It was the best of times, it was the worst of times for Durban, Surf City. The East Coast Metropolis of Mzansi has taken the recession like a punch to the guts. But it was winter, the time of gentle offshore morning breezes and long range groundswell and the lack of paid work meant that there was more time for surfing, even if you have to do it on an old waterlogged board and a patched up shorty.
Massive surf events pulling huge crowds to North Beach and the New Pier are now just fond memories spurred by the name of an old cigarette brand that made you cough like a cowboy. Nowadays it’s called The Mr Price and has moved up the coast to Ballito. But Saturday night’s action managed to pull what event organisers were calling 9000 people, down to the beach to watch South Africa’s golden surfer and Durban’s prodigal son, Jordy Smith and friends getting towed into waves and trying to pull big airs under the spotlights at night, just to rile up the crowd and have a bit of a jol. In response, Poison City finally got off the couch and made a bit of an effort. The vibe was reminiscent of those old Glodina Night Surfing Classics back in the boomtimes of the early 90s. Gigs Celliers was not wrong when he announced over the PA that, “events like the Red Bull Nightshift go a long way in reviving Durban’s reputation as ‘Surf City’. In fact we haven’t seen crowds like this at a surfing event in almost a decade.”
In truth it had been a big weekend for the Durban surf industry. Everyone gathered on the Friday night to celebrate the rather larney SA Surfing Awards at the Gateway Theatre of Shopping. When Shakespeare wrote “All the world’s a stage” I’m pretty sure he never imagined a mega shopping mall in Umhlanga, as a shining beacon for the wanton consumerism that defines our era here on planet earth… but I digress. The SA Surfing Awards were quite a jol. All the best competitive surfers, photographers, videographers, brands, blaggers, bloggers and bullshit artists who combined call themselves the SA surf industry, (minus the crew from The Bomb Surf Mag) compiled under one roof, drinking beer and talking kak about upcoming trips, dreams, aspirations and the fact that none of us is getting rich, neither are many of us going on trips and surfing perfect waves. Well apart from Jordy, Laces, Travis and Craig Sims. Comedian Nik Rabinowitz cut a swathe through the ego and the fluff, the hubris that hangs like a protective fog over the surf industry.
He looks up at the flowrider and says, “how the waves that side huh? Mechanical!”
Then he turned his attention to the fashion parade. “You all look hot.” He says. “Some of you ladies look quite good too!” And then he cut to the chase. “Before we start, has anyone got any zol? Just bring it to table 2.” Then he calls surf legend Graham Hynes ‘Hansie’ and ASP Tour Manager, Al Hunt, ‘Hunty’ followed by “don’t say that with a cold”. When it comes time to hand out the award to Sarah Baum, he looks up incredulous and says, “What! Girls also surf… that’s so cool!” Then he rips off Craig Sims relentlessly for moving to Australia, before Sims grabs the mic and pretty much hits us with the boring stick. He starts at the very beginning of his surfing odyssey and everyone knows that the accepted norm is halfway, or just before your Damascus Moment. Still, Nik Rabinowitz is a tough act to follow. But one thing sticks… Sims says that in comparison to Australia, the SA surfing industry is a small pool in which everyone knows each other and there’s a lot to be said for that kind of situation because it fosters a sense of community. Following straight on from that, Anne Wright, mom of Wok, wins an award for her contribution to the SA surf industry and it’s loudly applauded and richly deserved. Then Jordy gets up on stage and gives an emo speech about how much he loves us, and how these are his roots. And frankly, despite my deeply ingrained cynicism, it’s heartfelt and real and I can’t imagine any other pros really putting themselves out there like that. So the warm fuzzies get shared around and the drinking continues.
Nik continues with the funnies and I win a case of Black Label for wearing white socks and flip flops with my get up. You kind of know it’s going well when Ricky Bob Basnett and Dan Redman stick around to watch the end of the proceedings. The lasting image I have of the SA Surfing Awards is Nik balancing on one leg with his arms outstretched exhorting Dylan Lightfoot, who is sponsored by Power Balance, to “push me over, bru! Push me over!” People laugh. People drink. The handing out of awards drags on way too long. But that just creates more awkward silences that prolong the drinking.
