US East Coast Lensman Stuck in New Zealand During Lockdown: "The First Days of This Trip Were Wild"

Jason Lock

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Updated 36d ago

“Where were you when the lockdown of 2020 started,” are going to be one of the many questions that 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 have you thought, '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 more given the option to leave, if they could do so safely.

For Outer Banks 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.

© 2020 - Cal Ramsey

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's handling of the pandemic has been applauded the world over.

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.

Tell us a bit about the trip, what made you want to go to New Zealand? Had it been a dream for some time?
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 ass off all summer long. Save every penny I made and buy a one way ticket to New Zealand.

When you were planning this, coronavirus was still very fresh, right? No one could have predicted what was about to happen…
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. Don’t think those jokes have aged too well after everything that has happened.

© 2020 - Cal Ramsey

Talk us through the early days of the trip, where were you staying? Were you surfing a lot?
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 off 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. Local folks were happy to lend us a hand, give us a place to sleep. Always insisting on nothing in return besides good company

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. 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.

© 2020 - 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 where 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.

© 2020 - Cal Ramsey

So where were you staying? Van life?
Van life and and crashing at mate's houses for the first two months. Then settled down a 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 at the moment, 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. Its 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, what then, did you 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 be 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. If I was at home, I would already be three to five thousand dollars in debt

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.

At the moment, though, I am kind of stuck in New Zealand. I broke a few bones in my wrist last Sunday and the doctors think maybe some ligaments are torn too. I am waiting to hear back from the MRI but the hand specialist is saying I need surgery. With no healthcare in the States I have no choice but to stay here for the next three to four months to get the surgery and go through physical therapy.

I’m very grateful this happened in New Zealand and for their wonderful Health Care program taking care of me. If I was at home, I would already be three to five thousand dollars in debt.

© 2020 - Cal Ramsey

Not surfing for those five weeks, stuck in a van, must have been tough. But were you sneaking out? And how do the waves compare to back home?
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 kilometre 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

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. Bare feet freezing from the morning dew and autumn chill in the air.

I only surfed for an hour, but it really did get me through that next week pretty easy. On the other hand, the waves where pumping back home and it seemed like it was the best run of waves since fall 2018.

It was hard to watch from the other side of the world, but I am glad the boys were scoring. As far as how the waves compare to my local at home and the waves, I’ve been surfing at for the last five months, they couldn’t be any different.

I once heard an average was on the east coast of the US is 8 seconds long. Don’t remember where I read that fact, but it seems like it could be pretty true. Those 8 seconds are usually pretty exhilarating though. A steep takeoff followed by a hollow tube maybe a turn at the end if you’re lucky. Here, in Raglan, on the biggest and best days when the points are all lining up, you can ride a wave for just over three minutes long. It truly only takes one wave on those days because you have a few kilometres walk back to the car.

Let's face it, if your local looked like this, you'd be pumped.

Let's face it, if your local looked like this, you'd be pumped.

© 2020 - Cal Ramsey

Yeah the fabled point, so different than the States east coast but both stand outs for their own reasons. Did you get many days like that, where the legs are about to give way?
Oh man there is 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 'til 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, I’m delirious. And more recently, one of the most perfect days I’ve ever seen, Last Saturday in Raglan when I saw the points live up to their true potential.

And you snapped your wrist! More time out of the water, then?
I’m still out here but I won’t be doing any shredding for a while. I should be hearing from the surgeon early next week regarding the broken bones in my wrist. Hopefully I can get the surgery behind me soon and I can start working towards getting back in the water as soon as possible!.

Sounds like, all things considered, things kind of worked out. Thanks Cal for sharing your story!