Driving out of Durban’s city, through the chemical smog of industrial factories, past the old airport, the traffic gradually empties as the road bends and curves into the countryside, weaving its way over rivers and through the rolling green hills of the South Coast. Concrete and steel give way to wild banana trees, acres of sugar cane, and right point breaks that stretch out into the Indian Ocean. The warm morning air smells like burning molasses, sweet and thick, as the land breeze creates a velvet texture on the swells marching up the coast.
This is where Casey Grant lives. This is where he was made.
25 years old, in the prime of his surfing career, Casey is arguably the best surfer in South Africa barring Jordy Smith. He has set the South African surfing scene alight for the last eight years. Multiple Pro Junior titles, back-to-back SA titles and runner up to Jordy in the Mr Price Pro. His results are good. But not as good as his potential. This kid has the big leagues written all over him.
The first thing that grabbed me about Casey’s surfing was the speed. The speed at which he is going when he turns is unique. He opens up on the face like Fanning. No brakes. He draws lines that you imagine when you mind-surf and he does them fast. He does big airs. Reckless, like a young Bruce Irons. His style is slick, like a panther stalking. He is a legitimate talent.
All this and yet we know so little about Casey Grant. 2015 lies ahead of him like a blank canvas – a decent sponsorship deal with Lizzard, magazines calling for trips and contests waiting to be won. What does fate have in store for the Scottburgh local?
Perhaps what lies ahead is best answered by looking back.
Nothing has come easy so far for Casey. Shortly after finding his contest groove in 2008 he was introduced to the real world, having to pay the bills and learning to look after himself. With adulthood forced upon him abruptly, he had to find a way to make ends meet, and that way was skippering boats, lifeguarding, working safety on movie sets, shooting fish and selling them. All the while trying to make a go of a fledgling pro surfing career. He had no managers, personal trainers or safety net to fall back on. Inevitably he got burnt, and the scars still show.
“I’ve learnt not to trust anyone in business and to deal with the issues life gives you,” says Casey, referring to a contract that he was promised shortly after his big Mr Price Pro result in 2010, which never materialised.
Good friend and fellow South Coaster, Gavin Roberts, remembers the time well. “I lent him money the week before that event, he had nothing. A week later he had R70 000 in his account.”
Casey is candid when it comes to the ups and downs he has had to navigate since. “Being independent my whole surfing career has made my life hell,” he says. “Sponsors help as much as they can but there are still a ton of things you yourself have to do, and I knew nothing about it when it all started off. Now I’ve got some good friends that help me whenever I’m a bit lost. I think I’m on top of things these days. Being smarter with cash and living a little less glamorous saves huge money and that could be your next surf trip or just filling up the fridge. I don’t think there is one pro surfer in this country who doesn’t stress about cash almost every day, and if you’re not stressing at the moment then get ready for it, because it coming. And that’s a shame.”
Gavin can relate on many levels. Apart from being team manager at Lizzard, he too had a chance at the big time: plenty of talent, a mean contest game and a limited shot at the World Qualifying Series. He recalls the tough decision of giving up the dream for a desk job.
“It’s hard man, to pay for a proper crack at the Top 34, its like a five year deal, it takes time to figure it all out. And that costs big money,” says Gavin. Money that’s not as readily available as it was before.
It’s no secret the surf industry has fallen on tough times. Surf fashion is not mainstream cool anymore and marketing budgets have dried up fast. Every sponsor is left with the difficult question: is there value in sending your top team rider on a full time WQS campaign? Until he reaches the big leagues, he is virtually invisible to the local market.
Some big junior career names have gone missing from the heat draws recently as reality crashes in and new career plans are laid on dry land. If you want it, you have to have to earn it the hard way. And coming from SA, it’s hard.
In 2013, just as Casey was getting his head around the game, he was dealt a massive blow when he broke his leg playing soccer. This wasn’t some small fracture – he shattered his tibia, the thick shinbone connecting your knee to your ankle.
“I didn’t have medical aid, and they needed specialised parts to fix me,” says Casey. “I was told it was going to be at least 14 days of waiting and operating in a government hospital ward.”
Casey reached out to a friend who worked in the medical industry. His friend helped arrange the surgical parts, including a ‘nail’ that would run from his tibia to his knee, and Casey was booked into hospital for surgery. “The op went ok but the hospital was like being in prison,” recalls Casey.
On the fourth day after the operation, he yanked out his own drip and discharged himself.
“Every little step back to physical health was a victory, walking again, swimming…”, he remembers. “When I started to surf again it sucked because I was such a kook and it hurt. But the injury didn’t kill my confidence. When I could finally do a proper wraparound cutback, then I knew. Time to come alive again.”
Casey returned from six months out the water to decisively win the 2014 SA Champs Open Mens Title. To see him surf now, you would never guess it’s with nuts and bolts holding his leg together.
