29 March, 2017 29 March, 2017

From The Brink Of Self-Imposed Kookdom

Chris Mason shares a tale that many of the working class surfers can relate to – when a full time jobs gets you out of the rhythm of the sea. From Glen Beach to Sunset, read the winning story of our Write To Surf contest below: 

Thank God for Glen Beach  

This is a story about forgetting how to go. It’s a rambling account of an everyday surfer who scratched back from the brink of self-imposed kookdom. It’s a tale about how Glen Beach saved my surfing.

I’m from Durban. Growing up we spent a lot of time on the South Coast. It’s where my surfing soul lives, if there is such a thing. It was along that verdant stretch of wave rich coast that I began to think of surfing as a kind of religion and the ocean as the shimmering, ornate cathedral where I went to pray.

But a few years ago I lost my faith. Not abandoned as much as carelessly misplaced. It started innocuously, with the changing of jobs that precipitated a move into the city. A few years before my wife and I had been managing an eco-surf lodge in Nicaragua. If I’ve ever lived the Surfer’s Dream, it was then. The lodge was a ramshackle collection of bungalows built just above the high tide mark, along a remote area of coastline. It was a wonderland of chipper wilderness where hordes of insolent purple crabs would chew through everything and untrustworthy caimans cajoled our dogs from the banks of the nearby river. It was so pristine one could catch huge red snapper off the beach with a landline. The guests were mainly American surfers, all of them delighted to have found paradise off the beaten track. It was my job to make sure they got waves; a responsibility I took very seriously.

We surfed every day, mostly at the beach break out front. The water was always warm and the wind was mostly offshore. When a swell arrived I’d load a whole gibbering, sun block smeared troupe into my jade green Land Cruiser and head off down the rutted dirt road towards crown jewel of our stretch of sea. It was a hollow left-hand point that broke like a long Kalk Bay over a shallow, urchin covered rock reef. After surfing all day we’d drink rum and talk story until the moon sat fat above the sea. It was a good, simple life lived close to the earth. Perhaps we’d still be there today, if I hadn’t got dengue fever.

The point is I was surfing, everyday. But after nearly dying in a foreign hospital we decided it wise to come back to SA. To Cape Town and the City Bowl years. Fast forward to the winter when I forgot how to go:

I was working hard. Because that’s what adults are supposed to do. Living in town meant an endless slew of socialising. I was surfing intermittently, having slipped almost without noticing into the realm of the weekend warrior. Then it happened, on a clean and glassy day out at a fickle reef break on the peninsula. It wasn’t big, but chunky, and as usual for a Saturday, crowded. I was sitting right on the boil, perfectly positioned among the neoprene pack for the approaching set wave. I turned and paddled, just under the lip and ready to take the drop… And I pulled back. The gasp of horror was audible. Even I was shocked. Had I just chickened out on the wave of the day? I could feel the burn of hooded eyes on my neck and I hung my head in shame. “Who pulls back here?” a grizzled old ballie asked rhetorically. The guy next to him could only shake his head.

The experience of being at ease in the ocean is one of sheer joy. Sliding through the water as you duck dive or drawing an arcing speed line across a wind-feathered face. It’s a lucid and beautiful dance. When you’re in tempo with the ocean, such experiences can be transcendental. They feel so natural because on a biological level the human form is almost amphibian by design. Our adaptable wet-dry skin allows water to slide off but lets us feel at one with the sea. Our lungs store large vaults of air and when we dive below the surface our heart rate slows automatically as an ancient and forgotten mammalian dive response kicks in. Yet these moments of oneness with the Great Ocean from whence we came can only be achieved through dedication. It’s a relationship that if ignored will quickly become tumultuous. The ocean is a demanding mistress and infidelities do not go unpunished. All surfers know this. Without the water time or a basic adherence to staying surfing-fit we lose our natural flow. If further bloated by the modern vices of overconsumption and the unnatural demands of desk-jockydom, we become gasping caricatures of the surfer’s archetype -misshapen mockeries that creak and sag under the weight of excess.

I tried to forget that day on the Peninsula. But I couldn’t. The attrition had begun and I had forgotten a skill essential to surfing; how to go when it counted. Something needed to be done.

That year summer came suddenly. It started with bright days scrubbed clean by the South Easter. The festive season arrived soon after, hauling bags bulging with the hopes of work-weary holidaymakers. I stood in the wind, cheeks cold to the touch. I too was free, temporarily. For the first time in months I was flush with the currency of time. So I did what I should have been doing all along. I went surfing. That first day I drove over Kloof Nek to arrive at Glen Beach before the sun peaked over the Apostles and dipped myself tentatively into the clear, frigid water. I wheezed and stumbled to my feet a couple times. Even feigned a floater. Later that day my shoulders and ribs ached beautifully. The next day I did it again. And again. For a whole week I drove up and over to find my solace at the Glen. But too soon January rolled around and clasped my leisure days away, sending me back into an airless office where no pot-plant could survive. But I no longer felt the heavy weight of decay. Something had changed. I’d caught a glimpse of an old me reflected off the ocean’s surface.

That year Glen Beach became my refuge. My training ground. The place I washed myself anew each day. I’d go before work, to grovel happily in the chop. It wasn’t about doing a good snap or getting barrelled. It was about being there, in the water.

It was the simple act of surfing as redemption. I surfed when it was onshore and so kak that no one else paddled out. Or when it was city-zoo crowded. I got to know the real regulars. Had conversations with them and hooted as they went. A few times, when the conditions were right, I hollow little kegs rolled down the bank. I surfed until my fins started showing again and my hair went blonde at the tips. I started running in the mountain. Holding my breath at my desk. Watching September Sessions and obsessing over swells.

Then one day in the not too distant past I found myself gliding across the open ocean on a 9’6 gun, heading out to Sunset for the first time. Adrenaline pulsed evenly through my body and my muscles felt strong and supple. The sound of the water slapping the top deck of my board mingled with the distant roar from the reef. Dropping down the face of my first wave was like speeding into a different version of myself. When the lip crashed down behind me and I was engulfed by the ocean it was as if I was being held by all the tender power of the world.

The journey towards that wave changed the way I look at our noble sport. I realised that surfing is a lens through which, if we focus correctly, we can see ourselves more truly. After the session I sat in silence in the middle of the ocean and listened, as if for the first time, to the whispers of grace sung by clear waters.

Chris Mason’s story wins the below Billabong hamper. Submit your story to calvin@zigzag.co.za for a chance to win a hamper and get featured online or in the mag. 


  1. Name Tony Lamberis
    30 March, 2017 at 9:33 pm · Reply

    If F.Scott Fitzgerald were a surfer; he might have finished second behind Chris Mason in writing the story.
    Amazing stuff.

  2. Chris
    17 April, 2020 at 4:31 pm · Reply

    Wow! What an excellent and well worded tale! Do you have any other stories online – would love to read them.

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