Go Big and Swim Home

Thursday, 17 September 2009 03:34 | Written by  Joe Glickman
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Go Big and Swim Home


No matter how many times I've rounded Cape Recife - and I've been going there all my life - I feel a mixture of respect and fear; if you don't it will eat you. -Richard von Wildemann


Richard 'Chopper' von Wildeman rides a biggie near Cape Recife - Dec 22, 2008

Richard von Wildemann won the 2008 South African Lifesaving Men's Open Single and Double Ski Championship. This year he finished second to Hank McGregor. Big deal, you say in your best Ozzie accent, South African Surf Lifesaving has fallen off the map over the last decade. Nevertheless the ever-smirking lad known as Chopper has solid long-distance ski chops as well: at the 2005 King of the Harbour in Auckland, his first international race, he was leading the pack chasing the eventual winner Dawid Mocke and New Zealand's Olympic silver medalist Ben Fouhy when he blew spectacularly a few kilometers from the finish, fading to sixth. He was fourth at the 2008 King of the Bay in Durban and at the World Cup in Durban this June - a race won by Clint Pretorius -- he was 12th.

Though he's far from satisfied with such results - he calls his Bronze medal in the Open Taplin Relay at the '07 AussieSurf Lifesaving Nationals "my proudest achievement" -- it's safe to say that the 26-year-old from Port Elizabeth is one of the top dozen ski paddlers in South Africa. "I still haven't delivered the goods in a long distance race yet," he told me via Skype. "I need to focus and lift my game."

I met von Wildemann two weeks before the 2007 Molokai - the hot, flat, brutal slog that saw Lewis Laughlin win his first title in Hawaii. The Wildebeest, as he's also known, went off the line with the  leaders. Around the second hour, he hit the wall as if launched by a catapult.He'd been traveling the world on a shoestring and had no money to hire an escort boat so not finishing was not an option. When I came by mid channel his face lit up as if I was a GU salesman; he sat on my wash for a full five seconds. "Go on mate," he said,"I'm stuffed!" A minute later I could still hear him screaming, "Go big Jooooooooe! You're kicking ass!"

That's the Feral One in a nutshell: modest and self-effacing, impulsive, idealistic, ridiculously enthusiastic - an oddly reckless, often unrealistic waterman who can't decide if he wants to stand on the podium at a World Cupevent or, like one of his heroes, Laird Hamilton, plug into the high voltage of BIG WATER and test how far he can go.

Witness: Last year on his 25th birthday the biggest swell to hit the Eastern Cape in 50 years arrived, rendering all but only the most protected bays surfable. This was three months before the Desert Shamaal in Dubai, a race von Wildemann had been training diligently for. When he arrived at Jeffrey's Bay with his 6'2" Fish (a seriously undersized board in those conditions), the sets were double head-high. Before you could say, "I'm not nearly good enough to surf thumping three-meter shit!" he was out, living large like a little Laird.

Then the proverbial dolphin dung hit the turbine. He paddled onto a big bastard -- stoked to make the drop! -- until the"bugger" decided to close out. "I bailed into the barrel," he said, "hit the face and got tumbled like a rag doll." His leash snapped; his board gone. When he surfaced he couldn't lift his right arm. He got smoked by another set and could barely swim. "I thought that I was going to drown," he said, "or at least get worked on the rocks." Luckily, the surf was so big he got washed down the point to the sandy end of the bay where he was able to stagger to shore. Hello disabled list; goodbye Dubai.

Well, not exactly.

The day before the race, voila, he appeared straight from the airport with a paddle and small day pack. When he lifted me off the ground with a bear hug he was grinning like a Halloween pumpkin.

Then he went out and finished two spotsbehind Olympic Gold medalist Kenny Wallace and ahead of standouts like BenFouhy, Dean Gardiner, and six-time World Marathon Champ Manual Busto.

Richard von Wildemann

'Chopper' just making it over the lip

One of the Wildman's obsessions is finding the longest ride on a ski. Out by Cape Recife, a short drive from his home in Port Elizabeth, he's sat on sweet six-footers for as long as three minutes.Cape Recife is a pristine headland shaped like a shark's fin that juts out into the Indian Ocean seven miles from the city of Port Elizabeth. A 340-acre nature preserve of sculpted dunes, it's home to penguins and terns and punctuated by a 52-foot black-and-white striped lighthouse erected in 1851. Though reefs off the Cape have splintered many a ship, they've provided many a paddler with perfect waves.

