Changes at the Cape
During the marvelous month of May, the East Coast of Oz has been bathed in a seemingly never-ending run of swell, offshore wind, and sunshine.
This deluge of swell has also produced an inundation of images, clips, and even livestreams onto social media platforms as riders, filmers, and videographers compete to be the first to upload their coverage to the masses.
From an entertainment perspective, it was a boon to be able to watch hard-charging hombres and hombrettes getting shacked off their dial in all but real time.
However, what has happened to the cultural code that used to be so ingrained within the surfing and bodyboarding mindset, of an almost obsessive secrecy and desire to keep sessions and waves under wraps for fear of attracting crowds?
Is it still relevant, or are lineups and attitudes vastly different in the year 2021?
Ground Zero for both surf action and media content from this month's swell eminated from the break of a thousand names: Pikers Hole, De Niro’s, Cape Fear, Ours, Solander.
Shots and clips from the ledgey, backwashy, right-hander hit the socials the evening of each session, with a drip-feed of follow ups over the subsequent days.
In many ways, the Cape is the perfect metaphor for the changing culture around the surf experience. A secret spot kept under wraps for years in Australia’s most populous city, next a spot dominated by violence so that it could be exploited by a select few, and now the media darling for the disposal posts-for-likes mentality that social media has created.
In an effort to try to understand this evolution in attitudes we hunted down some significant characters within the Cape Solander story to see if we could flesh out how and why the attitudes are a’changing.
First up, Kurnell’s original hard-charging hellman and early Cape test pilot, bodyboarder Warren 'Wazza' Feinbier on the early days and how the secret of the Cape started to leak:
“I never told photogs where I was going. Most guys ring and make friends with photographer’s for their own benefits. Not me. Like Dave Ballard said once, “You charge Wazza because you love it and dont give a shit if you get a photo taken or not."
"I just kept my mouth shut and called places like the Cape, Rights, Lefts and Middles, or just Spot X. People begged me to know and my reply was, “Sorry can’t tell you".
"It most likely leaked from that footage in one of Strohy’s vid with the younger guys, Williams, Leon, Hall, and Lester burning out a car in the carpark and the reverse image pics of Cape that started coming out."
The Bra Boys would have caught onto it. Who really knows? But those stand up surfers have made it a fucking joke of a place now."
Des Govender, who owns and operates Cronulla institution Emerald Surf Surf Shop, is another long term local with some firm opinions on the changing scene:
“When I first started surfing around Cape Solander it was around 1994. I was hanging out with a few older guys, and without mobile phones, cameras, and social media the spot was kept pretty under wraps by the locals. It was old school rules like 'keep it to yourself' and 'don’t expose anywhere as it's not your spot to expose', and 'if you do you will get get beat up and never welcomed back again'."
"I think that mentality changed when there was a huge shift in guys chasing waves with a photograher and wanting that instant gratification on Instagram and Facebook. People even posting to their story before they surfed then wondering why the lineup got so crowded. I can’t believe how stupid some people are. You know who you are!"
"Instagram livestreaming makes me sick. Social media has it place in most peoples lives but wait a few days until the swell dies down before you post things. It only makes the lineup more crowded the next day amping everyone up!"
"I’m old school so I try and keep some waves between myself and a few mates! I think discretion is still important, but the younger guys with sponsors and social media pressure don’t give a fuck. Not everyone, but a lot don’t care."
"I think personally, jet skis can fuck off unless nobody in the lineup is paddling. Be respectful to the locals wherever you are, and social media is not the be all and end all”.
Pretty stern words from the O.G. crew, but what we would expect from those of the generation who knew the consequences of loose lips was a punch in the face and a more crowded line up?
As ol’ American poet Robert Frost once lamented: 'Nothing gold can stay' and despite the best efforts of the early locals to keep the Cape on the down low, a quality slabbing break on the doorstep of the most populated city in Australia couldn’t be kept quiet forever.
As a new millennium dawned, so did a new era for the Cape, an era characterised by possessive ownership backed up by physical violence and confrontation. This was the time of the Bra Boys and the re-christening of Wazza’s nameless Spot X to the domineering title of Ours.
Richie Vaculik was a member of the crew from across the bay who were soon monopolising the break. He's witnessed the way the lineup, and the attitude of those who surf there, has evolved over the last two decades.
How did the Maroubra crew first become aware of the waves at Cape Solander?
Yeah, staring across Botany Bay watching waves explode along that southern headland we always thought there might of been something surfable over there. Then we started hearing whispers of bodyboarders surfing a slab in that area. On a trip to WA in the early 2000’s we came across some footage and stills of the wave but it had been flipped into a left. But with the water colour and cliffs in the background it was enough for us to have a fair idea where it was.
So on the first swell when we got back home, myself and Mark Mathews went on a little search mission and Bob's ya uncle.
Can you give an insight into how the practice of heavily regulating the line up came about? Was it a conscious decision or did it evolve naturally?
