The Durban beachfront from New Pier to the Bay of Plenty is one of the most crowded and highly contested pieces of surfing real estate in South Africa. On any given day the piers are packed with an assortment of craft and a ridiculously high standard of surfing. Legends, pros, underground rippers who could be pros, everyday Joes and frothing lightees who all want a piece of the action. But when a booming swell lumbers in from the southeast, the crowd dissipates and it’s suddenly a very different picture.
The lineup is reduced to a handful or two of committed chargers as most of the Durban surfing community gathers along the piers to watch the spectacle. During these rare swells, even the height of the waves doesn’t do justice to the power and intensity they hold. The promenade gets destroyed, massive concrete lids pop like corks along the piers and the current running out to sea becomes the stuff NSRI nightmares are made of.
Inevitably there is always a standout or two, those guys who really want it. The swell that rocked Durban early October saw a number of the usual suspects like Twiggy and Davey Van Zyl clawing into the bombs, and who can forget Matt Pallet’s picture-perfect wave of the day. But amongst these seasoned pros, one goofy-footer was consistently taking off the deepest, pulling into some of the thickest waves and standing tall amongst the mayhem.
A former SA Champ, provincial surfer and industry man, Mike Frew is no stranger to the scene, but the past season has seen him stepping up and establishing himself as a standout amongst the crew of Durban chargers. With the waiting period for the Striped Horse Challenge drawing to a close, we thought it was high time we caught up with Frewbru to get the lowdown on his new lease on life.
Tell us a bit about your surfing background?
I started surfing at Richards Bay after getting a board for Christmas from my parents in 1987, then after a stint in the army I moved to Durban in 1992 and have been a local at Umhlanga Rocks ever since.
How did you get into heavier waves?
My passion and intrigue for bigger, heavier waves started after watching the The Performers surf movie as a grom. There’s a section in the vid with some aerial footage, flying down the Waimea valley the day The Eddie was on and seeing those sets on the horizon, I’ve been fascinated with big wave spots and hard chargers ever since. I must have watched that vid about 50 times after I first got it. I also met Todd Chesser when I was about 14, he autographed a book for me at the Gunston and wrote the words “ To Mike, stand tall in the tube”. This has kind of developed into a mantra for me in life ever since. Keeping your head high even in the face of adversity and challenge.
You’re a busy man out the water too – two kids, a job etc. How do you still manage to juggle that with enough water time?
It’s tough and juggling is probably the best way to describe it! I try to always focus on family first, then work and then surfing. After my sons Tristan and Damien were born, my wife Chantel and I found the first couple years incredibly challenging. The economy has been tough and sometimes work takes over your life just trying to make ends meet each month. We went through a difficult period trying to find that balance and it was very stressful, so I was only managing to get in the water on weekends at one point. Now that our boys are older and our careers are a bit more settled, I’ve managed to get to the point where I’m able to put a lot more time in the water. Surf when it’s good and work harder when it’s onshore.
Sounds like a good motto. We’ve always known you charge, but this past winter it seems like you’ve really made a point of stepping up in waves of consequence. Has this been a conscious effort?
It’s definitely been a very conscious effort and this year is the result of about four years of turnaround in my life. In 2012 I lost 12kg after changing eating habits and getting back into serious training. I also started surfing a lot more, looking out for specific swells and working on getting the right boards for waves I enjoy. The last two years I’ve surfed some new spots that only work on days when the charts are at four metres plus. In 2015 I stopped drinking alcohol and continued to refine the focus and time I had to be in the water. It’s been paying off as this year I’ve managed to surf most of the big days we’ve had in KZN and have felt a lot stronger, fitter and aware of what’s happening out there.
You also gave Dungeons a crack this season. How does a guy who surfs Umhlanga before work end up giving Dungeons a go?
Don’t underestimate Umhlanga (laughs)! In 2013 I was in Cape Town during one of the biggest swells and I watched that Dungeons session with Albee Layer and John John from up on the cliffs. I’ve always been interested in getting out there but that day I made my mind up to give it a go if I had the chance again. This year I planned it a bit better; my friend Grant Scholtz had a board for me, access to a boat and a place to crash for the duration of the swell. My wife Chantel also encouraged me to make it happen.
What’s been your heaviest experience this past season?
A massive cleanup set at Dungeons. Simon Louw had been helping me a bit the whole session with where to sit and find my bearings, we’d been in the water for about five hours and the wind was picking up and the tide getting a lot lower. Simon had just told me that’s when it starts getting really dangerous and unpredictable. A couple minutes later a set broke way outside of where I was sitting and I had to bail and swim under. The thing worked me so hard and I was pushed so deep that for the first time ever I actually climbed my leash to get to the surface, as I got there the next one broke on me before I could get a breath. I had pins and needles in my legs when Paris Basson picked me up with the rescue ski. That was pretty scary, and it was only a medium size day by Dungeons standards.
And the best wave you caught?
A barrel at North Beach in January. It was the last day of that ten day cyclone swell and conditions were as good as I’ve ever seen in town. Just perfect, clean, offshore and warm. I paddled out before work on the Monday and most of the crew were surfing New Pier, just Grant Baker, Brandon Ribbink and my mate Struan Campbell were out at North. A really clean eight foot set came through and Twig went on the first one. I paddled for the second one and positioned into an absolute cavern on my backhand, the wave actually spat out twice as it drained across the sandbank. It closed out in the end but I was tripping on that one wave for weeks!
You’re not exactly a spring chicken. How have you managed to charge harder the older you get?
By looking after myself and staying in the loop. As I mentioned I’ve stopped drinking and have got into a healthier, cleaner lifestyle. Being fitter is definitely an advantage, especially when it’s big. I also enjoy surfing with and watching what the younger crew is up to. The last two winters I’ve had a chance to spend some time with Keanu Asing when he’s been out here for the events, I regularly see David van Zyl and Mikey February in the water and this year I had the chance to surf a bit with Dane Reynolds. I love watching and learning from their approach to surfing, the preparation and how they are in the water. I feel like I still have so much to learn.
Anyone you look up to for inspiration?
Being a Christian my faith helps me in pretty much all aspects of my life so that’s my inspiration and anchor. From a surfing point of view I look up to guys like Shane Dorian and Kelly Slater, those guys are the same age as me and are redefining what a person is capable of in middle age. What Shane is doing at Jaws is mind blowing and the way Kelly has been able to steer his way through three decades at the top is incredible.
Where to from here?
Work hard and take each day as it comes, I think South Africa is in for a challenging couple of years ahead but I think it’s one of the best places in the world to be a surfer. I’ve always got an eye on the long term forecast for a number of spots, hoping to get to Cape Town for a few of the swells in 2017 and Skeleton Bay is definitely on my radar! Hawaii is on the bucket list for us as a family.
*Featured Image By Simon Smith