8 May, 2015 8 May, 2015

The French Resolution – by Huw Morris

Civil war-torn Cote d’ Ivoire is the setting for ‘The French Resolution’, which is Huw Morris’ winning entry into Write To Surf – Zag’s surf journo competition. Not only did Huw win himself a hamper worth over R6000 from Billabong when his story featured in Zigzag 38.5, but as overall winner of our first Write To Surf competition, he’ll also be joining us on an all-expenses paid assignment somewhere epic (see details below).


In the wake of that wave, the water’s surface was caked in thick white foam, like meringue on a Checkers cake. Chapelle’s head, if he’d been decapitated, could pop up any second now – the cherry on top. I waited patiently.

The night before arriving here, we’d navigated down jungle twin tracks. Leaves large as beach umbrellas caressed the paintwork of our car and then moved aside, allowing branches and thorns to scrape like nails down a chalkboard. The security advisor at HQ had told us that last year’s civil war had been focussed in the north of the country and hadn’t extended to the peripheral villages along the coast, which were mostly seasonal fishing camps used by migrant Ghanaians. He’d been wrong.


The hangover of conflict was still being nursed here in the vacant, touristy spots, which were now home to only a few feral cats and roosters. Chapelle and I were in the oil company’s Nissan Patrol, with security glass and two spare wheels, beer fridge in the back. You needed a few beers to nurse the guilt of comfort when driving past the squalor. The uprising last year had pressed pause on the children’s smiles on the sides of the roads. Blank stares at my camera: ‘seen-too-much’ stares, ‘can’t-unremember-this-stuff’ stares. I left the car to photograph a woman in a field, but she chased me away with a machete. Chapelle had just stood next to the car, laughing at me, his back to the warm bonnet, sucking on a cigarette in arrogant pulls. I recall a whimsical thought crossing through my mind as I sprinted back over that yam field, banshee close behind. Perhaps I would be spared and the woman would take a slice out of Chapelle instead. That she would take his smile and put it on the burning heaps of refuse along the roadsides, with all the other upturned smiles between Abidjan and Tabou.

We’d eventually found the break we were looking for near Sassandra, down a goat track, pointed out to us by an old farmer who had some English in amongst his French. There were signs of life here from a time long ago, the walls of a concrete dwelling, abandoned during some trouble that preceded this most recent trouble. The jungle, like a schoolyard bully, had wrapped vines around the weakened walls and squeezed them till they cracked and fell apart. Chapelle was like that. A bully. He’d been fine in the decompression chamber, where I’d met him after weeks of deep dives on rigs in the Atlantic: intense mechanical repairs in cold black water off the Ivory Coast. He’d mostly kept quiet in the tiny chamber, as we waited patiently for our organs to explode less. But now he was loud and domineering, and he wouldn’t let me shit in the jungle. He said I had no place defecating near our new home and made me “go down the beach a bit” until I was out of sight.


I saw the carnage then, on my walk down the beach. Rusting walls of iron rising from the sand, a sculpture of defiance to the heavy shorebreak, the last stand of a tanker in a battle between iron and water, the ocean’s wrath winning out against years of diesel smoke and oil. I nestled high on one of its broken tanks, a turret from which I could see lines of swell hitting the point, and down below, hear the plop and echo of man soil hitting shallow water from about three metres up. That is a satisfying sound to any weary traveller, and even more satisfying, I thought to myself, that Chapelle would not have approved of my choice of toilette.

As I cast my eyes down, and paid more attention to the metal around me, I noticed sheer, razor sharp edges, great shards of metal formed, perhaps, when this ship literally shattered onto the beach. This point had seen some heavy surf – the kind of surf that can mash a tanker up and reduce it to guillotine blades. And as the light faded and I willed my vision through the haze and gloom, I began to see another wreck, and another.


Post-traumatic stress disorder presents with feelings of irritability in addition to extreme fear regarding memories of a traumatic event– American Psychiatric Association.

Extreme irritability is something you learn to deal with on an oil platform. For most people it’s just cabin fever, but for me it was far more than that. Seventy metres beneath the sea, you enter a vulnerable balance of life, a touch-and-go akin to someone on life support. And down there, life support was all I was on. Oxygen tubes and wires connected to the great artificial lung that is The Rig.

