INTERVIEW WITH SOUTH AFRICAN BODYBOARDER MARK WATTS
He was the youngest, at the time, to win the Pro Circuit in South Africa. We spoke to him about South Africa, Bodyboarding vs. Surfing, living in the UK and Covid.
Who were your role models growing up?
For me it was always my older brother, he was big into surfing and skateboarding when I was young. He was the first one, but there’s been a lot of people, like Billy Thiel. He was kind of a mentor for a lot of young people in South Africa, he was a lot older then us, when I say a lot older, he’s probably only 10-15 years older, and he just wanted to support the younger generation. Billy and Hayden Thiel had a bodyboarding shop and they supported the youngster, they just wanted to the sport to progress.
Have you ever been in a difficult situation, where you thought: ‘Damn, how do I get out of this?’
I remember when I was really young, I must have been about 10 or 12, I got stuck in the current and I was just going further out to sea and I was really panicking. The combination of being young and panicking is not good! An older guy, who was in the water, helped me out. I was terrified after that for a while. With a rip current, if it takes you out, it’s always going to come back in somewhere, but I didn’t know at the time. If you’re fighting the rip current, you’re wasting your energy, it’s better to swim away from the rip current, to the side, or further out to sea and then it will bring you back in, almost. But if you’re fighting head on against the rip, the ocean is just going to be far too strong.
How did you get into bodyboarding?
I lived in Durban and at a very young age, I was just going to the beach and playing there with my bodyboard. When I got a bit older I started competing in the South African bodyboarding circuit and in 2009, at 18, I became the then youngest person to win the Pro Circuit. It was quite cool, I had a fair bit of success in the South African circuit and won a few competitions and then I went outside South Africa to compete. I’ve been to Hawaii a few times, obviously that’s the world mecca of waveriding, there I’ve surfed Pipeline a few times.
How was your first time surfing Pipeline?
I did not sleep the night before, I remember. It took us about 36 hours or something, to get there from South Africa. And it was my first trip to Hawaii, so I was really excited, I didn’t sleep at all. The first night I woke up at about, I thought it was about 5 in the morning and the sun was gonna come up any minute and it must have been about 3 o’clock in the morning and I went down, I waited on the sand for the sun to come up and I waited for hours and hours, I was just so excited.
Hawaii is a crazy place where you can wake up in the morning and it could be literally 1 or 2 foot lapping up on the shore and then by the sunset, by the evening it could be 20-25 feet. The ocean there is just incredibly strong. I think it is why so many people and so many wave riders, body boarders, surfers, wind surfers, everyone loves Hawaii, because the ocean is just so amazing.
Are you never afraid to get stuck on the reef?
That’s definitely a factor of anywhere you surf, is you know, a reef break and especially Pipeline is quite a dangerous wave because it is like big holes and caves underneath there. Every year surfers die at Pipeline. Apparently some of those caves are as big as a room, if you go inside, you might not come out unfortunately. Yeah, you do see accidents and sometimes you see rescues, but that’s why it’s a huge benefit nowadays to have lifeguards and a trained group of people who can help in these emergencies.
On international scale, did you get far?
The biggest problem is financial backing when you’re going to the international stage. And being from South Africa, quite a small country and financially not that strong, it was very difficult and very expensive to travel, so no, I was not able to find a big international sponsor. And then slowly I was having to work a bit more, the youngsters came through and they were killing things, doing a lot better than we were.
If you’d had sponsors, would things be different?
Funding is always the biggest problem, it gets harder and harder nowadays and Covid has made it trickier if you don’t have sponsors. But yeah, I still get out there as much as I can you know. Bodyboarding is still a huge part of my life even if I don’t do it as often, as competitively, as I would like. I think if I’ve had had a sponsor, it would have been different. I would have been travelling a lot more, I wouldn’t have had to think about coming to the UK when my mum moved there, study and try to find a sustainable income. Coz that’s the biggest problem, it just gets a lot stressful when you are travelling and have no money and all of these things, so if I’d had a backing I would have kept going a lot longer.
Has it been frustrating that surfing always gets more attention/sponsors than bodyboarding?
Yes it was, definitely as a kid it was a bit frustrating because there were young surfers getting big contracts, it’s a bit hard to look at from a bodyboarder side of things. But the sport has always been a bit smaller than surfing, financially the backing has been quite a lot smaller. The top bodyboarders would still have to work, unlike the top surfers, some have set up a bodyboard academy or these sort of things, they are teaching kids how to bodyboard.
Who are your favourite bodyboarders in the world?
Anybody who knows bodyboarding is gonna know who Mike Stewart is, he is just an amazing wave rider who has been around for years and he is pretty much the godfather of bodyboarding and has just really good style, he’s always catching good big waves in Hawaii, Pipeline and those sort of things. Somebody else is Ben Player from Australia, Mike Stewart, Ryan Hardy, Mitch Rawlins, Dave Winchester, all of these guys are really good. And then obviously South African guys, we’ve had a lot of world champs: Andre Botha was the youngest world champ ever, Jerry Houston was a world champion, he is from Cape Town, also Iain Campbell from Durban and Tristan Roberts. So South Africa is a very strong bodyboarding community and a long history of very strong bodyboarders as well.
Can you tell something more about the bodyboard community in South Africa?
Within bodyboarding and surfing there’s always been some sort of rivalry within the wave riding, what is a better sport, surfing or bodyboarding? But I think over the last few years, everything has relaxed quite a lot. Especially on the big waves and the dangerous sort of spots. I don’t think it matters nowadays whether you are a surfer or a bodyboarder, you are riding the biggest or the most dangerous wave, I think you are going to get the respect you deserve.
