Posts Tagged ‘Cape Town’

UNDERGROUND EXPLORER: ROB WARD

The story of British surfing would not be complete without reference to its underground surfers – those who passed up competition, fashion and media exposure for hard-bitten travel. These are the “soul” surfers such as Rob Ward and the late Nigel Baker. Rob Ward was a lover of French waves. “The early days surfing France had to be the best time of my life. I was totally focused on riding big waves at Guethary,” says Rob. “In 1967 I lived in a tent in the Cenitz valley, then in later years stayed in a villa with early Newquay immortal Alan McBride.” Rob was a standout big wave surfer and a hard-core adventurer. “Growing up on the Isle of Wight, in the south of England halfway up the English Channel, I never saw anyone surf,” says Rob. “But one day in 1961 I found an article on glassing a surfboard torn from a magazine and lying on the floor of a garage at the back of my dad’s hotel. I tried to make a board upstairs in the hotel, but lacking the right tool or materials, it was not a happy experience, and I never finished the board.”

Educated at the Nautical College at Pangbourne in Berkshire, Rob went on to become an officer in the Royal Navy. “In 1964 I was a Midshipman in HMS Jaguar on the South Africa/South America station,” says Rob. “I’d been pestering a South African lieutenant aboard with the question of whether people surfed in South Africa. I had a day’s leave on the Friday of the week. I took a taxi to Cape Town from Simonstown naval base and arrived just after the shops had closed. I found a shop with a surfboard in the window and banged on the door until they opened. They gave me a board and took £30 pounds (a month’s wages) from me. The sporting taxi driver shoved my prize halfway into the boot of his car and drove me back ‘home’. It was the most beautiful thing I had seen—brownish, distinctly bent and with the name Sunsurf announced by an orange sticker with an impressionist rendering of the principal feature of our solar system near the nose.”

“I surfed in South Africa, South and Central America and returned to the UK,” says Rob. “During my third year at the Britannia Royal Naval College (in Dartmouth, Devon), I tendered my resignation with some trepidation. I had, after all, been in an institution since I was six. Within a few months, a friend and I had bought an old diesel van, some blanks from a defunct surf business in Newquay and, after building a dozen boards in the Isle of Wight, headed down to Guethary. Then followed nine months of bliss. We built a small factory on the outskirts of Bayonne with a French partner. I grew my hair for the first time in my life and surfed every day it was possible. At first I entered in the competitions that the French Surf Federation had newly inaugurated. I won an international paddle race taking Felipe Pomar’s record for the course by five minutes.” 1965 World Champion Felipe Pomar was a go-for-broke Peruvian big wave surfer, famous for his power paddling.

Later Rob turned his back on competition, travelling extensively in California, South Africa and Australia, often seeking the more obscure, high quality big wave locations as his hang out, such as Outer Kommetjie in Cape Town, Margaret River in Western Australia and Cactus in Southern Australia, many years before these places were reported as make-the-barrel-or-die big-wave breaks. Rob also had an innovative attitude towards surfboard design and had a long relationship, spanning decades, with experimental shaper Tom Hoye, Precision Equipe, in California, who would ship him his latest, sometimes quirky designs, to ride wherever he was in the world. “I recall in 1972 coming from the surf in the desert in South Australia. There had supposedly been a large shark sighted. But the waves were extraordinary,” says Rob. “I spent an hour alone with both fear and elation and when I came from the water I actually fell on my knees and thanked God for my existence. It was the sort of peak experience that will carry you through a lifetime of the normal, and less common, trials. Bliss indeed. Thank you surfing.” In one of those impossible to predict moments in an obscure place on the planet, who should Rob bump in to during a spell at Cactus but ‘Moby’ – Dave Patience, one of Newquay’s earliest surfers and Guethary pioneers.

In the ‘80s Rob lived in Cornwall and ran a surf shop in Newquay called Ocean Imports. “During that period,” says Rob, “a friend encouraged me to buy a 26 foot boat with him and smuggle hashish from Morocco. Of the six-year prison sentence, I served four years. I had no excuses. I didn’t feel sorry for myself. I was grateful for the opportunity to study Romantic Poetry at the Open University.” Upon release, Rob started building 40 foot catamarans. In the Orinoco Flo he made a global circumnavigation, financed by paying surfer passengers for the surf break stops along the way. These included pioneering visits to the Easter Islands.

