cape Fur Seal population in False Bay
- An increase in the number of Great White Sharks
- Changes in the predatory territories

To follow, here’s a spine-chilling list of attacks complied by Dave Elsworth of Kommetjie in a recent letter to the Cape Times. Take note of the dates!

2002 – Paul Major, surfski, Sunnycove
2004 – JP Andrew, surfing, Muizenberg Corner
2004 – Tyna Webb, swimming, Fish Hoek (Sunnycove side of the beach)
2005 – Trevor Wright, surfski, Sunnycove
2006 – Lyle Maasdorp, surfski, Sunnycove
2006 – Achmat Hassiem, swimming, Muizenberg (rivermouth area)
2006 – Richard Whitaker, surfing, Danger Beach
2010 – Lloyd Skinner, swimming, Fish Hoek (Sunnycove side of the beach)
2011 – Michael Cohen, swimming, Clovelly

I’m no Marine Biologist, Animal Behaviourist or Shark expert but in my opinion it’s time to tackle this issue in another manner. And no, I’m not talking shotguns, gaffs, and nets either. The waters of False Bay is the lifeblood of surf schools, surf shops, paddlers, surfers, kiters, divers, swimmers, Lifesaving competitions and many other recreational activities. What are viable alternatives in the interest of co-existence? Stay out of the water, hell no! What about Sharkshields? Yes, Sharkshields are very effective but prohibitively expensive for most although I do believe a possible solution could well stem from a similar form of technology. We all need to put our heads together, and a find workable solution – SA style!

For now the question remains; “What the hell is going on False Bay?”, and at the very least there’s a movie lurking beneath the surface of all this mayhem.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

At the Back

At the back every salty bead culminates in
the hollow slap of board against water,
and the lesser tap of polyurethane against fibreglass.

My leash is suspended,
in the last gun metal hours of daylight,
tethering leg and thoughts to one final wave,
before the scratch of each stroke grows to an ache
and joints seize like a wasted engine.

Every molecule is laced by the offshore,
even my thoughts of you at the evening stove,
are soaked by the darkest of blues at the back.