So, who is Andre Botha?
Words by Jed Smith | Photo by Clark Little
Mid-January 2015 and it's one of those days at Pipe. Big. Ugly big. The kind where no one – not Jamie O'Brien, not John John Florence, not Kelly Slater and not the competitors in the Da Hui Backdoor Shootout, which was called off minutes ago – want a bar of it. These are the days on which Andre Botha has made his name.
"There's very few people who want it on days like that and he's one of them," says Dave Wassel, the big wave charger and North Shore Lifeguard, who's watched the South African bodyboarder dominate brutal Pipe conditions like this for over a decade.
It was a day like this that Evan Geiselman almost lost his life earlier this week. They are a fairly regular occurrence at Pipe. Raw swells, too big for first reef, cap across second and third, putting all manner of turbulence through the lineup. The usually packed Pipe peak is left conspicuously uncrowded with the vast majority of waves either closing out or washing through, leaving little room to get into position for the takeoff. But if you sit there long enough, you'll see occasional gems and the young and the foolhardy will see those glimmers as a shortcut to hero status. Sometimes it works out, but mostly it doesn't. Which is why you won't find any of the big names out on days like this. Andre Botha is an exception to the rule. He excels on days like this.
"He is the man. Always has been ever since I was 16," says Jordy Smith, a fellow native of the Durban New Pier region. As Wassel explains, "people try and claim there is a clash between guys who ride different boards or whatever but it's a crock of shit. When the conditions are like that you're sharing waves and you're looking out for each other, and alls I can say is that I'm lucky to know the guy, and everyone is lucky to know the guy on days like that."
It was a day like this, back in January 2015 that I stood gobsmacked on the beach at Pipe watching Botha put on a clinic. It was surfing, but not like anything I'd seen before. He was everywhere in the lineup, sneaking under sets, spotting the bombs capping on third, understanding the angles they'd arrive at, and dealing with the insane turbulence to somehow find the sweet spot and drop in. Two waves in particular stand out. The first, an elevator drop into one of those mutant 10-foot-plus things where the wash reels off just in time to give you a vertical entry. And the second, a grotesque double-up, the thickest tube I'd ever seen in the flesh, that broke wide of the peak at Pipe and ran onto the sand bar. He travelled for an eternity through the pit before ejecting through the bottom as it crushed the patchy sand and reef bottom. It was mesmerising. More than that it proved to me beyond all doubt that bodyboarding was not only valid, but superior, to surfing in conditions like this.
To the surfing world Andre Botha is largely an unknown but he is one of the all-time greats in bodyboarding. If Mike Stewart is their sport's Kelly Slater, Andre Botha would be the Andy Irons of bodyboarding. A prodigiously talented teenager, Botha became the youngest surfer in history to claim the bodyboarding world championship aged 17. He backed it up the following year with another title, using his giant 1.91 m x 90 kilos frame to dominate everything from beach breaks to slabs. Then the bubble burst in bodyboarding, leaving many of its top pros on the scrap heap. Botha was one of them. Unsponsored and approaching destitution, he hit the bottle. He was just 22.
"I wasn't able to deal with life's problems," he told the Red Bulletin. "That was my big burnout. And after that, I was always kind of living on edge, just hopping around from one person's house to the next and having a jolly old time. I wasn't surfing. Things kind of spiralled, and eventually I realised that I couldn't carry on living like I was. That I had to use my parents' house as a place to kind of… rehabilitate."
He's been doing it for the love ever since. Showing up, blowing up, and smoke bombing before you even know who it was. "He doesn't talk much but he's always there on days like that," says Wassel. "You can use all those cliches; actions speaks louder than words. He's just a real person."
After putting on the heavy-wave clinic I watched, he'd walked up the beach, rolled his wetsuit down, unchained his bike and rode home. No photos, no fanfare, no frills. When it emerged he was the one who pulled Evan Geiselman to safety, few in the know were surprised. More shocking was that it was possible at all.
"The strength it takes to hold onto an unconscious victim is unfathomable," says Wassel. "Andre Botha is badass. Straight up."