Rob’s surfing passion has always been focused and intense. He possesses a driven quality recognised among that breed of surfers like Laird Hamilton who “have to be there to ride the big waves.” Well-educated and highly articulate, Rob has also been able to share his love of surfing. His performances have been inspirational, and he would have been better known, but for his low level of interest in surfing contests. Even in current surf sessions he sets a high international standard for his age. “I just completed a 27 kilometre paddle race beating paddlers 20 years my junior,” says Rob. “Now 60 and looking back at 40-plus years dedicated to surfing – seeing that I abandoned a naval career my father had set his heart on for me; considering the jail term that I served as an arguably direct result of the economically barren years in the back of a van in Mexico and California, a station wagon in Australia and under the stairs of a villa falling down a cliff on the Chemin des Falaises in Guethary – I suppose I should harbour some regrets. A surfer will know that I do not. Joseph Campbell, in one of a series of interviews made shortly before his death, declared – ‘Ah, fortunate is the one who finds his Bliss.’ It’s an odd phrase but that is what surfing has been (and remains) for me. And I feel fortunate indeed.”


On the road to Cactus with Rob Ward

I’m alive and nobody is more surprised and happy than I am. I’ll only mention one (out of many) reason: Road Trains. Any Australian who has driven outback knows what a Road Train is. Think very big semi-trailer with another one or two stuck on the back. You’ve got the hang of driving fantastically fast, gradually, over the course of five days. The legal limit is 110kph. You’ll be overtaken frequently if you drive at 120. But trucks, “lorries” (UK Speak) more or less confine themselves to the limit. There are now average-speed cameras. Truckies have always known where the cops are and where the cameras are. But this device has them beat, for their own good, sure! It automatically identifies vehicles over 4.5 tonnes weight – that is, NOT a van – and calculates the driver’s average speed over, what? 100 kilometers? So, no good speeding up between cameras. This means for the common ute/pickup voyager that, sooner or later, you will find yourself overtaking a road train. The roads are good. Straight and flat and my fotos give little impression of the fact that you can see to a 30k horizon and sometimes get a hint of further if the terrain permits it. You can on the larger version but I couldn’t send them.) The engineers were Romans. A road train coming towards you usually appears as a water tower in the distance. You’re seeing the white fibreglass wind streamliner that leads the air blast up and over the one-story-high trailers behind the prime mover. The body of the prime mover is hidden in the road’s “mirage effect” at a certain distance. Gradually it begins to make itself visible. First it gets two black legs then it forms itself into a recognisable object and then you start preparing yourself to stay real nice and steady on your side of the road. Of course, if you did do a head-on with one it would be over very quickly and with little damage, including psychological, to the road train or driver. Your engine would pass out through the back of your treasured transport/home with you a hard to-identify something in between One of the many little games you play over these great distances is to start counting the seconds from first sighting to the passage of the vehicle. Then you start trying to work out how far away it was when you first saw it. I found about 30 seconds was common. So, closing at about 220kph, you saw it about 2k up the track.

Anyway, passing an approaching road train is a thrilling but only a brief flirtation with death – the road is just wide enough for two of them to pass each other without going for a wander. Overtaking takes more planning. I overtook 2 in the past 2,300k which I concluded last evening here in Port Augusta. (About 560k to go… that has worked out about 400k further than I expected.) The last one was a bit of a worry. I came up behind it and stayed well back. The first one was a gentleman and perhaps realising how nervous I was, eventually gave his indicators a little flash to say – well, I don’t know what in truckie speak? “OK buddy you can f###ing GO now!” The second, on the 200k dead-straight stretch coming out of Broken Hill troubled me. He had to negociate an approaching Road Train himself while I was behind and he put himself half a metre onto the gravel shoulder. The entire back half, with some 32 wheels whose tyres cost about $1000 each (nothing like my friend who has a gold mine in the Klondike who pays for his earth moving gear $20,000 per tyre – second-hand!) well, the entire back half of the road train was drifting as if to overtake the first half. The driver pulled this off a couple of times and I can’t say if he was alarmed or not. I would guess not. He was down to about 100 and I had, days earlier shocked myself by realising that I had gone up to 130 on overtaking. So I got set to go. No worries about oncoming traffic – the road is empty to the horizon. So you take to the ‘wrong side of the road’ and go. To keep your wheels on the tarmac you have about 300m to your right and – for safety’s sake – about 500-1000mm on your left. It is like driving down a city block in height and extent and the sky does go dark. This is when you really hope the driver next to you does not go skateboarding on the gravel. Actually fear only comes into it before and after. At the time surgical concentration is the mode. Phew, my heart is racing just thinking about it. Hey, if you’ve got a Volvo or a great powerful 4WD that’s another thing. You go fast and steady and you’re by in quite a long! moment. But when you’re navigating your home, 3 surfboards, and a box with enough weight in it on the roof to need a lot of air in your rear tyres to keep them round… different story.

