Turning Turtle

Legend has it that the incident in question happened in the summer of 1969.

Bryan Adams and some guys from school, they had a band and they tried real hard. Jimmy quit, Jody got married. Shoulda known they’d never get far.

Those were the best days of their lives.

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Meanwhile, at Millers Point in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, a little chap named Wyndham was having the best days of his life.
The young tyke was mastering the art of surfing in the glassy peelers off Hobie Beach.
For a kid not yet out of primary school, this was no small order, for surfboards in the Sixties could weigh up to thirty kilos. Give or take a meal or two, that was what Wyndham himself weighed.

Which is why it had taken such extraordinary levels of persuasion to get his dad to allow him out into the waves.

With nine-foot wave-riding projectiles flying all over the shop, no leashes, and his son’s “nothing can harm me, I’m invincible” attitude, Mr Morris was concerned. It was only a matter of time before an irresistible projectile met the surf-crazed invincible object, with possibly disastrous results.

But all men are boys deep down inside, and he found it difficult to deprive his son of a pastime that, it must be said, did look rather fun.

So there young Wyndham was, gleefully sliding across medium-sized right-handers. With only a couple of days left before school started, he was putting in a skin-frazzling eight hours a day on the beach.

Also amongst the holiday crew was a bevy of wholesome young girls, just wiping their feet on the welcome mat at the threshold of womanhood.

Not that they held any fascination for Wyndham at that point. But Destiny’s a weird chick herself, and she ensured that the fate of Wyndham and that of a certain young lady in a floral bikini would become entwined.

It came to pass that one day the complexities of trimming across the wave face eluded our young maiden, and she wiped out into the warm waters of Algoa Bay. This sent her surfboard ploughing gracefully towards the shallows, where it met the head of one Wyndham Morris.

At the time he was preoccupied with the business of turning turtle beneath an oncoming wave without losing his board.

This attempt led to a horrendous, unfortunate, but fateful impact, as the surferless board met Wyndham’s head. His cranium inevitably proved less impact-resistant than the 55-pound missile that assailed it.

From the inside of his head, that impact sounded a lot like the time his uncle had dropped his set of lawn bowls in the entrance hall. But Wyndham put on a brave face. He got directly out of the water and immediately reported home to be taken for stitches. It was a course of action of which the gaping wound on his face and the couple of pints of blood coursing out of it were strongly indicative.

Mr Morris, though, freaked. “I knew this would happen,” he bellowed, before carting his son off to the doctor and banning him from surfing for life.

But time heals all wounds, and Mr Morris eventually agreed to allow his obviously wave-addicted son back into the ocean. With one proviso. That he wear a plastic, reinforced construction-worker’s helmet every time he went surfing.

Now, the sight of a four-foot human surfing machine in a man-sized hard hat is rather like looking at a mixing bowl with legs. To emerge from such a situation without a nickname would be a miracle.

A PE surfer named Viv Spindler, legend has it, was the one who first spotted Wyndham’s resemblance to a basking turtle, particularly when he developed a peculiar head-shaking move. This move was to shake the excess water out of his helmet when he’d come through a wave – but it also looked rather like a turtle doing the twist.

And so it was that Wyndham turned Turtle.

Turtle Morris it was then, who took second place to one Shaun Tomson in the Boys’ division of the 1969 SA Champs at Jeffreys Bay. At the Point, before people even surfed at Supertubes.

Turtle Morris brought windsurfing to PE in the Eighties. It was Turtle who turned heads at the 1987 Fence Masters, switching stance three times on a wave. Turtle Morris went to Hawaii with the SA long-boarding team in 1992. He was a surfer and a waterman.

For more than ten years in the Eighties and Nineties, Turtle Morris gave PE surfers a daily surf report from behind the counter of various surf shops in Central.

Where the PE surf once turned him into Turtle, after a while PE turned to Turtle for surf. Before there were online surf forecasts and wavefinding apps and swell bouys feeding info across the planet, there were guys like Turtle Morris. Guys who’d been surfing the same area for decades, who could just sense where the waves were by looking out the window.

Turtle Morris was and is part of surfing in the Bay of PE. An itinerant South African, like many of us are, he’s spent time in PE, East London, Port Shepstone, White River and most recently, London. “I didn’t dig it there, though.”

Today Turtle is back in the town where he made his name. He says he’s retired from surfing, but you can still bump into him in the afternoon relaxing at Something Good, the PE surf cafe across from Avalanche, where he used to ride eight-footers past Bird Rock. It’s a short walk from Millers Point, where Turtle rode his earliest peeling right-handers in that famous miners’ helmet.

It’s where I rode my first right-handers and a few hundred others did too. Encouraged by tall, gentle, super-mellow Turtle Morris, a man who’s had surf in his veins for decades. A guy who in his own calm, understated manner, got so many of the next generations into surfing and showed us how to be a surfer.

You don’t just do surfing. You live surfing. Turtle Morris has lived surfing. He knows surfing. It’s in him to the point where he doesn’t even have to do it any more. You can just imagine him glancing off the deck at Something Good and knowing where the best waves are today.

As they used to say in the classics – on Radio Algoa, or on your surf shop’s waveline , “Waves today are two, maybe three foot at the Pipe and Rincon, one-to-two feet at Millers and you’ll probably get something at the Fence around high tide. High tides today are at 1am and 1.09pm. Sea temperature is 20 degrees. That’s all for now, enjoy your day.”

Writer for television, print and digital, corporate and editorial. Editor and writer of books. Musical performance, spoken word as Inspector Ras. Guitar/vocals for The Near Misses, (Worst Band In JoburgTM). The last whitey at umsebenzi. Latest book 415 Action-Packed Neighbourhood Marketing Tips with Basil O'Hagan, out now. @hagenengler

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