It is my hope that putting this voice out into our world has value, not only for me, but for others, as well. I admit to sometimes entertaining dreams of it going viral, of infecting the world with my vision. But most of the time I am content to be motivated by Gandhi's assertion: whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Searching for stoke

I haven’t posted anything for a long time. Things change. I have less hair and greyer stubble. From where I write, I look due east over rooftops and then the sprawl of twinkling city lights to the distant line of mountains, etched hard and clear by the dawn. They are the mountains in which we used to live. For twenty-five years. Until the unrelenting tide of change swept that all away, with the force and violence of which it is perfectly capable.

But this is not about that. It is not about big stories. For it is often not the big stories that are important, but the little ones.

I awake, on my fifty-third birthday, in the most beautiful place on earth. The first of the pure white sandbanks are already exposed, with the tide still running out. The wind is from the north-west, the winter wind that brings rain and cold. But today it is soft and gentle, yet chilly. The dawn is silver-grey and unremarkable. None of the showy, warm tones of a typically African sunrise. Simpler. Cleaner. So that you have to look more intently to see the perfection.

When I am asked, later in the morning what I want for my birthday my reply is this: “ What I want most, on this day, is not to be rushed.”

But as it turns out, my fifty-third birthday is a day that offers more promise than it finally delivers. Despite everything I have around me that day, despite our trip to Heaven, and despite the silver potential that is held in the dawn. Or maybe, because of it.

Very few people know that this is the most beautiful place on earth. Even fewer know that it is at its best in the wintertime. People think: bright, turquoise water - pure, white sand - summer. They don’t think of perfection as coming in multiple shades of subdued grey.

But one person who knows the beauty of this place well, is Willie. And he knows it because eighty-two years of daily reinforcement is a very solid foundation for certainty.

Laurie Santos is a professor of happiness at Yale who teaches the most popular course ever offered at the university. Worlds away from Willie. From her I learn this: of the things that make our happiness, it is our relationships that probably matter most. No surprise there. But what is surprising to me, until I have time to reflect on my own experience, is this: It is the quality of every human relationship we experience that matters, and what makes the most difference, probably because we overlook them, is those small, fleeting interactions that happen every day - with the check out woman at the supermarket till, the regular dog walker that we pass in the park, the Uber driver. These are the low hanging fruits of happiness that we pass, often unaware, every day of our lives.

Although I had never deliberately sought those fruits before I recently learned of them, I know them, perhaps intuitively enough to strike up a conversation with Willie. And I suppose, if I am honest about my motivations, it includes a desire to prove to him my legitimacy in this place, that it is in my blood too. His beard is much whiter than mine. His hair much thicker, his face more wrinkled, exposed as it has been to much more sun and wind and salt. I am surprised by his eloquence. I am using the open door of his little fishing shack to shelter from the wind so that the flame, with which I am burning the ends of nylon cord, is not extinguished by the breeze. If I move further into the gloom, I am better sheltered for my task. The flame flares as the nylon takes, the smoke turns black. I twist and angle the cord to produce the desired result. The smell of it wafts somewhere in memory. I am crouched amongst the tools of Willie’s trade: corks strung on shell encrusted nylon rope, roughly piled nets, tangles of fishing line, yellow, plastic crates. All well-worn and infused with the scent of sun and wind and salt and of course fish, whose scales glint from the cracks between the rough, wooden floorboards.

His answer to one of my conversation starters, “So, how long have you been here?” is as striking as the whiteness of the sand here. “Eighty-two years”, he states. “That’s long”, I say, nodding my head slowly. My legitimacy pales in comparison. But I feel the need to distinguish myself from the new-comers, to squeeze a distinction between their fancy holiday houses and ours, to make my blood claim, admittedly somewhat thinner than his, for my fifty-three years to his eighty-two.

