Words: Andy Davis / mahala.co.za with additional reporting by Dan Redman
IT was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Same-old, same-old, in the South African surf industry. Surf events in Jeffreys Bay start and end at the Mexican. And as is our custom, on Monday night before the kick off of the J-Bay Open of Surfing, everyone assembled in the old jol hall up the stairs on Da Gama Road, called to order, to see the heat draw and sink a few brews with the brus.
And even though it was packed, wall-to-wall, the place just felt a little empty. As if it was missing all those Aussie accents (and their hyena laughs) apart from Occy, (who may not have actually left J-Bay since the last 'CT), it was missing the freshly coiffed and fashionable hairdos of the Americans and their GoPros and Canon 5D Mark 2 toting ‘clip’ producing sidekicks, missing the rolled back shoulders and braggadocio of the Brazilians, missing all that glamour of the world’s surfing elite and more especially their beautiful girlfriends. Don’t get me wrong, on night one, the excitement was there, it was crackling like a fatty lamp chop that slipped off the braai grid and into the coals. But as circuses go, it was more Boswell Wilkie than Cirque de Soleil. But hey, that’s who we are and what we got. Which is not entirely a bad thing (as we’ll get into later), but if you’re accustomed to the big show at the Mexican on the eve of the J-Bay event, then the step down of the last few years just feels kinda different. Like we’re here with ourselves and we better make this shit work or just stop the grandstanding, pack it all away and call surfing a ‘hobby’.
The excitement was there, it was crackling like a fatty lamp chop that slipped off the braai grid and into the coals. But as circuses go, it was more Boswell Wilkie than Cirque de Soleil.
And yet, the surf town of J-Bay still revolves around that magical kilometre long stretch of reef, upon which the most perfect of rights still breaks. And that (along with the modest R30K kitty being offered to the winner) still managed to attract the strongest field of South African surfers we’ve seen in an event for the last 10 years or so. By mid-morning on day one, as the ocean pulsed and folded over the reef, as the crowd crowded the boardwalk, drinking mid-morning beers, while the surfers danced on the walls for our amusement and the photographers pushed the settings on their cameras to blow out the background and capture a kind of sublime luminescence in the morning Supers line up, well in that moment we were all reminded exactly why we love this event (and this place) so damn much.
The action happened as surf events happen. Big Red Lindsay and Kai Linder hogging the mics in the contest tower, bantering, sketchy surf photographers, hacks, fans, girlfriends and family congesting up the wooden benches, reconnecting, throwing shakas, talking story and hooting at the exchanges in the water. A trickle of neoprene clad, jock-fronted leisure surfers making their way to Boneyards or Albatross. The swell peaked on Day 1 and they surfed the event in short bursts after that, trying to maximise (and predict) the ocean pulses. It wasn’t the grinding 6-8 foot Supers we’ve had the luxury of witnessing in 'CTs past, but it also wasn’t a nasty 1 foot skunk. All in all, apart from one dodgy inconsistent and onshore Quarter Final heat that eliminated Dan Redman and Ryan Payne, the event was held in perfectly contestable 3-4 foot waves. And from the get go, the competition was fierce. Ricky Basnett found a particularly rich vein of form, reminding all exactly why he was on the WCT and the Mr Price Pro champion, only to be out-hustled on a set wave by young local Dylan Lightfoot in the Semis. Slade Prestwich, continued where he left off in Fiji, dominating. The Payne brothers nearly cancelled each other out in Round 3. Brandon Jackson looked solid all the way through. Greg Emslie was tight and precise, as we’ve come to expect from Foot at Supers and St Francis local Dale Staples was dealing with his heats like a ninja assassin. Other notable mentions and shout outs should go to Allan Johns for that ridiculously long tube ride on day one and Llewellyn Whitaker who took out Occy in Round 3, both advancing to the Quarters. Also, watching Nikita Robb make it a Slummies whitewash by winning the women’s division was something to cheer about – especially for the die-hard Border fans.
For many years, the fortunes of Jeffreys Bay have been tied to both the WCT stop and the biggest resident brand, Billabong. But with the hurt being inflicted on that company’s share price, the failed takeover bids, that debt burden and continued uncertainty around its future, this has had a knock-on effect not just on the moral of J-Bay’s many Bong employees but on the vibe of the whole town.
For many years, the fortunes of Jeffreys Bay have been tied to both the WCT stop and the biggest resident brand, Billabong. But with the hurt being inflicted on that company’s share price, the failed takeover bids, that debt burden and continued uncertainty around its future, this has had a knock-on effect not just on the moral of J-Bay’s many Bong employees but on the vibe of the whole town. Billabong and their Pro J-Bay contest literally stimulated the economy of the entire place. But in the last year, Billabong SA have been forced to axe some their best local talent; and the fallout has rippled throughout the surf industry. Twiggy, the media-friendly, footloose, free-surfing big wave hellman (currently guest-editing MSW) also finds himself a free-agent and this next one no doubt stings the most, Shaun Joubert, was dislodged from the Bong teat, just before he took gold at the ISA World Games in Panama. A world champion surfer and yet his board remains sticker-less. Against this backdrop of financial woe J-Bay really needed some good vibes. And just when it all looked too bleak, up stepped Koffie Jacobs and the JBU. Once the notorious ‘peacekeepers’ in the line up, now the organisers of the Jeffrey’s Bay Winter Festival, which just may give this little Eastern Cape town a whole new yearly impetus! And judging from this year’s effort, a definite glimmer of hope. South Africa certainly needs a WCT surfing event and maybe we’re on the road to reclaiming it, but instead of pinning all our hopes on the largesse of a single brand’s marketing budget, maybe the new configuration offers a more sustainable alternative.
