HELP! I’M ALIVE

This is the story of seminal Durban surfer, Ricky Basnett, who has struggled with many demons to finally find a place in a world he never really fitted into…

By Samora Chapman

Picture this… a lil kid, 13 years old. It’s twilight, the world is oscillating. Tears are rolling down his face, his heart is pounding so hard and aching so bad it feels like it’s gonna burst out of his chest. The kid is holding a dagger – pointing it at his own heart, ready to plunge it in…

Two decades later Ricky Basnett is sitting under a palm tree on a sticky hot Saturday in Durban town. The beachfront is buzzing with hustlers, buskers and bikers. The smell of sunscreen and cheap weed floats on the breeze. Ricky’s still kicking. But it’s been quite a journey. 

The heat is sweltering. He takes off his shirt to cool off, and reveals a canvas etched with a wild old story. The word, Bluff, is stamped on his right forearm. It’s the seedy, infamous suburb in south Durban where he grew up. A little surf town known for it’s cranking waves and tough cats. Other shards of memory add to the story – a rose on his chest for his beloved daughter. “Help. I’m alive” wrapped around his shin…

“That was Jase… we did that on my kitchen counter back in the day,” he says with a chuckle.

It’s time to get into the conversation… a tricky one to have, because I know Ricky’s story already. He’s been in the limelight since he was about 15, as a pro surfer and definitive Durban character. He’s been on top of the world as a star surfer and in the dungeons of hell that are addiction and depression.

I have many distinct memories of Ricky. We’re almost the same age, and I’ve watched him rise and fall a number of times. I was watching before we became acquainted.

I remember standing on New Pier on a scary day. It’s eight foot, waves charging in like killers, exploding across the bay with the sound of thunder. The torrent gushing through the piers is deadly. It’s the type of surf that puts the fear of death in a kid. We were about 14 and I watched as Ricky plunged into that ocean.

He got swept northward by the torrent, but he kept on going and going. Ducking under 10 or fifteen mountains of water in a row. He was almost at North Pier, in a dangerous place, when he got a gap at last as a set loomed… but he never faltered. He never hesitated for a second – making it out by the skin of his teeth. That determination and fearlessness was imprinted on me.

A couple years later at the Bluff I was paddling out in the channel when Ricky came flying down the line on a six foot, sublime right. The water was deep green, perfect glass and I watched, mesmerized, as he rode that wave like a magus. He danced and played intuitively, choosing the perfect lines and painting a masterpiece in the dawn. It was magic. Sitting in my office on a dull Tuesday and I can visualize that whole wave. It’s imprinted on my memory.

Image © Alex McGeowan

Back to real time, and Ricky is thinking back to his first thoughts of suicide. His voice drops to a whisper… so as not to scare my lighty who’s climbing me like a jungle gym.

“I wanted to stick a knife in my heart. Imagine that?”

We take a moment to consider. I have no way to respond. It’s hard to fathom, but I guess he’s always felt too much… and he’s always had a wildfire burning in his heart. A fire that’s difficult to control. It seems that when the fire is expressed and channeled in the right direction – magic happens. But when it’s bottled up, confined or misunderstood… it can burn all in its path.

“I just never really fitted into this world,” he tries to explain. “I was a straight A student and I did everything from cricket to rugby and soccer… primary school in the Bluff was a good time for me.”

From a young age Ricky’s life was defined by the ocean. His old man started pushing him into waves when he was six, and he grew up surfing with the talented Daniels brothers at one of the hardest hitting waves in the country.

“But when high school came along, I was sent to Glenwood High [an all boys government school] and I hated it with a passion. So I dropped out and did home school for a while. It was a good thing for my surfing, but not really for me as a person. It meant a lot of free time and myself and Scott Venter would go surfing all day. That’s when we started getting up to no good.”

Surfing was something at which Ricky was beyond gifted. There’s no putting it in words… he’s an artist with untouchable style. He cuts lines across the face of a moving wave like Picasso with a paintbrush. He’s perfectly in tune, focused, born to be one of the greatest free surfer’s in Mzansi. Surfing should have been his salvation, but pro surfing comes with so much pressure and bullshit that it was very nearly his downfall.