Conscious decision for sure. The idea of having a slab close to home where local young surfers could get waves kinda drove it. The Island, Suctions, Indicators up the coast, were all heavily packed out with lids making it really hard to get good ones out there, and for young groms it was almost impossible, and we were always getting into blues with the crowds. Cape and Shark Island work on similar conditions, so when we started surfing it we were like, 'that can be theirs and this can be ours'.
Why were the Bra boys so militant in only allowing a select crew to surf it?
Maroubra has always been a very testosterone-charged environment, especially in the 90’s and coming into the 2000’s. Fighting has always been a part of life. So if we wanted to keep the break to just surfers there was no other way of going about it. It was a pretty wild time down at Maroubra then and all us boys were running with the ‘hated and proud’ and ’ride or collide’ mentality which fed into that militant approach.
When did the stranglehold over the lineup start to break down?
I’m not sure really...around 2019 maybe? Loads of crew from Cronulla were hitting it every swell by then, and they were pretty tight and friendly with the bodyboarding crew from that way.
I personally had gotten in a bit of trouble and been in and out the courts. And since first surfing Cape, had done a lot of travel with lids to waves in Tassie, South Oz, and WA, and made good friends with a lot of them. My mentality had definitely shifted from what it was when we first started surfing the place, and it was cool to see crew getting stoked surfing the wave whatever it was they were riding.
How do you feel when you see the way the line up operates today?
It’s good to see a heap of young groms from both our way and Cronulla way charging and getting sick ones out there, as well as guys who have been putting time in out there still pushing each other which produces some mental surfing.
It’s generally a pretty cool line up with a pretty wide range of crew out there. It can get a little chaotic and circus-like at times but that’s kinda the nature of the wave too.
What are your feelings on the practice of posting images, footage, and even livestreaming the action on social media on the same day of a swell?
It’s just they way it is these days. I kinda like seeing and hearing about shit as it goes down if I’m not there. Back in the day you would have to wait until the mags released the photos weeks after the session, but before digital and social media there was really no other option.
It makes it hard for people in the surf photography/video industry to keep shit exclusive and make money outta sessions, but you can’t stop change. It can also effect surfers trying to get coin off sponsors the way they used to, but on the flipside it’s also a steady and instant form of exposure for them.
So there you go. It seems that haters no longer gonna hate. So what has a little time, common ground, respect, and perspective morphed the Cape Solander lineup into now?
We hit up Ben Sawyer, one of the new crew of ‘Nulla core boogers for some insights into what it was like in the guts of the pack at the peak of the swell
What was the vibe like in the water?
Yeah pretty laid back I reckon. Heaps of people out there but no confrontation.
Do you think that livestreams and the quick uploading of footage contributed to the crowd factor?
Yes and no. On one side, anyone that surfs there knew it was going to be on, but on the other, some guys are more encouraged to go there because they see it on people’s Insta story.
If there was no coverage potential, do you think it would have been so crowded?
I don’t think it would have been so crowded, there were a few groms out there that were not really able to get waves but they have to learn somehow. Most of the people out there were good surfers.
Do you think that some spots like Pipe, The Island, Snapper, and now The Cape are so well known that crowds are just part of the deal because everyone knows when it’ll be on and it’ll be crowded no matter what?
Yeah, spots like those are cooked and it’s not getting any better but there are still spots were it’s uncrowded. I find now it’s all secret squirrel before Spot X is on down the coast and nobody says they’re going there, but when you rock up everyone is there!
So for the forseeable future, it seems that surfing at the Cape is going to mean not only navigating the drop and the backwash, but also the pressing mass of bodies in the takeoff zone. But this doesn’t mean that it has to be a confrontational dog eat dog environment. Indeed it seems that a positive crowd can actually enhance the surfing experience.
Brenden Newton says that was largely his experience while shooting photos during the last swell, and it came from the positive attitude of the majority of those in the water:
"Russ Bierke was probably the best guy out there on Saturday and he was also the nicest and kindest dude. He set the standard for how others were treating each other, I think."
"I’ve been out there with fucken sheep that perpetuate the poor treatment of boogers or whatever, but with Tim Bonython, Brad Whittaker, all the Cronulla bodyboarders, the vibe was incredible. The antithesis of the old Bra Boy bully shit."
Maybe crowded lineups can work if respect and stoke are valued over greed and domination?
Perhaps that’s the key then. There are very few secrets anymore, and the days of monopolising a spot through violence are done. With urban sprawl and population growth outside of cities exploding post-COVID, crowds aren’t going to diminish. Perhaps it’s incumbent on all of us when the numbers swell past a certain point to create a positive vibe in the lineup. To work together to create a stoking environment that leaves us all energised post-pits.
Perhaps that’s the lesson of the new Cape experience.
// DAN DOBBIN
Dan runs the unapologetically partisan website 'Infoamed', which presents as an inverse of the Instagram experience: Lots of considered words mixed with the odd photo.