“We all take things for granted, I know I did before the injury,” he says. “But it’s what happens after that changes you. I felt good about my surfing before my accident but I was bored and lacked drive. I’m feeling so much more driven now, so much more hungry. Surfing South Africa has called me up to represent SA. I wasn’t called up before my injury. I’m proud to represent my country, and I’m loving my surfing more than ever.”
He thinks about this all, then adds: “I’ve matured a lot from when I was 18 or 19 and that only comes from winning and losing in life. It only takes one small (piece) until you start putting the puzzle together.”
Casey stands poised at a crossroads. He could definitely make it. He has the talent, his health, a decent contract – probably not enough for a full time crack at the WQS, but it’s enough to get the ball rolling, if that is what he wants. But herein lies the real question: how much does Casey Grant want it?
The South Coast has seen talent like this before; its sand bottomed points have created natural foot freaks like Frankie, Gordon Turnbull, Mike Roscoe. Most of them are right back at home where they started. Something we forget when it comes to the pros, the best of the best, is that they are also surf stoked junkies, just like us, maybe even more so because they have found a way to turn their addiction into a living.
The harsh contrast of pro surfing’s World Qualifying Series versus the ‘Dream Tour’ of the World Surfing League is, simply, this: really shitty waves. Compare your average qualifying event to the east coast on a winter’s morning and you start to understand why some of that talent is still right where it started. Surfers are first and foremost addicted to good waves and few places on earth offer the kind of fix that we find regularly up and down the South African coastline.
“I just want to get barrelled as much as possible,” says Casey. “I also really want to do more surf trips! I loved the Madagascar trip last year, it was a good crew and the waves were pumping. I want to do more of that. But…” he continues. “I also love to compete because I’ve had the taste of victory. I love the sport, I love training for events and studying equipment and sea conditions. It’s a job for me and I take it seriously”
It might seem like a contradiction but this is the very dilemma many aspiring pros grapple with. Kelly Slater was recently quoted on the difference in the two types of surfing, competitive versus free surfing and his words, as always, were telling: “It’s a hard act to balance the grass roots core of surfing and competition. I’m not convinced it can be done. So I’ve begun to view them as completely separate entities, in order to enjoy them for what they are. Free surfing gives you freedom to be yourself and listen only to yourself, make your own decisions and enjoy the result of your thought process in a physical form.”
Casey knows this side of surfing well, the part that hooks us all in from the very beginning. It’s about being a part of the ocean and carving out your own niche. For Casey, that niche is Scottburgh.
“The things I love most about my town is how quiet it is, everyone gets along with their day to day issues without really bothering anyone else,” he says. “I also have everything I need to survive and be happy right on my door step – fishing, spearing, surfing, driving boats, cheap beers.”
This ethic of self-reliance and a value system based around the ocean not only breeds respect, but a rugged directness that is a defining trait of the area. “It’s almost an instinctive thing here when you’re a grom to be cocky and get a few slaps before you are let out into the world,” says Casey. “I was brought up to be straight with people and if I’ve got a problem with someone I’ll settle it right then and there. Most of the guys on the coast were brought up the same way”.
I call Chris Leppan, long time surfing and fishing partner and competitive rival, who has known Casey since junior school. Chris reflects on the history they have and how Casey introduced him to fishing, spearing and the tight-knit local crew at Scottburgh. “I love going down there, I can relate to those guys so much, they live to surf and that’s so cool. Casey introduced to me all the local guys and you can see what a positive influence he has had on the community with his success, they are really proud of him I think.”
Chris is a fan too. “He reminds me of the Irons brothers, raw, unpredictable and so competitive. I’ve competed against him through so many different things – school rugby, nippers, surfing, spearing and he is just a champion, such a natural waterman.”
“He is the first person to stand up for you, no matter what,” adds Chris. “But he will also be the first person to tell me when I’m in the wrong. I respect that so much about him.”
Committed. No bullshit. Straight to the point. Casey’s character reads much like his surfing.
Ironically, it’s this uncompromising approach that may be his Achilles heel. Will Casey be able to forfeit his lifestyle in pursuit of contest points and cash? The jury is still out but you quickly get the feeling that money is not his driving force. “Just me and the sea equals a happy C-Dog,” he quips lightheartedly, but then adds more seriously, “Surfing is a dream for me and I’m lucky to be good enough to have it as my job. I’ll never take it for granted, just the fact that I have the opportunity to pick up my board whenever I want and go surf is all the motivation I need. I don’t need anything else to get me amped. Every time I surf I try blow up because I love the feeling of ripping. It’s that simple.”
Casey Grant has a good few years of ripping ahead. It remains to be seen if he will find his way onto the world stage and show the world his true talent. Or if that talent will be saved for the lucky few who get to watch his surfing firsthand on the canvas it was made for. Either way, he assures me, “I’ll never have a desk job.”