Anyway, let’s get off dicing with death and onto dealing it out: road kill. When I drove with the ex-wife and Jonno to NW Queensland, out past Longreach to Carisbrooke station 3 years ago, there was so much road kill you could go the whole way stepping from one dead animal to the next. Nearly all Kangaroos. Wedge-tail eagles more or less set up shop in groups of 20 or 30. Chatting as they gorged. For some reason, the roads were largely clear of road kill down here, farther south. In the first 1,500k I counted just 2, albeit fat, wallabies or small kangaroos… not sure which. Bit of a mess. I have not seen a single living one in 2,400k. (Had they all gone north and been run over?) However, and this surprised me, I counted no less than six dead European foxes. You’d think they’d be smarter having survived being imported expressly to be hunted. (What did Oscar Wilde say in reference to fox hunting? “The unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible”). Just as I was giving up on wildlife in general, I saw a flock of emus, with their lovely brown tail feather drooping quite delicately. Had they been fluffier and a little more erect I could have mistaken them for Ostriches, which my two English surfing friends & I often saw when we cycled along the Garden Route some 1000k to Cape Town. Hmmm, funny how these adventures occur at the end of a relationship! Still, this time round I am not waking every morning miserable. Au contraire!

Of course, I wrote this as I drove, in my head. Or rather, this is precisely NOT what I wrote in my head as I drove. I surrender abjectly before the task of putting into a few paragraphs an impression of the really big bigness of the outback. And that is the impression when driving, almost flying, over it. God knows what the single cyclist I passed was thinking! He shamed me. I had been having thoughts like, “Oh F###. If the beast breaks down, I’m done out here.” Not dead, but I have no money for a tow and, pray tell me, what does a 100k tow cost? Then the repairs? I’d say to myself, Look, it’s done 181,000k There’s every chance it’ll do another 5 or 6, no? The outback passes your eyes hour after hour, day after day. But I should remark that this particular version of the outback trip has been beautiful, rather than bleak and desiccated. At no time was there not water standing somewhere. Thousands upon thousands of square kilometres passed with green as far as the eye could see. Indeed, it only got a little dry as I drove into South Australia yesterday, within 50k of the Spencer Gulf. I passed a farm at Wilmington some 20k from the gulf waters where some Charolais cattle were feeding on hay. I drove past millions of hectares of green without a domestic animal upon any one of them. I was shocked to come upon the actual Darling River in full flood. The colour of Rudyard Kipling’s “Great grey-green greasy Limpopo river”. That’d be the one that tells how the elephant got his trunk, if memory serves. In fact, leaving Gilgandra, at a petrol station, a Kiwi (the national, not the bird) told me that, seeing the surfboards on my roof, he’d guess I was heading to South Australia. I said I was. He told me that a bridge was down past Broken Hill which meant I would be unable to drive directly to Port Augusta, but would have to take a 400k detour via Mildura. Looking at the map I was almost tempted to head directly down that way and perhaps save a couple hundred klicks. As I was driving away it hit me how much pleasure he had in imparting that (bad) news. Schadenfreude is alive and well in the breast of the feral Kiwi. A couple hundred k up the road – I had decided to go the Broken Hill road as it was so straight and good and resigned myself to the long detour – I pulled in for a coffee. A fat girl (the girls are fat, the men are rake-thin outback. Strong arms but no bums, no idea why) a fat girls told me that No, the South Australian engineers were way better than the NSW ones gave them credit for. They had filled the then flooded, now dry, creek and built a road around the bridge. They just didn’t understand, she said, how quickly it floods and how quickly it dries round here. No more the feral Kiwi. The busted bridge was at a small settlement called Cockburn. The locals, (and what gives me any right to bicker?) pronounce the name not as the Scots and English, nor for that matter the Actor, James Co’burn, who chopped out the offending consonants. They pronounce it more as a male venereal complaint. The bridge hardly merited the description. (Of ‘bridge’, I mean of course…) A couple of concrete slabs set up like dominoes both horizontally and vertically which was no match for 2M of rushing mud. But the staunch SA engineers had filled it and faired it and we all drove round the bridge in a cloud of red-brown dust and with nary a care. But still a tad worried about the pronunciation. I did cry something lusty and rude to the Kiwi.

