Hunting dinosaurs with a pocket knife

2012-08-22 14:34

Cape Town - Our coastline gets battered and bruised every winter by passing storms that accompany major swell. While most people choose to stay indoors or look on in awe at the raw power of Mother Nature on TV or from the shoreline... a select few suit up and paddle out to meet Mother Nature head on!

GALLERY: Big Wave madness! See pics of Jacques Theron in action

The world of big wave surfing is a closely knit society. I chatted to local big wave surfer Jacques Theron - as he recently featured on the front page of the Cape Times surfing a 20-foot wave at Dungeons - to get a better idea about the sport.

Eugene du Plessis: What is your average day like?
Jacques Theron: I get up at 5.... Snooze the alarm clock a few times and finally get up to check the weather forecast on Wavenet and Windguru. This determines what equipment I must pack for the day and in which direction I’m heading, south to surf or north to work.

E: So you work normal hours?
JT: Yes, you could say so. I do the 9-5 thing, working for Nuclear Consultants International. Sometimes we work 14 hours straight for 6 weeks, installing modifications during refuelling outages at Koeberg Nuclear Power Station.

E: That is not ideal for chasing swell?
Tell me about it....

E: How did you get into big wave surfing?
JT: Quite a long journey and one I started off in a very disadvantaged position... grew up in Johannesburg!

E: That is a disadvantage... how did someone from Johannesburg end up surfing +20 ft waves in Cape Town?
JT: I started surfing when I was 5 years old and windsurfing at 8. Spend more time in the water than on land during school holidays in Plett, Struisbaai and Langebaan. I made up my mind at the age of 14 to move to Cape Town. My dad said I could go to boarding school (with no access to transportation) in Cape Town or finish school in JHB and then he would buy me a ticket to Hawaii.

E: What did you take?
JT: Hawaii! Spent my gap year on the island of Maui.

E: Is that where it all started?
JT: You could say so, but it is not like you wake up one day and decide to go from surfing 4ft waves to +20ft. It is a gradual process and you lift the bar on size over time. Windsurfing was a bridge towards the big waves for me. When the wind was not blowing, we would surf. Surfing bigger waves is similar to acclimatisation, it is almost like you have to numb your mind to get “comfortable” in them.

E: How old were you when you started surfing big waves?
JT: Started surfing Crayfish Factory and Outer Kom with my partner in crime James Taylor. We would set goals on what big waves we wanted to surf over a period of time and started surfing Sunset reef in 1996. I was 21.

E: That is quite young for surfing big waves...
JT: Yes at that stage it was, especially since we had no guidelines on how to do it! We started off on 7,4 ft boards, which we later realised was completely the wrong boards as we were outgunned (board is too small to handle the power / size of the wave). While we were standing at Sunset Beach an old surfer walked past and looked at us, looked at our equipment.... and said we are going to die out there.

E: Did you still paddle out?
JT: Yes, but we only managed to surf one wave each.

E: How was your first session at Dungeons?
JT: We drove early into Hout Bay just after a major cold front hit Cape Town. There were surfable waves breaking alongside the harbour wall! Beach sand washed onto the roads and it only added to the adrenalin rush. I paddled out that day with Simon Lowe, Micky Duffus and Andrew Marr. It was quite a memorable experience.

E: Sounds quite intimidating! Do you ever take more than one board?
JT: Yes, we normally take paddle and tow boards. (and maybe a couple of backups)

E: Why so many boards?
JT: Paddle boards can break quite easily. A cubic meter of water weighs a ton...

E: When do you paddle and when do you get towed in?
JT: The boundaries of paddle surfing has been pushed in the last couple of years. We will always try to paddle first and only when conditions are not suited for paddling (usually to windy, wild or too big), will we grab the rope and start towing. Tow-in surfing is not allowed in a line-up where people are paddling, so if someone is giving it a go on the paddle then that is what you do.

