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Vol. 18, No. 2: Slightly Matt

The cameras are rolling, but they’re not pointed at Matt Maxwell. Just down the beach, a mob of local news crews trails the police as they haul a dejected kiteboarder away in handcuffs. There’s a politician in a black suit strutting at the front of the parade, attempting to make some kind of point while proving his strong-arm power: Welcome to mid-pandemic kiteboarding in South Africa.

Watching the episode from just upwind, Matt hustled off the water to join Nicholas Spilsbury and Dylan Osborne, his close friends, trusted cameramen and partners in crime. Filming a kiteboarding movie in the middle of a lockdown requires equal parts skilled subterfuge and dumb luck, but the latter is oftentimes fickle in nature and not to be relied upon. One moment lady luck’s got your back and you’re free and clear, and the next your day is unraveling””the car keys are lost, the police are breathing down your neck and your knee is swollen, refusing to endure one more pass in front of the camera. Slightly Off is the name that stuck to Matt’s recent video project. In some respects, it’s a nod to Matt’s unconventional status as a professional kitesurfing athlete, having come to the sport via the SUP world while harboring greater aspirations to be a product engineer. In other respects, the video title is also a thinly veiled ode to the misfortune and bittersweet outcomes of Matt’s freewheeling adventures along the southern coast of South Africa.

The Lost Sessions

Kitesurfing is a huge part of Matt’s life, and to start his video project off, he headed up South Africa’s west coast, where the terrain becomes a bit more rugged, the water turns cold and sharky, and the surf breaks trend towards world-class. Having spent the morning at a hidden wave to the north, Matt and his friends spot-checked Elands Bay to find a once-in-alifetime collision of variables. With beach access restricted due to the pandemic, the typically crowded lineup of surfers was surprisingly empty. Matt and company watched as perfect lefts reeled off the point with an unusual 20 knots of southeast wind pumping over the headland and filling in over the hollow, glassy break. With no surfers to clog up the lineup, Matt was able to set up deep, tucking into barrels for repeated coverups while the two cameramen logged footage from both the water and the land. Having properly kicked the trip off with a rare score, they reconvened on the beach and quickly packed up before the police made their rounds. Celebrating the collision of perfect timing and serendipitous conditions, their luck quickly changed when the hard drive storing all of the footage from Elands Bay fell out of a backpack, damaging the internal disks and erasing all the data. No amount of money could bring the footage back, and worse yet, their insurance policy, a second backup hard drive, was formatted incorrectly and equally useless. The visual proof of the Elands session was gone forever””its perfection recorded only in their minds.

‘The kitesurfing scene in Cape Town is dependable and plenty, but if you’re looking for hollow A-frames, venturing up the west coast can open the door to world-class surf, that is, if you don’t mind cold water and apex predators. Recently, Matt’s been spending more time paddling into waves to build a better foundation to push his kitesurfing technique with less reliance on the kite.’

Super Strapless

On the verge of the next frontier in strapless freestyle, Matt’s been focused on fusing big, powered airs with the technical tricks of strapless surfboard riding. As the home of the King of the Air, Cape Town is the natural place for the combo, and Matt has been gunning to come out on top when the new discipline gets an official venue. One of the key equipment innovations pushing this new discipline is the second generation of F-One’s Magnet surfboard. Matt swears by the board’s new Slimtech formula and how it brings insane durability while maintaining its incredibly lightweight and high-performance. Matt’s only complaint is its seemingly uncanny ability to accelerate the learning curve. “It’s frustrating watching people learn how to stick a strapless front roll in two weeks when it took me 12,” he jokes. The shift towards high-altitude strapless maneuvers has also steered Matt back to F-One’s traditional Bandit model””the Bandit-S is still his hands down choice on a pure surf trip, but for more powered big air riding, the regular Bandit can whip him higher and sweep a lot lower during big loops.

‘The historical state of strapless freestyle has been low-altitude technical tricks with rotations integrating various types of board-offs. Airton Cozzolino’s entry into the King of the Air contest last year with a strapless surfboard raised the ante and inspired a whole new direction for the freestyle side of surf.’

Bracing for Action

Venturing off the beaten path, Matt steered his black and white mini box van up the east coast where the water is warmer and the sharks are slightly smaller but nonetheless omnipresent. Finding wind had been a challenge, but about four hours up the coast at Witsands, they happened upon a butter-flat lagoon at the Breede River. With the wind blowing over a sand spit, the water was perfectly smooth and Matt unleashed his pent-up energy for the camera. Shortly into the session, Matt initiated a big kite loop with a high-altitude front rotation, attempting to spin the board into a tic-tack on his way down, but instead, landed on his board fin side up. With his leg folded between his fins””his calf between the side fin and his quad between the two other fins””his knee contorted into a sickening angle. Barely able to explain the awkwardness of the injury, the pain seared into his brain. Since filming-time was of the essence, Matt borrowed Nick’s knee brace (many of Matt’s South African friends have been tearing through ACLs) and reinforced his unstable knee to finish the day and stack some more footage.

Most strapless injuries come from nailing your fins, but hard landings and knee issues are a combination that can be just as painful. Injury prevention has been on Matt’s mind this year. With a tangled line incident and a tweaked knee at Witsands, Matt has turned to cross-training on his surfboard and has worked strengthening exercises into his routine to get ready for the next season.

Evasive Maneuvers

On the second to last day of their trip, Matt and his friends ended back at the buttery flat sandbar at Witsands. Most of the spots they kited came with an evasion plan, but at Witsands, they had descended through a forest and had no view of the parking lot to monitor the arrival of the cops. At the end of the day, everyone was on the water kiting when they spotted the uniforms trudging over the sand. The group gathered up and decided to head across the big open bay. The crossing from Witsands to Infanta via the Breede River was just shy of a mile on the water, but by car, it would take the police at least an hour to drive around and catch them. The river is known as a bull shark feeding ground, but the risk of crossing seemed reasonable only because they didn’t know what the police had in store for them. From the safety of a beach on the far side, Matt, Nick and Dylan waited clear into the evening before crossing the channel again to get back to their cars.

Nine times out of 10, it’s best not to imperil kiteboarding access by bending the rules. Yet, South Africa’s pandemic restrictions often seemed inconsistent and arbitrary. As the science behind Covid transmission became better understood, it was clear that outdoor sports like kiteboarding, where social distancing is woven into the fabric of the activity, were never a threat to society’s health.

The Home Stretch

Finishing the trip back at home in Cape Town, Matt highlights the diversity of conditions that make it a world-class destination for kitesurfers and part of the reason he doesn’t often venture too far from home. In their film project, Matt and his friends did their best to showcase everything South Africa has to offer, yet at every step of their adventure, things never quite seemed to line up. Despite the one-off kitesurfing footage from Elands disappearing along with their B-roll and trip dialogue, Dylan Osborne was able to pull the edit together. Haunted by the knowledge of what they could have accomplished, Matt is comforted by the experience of traveling with his friends and photographing the spirit of adventure that thrived while everything else remained slightly off.

Having grown up with his feet firmly planted in competitive SUP surfing, Matt has always embraced alternative forms of surf craft. With unshakable talent in the zen art of foilsurfing and as a semi-closet wingsurfer, Matt is much more than just a Jedi master of surfing with a kite and strapless freestyle.

This article was featured in our summer 2021 issue, Vol. 18, No. 2. To read more, click here.