17 October, 2019 17 October, 2019

Vagabond Shoes

Let’s be honest, a lot of shit happens in the world of surfing, that we down here in South Africa, barely even register. There are debates man, lengthy ones about what boards to ride and which influences matter most, who’s fake and who’s got the full braai-pack; pap, chops and boerie. Fights flare and rage on Instagram comments. People get bent out of shape about these things. They take the theory very seriously. There’s conjecture, nuance, layers – an established sense of history. Institutional memory. Roots.

Down here, in the South… ehh. Not so much. The waves largely dictate the approach. That and our unique social context: surfing in Africa. It’s more of a direct, experiential and environmental relationship. Sure we get influenced, I mean most of us are riding shortboards and doing WSL Fantasy Surfer, and I guess that’s the point that Joel Tudor, Vans and the whole Duct Tape experience are trying to make. Do we ever take time to question the influences that fundamentally shape our surfing experience? And do we have enough knowledge to cherry pick the best path for ourselves?


Now imagine being sent to New York on a surf assignment to experience an alternative imagining of surf competition. A different approach. Pop! Brand sponsored trips are rare these days. I think they’ve always been rare in surfing. But damn you can’t understate their importance to the culture. Standing shoulder to shoulder with the dudes from Stab, Surfer, Surfline, Monster Children, Whalebone (NY), Wasted Talent, Saltwater (France), SBC (Canada), Waves & Woods (Germany), we’re like those goggled witnesses at the Nuclear Test Site in the Nevada desert in the 60s, assembled to witness the arrival of a new era. And the mushroom cloud of Duct Tape’s message is clear, as Joel Tudor says: “Don’t take yourself so seriously dude.”

No matter how tired you are, NY is gonna give you a kick in the pants. First day in and it’s hot. Proper muggy Durban heat. Imagine being licked by a city. We’re early. I’m travelling with regular Zag video-man Calvin Thompson. Our first engagement is only scheduled for later that evening, so it’s either frisbee in Central Park or the beach. George Pedrick, Vans’ communication wizard and our host, shows us pictures of one of the locals getting shacked that morning. “Swell’s up boys!” Despite the fact that we’d be spending the next few days there, we didn’t need much of a prod to go check out Rockaway. So we hop on the subway and roll through the guts of the city back towards JFK and on to New York’s closest surfing beach. Tracing the path of the city’s surfing faithful, through this concrete jungle, then out over Jamaica Bay, behind the airport and onto a long thin sliver of a peninsula, the other side of which is the Atlantic Ocean and waves.

If we lived in the NYC, this would be the equivalent of our ‘ride to the beach and jump off the pier’. Rockaway, is as Joel Tudor puts it, “a forgotten beach town.” Being New York, the first row of houses are larney-ish, wooden beach shanties with American flags fluttering on the porch, some with wetsuits and longboards resting against the balustrades. American poverty is kinda hard to decipher, because a lot of it looks, well, kinda suburban by our standards. But I’ve been assured that a few roads back from beach and behind the railway, you’re squarely in ‘the projects’. Some tenement buildings, a few run-down homes with rusting cars in their yards, the odd potholed street and the ubiquitous bodegas, vape shops, cafes and dive bars, with the glimmer of the Atlantic at the end of the road. You’d imagine surfing would be a much bigger deal in New York City, but it’s still kinda salty and authentic. Every summer the Rockaways thrives, but as the weather turns, so do the well-heeled city dwellers, who contract back towards Manhattan, taking their wallets with them. To add insult, Rockaway was smashed by Hurricane Sandy, almost exactly 7 years earlier, and you can tell the area is still rebuilding.

But today it’s hot and lots of people have the same idea. The swell is running, and it’s got a good crowd on it. The wave, here at 92nd Street, breaks left off a rock groyne and runs into an A-frame in the middle of the beach, with more peaks further down as it sweeps South. Many things bring people to New York City, but surfing is not usually one of them. The spirit of Rockaway is that surfing is possible, necessary even… but it’s generally better in lots of other places. But, just like Umhlanga, on its day, it gets really good. I’ve seen the pictures online. Today it’s head high but kind of closey, with a few runners in between. The quality of surfing is enthusiastic, but not particularly high. There’s a bit of jostling and one or two stand outs, but for the most part, these are city enthusiasts making the most of a hot day, still on the up-curve of their surfing journey. The shredders, we are told, are congregated around the better sand bars on Long Island or Jersey. And I’ve managed to arrive at the beach without my boardies (jetlag rookie) and the Vans boards are not at the beach yet either, because we’re a day early (Duct Tape rookie). So it turns into a leisurely sunbathed kip in the sand and some people watching.

