Shape of a Woman

Tanned,a delicate nose, 21 inch mid-section and a mermaid’s tail. I fantasised about the shape of the most beautiful figure to ride waves of pure joy with. I took my time, imagining her shape and how my hands would shape her, allowing us to fit together perfectly.

I’m a woman, a surfer, and this is the short story of why and how I nearly didn’t and then did shape a surfboard.

Shaping action.png

As Dave’s partner, I had seen plenty of men coming through School of Shape and walking out with a self-made surfboard. Just like in the surf, the number of men learning or fine tuning their skills outweighed the women taking up this craft. I didn't think this was something set up for me to do, let alone enjoy and it just had never really occurred to me that it was something I would love. After all I I only started surfing in my 30’s and spent too much time worrying about surfing well or getting in other people’s way.  But I discovered that the experience of handshaping your own board is just like the ocean - it's there for all of us.

So what made it happen? Maybe it was my belief that women are able to do the things that have traditionally seen as men's turf, or maybe it was seeing the highs these guys were on after shaping a board. Or maybe it was because my friend Elise had been hassling me to do it with her. I guess it was all of these that led to Elise and I walking out with foam sweat and huge grins after shaping our beauties.

That's not to say the loyal dog thoughts that made me stress about not surfing great followed me to the shaping bay. That I’m going to stuff this up, I don’t have time, I don’t really know what I want, I don’t use power tools, I can’t even surf,  I have no clue about blah blah blah.  And then a free weekend came up, and that was it, I said yes and took the plunge.

Shaping.jpg

Two days of designing, sawing through foam, using power tools (underestimated the full joy of this bit!) and fine sanding the finishing touches, I walked away as if I'd just been picked up by a unicorn and flown around the world surfing the best breaks alone.

A whole bunch of things made it that incredible; having a patient teacher who made no assumptions about my knowledge or skills, telling Dave how I wanted to surf and what I usually surf meant he helped me design it and gave me step-by-step instruction, being made to feel comfortable to ask for instruction (even for the 10th time on the same thing) made it less intimidating. At no point did I feel like I had to know everything including the language. Seriously what the hell is a rolled concave, vees, and foils? And finally, definitely doing it with a friend made it social,fun and less intimidating. 

So apart from feeling bad ass for getting all industrial with a mask in a warehouse, it's hard to describe in words what I got out of the whole experience. The first time I surfed her in Teghazout, Morocco is where I think it sunk in. Paddling and taking off on small fun waves on this board I had shaped with my heart and soul and two dusty, slightly uncoordinated hands felt like hanging out with an old friend who just gets you.  

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A 5-Star experience on a 1-Star swell

One man's trash, another's treasure. Photo: Madelaine Dickie

One man's trash, another's treasure. Photo: Madelaine Dickie

Magic-bloody-Seaweed and their bloody-fwarking-star rating system! 1-Star = hopeless, 5-Star = all-time epic. Whilst I’ll attempt to suppress the urge to narrate “back in my day…” I really have to say that star gazers drive me nuts. And what’s equally frustrating is how easily you can get lured into it. Slack, aimless tropical afternoons are ripe times for an internet drift session, and the surf forecast traps always have a good show playing. So when your whole reason to be traveling is surf, not getting caught up in the star gaze can prove trying. Quite a few times I’ve up’d stumps and joined the pilgrims as they march in the direction of the 5-star rated Mecca of that particular week. All converging on that fleeting resource at once, all too quickly succumbing to a tragedy of the commons, pilgrim V pilgrim, smiles become frowns.

Just like the ancient Polynesians did... Use the stars to navigate your surf holiday.

Just like the ancient Polynesians did... Use the stars to navigate your surf holiday.

