Battle for the highs of surfing

The wind shoves you sideways when it hits you. The sand is the spitting kind, grazing your eyes and cheeks as it swirls across Towan Beach in Cornwall’s Newquay. The waves troll towards the shore: huge, galloping walls of froth that not even the seaside town’s finest dare take on today.

With one exception.
In the distance a dark speck punctures the horizon and gradually bobs towards the shoreline. Then it vanishes. And then it reappears as a lonely surfer picking his way out of the January waves. “I haven’t been in the water for a week,” smiles 26-year-old Ori Matas, wrapped in a black wet suit, as he shivers past me to the car park above. “I was hungry.”

In the summer surfers stuff Newquay, the capital of the United Kingdom’s wave-catching community that is situated in the southwest of England. On the first Tuesday of the new year it is empty; only hardcore surfers such as Matas have stayed to brave the chill. With surfwear long absorbed into conventional high-street fashion and surfer slang indistinguishable from mainstream diction, diehards such as Matas remind us that the sport is, at its extreme, a wonderful eccentricity.

But for how much longer? Starting this year, professional surfers are to be tested for drugs before major competitions, thanks to regulations announced in November by the sport’s governing body, the Association of Surfing Professionals. For some, this move sounds the death knell for a pastime that, according to cliché, has long been associated with the underground.

“Part of its appeal is that it is countercultural, marginal and in some way subversive and that’s where the association with drugs comes in, whether real or mythic,” says Andy Martin, author of the surf book Stealing the Wave. “But the commercial imperatives require [surfers] to be straight. How mainstream can surfing be before losing its soul?”

It is this question to which I am trying to find answers on this windy morning in Newquay. But for most of the surfers to whom I speak the answer is fairly simple: the more mainstream, the better. Max Hepworth-Povey (27), a local boy who runs a surf school called Errant, thinks the sport’s rise in respectability will result in more students for him.

“I see this as a massively positive thing,” agrees Corinne Evans, a 23-year-old who hosts introductory surf sessions for children in the summer and models surf equipment in the winter. “The more seriously the sport takes itself, the more companies will be willing to invest and the faster the sport will grow. This has been a long time coming.”

Sipping on a suitably soft orange juice in a bar called Belushi’s, Evans thinks it is time to shed surfing’s druggy stereotype once and for all. “People think we’re all layabouts who get high the whole time. But the vast majority of us just enjoy the healthy lifestyle that comes with the sport,” she says.

But worldwide that has not always been the case. As recently as 2000 marijuana allegedly played a large role in the Hawaiian surf community, according to Martin, who lived on the island at the time. “There was a view in Hawaii that marijuana smoking, in particular, was actually good for surfing because you increase your lung capacity with all that drawing in of the smoke,” he claims. “The more marijuana, the better the surfer.”

It was a culture that the governing body did little to confront publicly. “There was zero drug testing, period, done by the association,” says Melissa Buckley, who was its media director between 2005 and 2009. “There were just too many guys that wouldn’t pass.”

Most notoriously, triple world champion Andy Irons died of a heart attack in 2010 after taking a cocktail of methamphetamine, methadone and cocaine. Anthony Ruffo, who pioneered the surfing scene in Santa Cruz, California, admitted last year to dealing methamphetamine. Peter Davi, another high profile Santa Cruz surfer, had traces of meth in his blood when he drowned in 2007, whereas Darryl Virostko, a contemporary of Davi and Ruffo, has spoken of overcoming a meth addiction.

Ruffo claimed that drug use was rife on the pro circuit during the 1990s. “Going to Brazil and getting $9 grams of cocaine was part of the fun,” he told the New York Times. “Guys were coming out of their rooms loaded for their heats.”