I won’t do the travel guide here but I have to thank Danika for the tip to take the Waterfall Way across the Great Dividing Range. Although the last 5 k uphill to the point where the rivers change direction tried the beast mortally in second and third gears. I realised then how loaded she is. When I took the foto of the tiny Newell falls she was pissing water and coolant all over the road as the radiator boiled fit to blow. After that, brave thing, she has run cool – even at 130kph. Phew. If I can attach it, the picture of the Ebor Falls, does no justice to it. Or the dodgey viewing platform that tenuously held the nervous writer above a 200M drop. Note the camera shake.

Oh just one pleasing note: I knew I was in the outback when truckies started to raise the hand to salute you. There is that sense of being “out there together”. The salute takes a number of different forms from different types of driver. The Common Trucky salute is the right index finger raised (print toward you). It is the Parisian demand for service too: “Service! Garcon…” I found mine was more along the lines of the night owl’s pinion feathers. The left hand, fingers slightly spread in a spiral. (In the bird it works to maintain laminar flow and avoid (noisy, hence warning the about to be dead rabbit) detachment of air as the wing terminates. You know how a pigeon’s wing whistles?) I don’t think mine was so functional but it did serve to express the pleasure I felt in being recognised as being fully “out there”. In all senses. Women were ambivalent about waving but when they did it was frequently the “High Four”. The thumb remained attached to the wheel for very good reasons. I never saw a child in a car. Perhaps they were all in the back working over an XBox 360. Or watching a video. God, speaking of toys! I saw huge rolling homes that actually towed a CAR behind! And I worried about (and finally had to concede I could not bring) my mountain bike.

Last night I took a sleep in a Motel run by a Sikh called Gorinda, here in Port Augusta. Charged the MAC, the camera and the phone. Spoke to Danika who may have been cooking for Sam. I was too amazed to catch her to take it in. Every other night has been by the side of the road in the bush. I got my guitar out at Tamworth in honour of the coming Country Music Festival. I had a good coffee and charming service (made to feel reelly welcome) in Gilgandra at the Jolly Cauli. The six foot transvestite who ran the business proved that hospitality trumps gender perceptions, for me anyway – hands-down. She was not exactly Priscilla Queen of the Desert, nor was she the Lebanese one who gave Danika her lift up this way all those year ago. But the tradition is strong. In Willcania, next to the Darling river, a nice Country Women’s Association type gave me coffee and a home-made cake. The shop was called the Elliott sisters. When I enquired about the sepia print of two very beautiful young women – although the adjective ‘handsome’ contends with ‘beautiful’, she told me they were the original sisters. She told me this story. The older sister Isabel had been engaged to a local farmer for 18 years. One day she took her courage in both hands and said,

“Fred, have you thought about marriage?”

He replied,

“Yes, but who’d have us?”

And on that bombshell, Luvya,

Rob


Rob Ward

I am heading off into the South Australian desert in a week or so to Cactus. If you Google Ceduna South Australia and go west 60k to Penong, Cactus is on the coast 20k roughly south. Nothing there except vast ranges of dunes to the west and the extensive Point Sinclair where there are 3 lefts and one of the best rights in the world. Cactus is only the surfers’ name for the area. It is not on the map as such. I’m figuring out the intricacies of inverters, solar panels and deep cycle batteries. In the 1970’s I went there about four years in a row for period of up to 3 months.

