Endless bummer

For surfers, the lockdown was perfectly summed up in a recent photograph showing perfect barrelling waves and police preventing anyone surfing them. So what is it that draws surfers to the waves? And why are some finding it so hard to break the habit? Jim Kayes went looking for answers.

Rod Moratti remembers vividly the first time he got barrelled.

“It was at North Piha. I don’t know how it happened but the wave went over me and everything went silent. I could see every drop of water and I’m not religious but I felt at one with God.”

That connection is not new. Surfers often talk in a spiritual way about their sport. They also say it makes them feel calmer, better, less antsy. They’re nicer to be around after surfing. Better partners, parents, colleagues and mates.

It is a drug, a natural one, but a drug nonetheless. Once hooked, it takes control of your life.

“I used to go surfing at 4am on Christmas Day and presents couldn’t be opened till I got home,” Cory Scott, editor and owner of New Zealand Surfing magazine admits.

His wife, Sarah, used to tell him – not in a polite way – to get out and go surfing “because I was being an arsehole”. So he knows why it’s so hard for surfers to stay out of the water.

“You can have all the worries in the world and they instantly vanish when you go for a surf. Other people de-stress in different ways but it seems to be that surfers are a lot more connected to their medium – but then, I’m talking from my selfish perspective.”

Scott, who lives in Gisborne, has seen some of New Zealand’s best surfers sitting and watching the waves this week, frustrated that they can’t surf.

The surf has been ideal. A barrelling wave at Wainui that Scott caught on camera from dry land, with police blocking access to the beach.

“Would never ever thought it would come to this. Unbelievable really,” top surfer Maz Quinn posted on Instagram.

“These sure are weird times when police have to patrol our beaches to deal with a few that decide to carry on surfing through this lockdown,” Scott said in another post.

Wainui Beach, off limits. Photo: Cory Scott nzsurfmag

He is worried about the impact the lockdown is having within the surfing community. “I’ve got mates who have been mates with each other for 30 years and they’ve fallen out over whether we should be surfing. It’s brought the worst out in people because they can’t do what they love.”

That was well illustrated by the online reaction to a Stuff photo of a Piha surfer showing him supposedly giving the finger to a police officer. On closer inspection, he was flipping the bird at the photographer. When Newsroom ran a piece explaining the surfer’s side of the photo, the abuse still rolled.

A few defended surfers, arguing the reaction against them wanting to surf was over the top. Since surfing is a way of life, some said, stopping people doing it is akin to a breach of their rights. And some old-school surfers continue to ignore the rules and encourage others to do the same, all the while bristling at those – police and public – who take them to task.

As one Facebook post put it: “What’s happening at Piha is vigilantism.”

The justification for the ‘no surfing’ edict is that it removes the potential for emergency workers to be exposed to risk if someone gets into trouble or is injured – which happened at Wainui beach the Tuesday before the lockdown, when a French tourist broke his neck surfing and was rescued by two other surfers.

But the longer the lockdown goes on, the more frustrated surfers become – and the more willing many are to ignore the new rules.

Surfing has, after all, always had a rebellious edge, a strong dose of anti-establishment individualism, coupled with a belief in the magical nature of riding a wave.

It’s an ethic captured by surfing brand billabong and its “Only a surfer knows the feeling” campaign. There are those who can surf, and those who wish they could.

Avid surfer and mental health advocate Sir John Kirwan says the buzz of catching a wave makes a terrible day better.

“There is something about the oxygen just above the sea – it’s pure. When you combine that with the endorphins you get when you catch a wave it’s a cocktail made in heaven.”

Kirwan, who would surf every day if he could and has been visualising surfing to compensate during the lockdown, says surfers need to have more in their lives. He says it’s not too different to those obsessed with gym workouts, running or golf – when they can’t get their fix, it affects them mentally and physically.

Kirwan got his first surfboard on Christmas Day when he was seven. He thought he’d lost it as he grew up, but it had gone to a cousin whose mother recently gave it back. He’s had it restored and it will soon take pride of place at his bach at Waihi Beach.

While he’s been surfing most of his life, the 55-year-old who played 63 tests for the All Blacks and is widely regarded as one of the greats, said he struggled with being “a shit surfer”.

“I’m so competitive that I want to be the best surfer, so one of the things I’ve had to deal with is not being the best surfer. So I surf for my soul.”

Moratti, 49, took up surfing as an adult, getting the bug on his 31st birthday as he watched Andy Irons win a World Surf League competition in Fiji with two perfect tens.

“I knew then that was what I wanted to do. That was my new passion.”

The day that saw Rod Moratti catching the surfing bug. His photo of Andy Irons on his way to winning the WSL competition in Fiji in 2003. Photo: Rod Moratti

So the private investigator restructured his business so he could surf pretty much full time. He’s less obsessed but just as passionate now, and knows all too well how intoxicating surfing is.

“My wife Jes will tell you that I’m a better person when I’ve been surfing.”

But he says there is more to that than some might understand. There is the physical exercise of surfing that leaves you tired and fulfilled (runners talk about a similar feeling) but Moratti also finds being on the water calming.

“You can’t control the ocean. the ocean dictates what happens and if there is a lull, you have to wait. I like to control everything but out there you can’t control it. It’s also a sport that you can never perfect, because every wave is different, so you are always learning.”

And then there is the social aspect. For Moratti, surfing is usually best done with others. “Surfing can be an excuse or reason to go on adventures to beaches around the country or the world with your mates and family.

“Surfing is an amazing reason. But it’s just a reason.”

* Made with the support of NZ on Air *

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