E: Difference with paddle and strapped board?
JT: A typical big wave paddling board (called a gun) is 10’ in length. The length is required to get enough paddle speed to catch big waves. Tow-in boards are much shorter, about 6’ in length. They are weighted with lead (8kg+) and fitted with foot straps. The weight helps to drive through the chop and maintain momentum.

E: Is it safer using a Jet ski?
JT: Not necessarily. You take off much deeper with a Jed ski, ride much faster and you end up surfing a lot more waves... the likelihood of falling off or getting caught on the inside (where most waves break and it could keep you trapped until rescue arrives) is much higher. The risk of an 8kg board hitting you on the head is another concern.

E: How long does it take to get a wave?
JT: When tow surfing the conditions (some days there’s more waves) determine your wave count. You can catch as many waves as you are physically (fit) able to handle. When paddling... it can take hours to line up the right wave.

E: Sounds like a cricket Test match with the paddle board! Why do local big wave riders do so well abroad?
JT: Conditions are very raw and brutal in South Africa. The playing field is big as the waves move around a lot, not always breaking in the same place. I think our big surfers perform well overseas as a result of our difficult/tricky conditions.

E: How would you describe the feeling / thrill of catching a big wave to a ‘normal’ 9-5 worker?
JT: I can’t remember who’s quote it is or the exact wording but it still sticks to mind. “Catching a big wave is like hunting a dinosaur with a knife. You have to position yourself under its throat” When you sit out at sea and see these liquid mountains marching towards you your instinct is to run for your life but in order to paddle into one you have to position yourself perfectly (right under the lip of the wave / throat of the dinosaur).

E: From 1996 to 2012.... How has the crowd factor changed?
JT: A couple of weeks ago it was like the old days with only 4 guys out, but you can get days with 20-30 people out. Especially on “entry level” days.

E: How big is entry level?
JT: About 12 foot that is 24 foot if you measure the waves trough to the crest.

E: Size of the wave is quite a contentious issue in the surfing world. Measure it from the front, back or Hawaiian size. If one of the Sport24 readers were unfortunate enough to swim into such a wave - what size building would he or she be looking at?
JT: Entry level wave would be around a 3 storey building.

E: That is quite big for entry level!! Longest you have ever been held down (Wave keeping you underwater)?
JT: Waves are interesting... They create little vortexes underwater. Sometimes a small wave can keep you down forever while bigger waves can just pop you out. The worst case scenario is a 2 wave hold down (when two consecutive waves hold you under water before you surface for air).

E: What do you do?
JT: The main thing is to relax 100%... It will give preserve oxygen for longer.

E: What is the cost of big wave surfing?
JT: If you start with the basics a 10 foot paddle board is R4 000, wetsuit R4 000, Leash R450 and Tow in board R4 000 – R10 000.

E: That is not cheap, but what about the Jet ski?
JT: We bought ours for R120 000 second hand, but a new one would set you back R160 000 + another R12 00 for the rescue sled.

E: Wow... that is quite an expensive hobby. Round about R190 000! What is the cheaper option?
JT: Well you could go hardcore... Buy a second hand board and wetsuit for couple of hundred bucks, hop onboard one of the local tour operators boats for a seal colony trip from Hout Bay harbour. Jump off the boat when you reach Dungeons and hope that some of your friends are surfing... otherwise it is quite a long paddle back to land. This is how we started. I would not recommend this option though!

E: What do most people not know about you?
JT: I am scared of heights!

E: Who would have thought! Last, but not least. If you had to choose a drink that resembles your character best?
JT: I would be a good red wine! You get better with age.

Jacques Theron takes off on a monster wave at Dungeons. (Photographer Anthony Fox


  • abelvdm - 2012-08-27 11:24

    Goed gedoen Jacques!! Ek, Frik, jou Pa en oom Hennie sal 'n goeie rooiwyn hierop drink in die Kalahari!

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