Come Saturday there were a few hangovers as the usual suspects assembled on North Beach to prepare for the evening’s festivities. Jordy and his attendant documentary team hooked up with the Umthombo street children’s project for an impromptu surf and coaching session. They also donated the five custom made surfboards that Red Bull produced to promote the Night Shift. There was just enough time to wolf a quarter bunny at the café-laundry-restaurant across the road from North Beach before Jeremy Philips kicked things off doing FMX moves on his jetski all pushing towards landing a full double backflip or something ridiculous. The crowd are enthused. “Combining surfing lines with FMX moves on a jetski.” Says Gigs repeatedly over the loudspeaker. By the time we got into that rapid East Coast sunset-dusk-darkness the surfers were in the water being slung into the small waves and trying to pop huge punts before the growing crowd assembled on the beach. But just as the shit was heating up, the lights went out. Some sat in darkness, others were attracted to the lights on the esplanade, watching the bergies and freaks mingle amongst the Saturday evening crowd. The Durban Beachfront is hands down the most democratic space in South Africa. And that’s probably the city’s greatest asset. It’s a pretty big indication of Jordy Smith’s star power, that so many people arrived to check out what was really a bit of a night time aerial surfing exhibition. Either that or the city is starved for free entertainment and everyone was going down to the boardwalk anyway… probably a little bit of both.
We tried to get Jordy to answer some questions via Stece “Laces” Michelsen, but no dice. Wanted to know how trippy it was for the champ to arrive back in his hometown to see his mug and interesting nipple configuration splashed across billboards all around town. Was keen to know how he was handling the celebrity status, the autograph hounds, the competitive animosity of old friends and other good questions. He could have filled us in on how the Night Shift concept came about. What they were trying achieve jet-propelling some of SA’s best surfers into waves at night. Where the Night Shift concept goes from here. What does he think of Durban bands like Shadowclub and the City Bowl Mizers. But all I got back was “He just ducked out the Gateway with his chick.” And “Headed down the South coast to get his driver’s license. Haven’t spoke to him yet!” And a whole bunch of unanswered smses. The king was busy. So I had to settle for sloppy seconds. Wok.
“It was a bit of a fucking crash, hey!” He told me. “The delays, people getting disinterested, shit started falling apart from the time the lights went out. Although you’ve got to give it to them, the crowd was pretty phenomenal. It was like 10 years ago down at the beachfront. You just don’t get that vibe since the Gunston 500… I haven’t seen my beachfront like that in a long time.”
“Ja it was alright hey.” Said Dan Redman. “It was fun. I got invited to the first one but couldn’t make it because I stuffed up my knee. But this was sick. I reckon Durban needs another night event. It’s something different. It’s challenging. You’re just staring into the darkness with the jetski idling. Then suddenly Jason checks something out the back and whips you in. I was going for the lefts so it was a bit easier because there was more light.”
“Super hard to surf in the dark as you can’t see when that lip is going to throw.” Admits Davey Weare currently on some kind of comeback trail.
“I guess they were unluck with the waves.” Wok continues. “There just wasn’t enough surfing. I know it was more like an exhibition format but at times it just felt like another lame surf event.”
But what about the bands. Surely these rockstars of SA surfing stuck around to watch it go down?
“Nah, I had to bail after the surfing because it was getting late for my girls.” Admits Davey Weare. “Jordy definitely pulled the best air. Ricky had a solid one too.” He adds trying to change the subject.
Wok, Dan, Jordy, none fo them could tell me much about the live music show.
“Ay fuck em, we had a sweet time!” Says Ally, bassist for the City Bowl Mizers. “It was a cool show. Lots of free Red Bull. We played for about 40 minutes, people seemed to be enjoying themselves. Obviously most people were there for the surfing, but a lot of Durban just seemed keen to stick around and have some fun.” He pauses on that then says: “That beachfront scene was insane. It isn’t usually that full. Normally we just get blazed and chill on the cable car.”
And with that, once Shadowclub had finished belting out their rootsy, bluesy rock vibe what was left of the crowd had piled into Joe Cools, the whole place was heaving like it was 1993 and the bass whoofed over the heads of the crew striking down the stage and packing up. For a brief weekend in the middle of the worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression, Poison City dusted off her single fin and spent some time trying to remember her long, goofy surfer roots. Cowabunga dudes!
*All images © Tyrone Bradley / Craig Kolesky / Red Bull.