The wave that took my breath away, and almost took my life with it, was the one I didn’t see coming. It smacked me down from behind, like a coward punch, just as I broke the surface and gasped hungrily for air.
I should have been expecting that second wave. The wave that nailed me initially had been the first of a multiple-wave set, and surfers are supposed to know these things, but in my struggle to find the surface, I’d lost all the planning and logic that a good surfer usually employs.
I was gripped by something a little bit scary, but it was less than panic. As far as I can recall, I didn’t really think I was fighting for survival, if indeed I thought about anything at all. It was simply that moment that every surfer becomes acquainted with sooner or later, that moment when you think that maybe, just maybe, you have bitten off more than you can chew.
And then the ocean was smashing me again, driving me down, not in the easy arc of a diver, but the frenzied rinse of a washing machine, shaking, shuddering, gripping me like some horrible thrill ride. When the force of the wave finally passed I burst to the surface again, taking in air in shallow, raspy breaths. I clambered onto my surfboard and lay, spread across it, while smaller sets of waves washed me, and it, closer to the inshore reef. It was then that I had the scariest realisation. My breathing was still laboured, not returning to normal as it should, as it had every
other time the ocean had given me a hiding. I was gasping and wheezing, powerless to do anything other than allow the force of the waves to push me into the shore.
The fin of my board scraped across the last rock shelf and somehow I managed to pick myself up, negotiate three or four awkward steps through the shallows and drop to the black sand, exhausted, anxious, and yet at some deeper level, weirdly calm.
I lay there on the tideline next to my board for a long time—perhaps twenty minutes—while my friends surfed on, oblivious to my plight. Early morning joggers, power walkers and dog walkers just ignored me, some old stumble-bum surfer sleeping off a big one perhaps, or maybe a ’60s casualty peaking on acid. I can’t remember everything that went through my mind that morning, but I know that what frightened me more than anything was the stream of thoughts and memories that punctuated my more rational thinking. The random thoughts—waves, good times in exotic places, bad times in shitholes, kids, grandkids, family crises, share prices, the wife, old loves, bad jokes, good wine, god knows what else—or rather, the fact that I was having them, made me consider the old clichés about a man’s life appearing before him, like some lame musical comedy in the moments before the final curtain. Was this what I was experiencing? Would my final words be, ‘Is that all there is?’ Or ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office’?
And then I started to feel better. I was still short of breath, but the pain in my back and shoulders, which I’d put down to the wrenching of tired old muscles during the hold-downs, began to recede. I sat up, checked my pulse (still there), slowly stood, then picked up my board and even more slowly began the walk along the beach, up the temple steps, across the bay, through the creek and to the cafe where my wife and friends would be waiting for me to join them for breakfast.
As I walked, I tried to piece the morning together—it was not yet nine, but it seemed it had been a long day already. It had begun for me soon after first light, when I strapped my Bali longboard onto the side rack of my scooter and puttered down Jalan Pantai Pererenan to Pondok Nyoman, where our friends were staying. The ocean was clean and inviting, but the tide was too low and the swell too big for the rivermouth break in front of Nyoman’s, so Rusty, John and I had made the quick decision to walk a kilometre along the beach to Old Man’s, a reasonably user-friendly wave that worked better in these conditions.
The paddle out at Old Man’s was easy enough between sets but the swell was hitting it very straight. We paddled around for ages looking for a place to take off where we’d have a reasonable chance of completing the wave. Rusty took the lead, of course—over seventy and still the hungriest. Half a century ago, Rusty Miller’s photo, a study of concentration sliding down a meaty wave at Sunset Beach, became a billboard for a popular beer brand, seen all over America’s burgeoning freeway system. He still paddles and drops down the face with that steely glare of concentration etched on his wrinkled face. It’s only when he leans into a graceful turn and races along the green wall that his expression lights up, and he appears to drop twenty, maybe thirty years.
But Old Man’s wasn’t cooperating with us. So when the young Californian longboarder Jared Mell knee-paddled through our group and said, ‘Have you guys been watching the bommie?’ we glanced at the set of big waves breaking in deeper water way out to sea and promptly fell in behind him.
I had already taken a couple of set waves on the head at Old Man’s, and felt like I might have been coming down with some kind of tropical virus. I just seemed to be lacking energy. So I watched another large set break as the others approached the impact zone of the outer break, then paddled quickly to the inside, planning to find my feet on something smaller.
I let two waves go because I hadn’t yet paddled deep enough, then saw another large set looming wider on the outside. Damn, I’d missed my window. I turned and paddled hard for deeper water, but the first wave broke just in front of me. I put my trust in the Velcro strip around my ankle and dived for the depths.
Look, this was no day for heroes and fools. It was just another slightly-larger-than-average, late dry-season day on the Canggu coast of South Bali, a strip of beach and reef better known for its Russian-owned surf schools and hordes of Eurotrash beginners than for death-defying surf sessions. Those of us who surf there regularly do so for convenience rather than quality. Although there are certainly some memorable days, this particular morning wasn’t one of them. It was just a few old guys having fun, until one of them wasn’t.