This time we opt for the 1-star Pacific gamble over the 5-star Caribbean ‘guarantee’. Our decision probably has a bit to do with watching carloads of Israeli surfers take off for Bocas Del Toro, the current ‘in-vogue’ spot on Panama’s Caribbean coast. It’s the season for it, there’s a swell on, and Magic Seaweed’s 5-Star rating beams bright across all languages on the world-wide-web. We’re keen, no doubt. I’ve been frothing to surf this spot the whole trip but all of a sudden it doesn’t seem like such a crash hot idea. So we throw the dice, following the dim and lustreless 1-star forecast for the second longest left-hander in the world: Pavones, Costa Rica.

Pacific Brown Pelicans are as hungry for surf as any star gazer, seen here doing a 'mainy' on a flat day

Pacific Brown Pelicans are as hungry for surf as any star gazer, seen here doing a 'mainy' on a flat day

We arrive and yep, it’s small alright. So small we only just recognise the shape of what is supposed to be the world’s second longest left. We get out there and have a bit of fun and although neither us are game to say it, we’re both thinking ‘maybe we’ve blown it’. Next morning is totally flat and we walk for over an hour up the road to a back beach for some shoulder high peaks. Walking home my mind is screaming at me, “YOU DEFINITELY BLEW IT!”

I think I can, I think I can

I think I can, I think I can

And then, bit by bit, it picks up. Each day yields fun sessions on changes of the tide or midday sizzle sessions. Days become weeks, shoulder high runners at 100m, turn into head high drainers at 500m, with too many turns to count. All of a sudden we are saying “That was the longest wave of my life!”  a few times every session. And still, the Magic Seaweed star rating stays at 1. You beauty!

Good enough size for some fun board action

Good enough size for some fun board action

Now, I’ll never get an invite to The Eddie based on my big wave endeavours, not many of us will. But I have donned a helmet, wetsuit and booties in the soupy West Javan seas to try out run impossible tubes over bone dry coral reef at the expense of skin and surfboards. And I have, just a handful of times, paddled a few kilometres offshore to attempt backhand drops against stiff offshore winds into below sea level slabs. The highs are high, but its risky business, and at the end of the day your actually happier to be clambering ashore, enroute to the safety of home rather than staying out for ‘just one more’. 

 

Not quite a claim, not quite a soul arch, just an expression of pure joy. Photo: Madelaine Dickie

Not quite a claim, not quite a soul arch, just an expression of pure joy. Photo: Madelaine Dickie

Not Pavones though. It’s a bloody piece of cake. Breaks on all tides, never heavy, and just about consequence free. Normally, 3 weeks of non-stop tropical surfing leaves your feet looking like your morning jogs are barefoot on top a treadmill made from cheese graters. Or worse, you go home early with some bubbling volcanic infection or simply run out of surfboards. Far as I could tell, your main concern at Pavones is working up a thirst in the near-boiling water that only a $15 (USD) six pack of beers can quench and going home broke a week later.

Pushing deep into the midday sizzle session. Photo: Madelaine Dickie

Pushing deep into the midday sizzle session. Photo: Madelaine Dickie

Both the locals and blow-ins are all happy, everyone’s getting more waves then they can physically handle and its smiles all round. One guy tells me between oil glass sets that they used to joke about blowing up the largest bridge between Pavones and the outside world before a big swell. “Nowadays” he tells me “we all want our kids to grow up computer hackers so they can change the star rating every time a good south swell hits”. This guy Jim at our guesthouse volunteers there whilst working on his Masters for the Centre of Surf Research. His project is looking at the effects of modern day surf forecasting on natural resources such as drinking water in the town. When the stars go up to 5, everyone’s water tanks go down to zero, such is the instant and overwhelming influx of people. You can imagine what it would be like out in the salt water!

As our plans fall into place and we decide on an end date, a swell pops up and just for a few short days (ten days prior to making landfall) it gets ranked at 4 ½ stars. Mind you, it gets quickly downgraded to 3 stars a few days later. But sure enough, the night before the ‘once was 4 ½ star’ swell is due to arrive, the town shakes to the vibrations of car loads of frothers rolling into town all night. The swell turns out to be a hoax, its wobbly and inconsistent and the star gazers are hungry and rude. We get a few more, pack our bags and head home to the Kimberley full to the back teeth on a 5 star surfing experience.