This winter, he rang me to tell me about his latest attempt to go BIG. He sounded giddy and embarrassed at once. "I just hired a helicopter and a film crew to shoot us off Cape Recife. Now I'm broke. Probably pretty stupid actually." He sighed. "But, my word, it was a ridiculous day." Only he let ridiculous roll off his tongue so it sounded like "ridicuuuuuuuuuuulous!"

Here's what happened. Three days before Christmas, bored and more than a bit restless, he heard that a powerful cold front was bearing down on the Eastern Cape - ideal conditions for a classic ride. He rounded up the usual paddling crazies, hired a helicopter and filmcrew and, bingo, it was "cock on the block time".

Ten guys agreed to pitch, but on themorning of December 23 only two suited up. "The guys who bailed that morning said I was stupid, mad, even suicidal," he said. "No matter: I'd long thought that someone should film a ski paddler on a big day off the Point catching a huge, hollow wave - the surf ski equivalent of Laird dropping in at Waimea.  If the paddler happened to be me, even better."

The morning dawned bright and sunny. Joining him were Haydn Skinner, a short, muscular lad he calls the "Turbo Dwarf" and Brett Caudwell. They launched from their surf club at low tide. In the protected bay the waves were head high and when they reached the point 5K later, the wind was a steady 40 knots, gusting to 60. "It was violent and beautiful," he said, "so loud we had to communicate with hand signals."

Richard von Wildemann

Hmm... what's that earth-tilting sensation say about the wave coming up behind me?

Richard von Wildemann

Eject, eject, eject!

Richard had told the film crew that they'd wait a mile out to sea, in line with the old army fort high on the hill. It took the crew forever to find three tiny specks in a cauldron whipped white. 

Incredibly, in 2006 he and Haydn had been out in bigger stuff when three consecutive storm systems out of the Roaring 40s off Antarctica came through. Richard's Mom, who was clearly oblivious to the danger, dropped them off in Sardina Bay for the 26K downwind jaunt to the Summer Strand Surf Club. Punching through the shore break in the bay was hairy enough, but once they were out, von Wildemann knew he'd made a mistake. The swell was as large as eight meters; the wind gusting to 40 knots. "My heart was in my mouth the whole flippin' paddle. I had the feeling of being on a precipice with the abyss just on the other side."

Reaching speeds of 33 kph, they averaged nearly 20K over the two-hour downwind dash. "What will stay with me forever were the gray ominous sky and the Southern Right whales breaching nearby, oblivious to the fact that there were two dopey guys on fiberglass toothpicks hoping not to die." 

The story had a hectic, albeit happy, ending that involved a wave the size of a four-story building closing out across the channel at Thunderbolt Reef. There was a dramatic rescue and a lot of testosterone cast upon the waves. But, as the philosopher asks, if two nuts go out for a death-defying paddle and no one is there to witness it, did anyone get wet?  In practical terms all they had was a proverbial fish-that-got-away story -- one that sounds credible but is hard to visualize unless you were there.

This time, the Wildman wanted the gory glory documented in living color.


Richard went first, sprinting onto a thick, frothy roller with a four-meter face. While both Richard and Haydn caught some crazy rides, it was the spectacular wipe outs that defined their day. "Haydn got smoked three times - by far the most spectacular carnage I'd ever seen on a surf ski," he said. "Incredibly, both he and his boat came out unscathed."

Hadyn Skinner

Hadyn 'Turbo Dwarf' Skinner about to be nailed...

Richard wasn't so lucky. He enjoyed a dozen exhilarating rides when a small wave tripped the tail of his ski and flung him out of the bucket. When he looked back, his eyes grew wide as a wave bigger than any other he'd stared up at bore down on him. "Just before it detonated,"he said, "I tossed my paddle away, took a deep breathe, held my head and was spun like a rag doll. It seemed like a long time before I resurfaced. My boat splintered in three. Hayden appeared right away, told me to grab the back deck and paddled me out of the impact zone. He dropped me 500 meters from shore. A swim that would normally take 10 minutes, took me 30."


Was it frivolous, macho, or reckless? I asked. "Probably," he said, chuckling. "The day ended up costing me R17,000 ($2,200) - money I didn't have to blow. Should we have been out in such conditions? Probably not. But, man, it was magic. Just magic!"

[Editor: A shortened version of this article was published in the August edition of Canoe Kayak magazine.  Check them out at www.canoekayak.com.]

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