There is no formula for dealing with the toll of intense emotional trauma, and each man must mend as best he can. I found an ironic therapy deep below the waves, welding closed cracks that develop on the gargantuan steel legs. The sheer concentration welded shut my own fissures, but only for a while. Holding fast, feeling the vibration of life pulse a hundred metres above me on the rig, attached in the dark salinity by an umbilical chord supplying air and life. I wonder now if we ever feel fear in the womb? Fear like I felt down there? When the creatures slammed against my back, I would swing my torch around me wildly, like an oxy-acetaline light sabre. Don’t ask me what those things were, but they scared me inside out. Getting tangled up, being knocked off my mark, mask off, arc burning through my air supply, fumbling for my reserve. In those minutes between gulps of air it didn’t feel like drowning, it felt like being buried alive.


And there were weeks of this – weeks on end. And then, the chamber where I meet Chapelle. Supportive Chapelle. Telling me he knows how I feel. Telling me not to be afraid of the dark, or the ‘darkness in me’ as he put it. I liked him at first, I guess. We had planned this surf trip whilst in the chamber. Imagining the map of the coast. Telling each other stories from home, reminding each other of how badly we needed to surf. And Chapelle had some great stories. I would tell him about my time as a grommet in the Eastern Cape, where it was the small surf and berg winds that sometimes produced the best conditions. But Chapelle would always go one more, he was that kind of guy. His wave was a few feet bigger. He’d seen a bigger shark. He’d caught a longer barrel.

We both knew we’d get surf along Cote d’ Ivoire – we just had to drive out and find it. We’d committed to spending three weeks of our next break exploring. But somewhere between decompression and tying our boards onto the roof of the car, an irritation had been unleashed in me that I’d never experienced before, a fierce hound. It had sniffed Chapelle out for his arrogance, his constant superiority, his baseless enthusiasm and the endless hyperbolic reference to his many mild achievements. And I had chosen not to call the dog off. In a desperate attempt at catharsis for my own issues, I had fuelled this conflict, adding drama to my trauma. I wasn’t sure if Chapelle felt it. I believe his hubris made him immune, but I now wanted his company no more than I wanted the spiders and ants that fled the burning log on our fire in the early morning light, seeking refuge on my skin, crawling into my nose and mouth.


Chapelle is scraping sand fleas off his hands and flicking them into the flames. They hiss at him, a ‘hate Chapelle’ choir. I hum along with them, strangely pacified by the carnage of those little beasts and the hell that engulfs them. When I look up, Chapelle is looking at me. He is quiet for the first time. Just looking at me, considering… I feel a sudden claustrophobia, as if we’re in the chamber again, despite all this space around us. I need to get into the water. It’s hardly light yet, but it seems like my only refuge.

“I’m going surfing,” I say.

“Okay” says Chapelle, pouring hot coffee into an enamel cup. Picking his teeth. Flicking crawlies away. It’s got to the point where I don’t know if they’re coming from the sand around the fire, or from Chapelle’s pores. I turn sharply away, a deep feeling of nausea washing over me, which abates slightly as I walk down the cold sand towards the water, board under my arm.

Paddling out in the channel adjacent to the wreck seems a better option than to risk cutting my feet on the oxidized metal along the rocks towards the point. By the time I’ve reached backline, a set is breaking around the far side of the shelf, on its way to what I think will be the take-off zone. The wave jacks up quickly when it hits the flat steel just beneath the water and forms a treacherous barrel that looks deceptively makeable. It wouldn’t break at all, if not for the pieces of ship on the point. The rip rushing through the debris and out to sea makes the take-off even more difficult. To my right, as I face the horizon, some metal protrudes above the surface and water swirls and sucks around it.