'Feels Like The First Time' - White Horses Magazine

Here's a great little feature the good folk at White Horses Magazine are running in the latest issue.  Follow three students Pat, Sari and Jase as they learn to hand shape their own surfboard for the first time at one of our TREEHOUSE School of Shape weekend workshops

A Hot Lap Down the Paza Caza

"The Land Divided - The World United"

Sailing into the first of the 3 Gatun Locks, on the Caribbean end of the Paza Caza.

Sailing into the first of the 3 Gatun Locks, on the Caribbean end of the Paza Caza.

It all began when tectonic activity forced a small amount of earth to surface in the shallow seas that once separated North and South America. The Isthmus of Panama rose up creating the skinny waist of land that connected the two Americas, until a 102 years ago anyway. This slim strip of land, lake and forest has been getting people all excited since some local Indigenous mob told Christopher Columbus that if he walked 9 days from the Caribbean shores, he’d see a whole new ocean. You can imagine the feverish excitement that would have consumed him! Whilst he never legged it at the time, word of this cheeky short cut spread, and the Isthmus of Panama has remained a focal point ever since for human endeavours to outsmart geography, all in the name of making a profit.

As early as the year 1600, people began using the Isthmus to transport silver from the mines of Peru and Bolivia to Europe by sailing it up the west coast of South America and then lugging it overland through the jungles and by river canoe (in croc infested waters) through to the Caribbean. Despite the dangers of disease and ambush, using the Isthmus cut out some significant transport costs. So the capitalist world continued to mull over ideas for overcoming the swamps and increasing their profits. Fast forward to the Californian Gold Rush of the mid 1800s. This time the goods were moving south down the coast, but were still headed for the European market. Times were ripe for development so they built the Panama Railway in 1850 and promptly began printing money. When it first opened, the cost for transporting you or your goods was 25 US Dollars one way, a handsome fee in those days and hats off for consistency, it’s still $25 TODAY! Not satisfied with having to engage two boats and one expensive railway fee to move their goods, the bosses began to dream up the impossible idea that one day you could just sail straight on through.

Shamelessly taken from Google Images

Shamelessly taken from Google Images

It was the Americans who first went and had a proper look at the idea. They pretty quickly deemed it impossible and headed for a squiz at Nicaragua instead. This obviously got the French mega excited to show the Yanks ‘what for’ because they set off to begin digging in 1880 under the command of one Monsieur Ferdinand de Lesseps who had no less than the Suez Canal on his CV. Word has it that Ferdinand, obviously riding high on his laurels from this little achievement, commenced work without ever really going to have a proper look at the job site. Apparently he checked it out briefly in the dry season, then went home to France to ‘oversee’ the project whilst his workforce suffered through the wet season. As such, French efforts to dig it out failed miserably in 1889 when bankruptcy added the final blow to a workforce heavily depleted from disease and death by landslide. But the French did make a dent in it over that 9 years, enough to get the Yanks interested again in the site and eventually they took it on for good and opened her up in 1914 for passage. All told she cost 25,000 lives across the two efforts and at 77km in length, that’s a whopping 324.5 lives per kilometre, ouch! Today, the Paza Caza generates roughly 8-10 million USD a day in transit fees. Both container ships and private yachts alike queue up on either side eagerly awaiting their turn, 24-7. 

