Surfing’s golden oldies ride again

John Harvey

WERE it not for the hypnotic blueness of those eyes, one could be forgiven for thinking the figure had been mussed by a wax museum chronicling Ernest Hemingway’s most celebrated character.

Blonde-greying beard tousled with beadwork, a tiny fish carcass bejewelling a bony finger and oversized clothes falling off a lofty frame – a better simulacrum of the Old Man of the Sea you will have to go far to find. “Ahoy!” pronounces the figure suddenly, breaking the illusion. “Good to meet you, brother.”

A gloved hand shoots out, inviting the trademark fist-bump. Bruce Gold. Gold in name, gold in character.

Now 65, Gold is one of the Eastern Cape surfing meccas most recognisable throwbacks to that golden “hippie” era when scores of wild-eyed youngsters from Cape Town and Durban descended on Jeffreys Bay seeking the perfect wave.

Yet he is not alone in holding the fort as part of J-Bay’s “Ballie brigade” – those veterans of the Indian Ocean who blazed a trail in the late 1960s and 1970s to make the town one of the most prized destinations on the global surfing map.

Though their numbers have dwindled, the likes of Gold and legendary surfboard shapers Glen D’Arcy and Kenny Freeland are still regarded with a sublime reverence in Jeffreys, the godfathers of the renowned right-hand point break that has become Supers.

Gold is the picture of nostalgia as he sits at the Saffron Surf cafe, his every-present Pekingese “Scooter Girl” at the heel.

“It [Jeffreys Bay] was a quiet little fishing village when I first arrived,” he says, eyes darting out over the ocean on the other side of bustling Da Gama Road.

“Now you look at it, it should be called Johannesbaai.

“I first came here in 1953 with my family. But I only returned properly in the early 1970s, when I came for about six weeks.

“To be honest I wasn’t like the other guys of that era. For me it wasn’t exactly love at first sight. What would happen is that I would go back to Natal, where I had a job as a taxi driver. I call it a job but it was cool man, driving the taxi and checking out the girls.

“But then I would come back to J-Bay, and I ended up staying longer every time. I also had a job in PE, where I would give massages for R5 each. These hands could work some magic, man.”

His reference to the 1966 cult surfing film, The Endless Summer, is expected.

In the film director Bruce Brown follows two surfers, Mike Hynson and Robert August, on a surfing trip around the world. They travel to the coasts of Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti and Hawaii in a quest for new surf spots and introduce locals to the sport.

Another nearby right- hand point wave at St Francis Bay is idolised in the movie, spurring the surfing pilgrimage to the region and the eventual discovery of Supertubes.

However, it was not until the mid-1970s that the “legend” of Bruce Gold was born. Fascinated by the migration patterns of surfers to Jeffreys Bay, SABC television personality Bettie Kemp paid an impromptu visit to the town where she encountered the board-riding nomad.

“Ja that was great, hey. Old Bettie. She filmed a 10-minute documentary, and that was it.”

Sprouting philosophies like “surfing competitions and marriage are the two most unnatural things in the world” and “I can’t afford to work – it will ruin my reputation”, Gold is vexed by the “money- worshipping” nature of professional surfing.

“Man when I got here there were these Americans who were so completely into the hippie vibe that they even used to fast for two days straight. Now you get these people on the lunatic fringe who take part in competitions, a complete commercial scam.

“Surfing is a spiritual thing. Like I was surfing at the Point, and the next thing this whale surfaces next to me. It then ducked under and surfaced on the other side of me, and I gave the guy the big ‘Ahoy!’

“People use this word awesome to describe everything, but that bond formed between the whale and me is what awesome means.”

I ask Gold if he has noticed any change in attitudes out on the water, in terms of respect shown by one surfer to another.

“Most definitely, man. This one kid actually told me he would crash-tackle me if I took his wave. He threatened me with, ‘Get out the way, ballie!’ Crazy stuff.”

At the other end of town Glen D’Arcy is exactly where you would expect to find him after more than 40 years in the industry – in the back room of his shaping room planing away at another masterpiece.

Though he has no qualms about disclosing his age – he will be 60 in January – I would not put him any older than his late 40s.

He is dressed in the traditional T-shirt and boardshorts garb of so many Jeffreys Bay locals, his feet covered in the white dust that is the inevitable waste product of his profession.

“It’s a cliche, but I first came here in the summer of ’69 with my brother and two friends,” he recalls.

“We spent abut R40 or R50 on petrol to come down in a Kombi from Warner Beach neat Amanzimtoti in Natal. Ja, it was a real hippie trek,” D’Arcy says.

“Jeffreys was a very unique break, and the swell was very consistent. At that time there were a lot of Aussies coming here, following a surfing route. It was kind of like a trade route for surfers – Sydney, Mauritius, then Joburg and making their way down to J-Bay. This place has become a mecca, because it always provides good memories.”

D’Arcy recalls Jeffreys Bay was the depiction of rustic living when the first surfers began to arrive, with thick bush and a dirt road making access points to the best surfing spots a challenge in itself.

“You talk about socialising, but the Humansdorp town hall was the only place where you could go to eyeball the local talent. Movies in Humansdorp on a Saturday night was the place.”

Although D’Arcy had been shaping boards from his late teens, it was only during the 1970s that he found that he could do it on a full-time basis. An opportunity to work in Brazil – a country he has visited 47 times – presented itself, and the rest, as they say, is history.

“My work and surfing has taken me all over the world, France, Spain, the Caribbean, Madagascar. Strangely enough the only place I haven’t been is Australia, when those guys have been coming here for all these years. But we’ll get there. Life is short so you’ve got to enjoy it.”

The irony of Kenny Freeland’s words is not lost on us when we eventually meet him at his beautiful home in the late afternoon.

“When we came here in ’68 we lived in a tiny two-room shack. There was no hot water or electricity and there was bush everywhere. There was farmland everywhere you looked,” he says.

Certainly a far cry from the splendid homestead in which we now sit, admiring a panoramic view of the bay and nature reserve below.

One of Freeland’s merry band in those early years was multi-millionaire Billabong founder Gordon Merchant, proving that despite the counterculture of the late 1960s many a Jeffreys Bay surfer has gone on to greater things.

“A few of us had been shaping surfboards in Cape Town before moving down to J-Bay. For us, Point and later Supertubes were really, really great places to surf. Coming from the cold water of the Western Cape the water was so warm here.

“I remember when the first few guys surfed Supers. From that point on it was ‘game on’.

As with his contemporaries of yesteryear Freeland, who counts among his greatest achievements shaping boards for world- renowned designer Dick Brewer, remembers the hippie-influenced existence that defined the late 1960s.

“There were people living in their camper vans at the Point. One of the Americans even built a wigwam and lived there. It was a very different time.”

Freeland gave up on board-shaping in the late 1980s to pursue a career in the fishing industry, although he has continued making stand-up paddle boards and longboards for himself.

“If I have one criticism, it is that we are selling ourselves short in terms of how much we are selling our boards for. This is an art form. Overseas the boards would be fetching much higher prices, but we are selling them for a pittance. It’s such a pity because we have so much talent here, and the industry should be doing well.”

But while he acknowledges that business has become part and parcel of surfing, he is in no doubt that Jeffreys Bay’s unique break will continue to hold a special place in the hearts of surfers, professional and amateur alike.

“It’s still an amazing wave.”

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