The launch at the General is classic first night of the surf event jitters: equal parts excitement, enthusiasm and self-consciousness. The pros are huddled in familial groups, same for the industry and media contingents, with Vans people buzzing in between, while facilitating the festivities. Everyone’s still eyeing each other up. The alcohol helps, as do the pizza slices – turned out from a food truck parked out front, which are proper, next level delicious. This becomes something of a theme. Good shit aggregates in New York City. Just walk into a Whole Foods and take in the abundance: 5 different species of banana, a whole section just for the smoked salmon, row upon row of manifold, paralysing choices. Top of the heap, for real Blue Eyes.

By the next morning, the weather has u-turned and dropped from mid-summer in Durban to the kakkest winter’s day in Cape Town. 12 degrees on the street with rain and an icy dagger of a wind. Us provincials are not used to these wild pendulum like weather swings. The bus leaves for Rockaway at daybreak, bleary-eyed pros load their logs into the hold below, cradling coffees. But  thanks to jetlag, I’ve been awake for hours! An hour of engaging conversation later, the bus deposits us at Duct Tape HQ, a yard in Rockaway about a block from the beach. The habitation is a jumble of old Airstream caravan and containers, with a fire pit in the middle of the garden, the centrepiece a glass windowed mini-yoga room. It’s Rockaway surf hippy vibes, laidback but comfortable. There’s a food stand slinging veg breakfasts and a steady supply of coffee. We’re all huddled around the fire, waiting for Joel to call the first heat. 

Despite the shitty weather, the waves are about shoulder high, the crowd has thinned out and it’s time for the pros to dance. This day is strictly for the die hards. The media step behind their recording equipment, the judges sharpen their pencils, Joel and a funny guy called Chase, take up the mics and all of a sudden it’s on. My experience of logging events is quite limited. I covered Duct Tape in Zarautz Spain two years back and was lifted by the idea of alternate surfing realities,  before that it’s been years of QS on top of QS with a dollop of juniors and a yearly sojourn in J-Bay shadowing the big show of the WSL on their African safari. If we’d been watching a roster of energetic shortboarders, bash a succession of Braz-hacks to the beach and finish with another sinew-popping air reverse, I’d have skulked back to the fire long ago. But there’s something mesmerising about good logging. “I did a European summer tour with Nat Young one time in ’94,” Joel tells me later. “We went to all these places that didn’t have surf, just wind swell. And I asked why did you pick these places? And he said, ‘just shut up mate, you’re on a longboard.’” Joel laughs. “It’s a show, whether it’s one foot or five.’’

 He’s got that right. And the talent on display is from the very top-shelf. Every time Kaniela Stewart catches a wave, you can’t help but watch, dude’s surfing is magnetic. Alex Knost is always a stand out in the water and on the jol. Andy Nieblas must be the nicest guy in surfing, but his logging is even nicer. Ryan Burch is insane on any kind of board, I have a dream that one day he’ll shape me a custom. The beach is right under the flight path and the steady stream of planes coming in to land at JFK gives the whole thing a movie scene drama. 

Duct Tape was launched in 2010, as “a platform for a group of surfers who’s talents had been overlooked.” And in many ways has provided the cast of regulars and faithfuls like Knost, Nieblas, Burch, Quintal, Warren et al, to make a living from those talents. It’s a global single fin logging series based mainly, on the club events of the 60s. “It’s not about prize money or magazine coverage.” Alex Knost explains in the Ductumentary. “Mostly about friends going partying and surfing in waves with four guys out. All that stuff that revolves around the mischief of surfing.”

“Everyone just having fun, sleeping in their cars, screwing around.” Tyler Warren carries on. “Just basically a beach party.”

 “You don’t need to fucking build a scaffolding and take over the whole beach and have a competitor’s area and sushi.” Says Joel. “I’m talking about the WSL dude, environmentally wise, you’re not supposed to put shit like that on the sand. We’re not golf and we’re not tennis. And we don’t need to be. They can’t be us! We don’t need to be them.” 

The saving on set up and a smaller field of invited surfers, opens up other opportunities, like a bigger prize purse and budget to bring global surf media like us, to spread the news. This year they’ve held Duct Tapes in Portugal, Huntington Beach (part of the US Open), Rockaway Beach, New York and next up Kanagawa, Japan. Last year, they introduced a women’s event for the first time. “And the girls are fucking gnarly.” Says Joel. “That’s been the greatest inclusion for us. We’ve always had one girl, because in longboarding, in the right conditions girls are totally capable of kicking a dude’s butt. And Kassy totally did. And that solidified what we were trying to say. It was totally awesome and everyone at Vans was like, we can find the money. So it’s not a sausage party any more. It’s got girls and it’s cool.”