I don’t know how the writing will go at Cactus. I am taking a table I have made (Foam Sandwich/Carbon/Formica) , and hope to be better set-up than I have ever been in the past. But I’m not an electrician and my ability to write ANYTHING (pen and paper? Are you kidding me?) is contingent on my yet-to-develop competence in assembling the deep-cycle battery, the inverter, the alternator and the 2 solar panels (when they arrive) in an order that is not mutually explosive. Or, even, that produces a trickle of usable MACjuice.

There is no broadband or telephone reception there and I shall have to do a ?weekly, ?Fortnightly trip to Ceduna to hook up.

There is some resistance to surf photography at Cactus these days. If you look on any website that speaks of Cactus (any that I’ve seen, anyway) you’ll be pushed to find a decent wave. A brilliant bit of reverse propaganda. Dunno how they do it. Violence, I suspect.

I have a lot to do between now and the next 10 days finishing off work at “Mermaid Composites” and preparing the Ute.

I wonder if you have read Fred Mew’s “Back of the Wight”. That’s more or less the Old Testament when it comes to getting into the surf. Of course, this was largely about getting in with rowing boats at night in horrendous storms to pull people out of sinking or grounded ships on the IW SW coast (the “Back of the Wight”). That, and smuggling and a little messing up the excise man.

I’ve lived in California and South Africa as well as sailing around Australia (whilst I was circumnavigating in Orinoco Flo) and I’ve driven across this country 3 times in cars costing from $50 to $200. But it is no pose to say that a great wave at Freshwater or Compton, for being so rare and beautiful and for its almost bizarre context and improbability remains as much of a thrill in my memory as any waves I have surfed around the world. And I do suffer a small nostalgia for Sid and the boys and girls, who so wisely and happily continued to make the lovely Island their home. I have a friend in Western Australia, Glyn Kernick (and his wife), who was also an early (and conscientious) member of the IW Surf Club and may be able to help you with pictures and memories.

I built Orinoco Flo with a heroic small crew of surfers whom I did not pay. (Even at £10 an hour, 15,000 man-hours was going to break the project!) I did what I could with caravans and work-for-dole projects and whatever it took. But they were all champs. I’ll spell out the money for you one time but be quite certain that, when I sold Midnight Hour for £35,000 it was less than 1/6th of what was going to be needed. God is Good and I knew none of this before I started and (Allah be Praised) never employed an accountant who may well have made discouraging noises. I started her in 1992. I had built a less technical 35’ catamaran; Midnight Hour in the late 1980’s mostly alone, although a surfer from Sandown, Pete Singleton, came down from his job in London as a despatch rider to help every other weekend. The object was always to get to surf, though of course the boat building travelled under the guise of “commercial enterprises” but no-one was deceived, least of all the first ex-wife who moaned fairly constantly. With Midnight Hour I spent a year in the Canaries chartering, mostly to surfers before going round the Atlantic and selling her to a Welshman. We had good access to Isla Lobos off Fuerteventura. It’s essentially just a volcano with a brilliant lava bottom right point break peeling down the west side. One South African described it as, “more fun than Jeffrey’s.” I’d agree with that. I lived at Jeffrey’s Bay for 6 months in about 1975 having gone there by boat from Western Australia. A Newquay surfer, “Moby” (David Patience), travelled with me. I had met him in Newquay when I was at the Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth after my midshipman’s year. But I didn’t know him very well at that time. After the winter in Jeffrey’s we cycled about 1000k to Cape Town, mostly along the Garden Route, but also via some inland areas like Oudtshoorn where (if I remember right) ostriches are bred. We made some good mountain passes like the Outeniqueberge and the famous (for being a bastard) Schwartberg Pass.

I finished an Honours in well, all sorts of things like The Romantic Poets (Distinction! eh?), Shakespeare, The Enlightenment, Modern Art and Modernism and so on and so forth. Yes, it was done at about double the Open University usual speed. This degree was the counterbalance I needed after being battery-reared in the sciences to further my lost career in the services. The Navy took me to South Africa and South America where I had started to surf and that was the rest was my life. Not the one my parents imagined or wished for.