I doubt that he makes the distinction. It certainly would not be as important, or as clear to him, as it is to me. We chat as we work, the conversation punctuated to the gentle pace of this place by my coming and going between the Hobie cat, to tie knots, and the shelter of the fishing hut, with my next piece of cord. There is a quality of connection, it seems. We are each taking pleasure in simple labour. There are similarities and differences. Each of our labours is tied to our respective well beings, mine to the joy of sailing, and its many memories in this place, his to the economics of fish.

There is gratification in the unhurried completion of my task. I want to do it well, to do it thoroughly, led by the thought of how my father would have done it. It is, after all, his Hobie. And I am protecting its ageing hulls and trampoline from the ravages of sun and salt and wind as best I can. I am tying down its covers to protect it and withstand being ripped loose by the southeaster. I position the knots and the cord strategically, for tension. They will facilitate the loosening and retying of the covers. And I have made sure that the ends of each cord will not fray, by burning it in the shelter of Willie’s fishing shack.

Sandra has been sitting in the sand, her back against the Hobie, slightly sheltered from the chilly wind to enjoy some warmth from the winter sun. She loves this place like I do. She loves the wide sweep of its low topography, its muted colours, its expanse of calm water, its quiet.

When the Hobie task is done to my satisfaction, I return to the house. After a leisurely birthday breakfast, my sister calls. But here’s the problem. She’s standing on the point at Elands Bay. The surf is absolutely cooking.

Photo: Catherine Hofmeyr
Around my fifty-first birthday, I became a surfer again, after thirty years. Rediscovering the stoke is beautiful. Surfing is compelling for many reasons, the feeling of being out on the water, the immersion, the salty freshness, the surge of the ocean’s aliveness and power, and for me now, the opportunity to share it all with my son. But I have also become aware of one of the more profound reasons why surfing is so compelling. Nothing yanks you so beautifully into the immediacy of the present moment, as being on the face of a breaking wave.

I stopped surfing at age twenty one, due partly to pull and partly to push. The pull was a newfound passion for rock climbing. The push was the cold Cape water, the crowds and the associated aggression for waves. Part of the appeal of climbing was a community without any of that aggression.

Photo: Catherine Hofmeyr
When I find surfing again, I am pleasantly surprised by two things, the advances in wetsuit technology and the positive interactions I have with most of the surfers I come across. The vibe seems to be more about sharing the stoke and less about selfishly claiming waves. I think of our interactions along the Lamberts Strip. Conversations in the car parks and in the waves, brief friendships that grow over successive days of mutual searching for stoke. And of anticipating the coming lockdown, that we will all be in together. Have things changed, or have I changed? Maybe it's that I surf different, less crowded waves. Maybe it's that I am older.

When I was younger I hated the prickly sensation of pulling a T-shirt over the taught, salt-encrusted skin of my shoulders. I used to hate the resistance of bed linen against a salty body. And now I love it. I resist showering after a surf in order to enjoy the sensation of going to bed salty. Has the sensation changed, or have I?

Photo: Phoebe Lanz
There are definite similarities between surfing and climbing. They are both about the pursuit of freedom and independence and adventure. They are about awareness of movement simply for the joy it invokes. They are about immersion in the raw, awe-inspiring immediacy of the natural world. And to surfing and climbing, I would add skiing. But unfortunately, I was born in the wrong country for that.

Photo: Phoebe Lanz
But there is a difference that I notice between surfing and climbing. In surfing there are no numbers to pursue. A surfer’s motivation to ride a wave, unless it is during a competition, has nothing to do with any numerical measure. Surfers are motivated to ride waves for exactly the same reason that dolphins are. Because of the stoke. Pure and simple.

And there is, of course, another difference, that is somewhat annoying for the surfer. A particular rock climb can generally be relied upon to be there when you arrive at its base to climb it. Not so with a wave.

