"The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved..." -- Jack Kerouac
Madness is relative; you could say that one man's insanity is another man's pleasure. The dragons that some of us are running from are the very dragons that others are chasing. My own form of madness began at a little pub in Kommetjie, South Africa. My bandmates and I were enjoying one last meal together with our hosts and the local crew. After a couple of amazing weeks in South Africa, it was time to go home. Smiles and laughter accompanied some great food and an incredible group of people: the perfect way to end the trip. But our journey to South Africa had one more adventure left in it: that night, our drummer Chad had taken a dare.
"No excuses, bru! You can borrow my boards, my leashes, whatever you need." Dougal Paterson was making us an offer we couldn't refuse: man up and surf the legendary Crayfish Factory at dawn. "Come on, it's gonna be mental, bru! One last session before you fly home!" I had mixed feelings about the prospect of giant, freezing, sharky waves, but I knew I had to go. First off, I never want to miss out on an adventure. And second, Dougal has a way of talking you into things you might not do otherwise. He's the best kind of crazy -- full of life and laughter. A few days earlier, he had named a rarely ridden peak we had been surfing after my daughter. "Daisy's. We'll call this spot Daisy's from now on!" This felt like my chance to return the favor, to paddle out with him at one of his favorite places to surf. And so it was settled: tomorrow morning we would surf the infamous Crayfish Factory.
Dawn revealed some sizable sets moving through the early morning rain. Turns out Tim, Chad and I weren't the only ones checking the surf that morning. A handful of Dougal's "Band of Brothers" had assembled with us in the parking lot. One of them laughed that only Dougal could have talked us into surfing such stormy, ugly, madness. "If there were a dictionary of Dougal conditions, it would look something like this," a friend of his remarked: "Windy, cold, rainy, and big."
I looked down at the 9-foot gun that I had borrowed from Dougal. The board was massive, crafted to catch huge waves that don't come to my hometown often, if ever. As I pulled my wetsuit on, I looked back to see Dougal and a few of the other guys quietly putting on floatation vests and hoods. I wasn't armed with either, only a few more questions about what we all were paddling out into. As the rain poured down the crew laughed and accused Dougal of insanity. "You're crazy, man -- crazy for dragging us out here in this stuff!" The bombs breaking out on the point gave me some fire for the paddle out, but the cold winter rain had me shivering before I reached the 48-degree water.
With a short prayer on the beach, we jumped in. Oddly enough, I can't remember the prayer mentioning the waves, only the sharks (always nearby in South African waters). As we began to paddle, my brother pointed to an amazing rainbow that was forming over the peak: a bright flash of colors against an ominous backdrop. He tried to force a laugh, "That's a promise that God is never going to destroy us by water, right?!" I smiled and kept paddling, I wasn't so sure that Noah's conversation with God covered sharks or two wave hold-downs.
The Crayfish Factory is a rite of passage for any Cape Town surfer; Dougal calls it his lady, but it's a strange lady. When you look out at the point, you see an old, dilapidated structure next to a dying pier, looking like the perfect backdrop for a horror film. But the real monsters are the waves that break out the back, while bull kelp and jagged rocks dance with the giant whitewater on the inside. Further out the wave goes from boil to boil -- fully exposed to the wind in almost any swell direction. I sat in the line-up taking it all in. The rain came and went, but the wind remained constant -- a side shore devil wind that made it hard to see. We were in the middle of the ocean at the bottom of the world.
"Lines of terror -- walls of death!" I turned around to see Shaun Timoney paddling out behind us -- yelling and laughing as he paddled. Shaun is a man among men. The first time I met him he was bloody from the fish that he had caught with hand-lines right out in front of his house. He stands a full foot taller than most folks -- a well-built house of a man. I first heard his name attached to the photo he took of Greg Long at Dungeon's, the photo that won the XXL contest a few years back. So I was concerned when he told me that these conditions were right at the top of his comfort zone. After about 20 unlucky minutes, Sean pointed deeper inside the peak. "Let's go try and catch one in there, eh? That way if we get caught inside we can laugh at each other before we go under." So off we went, ready to play cat and mouse with the monsters out the back.