At 17 Ricky left his matric half finished and began chasing the pro surf dragon. He had good backing from sponsors and he travelled the world competing against the world’s best. After three years on the WQS, he won the lauded Mr Price Pro in 2006 and qualified for the World Championship Tour…

Only 44 surfers a year from around the world make the WCT cut. Think about it in relation to any other sport – where there are thousands of professionals making a good living off the likes of soccer, tennis and rugby. In surfing there are 44. And for the rest of those who don’t make that elite group – it’s an endless hustle to shift and evolve into a space where you can make a living off the lifestyle or industry in any way you can.

“Back then, the tour was just heavy, debaucherous,” he remembers. “I was just a baby and I was travelling the world, surfing these contests. There were bad influences. 95% of the guys were on the bag (cocaine). I was thrust into a world of chaos. It’s different now, the level of professionalism has changed. You can’t just rely on talent.”

In his heart, Ricky hated competing.

“I competed from the age of 10. From young, it killed me.”

He was born to be a free surfer, living a lifestyle true to the spirit of surfing – not corrupted by capitalism and contests. The commodification of something beautiful into a product defined by dollars and points, brands, winning and losing, is something totally disillusioning to an artist in any craft.

“Free surfing wasn’t a thing back then,” he goes on. “You couldn’t get paid to surf. You got paid to go and do contests. That was it.

“I knew I wasn’t doing what I was meant to do. I wasn’t fulfilling my destiny. There was always this huge expectation and pressure… from family, the surfing community. It’s not what I wanted. I never knew how to voice what I wanted. I never wanted to let anyone down.”

Soon Ricky fell off tour, and for a while it seemed he’d found his groove.

“When I fell off tour, Rip Curl kept me on and I moved into that free surfing role. I travelled Africa and experienced the continent, which was eye opening. I’ve never been so happy.”

But after a year or two ‘break’, the pressure mounted again. The questions and expectations piled up– “Are you ready to get back on tour,” they asked, trying to put Ricky back in the cage.

“I surfed one or two more contests in 2009 and I had a full on breakdown,” he remembers emotionally.

It was the start of a downward spiral. He slowly tumbled into a dark places of addiction and self-damage…

“I’ve always struggled with depression,” he says opening up. “You don’t drink for fun, you drink to make the thoughts go away… and drinking took away all my pain. The first five years were fun, but then things start to fall apart.”

For 10 years, he’s been in and out of rehab, recoveries, relapses and other struggles. A recent relapse and divorce from the mother of his child has been painful but Ricky is a survivor and an artist just burning to express himself… to be understood perhaps?

And it seems he’s finding a way to break through the darkness…

“I’m in the best place I’ve ever been,” he says on a positive note. “I’ve been clean for six months and I’m just channeling my energy into creating. I feel like I’ve conquered my ego and my fears and I’m doing things that I enjoy and make me happy.

“Shaping was my first step into believing I have a creative ability. I lack self-confidence and shaping helped me let go of my fears. Shaping and drawing have replaced my addictions. Seeing something that you’ve created is really fulfilling. Being back in Durban is also inspiring – it’s so African, full of colour and energy.”

Ricky shapes his own boards out of the Clayton factory. “They’re not the best performance boards…” he says.  “It’s more like an artwork. I’m experimenting with blending photography and prints on boards, making unusual shapes, just playing.”

Ricky’s always had a love for tattoo culture, but it was luck that led him into the game…

“St Francis was pretty boring… but there was this lady living down the road from me – Shelly. She’d been given needles and ink and she just started doing pokes on herself. I was like shit! That looks like so much fun. So I just started tattooing myself, all over my legs here. [He shows me some squiggly doodles of…] I got so addicted to that and just kept practicing.”

Ricky’s doing traditional hand pokes, growing in confidence, getting cleaner.

“I’m drawing every day – it’s like my meditation,” he continues. “I start the day in a peaceful way. I don’t care how good or bad it is, I just know I need to do it ‘cos it makes me happy.”

He’s still pursuing the free surfing lifestyle/livelihood – relentlessly creating content and pushing Instagram. A new deal with Vans is being finalised, a deal that would help steady the ship.

“I finally feel like I’ve shed my ego,” he reveals. “I’m tired of living up to an image of what’s expected of me… I’m finding my true self. I’ve been clean six months and I get to see my daughter again soon…”

Ricky’s made films, travelled the world, created a life, hung on to life… and he’s still fighting. A true artist to the bone.

*First published in The Lake magazine, February 2019

Published by Samora Chapman

writer | photographer | filmmaker authorsamora@gmail.com

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