The Early Surfing Years at J-Bay, South Africa
Retrospective written by Laurence Platt
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
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
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
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
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 is a freelance writer who lives with his three children in
the Napa Valley, California.
You can contact Laurence at LaurencePlatt@att.net
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