My goal for the day was to catch one wave.
Instead I caught three.
On the head.
The set of waves that came in was what they call a sneaker set. Being a bit bigger than anything we'd seen that morning, it caught everyone off-guard. I remember hearing Dougal's primal scream as he scratched over the top of it. I remember looking up at the lip as it went square and exploded... on top of me. I remember how dark and large the ocean felt around me. I tried to stay calm. Calm, calm, calm... After what seemed like a lifetime, the deep water around me began to brighten up a bit. The noise rushed back into my ears and I came to the surface. I saw two things all at once. First, I had been washed all the way inside. And second, my board (the 9-foot rhino chaser that I had borrowed from Dougal) was snapped in half.
I swam for the half that was closest to me. With the front four feet missing from the board, I was able to duck-dive the rest of the set. From the channel I made the paddle of shame back to the boat launch. The fiberglass had peeled back from the deck of the broken board. Blowing in the wind, it smacked me in the face from time to time, as if to remind me of my shortcomings -- adding insult to injury. The whole paddle in, I kept looking for the other half of the board in vain. It was lost at sea -- on its way to Antarctica or who knows where. The tail of the board and I finally made it to shore. Dougal had told me it was his first real gun. And now it had been snapped in half for the fourth and final time.
The Crayfish Factory had humbled me. I felt horrible about the broken board and apologized to Dougal as we packed up. But even as the words were forming in my mouth he began to laugh, "Don't even think about it. Everything has an expiration date, bru! All of us!" And he was right. We've all got a deadline, and at that moment it felt crazy to ignore it. It's madness to pretend that death will not find us. It's madness to piddle away at our meaningless lives, running from the challenge. Face your fears or stay on the shore, the decision is yours to make. But remember: in any worthwhile endeavor there's risk involved. Fall in love, fight for something you believe in, or paddle out on a day that scares you -- the risk is always there. But perhaps the greater risk is to live out these shallow lives, running from our fears and dreams.
Dougal, if you were sitting next to me, I would thank you for the dare. Thank you for letting me join your "Band of Brothers." Thank you for your life-giving lunacy. Truly, yours is a beautiful form of insanity -- the kind of madness that would dare to face these fearful dragons of mine. The kind of madness that brings me to my knees, that elicits prayers and curses, laughter and fear. And as I write these words I'm half a world away from the Crayfish Factory, flying home. But I can still feel South African sand between my toes. I'm still coated in that fearful, glorious saltwater: the same waters that held me down, the same waters that let me go. We're on our initial descent into the mania of Southern California: the dead-end traffic, the mindless rat race parody of our postmodern yearnings. Thousands of people stuck in a line, all of them half-heartedly longing for movement and escape. And as I look down into the crowded smog below, Dougal's madness doesn't seem that crazy after all.
Check out this description of the Factory from a local book detailing the SA surf spots:
Crayfish Factory (5 Star rating)
"Scary big-wave right-hander that pitches on to an outside reef, then sucks for a 100 meters across an inside ledge, before bending into a channel. The factory is one of Cape Towns heaviest, but most exhilarating waves. During a 10- to 15-foot southwest to south swell, this regal right-hander is a walling, sucking, spitting glass monster that heaves tons of liquidised innards onto a jagged, boiling ledge. Most surfers have a tale of terror and anguish here: bone dislocation, bust boards, gashes and star spangled visions of speckled death by drowning. If you're pounded on take-off, you can get pegged down deep in a dark, roiling tomb, the distant roar of 12-foot monsters overhead. When you surface, spat into the channel like some foul piece of human detritus coughed up by a sea monster, expect to be floating without a board, dazed and confused. But don't dally. Shift into survival mode. Swim towards the inside like a mutant salmon up a waterfall. You don't want the rip to suck you towards Misty Cliffs."