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2020 Revision: Looking Back on The Year in Surfing That Was

Somebody’s has to speak up for the forgotten victims, like 2016. The year that gave us Brexit, Trump and killed everyone who’d ever thought about making a decent song or film, had enjoyed a level of infamy as the gruesome year everyone wanted to turn off and on again, until 2020 came along and put 2016 back in its bland to middling irrelevant little vanilla box.

If 2016 was kicking life while it was down, 2020 was Tyson uppercuts to the face whilst underwater in a crashed plane going over the falls in a tsunami.

And yet for all the misery, as seen from the narrow prism of surfers, we were more concerned for our wave counts than R-numbers.

2020 was maybe the year our weird exceptionalism myth revealed itself to have some substance.

Despite financial ruin, despite the loss of loved ones, loneliness, anxiety… if you could just still get a few waves. Or even just look at and smell the sea, you could be forgiven for feeling that maybe, just maybe, you had half a chance.

Back in the first week of January 2020, I was in Hainan, China for the year’s first WSL event broadcast, something called, believe it or not, the Corona China Open. Also on the commentary team were Chris Binns, former CT ripper John ‘Schmoo’ Shimooka and Jess Grimwood.

On our first day there, Jess told us about a ritual she does at family dinners, where they go around the table and everyone shares a positive experience, a negative, and airs any grievances.

Schmoo, whom I didn’t know previously, seeing I didn’t have a board, had loaned me his brand new Machado Go Fish that afternoon. Binns dropped in on me. Binns, a self confessed carbon super-emitter reckoned he’d taken 80-something flights in 2019, anticipating more the coming year.

It didn’t take me long to come up with my good/bad/grievance as we went around the table.

Days later, as my connecting flight out landed in Hong Kong, they announced something about a virus on the mainland, or something, on the plane’s PA. Quite a few people had masks on, as they tend to in Asia. Still, it felt like a state run surf talent program I’d found out about was probably the most sinister thing coming out of the Middle Kingdom.

That Binns’ flygskam (flight shame), thinking he might break a hundred, would soon be down to none, as global skies would empty and Australia would completely close off to outside world, seemed beyond unlikely.

That Schmoo wouldn’t be around to see the year out, unthinkable.

This article is my good/bad/grievances on 2020.

Alex Botelho, you had us all worried there for a while. Photo: WSL/Masurel

February

February 8th, Nazaré, Portugal: A seemingly innocuous decision extend the tow event another hour very nearly ended in disaster. In the broadcast studio, Pete Mel uttered, “It’s a body” as the world watched drone footage of Alex Botelho, face down and unconscious, take 30ft reforms on the back. The resusitation being broadcast live, then later clipped up for social was rightly questioned, on site and around the world. Albee Layer remarked ‘our lives are clickbait’.

Closer to home, in conditions that looked much more like the place swells are generated, rather than where they should be surfed, came the Hastings storm surfer non-rescue in the English Channel. The surfer ditched his board yards from shore, got swept back out and eventually washed in 5 miles east.

The ensuing keyboard histrionics included him being tried for ‘attempted murder’ of the RNLI crew sent to rescue him. WL Editor Luke Gartside’s rapier sharp take on the incident made for one of the most viewed articles of the year.

Locked down in the Ments, dry season 2020. Photo @mentawaisurfco

March

Global lockdowns brought the first widespread surfing bans since Calvinist missionaries first banned the Hawaiians in 1820’s. In places where it wasn’t banned like the UK, controversy about the morality of going surfing raged.

Mainland Europe took a much more hardline stance, banning surfing outright, France restricted sporting sorties to the terrestrial, with a 1 hour/1km limit. Police dished out hundreds of thousands of euros in fines, a Gendarme heli chased three surfers out of the water, landed on the dunes and held the surfers at gunpoint. Underlining just how universal life’s themes can tend to be, rather than being rattled by manner of his arrest, the surfer in question merely wanted to keep it hush from his wife.

