THE BROTHERHOOD: South Africa sweeps the 2006 Red Bull Big Wave Africa

How far has the South African big-wave community come? All you needed to do was look at the podium atop the Nauticat at this year's Red Bull Big Wave Africa. There's third place, the fearless Capetonian Chris Bertish, beaming and laughing at the giddiness of it all. Second place Andrew Marr, carpenter by trade and big-wave surfer by nature - out of his mind about his day's performance and the crowd's recognition of it. And, of course, the elder statesman and spokesman for SA heavywatermen, John Whittle, graciously accepting the mic and the {{{100}}},000 Rand (about 15 grand) first-place check after his near flawless final in ragged, below-the-threshold Dungeons. "When Twiggy won Maverick's," said Whittle. "It was a win for all of us. We do things together here - it's all about learning from one another and lifting each other up."

You might say that about this entire group of BWA invitees who, when the models call, always find a way to drop everything and unite.

It started with an email 10 days ago. "Hey guys," it said. "heads up for the 26th and 27th. You know how unpredictable the models can be, but it's looking SOLID." Emails like this continued, with updates every 24 then 12 hours. "It's breaking apart just like every other storm this year." "Wait! No, it's actually STRENGTHENING." When the final electronic missive zapped through cyberspace last Saturday, giving the 2006 Red Bull Big Wave Africa an official "amber alert," that's when things really kicked into gear.

Ross Clarke-Jones and Paul Paterson bailed France for a dig at the eerie Hout Bay righthander. Carlos Burle disrupted his downtime in Brazil. Grant Washburn escaped a family reunion in New Jersey, while Jamie {{{Sterling}}} had to buy a business class ticket from Chile and arrive this morning at 9 a.m., just before the start of his heat. And, of course, the nine South Africans cleared their schedules and waited for the party to come to them.

Because when a contest like this actually happens, it's not just an event; it's a full-on big-wave bonding session.

You could just see it in the Hout Bay Harbor parking lot this morning. Big, genuine hugs and smiles. Gun comparions. Latest big-wave adventure story-swaps and, after getting the 7:30 a.m. nod from legendary event director Jonathan Paarman and head judge Gary Linden, nervous excitement that Red Bull would be holding its first event at the break in three years. "It's about 10 to 12 and clean, boys," he said, "but it should be picking up through the day."

Turns out most were a wee bit disappointed with the conditions. Inconsistency and a haphazardly pulsing swell plagued most of the event, with a stiff side/offshore wind increasing throughout the final. During its worst moments today, Dungeons looked like a half-baked Sunset Beach, barely big enough to break on the main reef and disappearing into that notoriously sharky deepwater abyss as soon as it appeared. The down periods certainly did a number on some of the favorites, causing guys like Grant "Twiggy" Baker, Greg Long and Paul Paterson to scratch their heads after first-round dismissals. "You can have the best forecasting, the best crew," said Paarman, who still made the right call in running the event. "but it doesn't matter. Mother Nature still has the final word. Especially in Cape Town."