A few years ago I saw a mate’s slide show of his transit of the Paza Caza and I simply couldn’t believe my eyes. I’ve never been one to get all gushy over feats of engineering but this really looked like something un-worldly. So whilst in Panama, I put up a notice at the local mariners advertising my services as a line handler. By Paza Caza regulations each yacht needs four line handlers plus a skipper to help out whilst you enter and exit each Lock. What is a Lock I hear you ask? Simply put, it’s a water-elevator for ships to travel above sea level and then back down again. I know, right, why didn’t I think of that!  With all the shipping traffic backed up at each end, you don’t get one of these things to yourself and that’s where the fun really starts. As we approached the Gatun Locks on the Caribbean side, our yacht Meermowe met up with two other yachts and one ‘small’ container ship. We moved towards the enormous concrete structures with the sun setting, it really looked like we were sailing straight into some kind of hell. Each boat must take on a pilot who guides you through the Locks. These guys are all Master Mariners with 1000s of transits under their belts and are surly as they come, they call the shots. They doze lazily on deck and then all of a sudden start yelling at you to haul in or release more line depending on the water level and position of the raft up. The idea is to stay in the centre of the lock and not crash into the concrete walls. Our raft up was a somewhat awkward ‘inter-cultural’ arrangement of French and British ‘yachtys’ so there was a fair bit of tension between skippers. Luckily, the skipper of my boat was an absolute legend and a countryman of mine from Croatia! He was casual as and loved every minute of the experience. Not to mention the Croatian hospitality that poured and wafted up out of the ship’s galley 5 times a day. I’ll be honest, I didn’t want to get off the boat! The job is pretty easy, you enter the Lock and a guy throws a line down to you, you tie his line to a bowline in your XL rope and he pulls the line up to the top of the wall. Once the line is secured to a bollard and depending on which way you are going, away from sea level or back down to it, you either bring in the slack as the water rises, or you pay out slack as the water drops. All in the name of keeping the vessel in the middle of the Lock, away from the concrete walls!

In a Panama Hat and all, Miraflores Locks

In a Panama Hat and all, Miraflores Locks

Everything runs super smooth until the final Miraflores Lock on the Pacific Ocean side. This is a tricky one because here, saltwater mixes with freshwater and a strong northerly trade wind howls straight down the guts of the Lock. With a viewing platform packed with gawking tourists, we struggle to bring our yacht alongside a passenger ferry whilst the Frenchies lose control and end up on the wall. But it’s not just the gringos that get into strife, deckys on the passenger ferry fail to pay out slack on her port aft (Remember the water level is dropping!) and we are treated to the fleeting sight of a double-decker ferry having her stern lifted diagonally out of the water as their line goes taught against the draining Lock. It’s very brief though, moments later the Lock echos with the BOOM of 120mm rope snapping under the pressure!

This beast is a proper "Pana-max" ship, with only 60cm clearance on each side. Look to the left of the photo for another honker in adjacent Lock, note the difference in height!

This beast is a proper "Pana-max" ship, with only 60cm clearance on each side. Look to the left of the photo for another honker in adjacent Lock, note the difference in height!

It’s not the world’s longest crossing by any stretch of the imagination but once we clear that final Lock, after a mere 24 hours (go to wo) we crack cans and raise them high, a group of total strangers have bonded and the froth is palpable. We’ve crossed the Isthmus, transited the canal and we are now in the Pacific Ocean. Time for me to go look for waves.  

Meermowe sails free of the Miraflores Locks and into the Pacific Ocean to continue her voyage to Australia.

Meermowe sails free of the Miraflores Locks and into the Pacific Ocean to continue her voyage to Australia.

Hombre pasola —wheelies and waves from Rio San Juan

By Madelaine Dickie 

We’ve just finished shopping at the local fruteria. I’m nursing a couple of plastic bags bulging and tearing with pineapples and paw paws, and Tom’s trying, at first unsuccessfully, to kick our rented motorbike to life. The bike has a sinister and contrary attitude. It flatly refuses to start on the mornings the surf’s pumping, but when the wind is funky and the sea’s flat, it roars to life first go. After a few more hearty kicks and curses, Tom the bike gets going, and just as we’re about to swing from the curb, a young muscled Dominican guy, flanked by a couple of mates, sidles past and says to Tom, ‘Ola, hombre pasola.’ The guy’s friends snigger. Hello, scooter man.

