Over the last 20 years, Ian Armstrong has been one of our country’s most influential big wave surfers. He was team South African ‘Big Wave World Champions’ in 1999 and is one of the five judges for this years Rebel Sessions.
It’s a chilly afternoon in Scarborough and the watery winter sun is spilling into the shaping bay. Neil Webster is doing a video piece and his camera is rolling. Neil and Ian have been friends for more than two decades. Neil clears his throat as he lines up another question. “Why did you start making big boards?” He asks.
Ian looks out through the open door and over the trees to where a fresh swell is wrapping into the bay. “I wanted to see if I could do it! I wanted to make a good one. I had all these ideas rolling around inside my head from years of riding different boards from different people. I could remember the things I liked about the boards. It was more of a feeling. I could remember what it felt like to ride each of them.”
Webster fires off another question. “Have big boards changed over the years?”
Armstrong hesitates, “Bigger boards look more like small boards now, not like those pin tailed guns from the 80’s. They’re easier on the eye. The gap is closing. They borrow more from each other than they used to do.”
Webster checks focus on his camera and asks, “Is it more high performance than it used to be?” Ian runs his hand thoughtfully across the blank that he’s halfway through shaping. “Ultimately, it’s about the drop and finding the right place to take off. Or looking for a barrel or just finding the right place to do a carve. There isn’t much you can do on big waves. We can’t go much beyond that.”
Webster nods and smiles.“That’s a great quote!” Ian continues, “When I shape a board for Cape Town waves, I try to think of what will make the rider most comfortable. I like a full rail to cushion against the bumps, sucks and wobbles. I like full square rails that are soft on the bottom with rocker that flows into the wide point. My boards are glassed to be heavier, it weights them down, it makes them less……skittish.”
“Do you think that each of our big waves should have a specific board?” Webster asks. “Yes,” says Ian, “definitely! At the Factory you can ride an all round board because the wave has hollow and flat sections. Bayview is down the line, so you can ride a more curvy board with rocker, something that’s narrow, maybe a quad too. I love my 10’ 2” single fin at Sunset because it’s such a long perfect drop. I love single fins because there’s no drag and you can get to the bottom faster.
Dungeons is better on a shorter, wider board with more fins.”
Just then, Ian’s fourth child Asha pop’s his head through the door and cracks a crooked grin at his dad.
“You had a big wipe out at Dungeons a few years back. How did that affect you?” asks Webster.
Ian grimaces, “I hadn’t had a bad one up until that point, so I had no fear. But that one put the fear into me. It took a few years to go back. Then one morning, two of us paddled out to Sunset on what seemed like a 15ft day….but it was actually a 25ft day. I lost my board and was alone with this terrible fear. I thought that I could die. I swam into the impact zone and got washed to the beach. I don’t want to feel that again so I stay in the 12-15ft range now. Over 20ft is very dangerous. People don’t want to hear that it’s impossible, so they just do it anyway. You can’t surf huge waves without a ski for safety. It’s not clever. You take your chances with life and death. We’re not superman.”
Webster loads up his final question. “What’s your dream Ian?”
Asha is still at the door and Ian looks across at him.“ I’m living my dream right now and I don’t really know what could be better? I can’t see myself really making any big changes. I’m just going to carry on doing what I’m doing and learn to enjoy it a bit more. We’re really fortunate to be able to live like this. The majority of the world is just struggling along with…(pause)….just difficult stuff…. we are so lucky that we can just go surf.”
** Ian and his sons Max & Asha were recently picked up on a two year full sponsorship deal by RRD and his wipeout clip from Dungeons has had almost 500 000 views on youtube. **