Just Beyond The Breakwater

South Africa’s latest surf discovery wasn’t made during an off-the-grid expedition. It happened in the middle of one of the country’s biggest urban centers

Shipping lanes aren’t meant for surfing. The Pacific Hero serves as reminder of this as its massive red hull slices through the busiest channel in sub-Saharan Africa, casting a long shadow over two comparatively ant-like surfers. The wake from the 650-foot container vessel crosses a strip of deep water before hitting an abrupt sandbar, causing it to create a breaking wave headed past the southern breakwater of the Durban Harbor and back out to sea.

In addition to the ship’s wake, a strong southerly pulse is in the water. The two surfers, Grant “Twiggy” Baker and Andrew Lange, scratch over a big set as it doubles up and implodes on the tip of the breakwater, which is stained brown from the sediment and detritus constantly rushing out of the port. Between sets, the current drags Baker and Lange away from the breakwater and deeper into the shipping lane. Perhaps surfing here wasn’t such a good idea after all.

With hellacious currents ripping through the takeoff zone, big boards are required to remain positioned. Andrew Lange, laying down 8 feet of very crucial rail. Photo: Van Gysen
With hellacious currents ripping through the takeoff zone, big boards are required to remain positioned. Andrew Lange, laying down 8 feet of very crucial rail. Photo: Van Gysen

Two days earlier, Baker and Lange watched a red blob flare up in the South Atlantic, gathering strength as it approached the tip of South Africa. J-Bay was going to fire, that much was obvious. But large southerly swells are a tricky prospect as they move farther north along the KwaZulu-Natal coastline. Too much size and the sandy pointbreaks endemic to the area become overwhelmed. Too much west in the swell and it bypasses the perfectly aligned piers of the Durban Basin. Lange was unsure of where they would be able to surf, but Baker had a plan.

For the past two years, Baker had been watching a wave take shape along the southern breakwater that marks the entrance to the Durban Harbor. “There has actually been a wave there for a while,” says Baker. “But it wasn’t until recently that we started noticing it barreling and spitting on the bigger days. A sandbank had formed around the breakwater, causing a wave to break properly on healthy sized swells.”

For the past two years, Baker had been watching a wave take shape along the southern breakwater that marks the entrance to the Durban Harbor. “There has actually been a wave there for a while,” says Baker. “But it wasn’t until recently that we started noticing it barreling and spitting on
the bigger days.”

The breakwater itself is a half-mile finger of dolosse, or giant cement blocks, that pokes into the depths of the Indian Ocean. The bay that sits to the north is home to arguably the finest stretch of man-made waves in the world, courtesy of the Durban Piers, which were first constructed during the 1950s to prevent the beaches from being devoured by longshore current. With regular dredging around the harbor mouth and the scoured sand redistributed to the north, world-class lineups like the Bay of Plenty, North Beach, and New Pier flourished. But what Durban always lacked was a wave that could reliably hold a swell over 10 feet. The answer may very well have been sitting at the end of the breakwater, where sand has been building up since 2010 after Durban’s longstanding dredger ground to a halt.

“The southern breakwater acts like a very large sand trap,” explains Justin Pringle, a local surfer and engineer who works in Durban’s coastal engineering department. “There is a big depression on the exposed side of the breakwater that’s created by dredging, which then traps the sediment coming up with the predominant swell from the south. The idea is to prevent sediment from moving around the breakwater into the channel.”

With the bustling Durban Harbor as its backdrop, this freak wave certainly boasts one of the most unique lineups in the world.
With the bustling Durban Harbor as its backdrop, this freak wave certainly boasts one of the most unique lineups in the world. Photo: Van Gysen

The old dredger was a ship that essentially acted like a giant vacuum cleaner, using a massive pipe to suck up sediment that would then be deposited along Durban’s beaches. When the old dredger was decommissioned, a new vessel was brought in to do the job, but it’s sand-sucking pipe was not situated on the bow, making it impossible to access the corner of the sand trap where the breakwall meets the beach. So dredging efforts were refocused farther along the breakwater, shifting the location of the sand trap.

“There has been a buildup of sand over this area for a long time now, ever since the port changed their dredging pattern,” says Godfrey Vella, manager of the coastal engineering department. “The trap’s been allowed to fill up. It’s definitely gotten shallower at the tip; that’s why you’re getting waves breaking there now. There’s probably 700,000 cubic meters of sand there.”

