Posted by: smithdavid | February 21, 2016


We’re lying on cushions that Len has thrown onto the timber porch in Muizenburg, sipping beers. Halo, Len’s ten year old daughter, reclines so that that her head rests on her father’s chest. We’ve just go back from a surf and all the talk of ‘drops’ and ‘shoulders’ and ‘rights with reforming sections’ must be bemusing to her. It certainly is to Hatije, my girlfriend -who is lying beside me. Hatije does not understand my obsession with surfing (how could she possibly?) but tolerates it gracefully. Halo’s attention is on their dog and I know Hatije has zoned out – but Len and I can’t help ourselves.
‘Man – I’ve got to show you this board,’ he says, jolting up. Halo scampers. He rushes off to the garage and comes back with a board just a little longer than he, grinning. ‘My first shortboard.’ He takes the sock off the board – it has a classic sharp nose, pin tail, an over-generous covering of wax on the yellow deck.
I look on with some envy – not at the board itself but at the fact that Len rides shortboards with such ease and, sometimes, even grace. We met at school in Pretoria and were both late getting into surfing – mid-thirties. We’re early forties now and while, to some degree, I accept the natural decline of my body, I can’t quite accept the fact that I’m doomed to ride mini-mals, hybrids and longboards just because I’m an ageing late starter.



‘You’re in this thing [surfing] now,’ Len says, ‘you’ve got to get on one of these.’ He pushes the board towards me.
I take hold of it – the fact that I can lift it with one hand makes me smile as I think of the time I lugged my 9’4” super-mal up a ridiculously steep hill to the camp site in St. Ives, Cornwall after a long surf. ‘Feels good…’ I say, holding the board at arms’ length, turning it around so I can read the specifications on the back – 6’4”X21”X2¾”. It’s way less buoyant than my shortest board, a 7’3” superfish. I recall my only attempt to ride a shortboard – a 6’6” rental from Zuma Jay in Bude, Cornwall. It was a dark winter day of wild swell – when I started paddling out the board felt unsteady; when I tried to catch a wave the nose wobbled all over the place. I was soon back in the car park, getting the 7’3”.
‘Take it for the rest of your time here,’ Len says. ‘See how you go…’
‘You sure?’
‘Take it,’ Hatije says, now animated. ‘You’ve nothing to lose.’
Len nods. I start pulling the sock over the board – to me, socks epitomise short boards and even the process of covering the board gives me a thrill. Though in the struggle to get it on I bash the nose into the tin roof of the porch.
Len laughs. ‘It’s like putting a wetsuit on for the first time.’

‘Aren’t you the surfer?’ Nicola, girlfriend of E.V. at whose flat we are staying in Camps Bay, says when I bring the board. I try not to grin too much – it feels a little dishonest carrying this board around when I haven’t ridden it yet.
E.V. wants to see the board. He turns it this way and that, studies the deck. He nods his bronzed face slowly. ‘Ja, Dawie – that’s a lekker board,’ he says. ‘You taken her out yet?’
Each time I surf over the next few days I find excuses not to use the shortboard. At Betty’s Bay I didn’t bring the board with, at Woodbridge Island I figured (somewhat ridiculously) that the break is more for longboards. It’s like I won’t be able to withstand the blow to my psyche if I can’t ride the board – maybe then I’ll have to admit I’m getting older.

glen beach

Camps Bay

But when I go to meet Len at Muizenburg again I know which board I have to take. I suit up in the car park and walk to our meeting point outside Lifestyle Surf Shop, the yellow board slung easily under my arm.
‘You tried it yet?’ Len says.
I shake my head. ‘Today’s the day.’
In the water there must be a hundred surfers spread out along the beach break. As we wade in near the corner, I’m thinking that I’ll come back this way in a couple of hours having not caught a single wave. But when we’re in waist high I jump onto the board and it doesn’t feel nearly as unstable as the 6’6” in Bude. I paddle a few strokes and while it doesn’t have the easy glide of the 8’ hire board I’ve used thus far on the trip, it certainly doesn’t drag as much as I expected.
The first real test is the duck dive. Len gives me a few tips. I imagine I’m going to get dragged back the way I always do with longer boards. But the first wave comes and I push the nose down and it cuts into the water. Then I push my right foot onto the deck grip and the board rushes to the surface and I’m through the wave and ready to continue paddling. A fluke, I think. Beginner’s luck. The next rush of whitewater comes and it’s the same result.
The last time we were here the back line was far, far out and I never made it – I got battered by whitewater and settled for cleanish re-formed waves or catching whitewater and trying to find a section that cleaned up. Len ducked through the white stuff and caught some good waves farther out. This, in a way, is a metaphor for where my surfing is in general – much improved but not out in the deep water, tapping into the full energy potential of waves. Today the swell is much smaller and we’re out back already.
‘That one looks okay,’ Len says of the second bump of swell that comes our way. I turn the board (surprised at how easy it is) and paddle hard, noticing how my feet actually contribute when I kick – unlike on longer boards. The wave lifts the tail of the board and I make a last few strokes and then feel way the board surges. Without thinking I spring up and ride down the small face of the wave. Only now do I realize that I’m riding a short board – my surfing goal (besides getting barrelled, of course). The water rushes beneath me and I move a little this way and that – the board follows sharply. Perhaps if there was more time to think the moment would become too big and I’d fall. But I ride for some distance before the wave runs out of energy. As soon as I jump off the wave I start paddling back out – I want more.
‘You seem quite comfortable on that board,’ Len says when I get out back again.
This time when I grin there are no associated feelings of dishonesty or deception. Yes, I feel comfortable on a shortboard.

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