It’s midwinter in Cape Town. It’s cold, grey and been raining for days. Swells from the Southern Ocean have gathered momentum and are pounding the coastline; it’s so rough that ships are confined to harbours. Most people are more than happy to snuggle in bed, watch a movie or play cards, but for big-wave surfers such as Chris Bertish, Andrew Marr and Grant Baker, conditions like these mean it’s showtime. For them, riding gigantic waves is more than a sport – it’s a way of life.
This is immediately obvious when watching the line-up at Dungeons or Sunset Reef, near Hout Bay (from the comfortable distance and safety of a boat, that is). The waves here are so big they seem to break in slow motion and sound like a series of C4 explosives. Surfers and spectators are hooting and cheering, creating a carnival atmosphere on the water. Adding to the chaos are the jet skis that whizz around; some are loaded with cameramen and others are dedicated to the safety of the riders. Jet skis also step in when the waves get really big. Once surfers can no longer paddle into them, they use jet skis to tow them in. Over the years, this method has allowed surfers to push the boundaries past what’s thought of as humanly possible – at least until somebody goes and does it.
While it may seem like fun and games, there’s no doubt that big-wave surfing is a serious business. Nobody knows this better than the surfers themselves. A tumble could mean getting thrashed around underwater for more than half a minute and dragged hundreds of metres in the whitewash. They need to be fit and train themselves to remain calm to conserve energy – not the easiest thing to do when you’re being thrown around like a ragdoll.
Are the risks worth the rewards? Just ask any of the big-wave surfers and they’ll tell you the exhilaration and thrill of conquering the ocean at its most powerful – and getting away unharmed – is why they jump out of bed on a cold Cape Town winter’s day.
But there’s no need to grab a board to feel a little of this adrenaline rush, you need only watch the action. Keep an eye on surf forecasts at www.wavescape.co.za, and if there’s massive swell head to the Sentinel’s slopes or contact Animal Ocean to book a place on a boat which will take you close to the action, cell 079-488-5053, www.animalocean.co.za.
Photo by Alan van Gysen