"You lot! You lot are surfers," accused the voice behind me, in a flat Afrikaans accent.
She stood there, nodding knowingly, filling a pink nylon tracksuit that had clearly never seen exercise. With one hand on her hip and a cigarette trawling from the other, she gestured at the raging onshore seas beyond the Kommetjie lighthouse.
"But you can't go out there; you will die. And then the sharks will eat you like this vrot whale here." Upwind of us lay the bloated carcass of a 34-ton Southern Right whale, washed ashore in heavy seas a few days prior, now bloated and warped, its underbelly lashed with hemispherical bite marks.
"The last whale carcass they found floating had 27 Great White sharks feeding off it," she trailed off in reflection, then spat back conclusively, "You people are lunatics!"
Cape of Storms
Cape Town in winter is a challenging surfing location. In the 15th century, passing Portuguese mariners en route to the East Indies dubbed it "The Cape of Storms," for all the shipwrecks they suffered.
From May through August, the southwestern tip of Africa is battered by continual storm fronts emanating from the Roaring forties. Summery souvenir postcards of Table Mountain conveniently sidestep the winter realities of sheeting rain, buffeting winds and frigid, ball-shrinking water, alongside high crime rates and endless hours of around-the-mountain driving for surf. In the lineup, bicep-thick bull kelp will snap out fins, entangle leashes and close ranks above you under water. And then there are the sharks; the area holds the highest density of formidable Great Whites on the planet. But for all its adversities, Cape Town remains a legitimate, yet underrated big-wave locale. Surrounding the sleepy beachside community of Kommetjie rest a significant number of world-class waves, heavy-water reefs set between heaving beachbreaks, all in a 10-mile radius.
Like its distant cousins in Northern California, Cape Town has a history of coldwater pioneers challenging heavy-water waves in relative isolation. The first dedicated local surfer, the late "Oom" John Whitmore, pioneered many popular spots singlehandedly in the 1950s and '60s. Later, Johnny Paarman,
the prodigal Cape wild man, took on heavier waves like Sunset Reef and Crayfish Factory, translating his hometown experience into success in the Hawaiian IPS events at Sunset Beach and Pipeline.
The 1982 Cape Spur Surfabout ASP-rated event, won by Wes Laine in epic 12-foot Hawaiian-size waves at Outer Kom, pushed Cape Town onto the international radar. At the time, it was the biggest surf ever experienced by the pro circuit outside of Hawaii. Over the next 15 years, however, the subsequent media explosions surrounding the paradigm-shifting heavy-water sessions at Maverick's, Jaws and Teahupoo buried awareness of the Cape big-wave scene like some forgotten, apartheid-tinged memory. Diehard footsoldiers taking on Sunset, the Crayfish Factory and Outer Kom in Kommetjie again did so in relative isolation.