Surfers near Cape Point

Article: Vanity Fair on big wave surfing

Susan Casey’s book The Wave dealt with big wave surfing and surfers, and introduced me to the small (comprising no more than a few hundred surfers), elite group that travels around the world to locations where weather systems and the ocean conspire to generate massive, barely rideable waves. Big wave surfing is a completely different sport to what the guys do down at Muizenberg on a Saturday morning, requiring immense courage and toughness, huge surfboards, jet skis for bring the surfer to the waves, and perhaps a bit of insanity.

An article from Vanity Fair, published two years ago and written by William Langewiesche (author of The Outlaw Sea and these two other ocean-related articles amongst much else), profiles Ken Bradshaw, one of (it seems) innumerable maverick big wave surfers who eschew material wealth, fame and conventional careers in favour of a simple lifestyle and the freedom to chase big waves wherever they are found.

There is big money in surfing sponsorship: clothing and gear manufacturers such as Quiksilver spend large amounts of money associating themselves big wave surfing contests that, Bradshaw says, are “actually just about selling beachwear to landlocked dreamers in Iowa”. There seems to be an understandable inner tension for many surfers, who are attracted by the opportunity to be sponsored by prominent brands who will fund their surfing lifestyle, but simultaneously repelled by the commercial, fame and glory aspect of sponsorship that seems to sully the purity of the sport.

Bradshaw heaps scorn on surfing colleagues who have succumbed to the lure of featuring in magazines, having awe-inspiring photos taken of their biggest rides, and who appear in branded clothing at the behest of their sponsors. Reading a description of a wave he rode in Hawaii in 1998, said at the time to have been the biggest wave ever ridden, it is easy to understand how small and tacky the commercial aspects of surfing seem in comparison to the experience of a perfect ride on a wave that is perhaps 30 metres high. Langewiesche does full justice to the experience, explaining the mechanics of big wave surfing (why tow in on a jet ski is required, how the surfer actually decides his technique on the wave, and so on) without sacrificing the pace of the story.

Read the full article here.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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