I think one of the main reasons for the guys’ derision, is that it’s a lot harder to do a wheelie on a scooter than on a motorbike. In Rio San Juan, you’re not really a man unless, on a Friday night, you can pop wheelies past Laguna Gri Gri, the harbour; past Café de Paris, the expensive French bar that’s the place to be seen; past the gorgeous street murals of hummingbirds and fish; and then, most importantly, past the chicas at the town square. On the weekends you even see little kids doing wheelies on their bicycles. They pedal madly with their front tyres in the air, on a road that sometimes disappears under waves.

tom was surfed out from an epic north swell and so jumped on the lens while i surfed these rights alone for an hour. the treehouse pipsqueak worked a treat on these sucky inside sections! picture: tom nagle

tom was surfed out from an epic north swell and so jumped on the lens while i surfed these rights alone for an hour. the treehouse pipsqueak worked a treat on these sucky inside sections! picture: tom nagle

The Dominican has almost the highest fatality rate for traffic accidents in the world, and most of these are motorbike stacks. Toward the end of our two months, we are on the way to Playa Grande, when a car hurtling toward us, is overtaken by a Greyhound-sized bus. We have a metre of road. The bus is flying at 80km/hr. A fraction further over and we'd be clipped. And in the end we do crash, badly, but not with a car or another motorbike. 

After a bit, I was joined by two guys from santo domingo. picture: tom nagle

After a bit, I was joined by two guys from santo domingo. picture: tom nagle

There’s a big northeast swell running and all night we hear it throwing over the outer reefs. In the morning, Tom kicks the bike to life in the rain and we set off slow. It’s cold. I’m in boots and a coat with bare legs; Tom’s in thongs and boardies and a jumper. On the ride, water streams from the limestone cliffs, slicks the road. The silhouettes of the palms harden with first light and they’re thrashing. It’s not a good sign. We pull on to the steep road down to Playa Grande, where the guys at the local surf school allow us to stash our boards. On the last corner, on a 60-degree decline, Tom hits the front brakes, ever so lightly. The front wheel of the bike locks. We fall to the right. And for a few metres, we slide down the hill, with the motorbike on top of us. The damage at first seems minor. We grab our boards, bleeding, and when the motorbike refuses to start, we find a dis-used road through the jungle and make our way on foot to the lookout, so we can check the reefs that might be holding this monstrous swell.

WILD AND VERY BIG, THE VIEW TO LA MUELA, 'THE MOLAR'. PICTURE: MADELAINE DICKIE

WILD AND VERY BIG, THE VIEW TO LA MUELA, 'THE MOLAR'. PICTURE: MADELAINE DICKIE

The ocean looks like a winter east coast southerly has chewed it to pieces. The waves break well beyond the shipwreck. The light is eerie. And so we ride back home to the tweezers and obat cina, the bandages and dry antiseptic powder, probably still in shock, not realising how bad the damage. I'm out of the water for two weeks, with various deep cuts, and Tom's out of the water for a month with a torn ligament. Lucky the Dominicans know how to party …  

PADDLING OUT AT CABRERA. PICTURE: TOM NAGLE

PADDLING OUT AT CABRERA. PICTURE: TOM NAGLE

LENNY THE LEGEND!

LENNY THE LEGEND!

MISSING A BOMB AT CABRERA. picture: tom nagle

MISSING A BOMB AT CABRERA. picture: tom nagle

On one night, a couple of friends who work at Playa Grande pile into our tiny bedsit with chicas y ron. Chicks and rum and a sound system, of course, to pump out bachata and merengue. While Tom nurses his foot and a rum, I get a merengue lesson, to shouts of, "More bum less feet! More bum less feet!" We spend several afternoons in the shade at our friend Lenny’s house, talking in Spanish and English with Lenny’s friends. One of them is a former chef and he cooks us Dominican pork in a white French sauce. Then there’s the terror of Dominican motorbikes again, climbing on with our friends to go and check out the campo, the countryside, while our friends steer and drink from long necks of beer. I think the Dominican is one of the only places in the world where you can get drive through cocktails!