When you think about surfing in South Africa, what comes to mind are the sharks.
The shark factor is always in the back of your mind. Especially in Cape Town, there are some very very big sharks down there. I have seen a few over the years, luckily enough I’ve come away safe every time. Of course over the years we have lost a few friends to sharks and that sort of thing. But I think it comes with the territory, we know the sharks are around most of the time. In big parts of South Africa there is a lot of food to eat for the Great Whites, you don’t have that many attacks on humans, they are quite rare.
Would you recommend people to come to South Africa to bodyboard?
I think there are some amazing facts about South Africa, the coastline, the surf and the weather is just amazing, it’s hot and sunny most of the year and South Africa has some of the most amazing animal wildlife you can see in the wild, so it’s a huge tourist destination for anyone, looking to surf or just to enjoy the coastline or the ocean, you know. I’m always going to be a bit biased towards South Africa, I love the country and I think it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. It’s a great surf destination, it has great food, it’s got lovely people. On my list it’s big at the moment, but with Covid and everything, it’s difficult to go back to South Africa at the moment.
You’ve been living in the UK for the past 6 years, are you still bodyboarding?
I’m thinking about doing a trip to Ireland, kind of seeing what their restrictions are at the moment. I try to as much as possible. The last 2 years have been a bit tricky, with the pandemic and everything.
What do you need when you go on a bodyboard trip?
It depends on what the weather is going to be like, if it’s going to be hot and sunny or do you need to take a full wetsuit or are you just gonna take boardshorts and a rashvest? For me, I always take sunscreen, I always put a lot on, just to keep safe from the sun. And then just your bodyboard, your flippers, your leash, maybe a little bit of wax. If you’re going to a cold water destination, you might have something like a little neoprene flipper sock, just to keep your feet warm. There are a few different shapes of flippers, whether you do drop knee and those sort of things.
Can you use just one bodyboard in every situation?
I think most of the top bodyboarders in the world, they would have different boards for a cold water condition or warmer water, just because the bodyboard is a bit stiffer in the cold water. But I think for the most part, people wouldn’t know the difference and if you’re just out to enjoy the waves, you’re gonna have fun, no matter what.
How important is the leash on your bodyboard?
It is very important, definitely it is always good to have some kind of buoyancy around you, there have been certain times when I have actually taken my leash off and just swam away from my board because I thought it was safer to be as far down as I could. But that is just an escape, a last minute decision, just to get out of the way of danger really, to be away from the board sometimes is safer.
Did the quality of the bodyboards improve over the last few years?
There’s been a lot of technical work done on the bottoms of the board and the channels, that sort of thing. I think it’s always about trying to maximize the control and speed you’re getting, but in terms of the overall shape of the bodyboard no, it’s been quite similar for a lot of years now. A few companies are trying to use more recyclable materials or old plastics and incorporate that into new developments of how to build a bodyboard. So it’s a bit more about sustainability nowadays, which is good. Companies should be responsible for their waste and that sort of thing.
Going back to travelling, what are your top 3 favorite places in the whole world to bodyboard?
I really like Australia, there’s a lot of variety of waves over there, they have very good beach breaks and amazing reef breaks. Then, obviously, my favorite has always been Hawaii, I love Pipeline, I love the waves , it’s just an amazing place when it’s on, when it is breaking it’s a special place. And some places in Indonesia are really beautiful, but nowadays, as everywhere, it’s getting a bit crowded.
What are the best places in Europe to go bodyboarding?
There’s a few places in Ireland and Scotland that are quite amazing. Obviously Portugal and France are amazing. I think I still haven’t experienced as many places as I need to in the Northern hemisphere.
Would you dare to do Nazare on a bodyboard?
Nazare is a whole other level of big wave surfing. I think when the jet ski and all that is coming to play, you’d have to be a pretty crazy person to try to bodyboard. I believe it has been done. I think you’d have to modify the bodyboard a little bit to try and take on that sort of waves. Mostly just to make the bodyboard a lot heavier, so you stay on the surface of the wave because you’d be bouncing around so much, you would lose so much speed and then Nazare will mow you down.
If there are kids who don’t know if they rather want to be surfing or bodyboarding, what would you tell them?
I would always tell them to try both of them and see what they enjoy more, it’s always about having the most fun nowadays in the ocean, it keeps you fit and it’s a healthy lifestyle and whichever one the prefer. Bodyboarding is always going to be the one I’ll say I enjoy more. And it’s a lot easier in the beginning, anyone can grab a bodyboard and jump into the ocean.
The bodyboard is a lot smaller than the surfboard, a lot of airlines don’t charge you (as much) as a surfboard bag would get charged. Any kid looking to get into it, I would always just say, when you get down to the beach, just look where other people are surfing, if you’re not sure, if you feel unsafe, just go where there’s a few other people, just so you know maybe 1 or 2 other people can watch over you.
And if you want to motivate young kids, what is your quote?
I reckon, just go out, have fun and get a barrel. Try and see what it’s like inside the wave. It’s a really unique experience. Learning to love the ocean and respect the ocean. It’s just a healthy way of living, it gets you out there, gets you in the elements and yeah, it pushes you a lot you know.
What is still on your bucket list?
I would love to go to Tahiti, it’s the one place I haven’t managed to go yet, but I would love to go to Tahiti and surf there. It looks like such an amazing place and the waves look amazing and huge, it just looks beautiful.