There are surfers who are happy to keep within the established norms of the sport, and there are those who are driven to experiment, to push the boundaries and to challenge themselves.

Dougal Paterson is a member of the latter group. He’s a big wave surfer, storyteller and photographer based in Kommetjie, a world renowned surf spot on the southern coast of Africa. I spoke with him about his journey, surfing finless, and his two paths to innovation. 

Dougal Paterson big wave

Tell us a little about yourself. How did you start surfing?

I grew up in the landlocked city of Johannesburg. When I was 16 years old I sold my grandmothers old car and ran away from home for a few weeks. The place I ran to was Jeffries Bay which is home to the world’s best right hand wave. I had dreamed of being a surfer since I was the smallest boy. It was during that time that I learned how to slide the rolling wet-hills.

And you now surf big waves?

Surfing big waves always represented to me the pinnacle of the pursuit. To me, riding smaller waves always felt like climbing in the foothills of the Alps, whilst looking at what towered above them. I dreamed of climbing the highest peaks in the far off distance.

I’ve seen your quiver of boards and know that you love to experiment with them. What have been some of your favourite experiments?

Between my wife and I, we have 25 of them. I love boards that are difficult to ride. I’ll intentionally commission a shaper to build me something eclectic that is challenging to ride. After sliding it for a few months, I’ll cut off the tail or change the fin configuration. I have this board that was made in Hawaii for a famous surfer back in ’86. It was in mint condition when I found it in a secondhand store. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! At the time it was probably worth a few thousand dollars to a serious collector. It was something that you’d NEVER normally ride but, to cut a long story short, it’s been thoroughly ridden, snapped and fixed multiple times and now I’ve entirely re-shaped it and all the fins have been removed.

For those of us who aren’t surfers, what are fins, and how is surfing without them different from standard methods?

Surfboard finsFins on a surfboard have the same combined function as a car’s steering wheel, brakes and engine. Fins provide control, direction and forward thrust. As soon as you take the fins out of your surfboard you loose both the ability to generate speed and steer. Riding without fins has close parallels to sitting inside a shopping trolley as it finds its own line down the hill, whilst using nothing but your body weight to try and direct it. The steeper the hill or the larger the wave, the more horrifying the experience.

What inspired you to try it?

One of my highest values is authentic creativity. For me, people who take their own line will always be my greatest source of inspiration. There is a 57 year Australian surfer called Derek Hynd. 9 years ago he took the fins out of his board whilst working on a film project with a friend of his. He liked the drifting-sliding sensation so much that he never put them back in. Derek is now globally acknowledged as one of our liquid-pursuits truest innovators. More importantly however, he is easily one of the most aesthetically pleasing surfers to watch. I first saw Derek spinning and gliding at Jeffries Bay 6 years ago and over time became convinced that a part of my future was also finless.

What kind of reactions have you received from the rest of the surfing community?

Ha! They think I’m crazy, like Derek. A lot of people ask “are you trying to be like that Derek Hynd guy?” To which my answer is “yes.” After spending many hours in conversation with him, I became convinced that it would be possible to ride big waves finless too. For three nights after leaving Derek I dreamed the whole night through that I was watching him surf. On the fourth night, suddenly it was me surfing whilst he watched. At first everything was wrong and I couldn’t figure it out, but then, in an instant I felt a sensation of understanding rush through my body (I can still imagine it now). Suddenly it made sense to me. Surfing finless only worked if you surfed opposite to how you surf with fins. It was counter intuitive. I stopped trying to push against the wave like I normally would by using the fins to create resistance. Instead I began to rather flow with the wave. In a very real sense, I became a part of the wave. When I awoke I went back home and immediately hacked up the collectors piece that I mentioned earlier. I reshaped the bottom contours and removed the fins. I then proceeded to ride the board in most difficult waves that my courage would allow. It continues to be equal parts horrifying and deeply liberating.

Does creativity and experimentation play a big role in your life when you’re not in the ocean?

Dougal portraitYes. Unequivocally YES! As a misguided kid I accessed my spirituality by taking LSD and initiating adventures into the cathedrals of nature. The object for me was always to find new ways of looking at the world and communicating that with those who were on that journey with me. Now the redeemed version of that looks like someone who is constantly gathering big wave surfers together to go on wave-chasing expeditions. It looks like a husband and Dad who is relentlessly working out ways to include his family, and other families, in spiritually uplifting community environments. It sounds like I’m an amazing and inspiring guy to be around the whole time but, in reality, I can be extremely agitative and fractious in that role too. I struggle in the flatlands of life. I thrive on the adrenaline of the peaks and valleys.

And for those reading who want to initiate change, or experiment in their own field, what advice would you have? How do you motivate yourself to keep leaning into the path of creativity?

True-Innovation is a deeply personal journey. It’s impossible to access True-Innovation until you begin attaching value to your own ideas. Like I said above, we all want change but in reality change can be very fractious and painful. Sustaining change is the hardest task of all. I always assumed that for deep and lasting change to happen, you had to have a complete break down of the vehicle that wasn’t getting you where you knew you could go. However, I am beginning to understand that there is another higher way to access True-Innovation. It’s the access point that we all know is possible, if only because we wish it for our children. This access point is the door called curiosity. Be brave enough to nourish your curiosity and you will leave the world a better place.

Dougal runs regular storytelling nights in Cape Town’s Southern Peninsula. You can also find him online at dougalpaterson.com and on Instagram.  

(Image credit: Gustavo Veríssimo (fins image), all other images provided by Dougal).