Panama city, the panama canal in the background. PICTURE TOM NAGLE. 

Panama city, the panama canal in the background. PICTURE TOM NAGLE. 

A few weeks later we’re in Panama. We’re in an air-conditioned minivan owned by Israelis. The country is drought stricken; there are fields of dead corn. We’re driving away from a wind blasted beach of marginal surf and maximum crowds. A girl in the minivan snidely tells Tom to keep his voice down. And at this moment, I wish I was back on our contrary pasola in the Dominican, speeding toward a long session in the surf alone, followed by a long night of dancing merengue and drinking rum with our new Dominican friends. Instead, it’s onward, and Costa Rica is up next.  

El Presidente Pilsner: From Where You Didn’t Realise You’d Rather Be

Ah sepia, the colour of thirst, dreams and great advertising. Photo: Madelaine Dickie

Ah sepia, the colour of thirst, dreams and great advertising. Photo: Madelaine Dickie

Don’t even pretend to kid yourself. You’ve seen them, you’ve let your mind drift off in the dreamy sepia tones. And before you could even stop yourself, down the local bottle’o you are with a box of Corona on the counter! BOOM sucker punched by our generation’s best piece of advertising.

Not quite billboard material. Photo: Madelaine Dickie

Not quite billboard material. Photo: Madelaine Dickie

I’ve never been to Mexico but I’d love to. I’d love to be that skinny, tanned and toned guy in the billboard with designer stubble and a straw hat knocking back an ice cold Corona whilst equally gorgeous women hover around the periphery performing 1970’s gender roles. All the approved props of the bohemian surf lyfe-style expertly scattered around the scene. The old school push bike, the guitar, the twin fins and the unbuttoned floral shirt. Man wouldn’t that be nice.

You have got to give it to them, works a treat. Copyright Corona

You have got to give it to them, works a treat. Copyright Corona

If you were an old time Mexican surf traveller, you’d be spewing! Knowing that with every billboard erected, every carton sold and every media inspired surf dream mounted, that your paradise was going down the drain. You’d be spewing unless you were here in the Dominican Republic sucking down on ice cold El Presidentes and wondering where all the other Gringo’s are.

El Presidente's shockingly bad and down right blatantly non-existent global advertising campaigns have left line ups like this empty. Photo: Madelaine Dickie

El Presidente's shockingly bad and down right blatantly non-existent global advertising campaigns have left line ups like this empty. Photo: Madelaine Dickie

working up a thirst. Photo: Madelaine Dickie

working up a thirst. Photo: Madelaine Dickie

los Nuevos Piratas del Caribe

The Russians aren’t coming, they’ve COME!

Here they come.

Here they come.

Russian ‘pro’ and surf camp owner Sergey leads his crew of 30 Russian beginners out to the cliff overlooking La Preciosa Bay for their morning surf check. Out in the line up my peripheral vision alerts me to a collage of the brightest and freshest pinks, purples, reds and yellows beaming through the dull greens of the jungle. All the latest and shiniest surf gear is the trademark style of the nuevo surfistas

Let the pillaging begin.

Let the pillaging begin.

Whilst the inspirational characters of the Hollywood blockbuster have long since sailed from this bay, Los Nuevos Piratas del Caribe or The New Pirates of the Caribbean are here in force. You now know two things, one that it must be 9.31 am and two, that your morning surf is about 29 minutes from being 30 people more crowded. 

Stacked to the horizon, Los Russos style. 

Stacked to the horizon, Los Russos style. 