By my fifty-third birthday I am a surfer again. And the problem of being a surfer is that the lure of good waves is almost impossible to resist. In speaking to Tessa I am acutely aware that we are within striking distance of Elands Bay. But it's a long way to drive and it's already late. Sebastian of course is all youthful, uncautious go. I am not so sure. But then I remember a spot that is somewhat closer and if Elands is as good and as big as Tessa says it is, then this spot should be very worthwhile.

After a few minutes of anguished decision making, we are in the car and driving to Heaven. I cannot ignore the nagging sense that this is a poor choice for my day. I am worried that we will spend an hour driving only to arrive to bad surf. I worry, as we catch a view of the ocean and Sixteen Mile Beach, that the swell is not big enough, that the wind is making it messy. The flags that we pass at different points along the roadside, normally unnoticed, are each a source of worry. I worry that I am sacrificing what I really wanted for this day, and what was, before being lured away, in such easy reach.

But two hours later my choice feels like a brilliant one. We arrive at the end of the gravel road, to the first revelation of what we have driven an hour to reach. The parking lot is out on the edge, in the dunes beyond the neat, brick-edged roads, the ridiculous palm trees, the imposing, arched security gate, that we had to talk our way through. The wild Atlantic Ocean is glassy. It looks like there is swell. There is no one else out. And then a big set rolls through and produces a rush of unpacking, waxing boards, and suiting up.

As a surfer, to be out in the lineup in such good waves with only one other person, is an absolute dream. Theoretically, being out all alone would offer you the choice of every wave you want. But when you are alone in the lineup, the mind-sharks circle menacingly, just below the surface. It is amazing how effectively, just one companion in the lineup, keeps them safely submerged. So for balancing choice of wave against the discomforts of fear, one other person is the ideal number, especially if the other is a friend, or even better a son.

Sebastian and I are trading waves, whooping to each other as paddler and rider cross paths. The conditions are improving even more. It is big and clean and beautiful. Another surfer arrives in the parking lot, and around that time, I begin to mess up the takeoffs. By the time he is out in the line up with us, I am wiping out on many of the waves I paddle into. I don’t know why. Nothing seems to be working anymore. And an intense frustration begins to build.

I have messed up five perfect waves in a row, without riding a single one. Bash and I are alone at the back, when the big, silky bomb of the day aligns itself perfectly with the reef, peaking at just the right spot. Bash says: “It’s your birthday - you go.” And then he adds, “But just don’t blow it”.

A number of things peak on the crest of this high, moving wall of glassy, green power - the potential, the desire for satisfaction, the frustration. And it all depends on the split second of take-off. It steepens too fast. I hang in the lip too long. But I am on my feet, hands clawing at the wave face as I take the drop, desperate to hold it together this time.

I land awkwardly with the lip, off-balance. The emotional need to give vent to my uncontained frustration in an anguished and drawn-out wail is stronger than the discipline to fill my lungs before going under. And so I suffer, badly. Drilled in the white, churning water through the forests of kelp and over the reef. With lungs that burn through the endless seconds of delay before my head breaks the foaming, insubstantial surface. And now I am in the worst possible position in the impact zone, and the next wave of the set is just the same, as is the mistake of my lung-emptying wail of indignation as it hits me, and drills me under once more.

Your body doesn’t actually fight against it when you are in the washing machine of churning water with empty lungs. Surprisingly, it relaxes - perhaps an innate bodily wisdom of survival. But the message needs to get to your mind as well, which is less accepting. Despite your burning desire for the surface, you can only surrender to the superior power of the water, and wait patiently, without struggle, until your chance for the surface arises. Anything else is not only futile but dangerous.

I achieve this only with limited success. And only when forced to, by depth. At the surface, washing around in the foaming water amongst the kelp heads, I am all burning frustration and swearing indignation. I am the polar opposite of accepting surrender, too trapped in the swirling, frothy power of my suffering to let the ocean pound it out of me.

