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A Definitive History of Surfing's Culture and Heroes
By  Malcolm Gault-Williams

This Chapter Updated:  2 May 2008
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Jeffrey's Bay

The Early Surfing Years at J-Bay, South Africa
Retrospective written by Laurence Platt

This time we 've done something a little out of the ordinary. Instead of my take on what went down, we are honored to have Laurence Platt as guest writer, recalling the early days of one of the planet's greatest surf zones: Jeffrey's Bay, South Africa. A big thanks go out to Laurence for sharing those emerald days...

Legend has it that the doyen of South African surfing, John Whitmore, discovered the waves at Jeffrey's Bay in the late 1950s as he drove up the famous N2 "Garden Route" between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth on a business trip.

As he stood in amazement at the side of the road looking at an as yet unmapped break through binoculars, it would have been extremely hard to mistake those ruler edged corduroy lines perfectly wrapping around a point, giving what could have been (taking all the component breaks into account) a 1.2 kilometer ride.

Unlike its soon to be world famous neighbor Cape St. Francis, Jeffrey's Bay is a consistent break. The prevailing winds in the area are offshore. The ocean bottom is formed largely of flat bedrock, rather than of shifting sands, so that when a ground swell of almost any height is amove (and the prevailing swell direction at Jeffreys's Bay is also almost always optimal), Jeffrey's Bay works.

Following Bruce Brown's "The Endless Summer", the legend of the perfect wave at Cape St. Francis grew, attracting surfers from other countries, as well as us locals from around South Africa.

But Bruce's now infamous playful exaggeration -- that Cape St. Francis' perfection is "always like this" -- proved to be disappointing. Not only does the shifting sand bottom make Cape St. Francis iffy at best, but the winds there are not prevailing offshore. Surfers visiting Cape St. Francis found it often not working. So, being in the area anyway, they started to explore nearby opportunities, and slowly the legends of nearby Seal Point and Jeffrey's Bay were born and grew. And while Jeffrey's Bay has never gained the worldwide renown that Cape St. Francis has for having the perfect wave (regardless of that being true or it being false, but such is the stuff of which legends are made), the consistency of Jeffrey's Bay in terms of how often the breaks there really work became legendary in and of itself.

Rodney Sumpter, the then British surfing champion, also showed up in South Africa, traveling from town to town, hamlet to hamlet, showing his own surfing movie, further popularizing the sport of surfing in South Africa, and further forever sealing Jeffrey's Bay's fate as the local surfers' secret spot which was known to and coveted by every surfer in the world.

In 1964, when you drove to Jeffrey's Bay from Cape Town up the N2 Garden Route, you knew when you were close to the mecca. The climate changed. The place has its own climate! If you hang your arm out the window, the hairs on the back of your hand "know" you are getting close. It is an indescribable feeling, like moving into a distinctly different climate zone.

And the scent. The pungent aroma of the local Jeffrey's Bay flora. That unique scent of Jeffrey's Bay! Anyone who has been to Jeffrey's Bay knows that even when you can not see it, you can scent it ...

In the beginning, there were the waves, just the waves. There were the simply mesmerizing collections of shells on the beach which delight conchologists. There were a few dolphins frolicking. There were the sand dunes ... later came the development, the houses, and the parking lots.

But in the beginning there was just the farmland abutting the point. And you have to remember that in the beginning, Jeffrey's Bay was synonymous with the point. No 10' 6" gun board would have been fast enough to make it through "Tubes" or "Supertubes" (although we did not have those names back then) so no one bothered to try.

Anthony ("Ant") van den Heuvel, Piers Pittard, and Gavin Rudolph owned Jeffrey's Bay point back then. Climbing and dropping were the order of the day. Noserides and hanging ten were de rigeur. Occasionally you would see an outrageous skeg first takeoff. And if you did not get tubed, it was probably because you were asleep. If you simply got up on a wave at Jeffrey's Bay, Jeffrey's Bay tubed you!

But "slashing"? "Tearing"? We were not there yet. And as for aerials? Maybe when going over the falls ... but intentionally? Never.

Back then, almost every longboard surfer in South Africa knew all the other surfers in the country on a first name basis. Many of the faces in the South African chapter of Bruce Brown's film "The Endless Summer" were friends of mine.

We drove our Volkswagen Kombis and Beetles and Austin Mini Minors replete with roofracks with about six boards lashed to each down the dirt road to Jeffrey's Bay village. There was no official parking lot at the point. There was no construction at the point. Just sand dunes. The local townsfolk did not know they lived near some of the most amazing waves on the planet.

But the friendly farmer who owned the land at the point knew what we were there for (even though he may have looked at us askance at first). After the first few visits, he even installed a solitary tap so that we could get fresh water.

If we did not sleep in the kombis, we slept in the bushes on the dunes. We braided the six foot tall gorse into habitable units and stayed there for weeks on end -- each respecting our neighbors who inhabited a similar braided unit on the dune. Before sunrise we were all awake -- listening for the break even before it was light enough to see it.

In those days, for ten cents you could buy a half a pint of milk, a loaf of coarse meal brown bread and a half a dozen bananas at the village cafe and fish 'n chip shop. This was supplemented by sea snails which we dove out of the bay from our surfboards in between sets and cooked in their shells over open flames. It was a nutritious meal fit for kings.

At night, lit by the fires of piles of driftwood, we shared the stories of the days "kraakers" (i.e. big waves) -- not that there was anything unknown: everyone there had been in the water at the same time.

Some things never change. If you have heard the crash of the waves at Jeffrey's Bay as they hit the rocks, you will know that you are not just listening to a wave rising and breaking. You are listening to a wave which rises and then smashes with intention -- like a freight train careening down the point.

And even when the sun has set, you can tell that the freight train waves are still there as they rumble down the point until you fall asleep dreaming of the tomorrow ... and how you can perfect that toes on the nose maneuver you almost got right today ...

Jeffrey's Bay (we did not call it "Jay-Bay" back then -- I disdain abbreviations, as well as that particular unmistakable association with marijuana) is still there. But the dunes and the land have been changed. Houses and business sites have been built, and the solitary tap has gone. Mickey Dora has come and gone. Jeffrey's Bay's reputation as a drugged out hippy hangout has come and gone. And -- for better or for worse -- the era of surfing for the simple delight of surfing without aggression, without sponsorship, without professional competitions like the Gunston 500 or the Billabong Pro, has also come and gone.

But all that aside, the waves are still there. Endless. Churning. Cranking. The Green Room. It's still there. God! That Green Room. If ever a place could be said to get the credit for producing a Green Room which all other green rooms get to emulate, it is Jeffrey's Bay.

Many, many years from now, when all the houses and parking lots are overgrown ruins, when the developments have been washed away, when the world once again regains a semblance of sanity, when the simple joy in all things pure returns, when we can celebrate our interdependance with the ocean not because we are sponsored to do that or paid to do that but simply because we can not resist the call of our hearts to be at play with it, the waves will still be there.

And the Green Room will still be calling us.

Laurence Platt portrait

Laurence Platt is a freelance writer who lives with his three children in the Napa Valley, California.

You can contact Laurence at

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