Actually, it’s really not that bad at all. By 10am your body needs food and a rest so the arrival of Sergey and his merry men is simply the Caribbean’s way of telling you its breakfast time. But before we eat, it’s time for some verbal judo with the Captain himself. See, Serey’s been around, including a bit of time in Australia, so he knows how to give and take the piss. One morning, after he gets his crew out the back, I say to him, “Jeez Sergey, you must be a pretty popular guy in Russia…” “Why is that?” he asks in all sincerity. “Because 30 of your best mates have come to visit! They must really miss you over there.”

A fully fledged attack requires both air and sea strikes. 

A fully fledged attack requires both air and sea strikes. 

The next morning Sergey and his 30 pack greet me on the beach with a, “Good Morning, Retired Australian Thor,” implying my physique doesn’t do the Hemsworth-esque blonde hair and beard any favours. And on it goes, paddling circles around one another for priority, exchanging critiques of each other’s poorer national characteristics (turns out there are plenty on both sides) and I regularly encourage some of his newer students to seek refunds when they get pitched over the falls. 

A digs a dig, right?

A digs a dig, right?

So the New Pirates of the Caribbean are here and judging by the amount of fun they are having, they’re here to stay. Luckily they found other things to do on this particular morning.

Pre 9:31am solitude. Photo: Madelaine Dickie

Pre 9:31am solitude. Photo: Madelaine Dickie

What do Johnny Depp and Vladimir Putin have in Common?

Feminine beauty, DR style. Photo: Tom Nagle

Feminine beauty, DR style. Photo: Tom Nagle

Peering through the dense veg on top of the cliff that overlooks this bay, I often expect to see the Black Pearl anchored in the channel. Out the back, only Captain Jack Sparrow sits on the peak, taking his pick of the better lefts. I imagine paddling out and saying g’day, only to get sent in by an in-character, mascara-smeared, Johnny Depp. Why? This joint just absolutely drips Caribbean style. Jungle spills down jagged limestone cliffs straight into offensively turquoise waters and two Spanish shipwrecks surge with the passing sets. You’d almost be tempted into sifting through the many caves in search of treasures long forgotten by the pirates whom did the pillaging many moons ago . . . almost. Understandably however, you seem to find yourself too busy plundering the all too precious treasures of a crowdless peak.

cheeky valve bounce on the 4,5. Photo: Madelaine Dicke

cheeky valve bounce on the 4,5. Photo: Madelaine Dicke

Surf spots worldwide tend to have pretty average if not outright daggy names (see Lances Left, North Beach et al). Not this place. La Preciosa (feminine, of course) means ‘beautiful’ and it is beautiful. Although, according to the two local Dominican rippers, cousins Tripa y Junior, its more like ‘the beautiful place’ in a sense that implies its beauty is precious. So given the thick Euro crowds of close by Cabarete, it’s quite surprising that only a handful of the real Pirates of the Caribbean frequent the bay—Los Rusos, The Russians! In fact, most days Maddy and I are the only non-Russian speaking people surfing. So instead of Capt Jack Sparrow ruling the waves, it feels to me more plausible that Vladimir Putin would be dominating the main peak, insisting that he sits deeper than anyone, back-dooring only the bombs and crushing any resistance from the foam ball with the iron will of a dictator. This is all whilst some his higher profile political prisoners take photos—Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda TolokÓnnikova is on the GoPro.

Photos: Madelaine dickie

Photos: Madelaine dickie

Perhaps part of La Preciosa’s camouflage is that she needs as straight a north swell as the North Atlantic can deliver, to really lift the lid on her treasure trove and allow the turquoise gems to flow freely. And as with all properly stocked treasure troves, one sweet peak isn’t all La Preciosa conceals within her jungle cloaked walls. Bigger and differently angled swells see a series of rights and lefts appear deeper in the bay. Even one of the ship wrecks plays its part to break up the swell lines, just in time for them to reform and spill onto a shallow limestone reef, another precious addition to La Preciosa’s loot.

no offence. photo: Madelaine Dickie

no offence. photo: Madelaine Dickie

The Land of the Dirty Bird

By Madelaine Dickie 

Madelaine walking into the surf on sunrise with her new treehouse pipsqueak. pic by tom nagle.

