Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Surfing New Zealand's North Island, Day 1

New Zealand is divided into the north and south islands, with the Tasman Sea to the west and the Pacific Ocean to the east. Both islands and both costs have distinctive characteristics and personalities when it comes to the surf. The Tasman side of both islands tend to receive sizable swell year round from the Antarctic storms pushing up the coast. Accompanying this year-round swell are often strong onshore trade-winds. One classic break that receives the benefit of these storms and also happens to be quite sheltered from the wind is Raglan. The breaks that make up Raglan are Indicators, Whale Bay and Manu Bay. When the size and direction of the swell is right, locals claim that all three breaks line up for one 800 meter ride. This is where I made my first stop in New Zealand.


I wasn't the first one in the water, but I was close. I slept in my camper van above the surf and woke 30 minutes before first light. I began my morning listening to the waves and straining my eyes in the pre-dawn darkness, imagining that I could see the sets roll in. As the sky lightened on the horizon, I continued to observe the breaking waves as traffic started to trickle into the lot, and eager surfers got out of their cars to check the morning conditions. I let a few of them get into wet-suits and watched them paddle out. Waves with out surfers on them are hard to judge and paddling out at a new break can be daunting. Submerged obstacles and sharp wrocks can draw blood and broken boards from over-eager and under-educated surfers. I watched the first surfer, on a longboard, catch a beautiful, clean chest high wave and ride it elegantly for 50 or 60 meters and immediately scrambled into my beat up Quicksilver 3/2.

The current was swift and I struggled against it as I paddeled to the top of the point. I joined the three other surfers already in the line up, nervous about my first time in the water. Would surfing after 9 months land locked in a Middle Eastern country prove difficult? Or would it be like riding a bike? I let the others take their turns and finally had a wave to myself. I paddled in, felt the wave accelerate under my pushed myself up... and promptly fell off my board. Apparently not like riding a bike. I spent much of the morning this way, but found that the less I thought about the motions, the more they began to feel familiar. It wasn't long until I felt as though I'd never stopped surfing.

Unfortunately, just about the time I was feeling comfortable in the water again, New Zealands most popular surf break began to get crowded, and with the crowd my opportunity to catch waves significantly diminished. I enjoyed another hour in the water, chatting with a gentlemen from Colorado who now lived in Sydney, Australia. I caught a wave or two and decided to get on the road. I originally intended to stay for two full days in Raglan, but due to my airport fiasco I was forced to settle for a morning session before crossing to the East Coast and meeting a promising new swell in Hawke's Bay.

With no real information other than break names and general information garnered from Magicseaweed and Surfline's websites, I headed towards the East Coast town of Napier. The drive was long and extremely beautiful. Terraced farmland rose on either side of me and scenic views awaited at every turn. Waterfalls, mountain tops and golden farmland surrounded me. It was my first indication that I was in paradise. I wasn't in love yet, but I felt the first pull at my heart when I pulled off on a gravel road to discover this site below me:

Scenic view on the road to Napier. North Island, New Zealand

I arrived to the small but busy coastal town of Napier in the late afternoon and found the first beach access I could. As I pulled into a cul-de-sac, clean lines of swell were filtering in, rising and peaking and falling back down again before finally crashing feet from the rocky beach. The swell had arrived, but I was in the wrong place. The beach head was too steep and there were no sandbars anywhere in site. I suppose I could have paddled out, and even caught a wave. One wave. Before I was slammed forcefully into the rocks, facing serious pain and a broken board on my first day. I later discovered that surfing and swimming in Napier is not allowed or recommended due to very strong rip currents.

With out a clear plan and no where to surf, I decided to find dinner and catch a movie at the local cinema. I would do some research while I was at it and have a clear destination for the next morning. The locals proved very friendly and I was soon directed to check out Ocean Beach and Waimarama Beach, a short hour's drive down the coast.  I'd head there the following morning.