The surf sessions that have left the most fulfilment in me are those that I have used my best wave of the session to come out of the water on. But these are rare, for it is not easy to do. When you get your best wave, you immediately want another, and the temptation to paddle out again for it, is usually too strong to resist.

Today there is zero chance of that. I don’t come in after my beating under the set of the day. It takes a few more beatings with much the same response and result, before I give up. I don’t ride another wave.

If riding your best wave in, is a surf session high point, then paddling in without a wave is the low point. It is an admission of defeat. And just to add final insult to today’s defeat, I am unceremoniously upended in the vicious shore break and washed up the steep, mussel-strewn beach, my board dragging behind me on its leash. When I strip my wetsuit, while watching the other guy carve a long, running beauty down the point, I find it filled with mussel shells.

Photo: Phoebe Lanz
Daniel Kahneman proposes that the experiences we desire and seek out are not motivated by how we will experience them, but by how we will remember them. In the evening, when we are seated around the dinner table, Phoebe asks: “What was the best part of your day?” The father in me wants it to be the breakfast that my children poured dollops of effort and creamy scrambled eggs into. The surfer in me wants it to be one of the earlier waves of our session at Heaven. But the memory of them is defiled by how the session ended. Perhaps the best part of my day is right now, surrounded by the warmth of family and food in the privileged space of the holiday home we love. But I kind of know, deep down, that the best part of my day was not any of these. It was spent with a stranger, on the beach in the cold breeze, tying knots in pieces of nylon cord, of which I had burned each end, to stop them from fraying.

Fortunately, by the time I write this, during the Covid 19 lockdown, I have amassed more satisfying memories of surfing the wild West Coast that I have come to love, than those from my fifty-third birthday. In the days before lockdown, Tom, Sebastian, Shadow and I are dirt-bag camping along the Lamberts Strip, overdosing on sun and surf to sustain us into lockdown. Uppermost in my memory bank are two absolutely dreamy, evening sessions. Yo-yo’s is a friendly little reef off a sandy beach in the partial shelter of the Lamberts Bay harbour. We arrive in the parking lot in the late afternoon, just as the mushy, daytime conditions are transforming. No one else is out. Half an hour into the session the transformation is close to complete. The smoke from the chimney stack at the fish factory indicates a perfect, vertical zero on the Beaufort wind scale. The water is uncharacteristically warm. The ocean surface is an opulent, silky gold. And an exquisite little wave pitches off the apex of the reef and peels down it to the beach, with clockwork regularity. Not wanting it to end, I stay out into the darkness, until the only light in the sky comes to me across the water from the harbour.

Surfing is a strange drug. To be addicted to something that is so healthy, that is so beautiful, that is so much about connection with wellness of body and spirit, about immersion in the raw energy of the natural world cannot be bad, can it? And no, it is not - compared to an addiction to heroin, or consumerism, or porn. But it can be an addiction, nevertheless. And it has its downside. It sneaks a direct arrow shot through a chink in the armour of the human mind - straight into that soft spot that makes us wonder, with longing, whether we wouldn’t rather be in one of those empty, tropical, Indo line-ups that we see on Instagram, or simply on one of the other waves of this day, that we were out of position for, or even just the one after the one we got, that held up over the reef a little better.

And like with everything, social media makes it worse. We poor surfers are mercilessly bombarded with gorgeous photos and video edits that drive us crazy with the elusive, mistaken longing that there are waves out there that are more perfect than the wave that we are on.


  1. I did not read from my Anthony Osler book this morning. Now I know why. Thank you for all the effort you put into this piece of writing and being so generous with it.

  2. Johann, thanks for sharing this lovely piece of writing. I have been trying surfing, with Laura, a few times. Never been a surfer before. Eisj, the best I could do is get onto my knees... Regards, Leon Atterbury

  3. Always love your writing, Hon. A few days into lockdown, I showed Tom how to burn the ends of nylon rope, just like Ernie taught us; we were hanging his exercise rings under the deck!