Madelaine walking into the surf on sunrise with her new treehouse pipsqueak. pic by tom nagle.

The Dominican Republic sure isn't short on a cooked chook. At around 11 o'clock in the morning, at hundreds of little comedors along the north coast, BBQs are flipped open and aromas emerge; charcoal and thyme and lemon. Happily, this usually coincides with the time when Tom and I have finished our second session in the water. Even though we've been away a month now, after living on the waveless edge of the desert for three and a half years, the hunger for waves hasn't softened. We're veering around crazy dogs on the motorbike in the early morning cold, with boards tucked under arms - there are no board racks here. We're paddling out in the dark. If a beginner looks like they're hesitating, then we're burning them. Not a second is lost. For the most part we've been surfing Encuentro, a kilometer and a half strip of about nine different reef breaks. The good news is, when a proper groundswell hits, the waves, especially Destroyers and Coco Pipe, are seriously powerful. The bad news is, Encuentro is by no means a secret spot. There are four or five surf schools spread along the strip. And it’s blown out by eleven. Which isn't really such a big deal, because when the trade winds start to howl, ravenous and rashed up, we're ready to hit some dirty Dominican bird.

tom shredding on a treehouse stand up boogie! pic by madelaine dickie

tom shredding on a treehouse stand up boogie! pic by madelaine dickie

MADELAINE on her brand new treehouse pipsqueak!

MADELAINE on her brand new treehouse pipsqueak!

I wonder if it’s true that the more you travel, the more you compare places you’re at, with places you’ve been. The Dominican has touches of Indo in the fresh soapy smells from the lavanderias (laundries), and touches of the Philippines in the window trays of over-salted pork and chicken adobo. It’s got Spain in the siestas and the language, though the Spanish here is lispless, and it’s got a dash of America in the roadside hot dogs and tourist shop price tags. But what is it that distinguishes it? Superficially, for me, it’s the loud music on every street corner, the partying and the way people dress. Especially the way the women dress. The women here wear high heels and lots of gold bling, have great hair, show their thighs, let their breasts spill from their tops, and are a stunning and strange mix of Spain and Africa. After travelling so much in Indo, the South Pacific, and working in northern Australia, where work specifically requested that no skirts above the knee were to be worn to the office, it’s a relief and exceptionally liberating to be in a place where women are comfortable in their bodies. In the Dominican, surfing in a bikini is not a problem. My only issue is that I’m not surfing in a G-string bikini! 

In Cabarete and Sosua, however, the towns on either side of the surf mecca Encuentro, so much Dominican beauty has become a market in itself. The prostitution is on par with Patong in Thailand; only perhaps there are four women to every bloke. This makes for some pretty racy dress and high heel shopping, though there’s also a seediness—sublime Caribbean coves are packed with pimps and drunks and hustlers and whores. And then at Encuentro, despite a serene walk to the beach under palm trees and through cow paddocks, there’s hustle of a different kind . . . the kind that comes with package-surf infrastructure. Tom and I both wanted hard to like it, but with between fifty and a hundred people in the water every morning, we knew there must be something better. We checked out Puerto Plata, the closest city to the west. It was both picturesque and gritty, tucked at the foot of a mountain range. The street art was unreal, the wave, a heaving peak in front of a fortress, wasn’t working. We knew it wasn’t here, either, that thing we were looking for, that special Dominican magic.

And then at eleven one morning we were tucking in to a cooked chook in the vibrant fishing town of Rio San Juan. In Rio San Juan there’s a deep green natural harbour walled by mangroves and filled with turtles; there are public plazas of mosaic tiles, and street art to rival Puerto Plata’s. I’d just surfed a wedgy reef off the white sand of Playa Grande with only two local guys and Tom had just surfed the powerful Preciosa at four to five foot on his own. 

Ravenous and rashed, we knew this was it. We knew we’d found it.