When COVID Shut Down the US, This American Photog Was 'Stuck' in Pumping Aotearoa

6 Jul 2020 2 Share

Photo: Cal Ramsey

Photo: Cal Ramsey

COASTALWATCH | TRAVEL | GALLERY

Story and Interview by Jason Lock

Photos by Cal Ramsey

“Where were you when the lockdown of 2020 started?” is going to be one of the questions future generations ask us. And for most of us, the answer will be simple; tucked up at home, waiting this out and hoping everyone comes through happy, healthy with the froth levels blipping off the limiter.

But what about those who were already on trips and couldn't get home? In most countries, visitors were told to leave within a certain timeframe and return to whence they came. But over in New Zealand, it seems people were given the option to leave, if they could do so safely.

For Outer Banks US lensman Cal Ramsey, he'd scraped together enough coin to fly to the land of fabled lefthand pointbreaks, touching ground in New Zealand in January, weeks before the coronavirus put a global halt on proceedings.

What ensued was one of the greatest surf trips Cal's been on – deciding to wait it out in New Zealand rather than flying home as the logistical turn around was too tight (selling van, booking flights...)

And though he locked down along with the rest of the country, things in NZ didn't seem all that bad when COVID took hold. A testament that rings true now, given the country has all but eradicated the spread of the disease within their shores.

Anyway, we checked in with Cal to see what went down and how one east coast compares to the other on the opposite side of the globe. Images throughout are all from Cal's time in the land of the long white cloud.

Photo: Cal Ramsey

Photo: Cal Ramsey

How’d this trip come about?

In the spring of 2019, I was living in Colorado. I went to my favourite pub in Breckenridge one more time before moving back to the Outer Banks. The bartender there ended up being a Kiwi and it was the first time I had ever met anyone from New Zealand.

We ended up talking for a few hours about the country and I decided right then and there that I would go home to the Outer Banks, work my arse off all summer long, save every penny I made, and buy a one-way ticket to New Zealand.

What was happening with coronavirus when you first arrived?

When I landed in New Zealand in January, I had never heard of coronavirus. Things were normal over here for at least the first two months. Around mid-February was the first time I think I saw anything about it and that was just memes on Instagram making fun of the situation. I don’t think those jokes have aged too well after everything that has happened.

Before shit hit the fan, how were the early days of the trip?

The early days of the trip were wild. From backstage at music festivals on my first night to chasing my first cyclone swell up and down the east coast the next day.

I was cruising with a group of four guys, sometimes there were more of us but most of the time the four of us stuck together. Not one of us had a permanent home, we were kind of just bouncing around the North Island chasing swell.

We were staying at our friends’ houses for a few days or sleeping in the bush or on the beach. If we weren’t driving from one coast to the other looking for surf, then we were surfing or eating. We were always cooking up a big family style meal for all those who were around that day.

We met so many cool people in those early days living that nomadic lifestyle. Local folks were happy to lend us a hand, give us a place to sleep. Always insisting on nothing in return besides good company.

Photo: Cal Ramsey

Photo: Cal Ramsey

And when you heard about the virus, what was your reaction?

When I heard about Coronavirus for the first time, I remember asking my friends back in the states if it was a big deal. No one was talking about it yet over here and it seemed like we had nothing to worry about.

A few weeks later I was on a surf trip down the coast with a few of my best mates over here. I woke up on a cold morning in my van to my friend speaking in Italian to his family back home. I could tell by his tone of voice things were serious.

After he got off the phone, he explained the situation going on back in Italy and I could not believe what I was hearing. That was the first time I knew how serious things were going to become.

I guess the infection rate was so low there – did it ever feel like a threat?

The infection rate was always really low and as of today New Zealand has had no new cases in the last week. I think it’s because everyone took it so seriously.

During level four, the only stores that were allowed to be open were supermarkets and pharmacies. You were not allowed to drive your car unless you were going to one of those two places and police checkpoints were pretty regular outside of towns.

Exercise was allowed and encouraged but you were not allowed to leave your “bubble”. Driving to exercise was not allowed; you had to stay within your area. I think this made the threat feel very real and I was honestly pretty scared in the beginning even if there wasn’t that much danger.

Photo: Cal Ramsey

Photo: Cal Ramsey

So where were you staying? Van life?

Van life and crashing at mates’ houses for the first two months. Then I settled down and rented an apartment in downtown Raglan.

How did COVID impact the trip?

This is a hard one to answer because of course COVID has impacted the trip but compared to what most people in the world are going through, I feel very fortunate to be here. Sure, I couldn’t surf for a month but that really doesn’t matter in times like this. The biggest impact it has made on my trip, was making me decide to stay here longer as it has always seemed like the safest option.

So, did you actually get stuck in NZ?

I didn’t really get stuck in New Zealand. Well not at first at least. When we went into level four lockdown, all non-citizens were given 48 hours to leave the country if they wished. After this time, it would pretty much be impossible to get home for the next five weeks without making special arrangements with your country’s embassy.

My partner and I decided that it was best to stay in New Zealand, as it would have been impossible to find flights, sell my van and do everything needed to make it home before travel restrictions were enforced.

At the time surfing was still allowed, so I was also excited to surf the famous points in Raglan with just the friendly locals. Surfing was pretty quickly banned though, and the next five weeks were tough. Surfing has been legal now since April 27 and by some kind of miracle from mother nature it has been pretty much pumping every day.

Photo: Cal Ramsey

Photo: Cal Ramsey

Did you sneak out during the surfing ban at all?

I only snuck out for a couple surfs during lockdown and the first one was when the rules were blurry, and most locals were still surfing.

The second one was after the 4-week lockdown was extended for another week and I thought I was going to lose my mind if I didn’t get in the water. I woke up that next morning after the announcement, a few hours before the sun came up, then headed off to the beach.

I parked my van at one of my mates’ houses and started the two-kilometer hike to the beach in the dark.

When I got to the cliff overlooking the ocean, there was just enough light to see the lines of swell stacked to the horizon. I ran down the hill in my wetsuit, happy as could be. My bare feet were freezing from the morning dew and autumn chill in the air.

I apologise for breaking the rules and going surfing during the lockdown. Even though everything went fine I realise I could have put myself in danger and caused valuable rescue efforts to be used to save me when they could have been used elsewhere. I realise that was selfish of me. There were experienced locals surfing every day throughout lockdown and honestly they seemed way safer than the people riding bikes and skateboards for the first time in 30 years.

I only surfed for an hour, but it really did get me through that next week pretty easy.

Photo: Cal Ramsey

Photo: Cal Ramsey

Must’ve been a big difference from back home on the East Coast of the US… were there other days you scored waves unlike you’ve ever experienced?

Oh man, there are too many to count but I’ll try to sum up a few favourites really quick. Scoring a rare east coast wave on my first few days in New Zealand was pretty epic.

It was during a rare swell caused by a cyclone and I didn’t realise just how lucky we were to score that wave till weeks later. Paddling 300 yards out to an island and surfing a perfect, slabby left with just two mates while being surrounded by some of the most beautiful landscape I have ever seen…

Hiking through cow pastures in Taranaki. Spending all day on the beach in our driftwood shack and surfing the best waves of my life. Hiking back through the pastures that night as the sun went down and getting shocked by the electrical fence because I’m so surfed out, just delirious. And more recently, one of the most perfect days I’ve ever seen, was in Raglan when I saw the points live up to their true potential.

Photo: Cal Ramsey

Photo: Cal Ramsey

This interview originally appeared on magicseaweed.

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