Around the surfing, (which rather refreshingly pitted a field of the best South African surfers against each other) the inaugural Jeffrey’s Bay Winter Festival rolled out fishing competitions, markets, cold water swims, fun runs, a downhill skateboarding jam and a series of music performances by the likes of Jack Parow, Taxi Violence and Jet Black Camaro. As the town filled up, the cash registers in the factory shop precinct started to make that familiar clickety kah ching sound and it just kinda all started making sense again.
By the time the final day arrived and the call was held until the very last window of the competition, to give the new swell a chance to fill in on the Supers reef, this little hack was already halfway across the Karoo, beating his camion like a slow donkey, ears pinned back and racing for home, deputising Dan ‘Rock Bottom’ Redman to conduct the final interviews and wrap this whole shebang in bubbles until next year. This is how it went down:
Dan Redman: Well done Greg. You did us proud, once again. You’ve been surfing for 30 years, which is older than most of the competition here. Your actual age must be some kind of secret. So Greg, how fine is your wine? And how much finer can it get?
Greg Emslie: No well it’s, you know, you often think about it, but I’ve put a lot of time in here. During the 'CTs I used to come and train here, because I really used to count on this result and I had something like four quarterfinals and a semi, but I never won it. And it was always a special event that I wanted to win. So when I got into the final, just paddling out in the channel I said to myself, just knuckle down, put your head down, it’s time to win. Time is running out, you’re going on 37 and everyone’s so good now. It was really now or never time. And to win J-Bay, to say I’ve got it, it’s not a 'CT event, obviously, but it’s still a special event. Everyone ripped in it. And I’m very stoked.
Dan Redman: It’s gone from a 'CT to a QS and now to an invite only speciality event. But it’s one of the best fields of South African surfers that a South African event has seen in the last 10 years. Which direction do you feel this contest has gone?
Greg Emslie: Well it’s tough. I think J-Bay is worthy of a 'CT, it’s such a good right hander and the world’s best need to be on this wave. But if that doesn’t happen, whatever you do you’re going to attract the country’s best surfers, at least, because everyone wants to surf an event at J-Bay. But you know what, it’s not going to die. There’s always going to be something here. And it’s always going to be special at this time of year. We’ve had it from the Billabong Country Feelings to just the Billabongs and now a speciality event. This event will never die. Everyone wants to win it and that’s what keeps the whole thing going.
Dan Redman: When last did you win a contest?
Ricky Basnett: Ha ha ha
Dan Redman: When will you win a contest again?
Ricky Basnett: I dunno. Was he talking shit about the prize money? Yeeeew!
Dan Redman: OK Buttons (Mrs Basnett), I couldn’t really get an answer out of Ricky, but why did he lose?
Buttons Basnett: Ricky lost because little groms feel that hustling is the new surfing. It’s just not on. It’s not on, hustling should be an interference.
Dan Redman: Just the answer I was looking for.
Buttons Basnett: Thanks, I’ll be here all week.
Dan Redman: Jacko you’ve had a really bad run of late, a year or so of bad results. Are you finally stoked? You got a runner up. It’s a podium finish. Are you on the right path now?
Brandon Jackson: Uh the last couple of weeks have been, like you said, a shocking run. Not getting the kind of results I was hoping for, but yes, to get a second at J-Bay with good waves, surfing amongst South Africa’s best, guys like Slade and Greg Emslie, Casey and Dale Staples, just to mix it up with them again, and actually get some waves and surf. Even though I wanted to win and I wanted the 30K, I am pleased with the second place.
Dan Redman: This comps been getting downgraded over the last couple years. Do you think it’s better for the South African surfers? Or would it be better for the South African surf community for the event to go back to a 'CT?
Brandon Jackson: For the J-Bay surf community it might not be the greatest direction, but for South African surfing as a whole I think it’s definitely an improvement over the last couple years. As a surfing nation, where we once were in the 70s and 80s, we’ve started to battle having so few surf events in this country. And having those 'QS and 'CT events, the majority of South African surfers won’t be able to compete, so I think it’s just a great way to strip it all back, get back to the basics, get all the old legends, all the newcomers, all the guys who are hardly ever competing, just mix it up and start pushing each other. And hopefully, by starting off small like this we can build it up again. And get to where we once were on the international platform.
Dan Redman You just came off a massive result in Fiji, beating the best juniors in the world. And now a 3rd. So good results at one of the world’s best left and the world’s best right. And now you’re going to Europe for the QS. Are you feeling positive or are you still a little bit bummed about losing this final?
Slade Prestwich: [Chewing] Um no. Not at all. In this final I was with Jacko, Greg Emslie and that’s the 'QS and the 'CT so it was good surfing with them. Waves were slow in the final, I needed 7 and just couldn’t get my last wave. I’m going on to Lacanau. Which is good, I’ve been surfing a lot of events so it’s all just good prep.
Dan Redman: Well you were actually one of the favourites for the event and you’re surfing really good, so we wish you all the best for the upcoming events.
Slade Prestwich: Thanks Dan.
Words: Andy Davis / mahala.co.za with additional reporting by Dan Redman