In a coffee shop in the centre of Newquay, Hepworth-Povey introduces me to 19-year-old Matt Rodwell, a Zimbabwe-born semiprofessional. Rodwell is an example of how times are changing. He is trying to qualify for surfing’s most elite competition—the ASP World Tour, a series of 11 tournaments contested by the 36 highest-ranked surfers in the world—and when he finally makes it, he wants the competition to be as rigorous as possible. “There are people who party, surf, party, surf. But I want to make a living from it, so I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs. I want to be the best I can.”

He goes to the gym six times a week and spends up to eight hours a day in the water. “If people want to party at night and go surfing the next day, they’re still going to be able do that. But if you’re in the top 36 you can’t be out there off your face.”

So much for recreational drugs—what about performance-enhancing steroids? “I haven’t known of anyone taking drugs that affect their performance,” says Stokes. “You’re in an environment where drugs aren’t really going to work: you’re immersed in the ocean.”

Rodwell does not think the new drug tests will affect surfing’s wider party culture. But he does believe it will accelerate a divide between those surfers who want to compete at the highest level, and those who have the talent to do so but prefer to make their money from sponsorship deals, rather than competitive surfing. He cites the example of Dane Reynolds, the surfer who quit association competitions last year in favour of a more relaxed lifestyle, financed by sponsors more sympathetic to rebellious types like him.

On the other side of town, in one of the few surf shops that are open, I run into a few people who are more tentative about drug tests. Jamie Mather (20), a semiprofessional surfer and part-time shop assistant, thinks it would be a shame if the world tour’s qualifying tournaments lost their decadence. “It’s like a ritual for the younger surfers to party at that age.”

Ben Baird (36), his colleague and a former European youth champion, says something similar. “If they drugs-tested the whole of surfing, they’d lose a lot of its heritage.”

Then again, he cannot bring himself to be too sentimental. Testing for drugs was sometimes done at certain competitions, even when he was a youngster. It just wasn’t as formalised as it will soon be. Baird remembers being around drugs at parties and having to hide underneath his hoodie to avoid coming into contact with anything illicit.

One thing everyone agrees on is that the new laws will give surfing a greater chance of one day becoming an Olympic sport. “If they want to be at the Olympics,” says Matas down on the beach, “it’s important for them to do this, to have the same standards as other sports.”

Rodwell is particularly excited by the idea; representation at the Olympics would give elite surfers the recognition he feels they do not have. “In my opinion Kelly Slater is the best sportsman of all time,” he says of the man who has won more surfing world championships than any other. “He’s better than Michael Jordan and yet people just say: ‘Oh, it’s just surfing.’ He’s going out and risking his life every day, but all people remember is that he went out with Pamela Anderson.”

Hepworth-Povey agrees: “If this is a way for some of the world’s best athletes to get some of the attention and money that footballers get, then that’s great.”

Evans hopes surfing’s cleaner image will encourage more women than ever to get involved. She does not remember seeing many female surfers when she first moved to Newquay 12 years ago. “It was quite intimidating.” Today women have become an accepted part of the surfing community, she says, but they are still in a slight minority and they are still underfunded.

Even though the skills gap between male and female surfers is narrower than in other sports, both sponsorship and prize money are significantly lower in women’s tournaments than in men’s.

Evans does not think testing for drugs will tackle this problem directly, but she nevertheless hopes that the good publicity sparked by the new rules will encourage more women to take up surfing - and more companies to sponsor them.

It will be about time, says Kerry Powell, Evans’s friend and a tournament judge, because female surfers have long led the way to greater professionalism. “Women’s surfing is already quite clean,” says Powell. “We already take it so seriously because we have to make the most of what little resources we have.”

Down on Towan Beach, our lone surfer seems far removed from this argument—or indeed any argument about surfing governance. Matas is not here for the drugs or the sponsorship or the prize money or the reputation. He works as a waiter in a local hotel and moved to Newquay last year because the waves in Barcelona were not high enough. What makes him brave the near-freezing waters on the first Tuesday of the new year? “I just really wanted to get in the water.”—

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