Posts Tagged ‘Sunsurf’

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.”


Future of my life – Rob Ward

When I was in Simonstown Naval Dockyard with HMS Jaguar (in South Africa) I had made friends with a young fellow on a Naval replenishment vessel. We’d met, so to speak, in the Mozambique Channel, during a RAS (“Replenishment at Sea”).

He and I decided one afternoon and evening to climb Simonsberg, the small mountain back of the dockyard. Going up was exciting. Pulling up onto a ledge we came eyeball to eyeball with a Cape cobra, which fortunately was not too pissed off. Going down was really quite dangerous for a couple of reasons. One, it was getting dark, so we were hurrying. And we had not taken note of a deep quarry which stood in our way down. There was a 100′ drop made by the excavation. We only became aware of it in the fading light from very close to the edge. So we were not too late to skirt it. The other thing that didn’t seem too much of a worry was a load of barking and screaming that was going on around us. We had no idea what it was. Obviously some bloody wild life.

We got to the dockyard a while after dark quite thrilled with the whole adventure, indeed with a small sense of achievement. When we came to the gates of the dockyard we had to identify ourselves to a dockyard policeman. These guys were Afrikaaners. Very big. But, if you’re not giving them a hassle (more on that in a sentence or two) they are personable and a source of much good information when your ear has cut through the thick accent. So he asked what we’d been up to and we told him. He said – can you do an Afrikaans accent? Well here’s your chance to try…

“Now you fellows been bloody lucky. You walked through a pack of baboons. And I want to tell you a little story about those boys. Last year, after they had been breaking into the food store in the radio station at the top of the mountain there for a while, one of our men was doing a patrol with his Alsation. He happened to catch the mob inside the foodstore and let the dog off his lead. The dog caught a small one and killed it. The biggest baboon called off the pack. He screamed at them and they all came out of the store. Then he carried on barking and screaming for a bit. Then the entire pack went in, surrounded the dog and tore it to pieces. I tell you man… you don’t want to piss them off!”

Point taken buddy. I wonder what happened to the policeman. He then went on to give us a little advice on the scorpion we had caught and put in our sandwich box. It was large and had black pincers and a black sting about the size of the last section of your little finger.

“That one is the most poisonous one in South Africa. It will kill you if you’re not very lucky. Put it somewhere safe!”.

I was thinking of my divisional officer’s bed. He was a bastard to me.

Anyway a week or two later -I had by now bought a surfboard – £30, a months salary, and a bit brown: a “Sunsurf” – and I had started surfing. I was at a drinks function in the dockyard and there was a guy there whom I knew surfed. He was shorter than us but fit and with regulation blonde hair. Not long; he was a conscript as Whites had all to do National Service in those days. He also had his right arm in a plaster cast to the elbow. I asked him what had happened and he told me. I’m glad you’ve been practising your Yarpy accent because here it comes again.

“See, ma brruther, I come back late from drinking and I was clahmbing the wall back into the dockyard when this big O comes up to me to arrest me. Well, Ah had enough punishment this month and ah was trying to reason with him but he pulls aht these bangles. He’s goin to cuff me, see? Now, ah don’t mind bangles but these were chromium bangles and – see ah was pretty drunk – and ah just couldn’t consent to the chromium bangles, so ah hit him. Trouble was, he ducked and ah caught him on his forehead and broke three bones in my hand. Now ah’m confined to the base for a month and the surf ‘s really good at Muisenberg this week! Ah’m just gled he didn’t murra me.”

I don’t have to tell you, I’d learned enough about surfing (that it was the future of my life… not the Navy!) to sympathise with him most sincerely, taking no account whatsoever of the cultural gulf that yawned between us.