Dougal, you're a Dragon-slaying, cold-water, filmmaking, storytelling surfer. How did you end up playing fixer for the South Africa trip?
I’ve made three movies for Finisterre now and have also done a couple of storytelling nights, one in London and one in St Agnes – that’s where I met up with Tom, David and Lawrence. We ended up paddle boarding across this inlet in the rain, with Tom’s dog on the front of his board, and had some beers in this pub on the other side. I said to them, “You should come to South Africa and I’ll be your fixer. I’ll introduce you to my friends and we’ll have an adventure together.” And they took me up on it.
How did the team come to form?
I wanted to build a team of people who weren’t afraid to rough it. Two of the first people we met were Hanli Prinsloo and Peter Marshall. Hanli’s an amazing free diver and ocean conservationist, and her boyfriend Peter, an American swimming champion and former world record holder. So a real power team.
We also had Patrick Burnett, who we call ‘the Pirate’ because he makes wooden boards. And Uriah Muller, ‘The Salt Shepherd’. On the longboard, we had Mia Baard; the personification of poise and grace. The first time she stood up on the board, all the guys were like “What just happened there?”
Then there was 19-year-old Ruth Armstrong, who’s on South Africa’s junior team. Her dad was a world big wave surfing champion, so she comes from the ultimate South African surfing pedigree. Our water photographer was Alan Van Gysen. He’s just pioneered a trip up to Gabon I think it was. It took months of preparation and special permits to get into that area. He's like the David Livingstone of African surf explorers.
And we had Fabian Campagnola, a 19-year-old kid I’ve mentored up from age 14. He just found me one day and said, “I want to ride big waves.” He's now leading the charge of the next generation of African big wave riders.
A crew for all scenarios then?
Absolutely. On our first day, Hanli took us out in the kelp forest – this mystical, beautiful place. Along with David Gray, Finisterre’s Head of Creative, who really thought he was being led to his death. We arrived at this bay and he said, “Are there any sharks out there?” I was like, “Bru, this bay is full of sharks.” And I called Hanli over and she said “Yeah, it’s the second highest concentration of Great Whites in the world.” After that it was like he was resigned to the fact he was going to the guillotine. But he swam down into the kelp forest with us. He faced his deepest fears. It was truly inspiring.
What did the itinerary look like in the way of waves?
Well the goal was to ride Super Tubes, the Jerusalem of right-handers. We had a front coming in, it was freezing cold outside; all the signs were there. So we chased the swell up through the rain – two cars in convoy, just driving for eight hours straight. We knew we had to shoot all this clothing the next day and be professional, but all we were really thinking about were rifling 6-8ft tubes. So we were up at dawn, but it was not rifling 6-8ft. It was more like a dying 4-5ft swell, coming straight at the point, at the wrong angle. But we had some really good surfers with us, and Alan our photographer was making wine from water.
“At night, full African sky. No light pollution, just pinpricks in heaven, as far as you can see.”
The next day we beat our way down the side of this steep headland where we found the most beautiful sand bottom, right-hand point break. It was like going back in time, having this warm crystal blue water to ourselves. We had three or four hours there, alternating different boards. You could get perfect trim and drag your hand over the top of the wave. The photographer, James Bowden, he was bodysurfing with a flip flop.
Those nights we stayed with Uriah and Gellika. They have a sheep farm on the edge of a giant valley that looks out onto a blue mountain range. The guys were just blown away. It’s been in his family for, I think, nine or ten generations. At night, full African sky. No light pollution, just pinpricks in heaven, as far as you can see. We cooked and ate a fattened lamb Uriah had grown, fed and killed. Even one of the guys who doesn’t eat meat was like, “Bru, if I’m going to eat meat anytime it’s going to be now.”
Was there much on this trip that was new to you?
This trip really opened my eyes when we connected with Waves for Change, a local surf therapy and mental health programme working with at-risk children living in unstable communities. All of us were blown away by their vision and the hard work they’re doing. We were lucky enough to meet the founder, a 28-year-old guy called Apish. We loved him, he did the whole road trip with us. Of all the incredible gear he had access to, he just wanted to wear this black and white zebra striped Finisterre towel. Checking the surf, in a restaurant, there was Apish in this towel.
As someone who’s travelled a lot through surfing, what would you say makes the South African surf culture different?
With the big wave community, I’d say it’s not about what makes us different, it’s about what makes us the same. I’ve found an amazing commonality with people. There’s a camaraderie that gives you a sense of purpose and value.
I grew up in a time where all the most beautiful beaches were legally enforced that only white people could go there, and if you had a different skin colour you could be jailed or forcibly removed from the beach. So surfing was very much a white elitist sport. Whereas now, it’s not really like that anymore.
The hotbed for learning how to surf is a place called Muizenberg. A couple of years ago it would be a bunch of white guys with longboards; now, on any given day, there could be several thousand people – a crazy cultural mix of all ages and both genders. It’s incredible, really.
Why did you choose to settle down in South Africa?
I’ll only ever be able to live in a location that has a giant wave. The little town where we live, Kommetjie, has two bona fide big waves you can paddle into. One called Sunset and one called Dungeons, within a few miles of each other. And we have a community of people who live here for the same reason, and that makes it entirely unique. But as much as I wax lyrical about big waves, it’s family first. I’m a husband of 18 years and a dad to two girls.
My favourite spot is hidden in clear view. It’s a magnificent regal peak that breaks more than a kilometre out to sea. Every now and then people worry the secret’s going to get out. But we’ve got great white sharks. And it’s really heavy. Some guys will paddle out and ride two or three waves better than anyone, then take one beat down and have a near-death experience. But if you’ve been surfing there a while, you can take six, seven waves on the head, get dragged 500m and just feel really drained.
How do you personally explore surfing within surfing?
Yes, for a while I thought, “I’m going to be the guy who rides big waves finless”. I think the biggest I got was a 12-footer, but I’d say it’s a very bad idea. If you hit a slight bump when you’re paddling in, you suddenly find you’re picking up speed but you’re not even on the wave yet. Then you start turning. So you stand up, but instead of taking off, you’re sliding down sideways, looking up at where you’ve just come from, with both hands in the face. It’s a truly sickening, horrible situation. I had to go really late and just managed to get the rail in. After that I was like, “Okay, fins are good on big waves.”
What impressions were you left with from the trip?
A feeling of wonder and gratitude. A feeling that comes from someone who likes your story and who is interested in you as a person; interested enough to want to come to your home town and country, instilling in you a sense of trust so as to let you show them around. To be able to introduce you to our friends and the places i've been going to ever since i was a kid. I see it all through a different set of eyes, so it gives me great pleasure to share natural beauty of this still pristine land.
My biggest takeaway was probably meeting Apish from Waves for Change. Meeting a guy who really does have a lot going for himself. As far as being a connector and communicator within this community, a man who has many options to grow. I asked Apish if he had any desires to move out and away from the township where he currently resides; living in a one bedroom shack on the edge of waterland, essentially a swamp. Apish said to me "no i won't move out, i'm staying here. People here need role models."
This was a real turning point for me.
Photography by David Gray, James Bowden & Alan Van Gysen.