The Red, White and Bru

Big, cold, sharky — the Saffas feel right at home. Photo: Nate Lawrence

Big, cold, sharky — the Saffas feel right at home. Photo: Nate Lawrence

By Taylor Paul

Frank Solomon is chatting up some girls in a San Francisco bar. He's smooth. They love his style. His long locks. His accent, (swoon!), his accent. The girls are sold; they will be fighting for a piece of young Frankie tonight.

But someone else wants a piece of Frankie too. A more violent piece. An African-American guy overhears Frank tell the ladies that he is from South Africa, and in town for the winter to surf. He starts a heated conversation, the point of which is to tell Frank that he is more African than Frank is, because he is black and Frank is white.

"Bru, were you born in Africa?" Frank asks calmly, his South African accent emphasizing the word born.

"No, but I'm black."

"Have you ever been to Africa?"

"No, but I'm black. You're white."

Across the bar, fellow South African Mike Schlebach orders a beer. The barkeep hears his accent and can't resist.

"Where you from?"

"South Africa."

"That's rad. What country?"

Welcome to the United States, boys.

Mike and Frank are among a growing number of South Africans migrating to the USA for the Northern Hemi's winter. Cape Town's big waves, Dungeons and Sunset, are asleep for the season, and the Saffas have come to San Francisco to live an endless winter. Twiggy and Chris Bertish have been doing it for years—and now they're Mav's champs. So it's not surprising to find nearly a dozen of their countrymen camped out here for at least part of the winter. But you'd think that coming from Cape Town's icy waters, they'd want to go somewhere warm. Birds have done this for years and it works for them. Why not, say, Hawaii?

"We come here for Maverick's," says Mike. "The conditions and cold water are similar to what we have at home, and it breeds a certain kind of surfer that we relate to and charge with."

"Also, as a young big-wave surfer, your chances of getting into the Eddie are slim to zero," Frank adds. "Whereas I think that if you put your time in and charge at Maverick's, you have a shot at the contest. It may take a few years, but there's a chance."

Mike also hopes for an invite to the Mav's or Todos comps, but he's more focused on building a relationship with Maverick's and the people who surf there. In his pursuit to do so, he's hyper-sensitive of the number of Saffas around town and in the water.

"When there are eight or nine of us around, it's stressful because obviously we don't want to freak the locals out," says Mike. "We're all on our own mission back home, so it was strange to rock up to Northern California at the same time and be seen as a pack."

Indeed, it was strange to be out there and hear almost as many “brus” as “bros” — so what did the locals think?

"Oh, I love the Saffas. All 800 of them," says Skindog Collins.

Pacifica local and Maverick's up-and-comer Colin Dwyer explains the vibe in the water: "It's so fun to mix it up with them out there. Between Skindog telling everyone that they owe him beers to Twiggy paddling around and calling the locals 'lighties' like he owns the place, sometimes I’m laughing too hard to catch waves."

Are they scared that the migration will be even larger next year?

"I don't think they left anyone behind this year," says Skindog. "Maybe they'll bring Jordy, that would be sick."

"Here's the thing: I'd rather see a bunch of respectful, hard-charging South Africans come here than a bunch of pussies with stickers on their boards and photographers in tow," answers Colin, while clearly addressing a latent issue.

Seems the Saffas are welcome back, but this will be a tough winter to match. Maverick's broke big and consistently from October to March, and when the south winds howled, they piled in Mike's van and charged down to Mexico. Mexico is refreshing for them. Fewer rules. No drinking age.

"That's one thing that's annoying about the States," Mike says. "There are so many rules and regulations. But there's so much that I love about it here. I love that you can leave your things unattended and they won't disappear. I love how nice the people are. I love that you can go to Oakland and buy an obnoxious van with bullet holes in the sides and live in it."

Even with all the rules, Frank found even the cops to be hospitable.

It's 2:00a.m. Frank's friend Chris Bertish just won the Maverick's Surf Contest and $50,000. The evening is winding down, and they've been partying like people do when they win contests. It's time to head back to San Francisco and Frank, perhaps forgetting what country he's in and the strict rules that govern it, decides to head home.

Not five miles out of town he's pulled over.

"Have you been drinking?"


He's breathalyzed and the cop gets his answer. Frank's thrown in the back of the squad car and informed that he will be going to jail. His initial hopes of escape are squashed when he learns that there are no handles on the inside of the car. He's screwed.

But before the cop leaves, his back-up arrives and questions Frank, who explains his situation: He is a South African surfer in town for the winter to ride big waves. His friend just won the Maverick's contest and they've been celebrating.

After a brief discussion between the officers, cop number two tells Frank that he too is a surfer and that, just this once, he will take pity on Frank.

Frank remains in the back of the squad car, and they drive him to his doorstep.

Welcome to the United States, boys.