Flo was the biggest thing I have done and my best memory of all that is the achievements of the young surfers on the build who went on to get jobs in France and Spain as top boat builders. Andy Rose married a beautiful Spanish lady (Teresa… daughter Zoe)) and worked on the build crew for the Spanish Americas Cup. Luke managed a boat builders yard in France and they both did major parts of the circumnavigation. Andy the first half and Luke the South-about round-Oz and Indo leg. I built Flo with two experimental flexible rudders that I built like Tuna-tails. The new owners of the Oricnoco Flo are mostly surfers and she has done 17 Round-the-Atlantic voyages (about 9,000 miles each) to charter in the Caribbean each winter. And last year she completed a second circumnavigation.

My longest-serving Island friend is Marcus Lloyd from Sandown. I met him on my return from South Africa in 1970-something when he was 14. I was getting up a business in jewellery-making and used to take him out to the West Wight. Marcus was to be making this trip to Cactus with me and continuing on to Western Australia.

We recently agreed that a trip we made in (Oh, you know.. “back in the day”…) to France, Portugal and Morocco, taking the entire winter, was one of the best times of our lives. And the beginning of mine once I left the beaten path

France was my break-out and the crucible in which I transmuted from a young, middle class, would-be naval officer to a committed lifetime surfer. It is a pleasant interlude to recount and if you will be patient, I will write it for you as well as I can. Your other references I shall put straight where needed. I should start by saying that others made the real contributions to surfing huge Ireland. I did go there for my honeymoon as the customs had temporarily removed my passport. A Vietnam war vet loaned us his caravan at Easkey (damned if I can remember the Gaelic spelling but it had at least 5 x the number of vowels). And no doubt rendered properly all the subtleties of one of the dozens of Irish accents. I surfed big Easkey alone. Except for some really big sharks. It’s at the mouth of the river and they were no doubt gathered for the salmon run. I almost doubted my eyes but others will tell you that, at Spanish Point, (in the pub?) you can find fotos of huge sharks and the anglers that caught them off the beach. Also, when I got out of the water my wife who was warming my undies on the car heater and pouring an Irish Whisky for me, said “Did you see those sharks?” Before I married, I drove around all of the UK and Ireland when I returned to the UK from Australia, selling jewellery. I made three circumnavigations of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, living from a Fiat van.

I did a lot of surfing by myself. I don’t think many people could truthfully say that they really enjoy surfing alone. I did so on Lanzarote long before there were locals there and of course the place is fairly intimidating. But I had a lovely surf on the huge beach just south of Malin Head. I had spoken to a local woman in a cottage and she said that there could be surf there that extended to the horizon (or some like Irish exaggeration) but there was none the day I was there. I’d come over on the ferry from Scotland where I’d been surfing as well as (er?) working. So I went for a run and halfway up the beach (a mile?) I came across a beautiful 5′ peak, light offshore in clear blue water. So! I ran all the way back to my van, got my board, ran all the way to the peak and surfed 2 hours with the 1000′ high cliffs disappearing, blue to the south. Magic day.

We all had people who influenced us and perhaps gave us the courage to make a break with what we were “supposed to do” with our lives. I’ll mentioned one or two I’d like to credit as we go.

I followed your links and it is bonkers how nostalgic it is to see the old fotos and the old faces. Please do send my very warmest regards to Sid, Rog and Sue Backhouse, I always remember for their brilliant house at the bottom of which cliff? where? Rory I remember for the green ? Bilbo with the terrific arrow on the deck. I swear it made the board go twice as fast at Compton Fields. John Ainsworth was a lovely, gentle fellow and a good surfer. For the record, I’m as full of admiration for those people who made the Island their home and the centre of their surfing existence, as for any emigrants from the Island! Of course, Islanders took their adventures in the wide world. But they returned home to a place unique in the world. Has anyone else seen the Shingles Bank going off? I did once at about 6-8′, from somewhere near the Needles! A left and a right peeling down each side.

Today is Saturday. I’ve got some clients coming to pick up a race paddleboard and surfboard I’ve built with Chilean Myrtle veneer and a vacuum-bagged epoxy laminate with some carbon. I really only make boards for my own amusement. I can’t get properly paid for that sort of work but I am past bored with what I call (with reference to the band), “Average White Boards”. The board’s a quad. I veneered the paddleboard too which was shaped in Styrofoam. I’ve got to get a lot of stuff ready for the 5000k round trip drive to Cactus and I’ll enjoy writing the story if I get my electrickery spot on.

I’ll start with France as it launched from the Island………..