April

More of the same, only with longer days. Kanoa Igarashi incurred the wrath of Portuguese surfers by driving 300km to the Algarve to surf a 2ft beachbreak, having his car vandalised in Peniche days earlier for the same perceived infringement. While our ever-more connected world continued to exists mainly in horizontal time, WL caught up with custodian of the vertical flame, Matt Warshaw, for some longer view insights on Covid. Hot take: he wouldn’t mind if wave pools all ‘cratered’ (or more literally, filled in).

Fistral, April. Look closely and see how the lineup is maintaining distancing, you can’t help but conclude surfers must be part of solution, rather than the problem. Photo: @lugarts

Where you spent lockdown forced an evaluation of your many life choices up to this point, the work/life balance inevitably tipping to the right. As swallows filled the skies, buds burst into riotous flower and the sea surface sparkled bluer by the day, a collective moment of reckoning befell us. City and coastal dwellers alike seemed to be seeing the same big picture; as we hurtle through space towards our own statistical inclusion among a daily death rate figure at some future point, that higher wages, better nightlife, early onset street food would never get close to underemployment and lineup access for the nourishment of their souls.

May

Respite stoke: Bans lifting, surfers’ protests gaining traction, lineups re-opening around Europe. The WSL announced the change they’d wanted to make a couple of years previous, this time the Covid hiatus helping force the issue. Wrapping the tour in early September meant killing the Euro leg after some twenty glorious years. Still, in terms of Covid casualties, it’s all very small beer.

A new localism, part state-sanctioned emerged, as out-of-towners descended on the beach. Surfing’s petty squabbles got a sudden dose of perspective in the worst possible way, with Europe’s worst ever lineup mass drowning at Scheveningen, Holland, when freak conditions took the lives of five surfers.

June

A relative cease fire. Prompted to wonder what the new normal might look like, any positives, like the 2020 combustion pause’s reduction in deaths due to air pollution being of a similar order total global Covid fatalities, felt double edged given the inevitability we’d go hurtling back to as we were at the earliest opportunity. And all this while walking the dog before breakfast.

Still, existential angst aside, it was sunny the waves were pretty alright.

When the harsh reality of the world outside your window jags and jars at your inner well-being, Tom Curren. Photo: Grambeau

Given the 2020’s fetishisation of old sport, re-watches and golden era deep dives, we decided to explore some of wave riding’s classics for a bit of good old fashioned escapism, and Ted Grambeau talked us through his iconic 90’s sequence of Tom Curren at Backdoor. As down to earth and understated in the Aussie sense as Ted is, he gushed in his measured, warm tone on classic Curren. “Tom is one of the great artists of my generation. The way he’s so subtle and refined, very few athletes have ever been in that calibre.”

July

WL’s Drive-In Cinema at Watergate brought iconic surf films to the socially distanced masses on the big screen, with classics like Blue Juice. Celebrating 25 years since the Cool Britannia era surf funny, we rang up Sean Pertwee for a chat, ahead of him joining us in Cornwall for the screening.

Elsewhere on the big screen Point Break was a huge hit. We talked to legendary Hawaiian waterman Darrick Doerner about his Waimea stunt, arguably still the heaviest surf stunt ever performed. Patrick Swayze’s wife Lisa even saw the piece and dropped us a line in support of Double D.

’94 World Champ Derek Ho passed away in Hawaii in July, aged just 55. Rewatching recent or classic footage of the diminutive, child-like in stature, giant Pipe his true legacy was probably testament of surfing’s lack of prejudice to body type. Committed finesse and watermanship will always triumph over brute strength or stature.

Drive-In Cinema, Watergate. Photo: Lightcoloursound

August

Coastal towns and lineups swelled to their busiest ever. Euro surf looked like those shots of Snapper on a cyclone swell, only it was 2ft. The relationship between elite pro surfing proved either entirely absent or inversely proportional, and recreational surfing boomed. Turns out, whether Sage gets the 3 she needs or not has zero affect on girls and boys’ relish to catch themselves a few waves.