When Baker noticed the wave along the harbor breakwater, he became obsessed with its potential for holding solid surf. He studied it from different vantage points during every possible swell, taking mental notes, creeping into off-limits areas of the Port of Durban, trying to figure out what combination of elements would make the wave come alive.

The first time Baker attempted to ride the wave was in 2015, but the current pouring around the breakwater made it impossible to stay in the ideal takeoff spot, forcing him to sit wide on the shoulder. To top it off, Baker was arrested by port authorities the moment he hit the shore after his session. “But we were never charged,” he says. “As it stands right now, there are three of us who are allowed to surf there after signing indemnity agreements.”

Not for the faint of heart, the dredging, churning right explodes mere feet from massive hunks of concrete. After signing a liability waver, Twiggy Baker reaps the rewards of his commitment.
Not for the faint of heart, the dredging, churning right explodes mere feet from massive hunks of concrete. After signing a liability waver, Twiggy Baker reaps the rewards of his commitment. Photo: Van Gysen

Now armed with a hall pass from the port authorities, Baker returned to the harbor with Lange. They started the arduous paddle from the neighboring beach, past container terminals where giant cranes arch their necks like steel dinosaurs, loading and unloading cargo ships from around the world.

After three hours of fighting the outgoing tide, the two surfers have ridden only a handful of waves between them. At a glance, they look over-gunned on their 8-foot boards, but they need every inch of foam to battle the current and get into position in front of the breakwater. Too deep and you risk being driven into the dolosse. Too wide and your odds of finding a barrel rapidly diminish.

There are also dangerous obstacles lurking just below the surface. Discarded pieces of shipping crates and severed buoy ropes drift through the channel. As the tide eases and turns, the lineup shifts farther out around the tip of the breakwater, where the water changes from muddy brown to dark green. And then the real carnage begins.

A stack of lines approaches and Lange swings on the first wave, setting his rail as the wave crosses the threshold into the harbor mouth. He drives through the barrel while Baker hoots from the shoulder, but the section stretches too far ahead of Lange and he gets obliterated. His board hits him hard, he gets driven into the sandbar, and he washes up deep in the channel. Lange clambers onto the sled of a Jet Ski the crew brought just for situations like this, curls up in the fetal position, and vomits a stomach full of briny froth. Lange’s session is over, leaving Baker out alone in the rising swell.

Looking back, the wave Baker and Lange have been surfing looks benign in the distance, a small trace of whitewash rolling off the edge of the breakwater. Soon it may be gone altogether.

Another set rears up along the sandbar, and Baker is in position. He lets the first wave go, then the second, before putting his head down and paddling for the third. As the wave hits the sandbank, the former Big Wave World Champ does something uncharacteristic: he pulls back. It’s a mutant wave, and after seeing Lange go down, Baker knows this spot warrants a cautious approach.

He paddles beyond the finger of dolosse and waits patiently for a half-hour. Eventually, a long, beautiful wave jacks up behind the breakwater and lets him slide in early. Baker gets to his feet and stands tall as the wave hits the shallow sandbar at the tip of the harbor and throws a heaving section over him. He travels past the rocks before getting released from the wave in a puff of spray.

It’s midafternoon by the time Baker and Lange finally make it back to shore. The Durban Harbor casts a long shadow over uShaka beach, where beginners wearing surf-school rash guards are getting pushed into gentle rollers. Looking back, the wave Baker and Lange have been surfing looks benign in the distance, a small trace of whitewash rolling off the edge of the breakwater. Soon it may be gone altogether.

A new, more efficient dredger has been purchased and is destined for the Durban Harbor, according to the coastal engineers. Once this happens, it’s unlikely the sandbank will continue to exist. But Baker remains philosophical about the prospect. “You’ve just got to keep your eyes peeled and your mind open,” he says. “New opportunities are always presenting themselves.”

After handling heavy beatings, fighting swirling rips, and dodging some very big boats, Andrew Lange basks in the glory of a few well-earned waves.
After handling heavy beatings, fighting swirling rips, and dodging some very big boats, Andrew Lange basks in the glory of a few well-earned waves. Photo: Van Gysen