There is a strong pull towards this protruding wreckage and you must do what you can to paddle away from it as the wave approaches, sucking up square off what is either the deck or the side of the vessel, in very little water. If you can catch the wave to the side of this, you’re set, but you can’t work your rail for speed. Instead you have to pick a high line and stay with it, cautiously. It’s the tightrope part of the wave, and you must remove the temptation to turn, despite the lip begging you to hit it. You must ride this part out, and only once you’re past the scrap yard, can you start to bottom turn.

Chapelle should have seen, he should have known.

He walks out along the rocks and jumps off the point during a lull. There is no water moving around now, and all is suddenly still. The ocean is mischief, an animal itself. Chapelle paddles up to the metal tank and dives down next to it, coming up after a while. He is a diver after all. He should have guessed the music, and which dance the sea would dance. My conscience spikes and I start to tell him what I think about the wave, where I think its treachery lies. But the fool brushes me off, unapologetically sitting on my inside.

“I want to be the first guy on the wave, bro! I want to name it!” Chapelle says.

“How ‘bout we call it Guillotines?” I try.

“Nah,” says Chapelle. “I saw some big fish feeding off this wreck just now. Let’s call it ‘Mussel Crackers’.”

Chapelle is next to the tank when he takes off on the wave. He strokes twice, awkwardly, and then the suction pulls him quickly towards the edge of the metal, like a pube being pulled down a drain. I hear his board scrape off the wreck as he pushes forward. And that’s the last I hear from him. The wave sucks square, exposing a jeering audience of barnacles on the platform, and then explodes on Chapelle like a depth charge.


I wait and watch. Here and there some seaweed breaks the surface. The sun bounces off the arctic white foam, oblivious to the trouble below. There is still no Chapelle, just bubbles left over from the maelstrom, and I am alone.

Chapelle’s head eventually pops up and bobs like a cork, dull and lifeless. Then it gasps and attempts a quiet hoot. His head begins a breathless laugh, and then begins to cry. It swims over to me, feebly. And suddenly it is attached to a body and it is Chapelle again, and it takes hold of the side of my board with its hands. Chapelle’s own board is nowhere to be seen and he rests his cheek on my knee. I take his head in my hands, and give it a firm pull. It’s still attached, and a feeling of relief overcomes me, which changes the beat on my filthy, hate-filled track. I begin to sob, too. He looks up at me.

“Guillotines is a good name, man. We’ll call it Guillotines,” he whispers.

We surf for the rest of the morning. Well, I surf. Chapelle is too weak, and once he has found his halved board, he sits on it awkwardly, like the first few minutes on a dentist’s chair, or an adult sitting on a child’s bicycle. He’s hooting me into every wave I scratch in to. I manage to miss the carnage, with a few close calls. Each time I squeeze through with my body intact, Chapelle throws his arms up to the sky and then cups his face in his hands and shakes his head. He knows full well what I’ve avoided. And each time he hoots or cringes, I feel less and less animosity towards him; more and more joy. Scales fall off my eyes, dust washes out of my hair. I’m suddenly glad we’ve come, and glad I came with Chapelle. Stoke has reached in and held fast, strengthening weakened walls, lighting up the darkened room.

And with a loud voice, it has chased the dog away.

Click here to check out all the Write To Surf entries we published >>


Launched in March last year, Zag’s surf journo competition – Write To Surf – had some epic prizes up for grabs. We invited our readers to send in their surf stories to stand a chance to win a hamper from Billabong worth over R6000 every issue, as well as be in with a chance of claiming the main prize – an all-expenses paid assignment for a major feature in Zigzag.

During the course of the competition we received dozens of epic entries (which you can read here), and following a year of quality submissions, Huw’s excellent story ‘The French Resolution’ was chosen as the overall winner. Huw will now be joining Zag on an all-expenses paid surf trip somewhere rad between September and October, and his assignment is to write about it. Look out for that in an up-coming issue.

In the meantime, you can sharpen your pencils for the launch of our second Write To Surf competition, which we’ll be kicking off next week with more insane prizes. Stay tuned.

Winning entries for our inaugural Write To Surf competition received the following hamper:

1 x Billabong Wetsuit; 1 x Billabong Boardies; 1 x Billabong Cap; 1 x Von Zipper Sunnies; and 1 x Set of Kinetic Racing (KR) fins.


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