The public reevalutated what they wanted out of life, and what they wanted was a board and a wetsuit and surf lessons. For a few weeks, Covid was almost completely forgotten, or even parodied. A serveuse in a popular beach bar in Seignosse, France sported a face mask made out of a bit of lace bra. France had lots of social, and very little distancing.

September

Traditionally a good month for surfing in Europe, certainly an anecdotal favourite, 2020 proved weather’s primacy over climate at any given moment in time. The Euro WSL events revived as part of the Countdown Series were utterly pants. In a fierce controversy about the Guinness big wave world record going to Maya, Justine Dupont boycotted the French Rendez-Vous of Surfing in protest. Nobody really noticed.

Italo Ferreira got sent in at Coxos for an etiquette infringement during the Portugal event, ten years after Parko got slapped at Supertubos during the CT. In Portugal, reigning world champ status remains no exemption from lineup etiquette.

Giant Nazaré, like 2020, just doesn’t seem real. Photo @penichesurflodge

October

The ‘Bible of the Sport’ Surfer Magazine was laid to rest. Some suggested their recent IG comment supporting Biden in the Presidential election was a contributing factor. It wasn’t. Seeing a giant toppled with barely a whimper, was sobering for a childhood fan who decided to make a living in surf journalism.

As the nights drew in and any residual warmth evaporated from sea and sand we braced ourselves for the longest winter of our surfing lives, or even took mind altering substances when reality was way too harsh to confront.

Storm Epsilon brought da ruckus at the end of the month, one of the cleanest and biggest Atlantic swells in memory. Nazaré had fights in the lineup, punches thrown between tow teams. Spectators cramming cliffs would see surfing at Nazaré banned (although apparently not particularly adhered to/enforced). We chatted with G Mac about it all, who called it the best day at Nazaré he’d ever seen.

November

A 2020 home strait kick against the pricks and swim against the tide vibe as Wavelength Vol. 259 comes hot off the press. We’re still stoked to still be putting out longform surf storytelling, even more stoked that it’s you the reader that’s supporting it.

On the 16th came the tragic news that Schmoo had taken his own life in Australia. The surf world paid tribute, and nobody put it better than Surfing World’s Sean Doherty. It’s still way too soon to begin to comprehend the full toll of the lost year of 2020, lockdowns and other new norms on peoples’ mental health, but suffice to say we’re going to need to look out for each other more than ever.

The Wozzle’s doubling down on comeback in Hawaii seemed, at times, unduly beset by difficulties. Photo: Bielmann // WSL

December

For all surfing’s fondness for surfing, it’s only our second favourite sport, hating on the Wozzle coming a clear first. We all love to go in late, two footed and hard on the sport’s governing body, not so much out of sadism, it’s just… impossible not to.

But witnessing this month’s Hawaiian happenings do their utmost to derail project reboot, you couldn’t help but feel some sympathy for them, kicked dog style, as if trapped in the tragicomedy lyrics of a Kevin Bloody Wilson song.

‘I’ve had an absolute c*nt of a day,

Everything that could go did go wrong’

After making the big comeback they’d been prepping for since May, a fatal shark attack on a freesurfer at Honolua an hour before the start of finals day shut down the Maui Pro for the women. Then Covid positive tests for staff including boss Elo, shut down the Pipemasters for the men.

All we wanted was to watch some waves.

Meanwhile, the whole world turned a weary eye to Coventry, East Midlands, where a 90-year-old named Maureen’s frail, flappy bicep jab gave us all some succor, a slim hope for either a return to life as we knew it, or perhaps brand new dawn, sometime around late spring next year.

Or maybe we’re all bit battle weary to be optimistic? 2020 punched out. Just go floppy and let it happen, as any big wave surfer will advise (much, much easier said than done).

As I write, Christmas, like JK Rowling, Kanye and Land of Hope & Glory has literally just been cancelled.

The wind has turned offshore here today, after a period of Biscay gales. It’s bitter cold this morning, but cautious sun beams are poking through, there might be a little tide/wind/temperature window later. Tomorrow actually looks pretty good. Probably best not get ahead of ourselves though.

Fancy making a collective New Year’s resolution? Here’s to taking it one surf at a time.


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