On day one in Rockaway many heads were turned by the foot work of Hawaii’s Kirra Seale, Cali’s Summer Richley, France’s Victoria Vergara and Reunion Island’s Justine Mauvin. While the big names of Kassia Meador and Honolua Blomfield, did their reputations no harm on their way to qualifying for the the party round. Duct Tape speak for getting knocked. Typifying the non-competitive Duct Tape spirit, Karina Rozunko felt she didn’t totally deserve her spot in the next round, so despite taking first place in her heat, she bowed out to give Haley Otto the spot in the Semis. 

Somewhere in the afternoon, George collars Calvin and swings him into the shaping bay. With the help of NY shaping don Troy Elmore, they cut out a fish from a fresh blank. In the waterlogged bay, the planer emits regular electric shocks. The board is dubbed, simply, ‘The Shocker’. Ray from Golden State glasses the whip right there, and we opt for a mustard yellow resin tint, like this year’s Duct Tape artwork, with original art by Chris Johanson. George reckons they’ll send it to us. What a coup! If you ever want to ride it, swing past Zag HQ.  The shaping bay and the board library fulfil Duct Tape’s mission to connect with and inspire the local surf community, highlighting the DIY nature of surfboard production, literally anyone could and should have a go at making and riding their own boards. 

The day ends at the Rockaway Surf Club with bands, beers and Karina Rozunko’s film premier. But it’s like 3am in my body and I’m staggering around like a drunken zombie. The bus offers dark comfort and the white noise of the younglings partying, ferrying me to my bed in Brooklyn.

Day 2 and we follow the same formula. Everyone’s loosened up, it’s finals day. The swell is rolling in between waist and knee, perfect only for logging. The sun is out and it’s all a bit warmer and easier. After the semis, we break for lunch, to let the tide drain for the finals. It’s a calculated risk, because by this stage, the sets are in the shins. And yet still the loggers, men and women, manage an almost full repertoire of artful manoeuvres, lots of trim, naturally, and not a forced air reverse even contemplated. 

By the time it’s all over, somehow the wiley Aussie stalwart, Harrison Roach has taken the Men’s, while Hawaiian Kirra Seale has the Women’s title. There is champagne. Joel doesn’t endorse the shake ’n spray, probably all a little too ejaculatory, but his views are quashed and the winners are doused in booze. “I needed that one.” Harrison told me in the judging booth, while we were packing up our gear. “The cash sure helps.” He smiles magnanimously. And who wouldn’t want a nice $8000 high five for taking out the win? A Duct Tape title is proper bounty.

“We have two surfers who just bought houses.” Say Joel proudly.

 From there, we roll back to the yard and strike out for a brewery in Rockaway for more high jinks. Alex Knost introduces his film Tan Madonna. It’s pure art house surf, tight lines and laybacks on a mid-size single. Everyone’s wearing blond wigs, the lager is cold and crisp, by now we’re all old friends. When the movie’s done, the band starts, proper thrash punkers called Surfbort, striking off an intense, impromptu mosh pit. Others lurk outside, sucking beers and comparing perspectives on the surfing experience. There is singing, carousing and rough-housing. By the time we leave the buses are bursting with a bristling party energy. All we have to drink is a case of too-fruity IPAs. The playlist is pumped through an iPhone speaker held to the bus conductor’s microphone. Calvin falls under the influence of Burch and Nieblas and they fire a series of human cannonballs on a skateboard down the aisle of the bus, as it lurches through the city streets, in between necking the fruity IPA, hoots and laughter. It’s stupid fun. There will be bruises in the morning.

“Don’t take yourself so seriously.” Says Joel when it’s all over, sitting on the couch of the hotel, basking in the glow of another successful Duct Tape mission. “Harrison Roach is a prime example. He partied all week! But when he got in his heats, he sat, he was patient, he knew his wave count. You can still have fun at the same time as being a competitive athlete. You don’t need medicine balls and dudes carrying your boards…” Joel sighs at the thought. “That’s a little over the top.”

Other things happened in New York. I bought a new pair of sneakers. We went to a Vans x Thrasher skate thing in deep industrial Brooklyn called The Death Match and watched an amateur tweaker rip the vert ramp in the most limited and eccentric style, only to get clothes-lined by a lanky skater who looked more like a banker, when his enthusiasm overstepped his ability. We rode bikes in Central Park and visited the Guggenheim and took in some Basquiat, we bowled at a dive bar called the Gutter, ate an Impossible Burger and learned that veganism is tasty as hell. And I surfed a big yellow log shaped with love for the people of New York by Alex “I just try shape the same board every time” Knost, with lovely tapered rails, gliding on those Rockaway ankle snappers as the Airbuses ripped up the sky over Queens and I got to check one of the weirdest, most memorable surf spots off my list. 



*All images by Jimmi Cane & Justin Mehring


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