More than a dozen Australian men aged over fifty died in the surf in Bali that season and the next. I was extremely lucky not to be one of them, although I didn’t know that at the time.
‘How was your surf?’ my wife asked. She was checking her Facebook, having swum a few lengths of the rooftop pool, finished a watermelon juice and ordered a coffee. It was the way we liked to start the day in Bali. I tried to smile.
‘Okay,’ I lied. ‘Jesus I’m getting old. Everything aches.’
Everything continued to ache that spring. I found myself gasping for breath in the surf after almost every wave, and the pain in my neck and shoulders often got so bad I had to paddle in. On the steamy October morning I was to launch my book, Bali Heaven and Hell, at the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, I lugged a wheelie-bag full of books a few blocks to the courtesy bus stop. I sat in the bus breathless and sweating, unable to talk. In the writers’ green room I slumped on a couch and drank bottles of water. My first gig of the day was a chat show with Rusty Miller. Rusty arrived, took one look at me and said, ‘You look like shit.’
I got through the session and the book launch, and the celebratory dinner that followed, with a little help from alcohol, which seemed to keep me calm and focused. I related all of this—or most of it—to my GP at home in Noosa a couple of days later. She looked at me in disbelief, arching her eyebrows when I explained my self-medication program. Finally, she said, ‘I think you’ve had a heart attack.’
I have enormous respect for this doctor but her diagnosis was so absurd that I almost laughed in her face. ‘I think I’d know if I’d had a heart attack, Sylvia,’ I smirked.
‘Well, why don’t I book you in to see a cardiologist today and then we’ll both know.’ It wasn’t a question—she was already on the phone.
And so it began, the long, scary, boring, commonplace, life-changing sequence of hospital corridors and concerned faces and false laughter and cannulas and angiograms and endless public ward nights of farts and gurgles that combine to take you on the journey from being invincible to being a heart patient. And there are no return tickets. However lucky you may have been (and with a ninety-five per cent blockage in my major descending artery, I was pretty lucky), however normal your resumed life might seem, you are a heart patient for the rest of your days.
I was feeling somewhat pissed off about this prospect until I went to one of those post-heart attack counselling sessions that are more or less compulsory. We were mostly men, and mostly around my age, except for one exceptionally fit-looking younger man who couldn’t sit still. He was angry, very angry. He couldn’t listen to the mostly sensible advice that was being dispensed. He kept interrupting with bursts of anger and directionless abuse. I wanted to tell him to shut the fuck up, but I realised that if I was him I would probably be just as angry, maybe more so. The more abusive he became, the more I felt for him. He was in the prime of life—I’d already had sixty-three good years. (Make that sixty—I’m not sure the initial mewling and puking bit was all that much fun.)
That poor whining bastard in the counselling sessions did me a huge favour. He made me realise I’d already been blessed with a good and eventful life and a wonderful family, then blessed again with a second chance. Every day from here on in was a bonus, and should be treated as such. I know, I know, leave no cliché unturned, but try having a heart attack first, then come back and tell me it’s a cliché. Of course, I often forget all this and fall into the old patterns that could damage or even kill me, but the realities of my second life always return before too long, and hopefully before I’ve caused too much damage.
One of the deals I cut with myself while being wheeled around the corridors by people in blue coats and caps, or while lying awake listening to the snorers and farters in the public ward, was to stop putting things off. Like writing this memoir. For years I’d been stockpiling my old articles and diaries for that leisurely period of life in the fairly distant future (let’s call them the golden years) when I would have the time and inclination to share the stories and characters and passions collected over a lifetime of close and abiding association with the ocean, and more particularly with the ocean’s waves. Whatever I’ve done in my life, it’s always come back to that, and while I’m no different to any other journeyman surfer who forgot to grow up, I feel I at least have the basic skills needed to write about it. And the time is now.
This, then, is no apologia for the wasted, waxy years. It’s just one surfer’s story, one life of brine.
The first wave. It’s where a life in surfing should start, isn’t it? But I can’t remember my first one. First kiss, yes. First full-blown sexual experience, yes, of course. More about that later. First wave? Mmm.
Surfers have been remembering their first waves and writing about them for centuries now, for better or worse. Consider the following from Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), who reported for the Sacramento Union from the Hawaiian Islands in 1866:
'In one place we came upon a large company of naked natives, of both
sexes and all ages, amusing themselves with the national pastime of
surf-bathing. Each heathen would paddle three or four hundred yards
out to sea, (taking a short board with him), then face the shore and
wait for a particularly prodigious billow to come along: at the right
moment he would fling his board upon its foamy crest and himself
upon the board, and here he would come whizzing by like a bombshell!
It did not seem that a lightning express train could shoot along
at a more hair-lifting speed. I tried surf-bathing once, subsequently,
but made a failure of it. I got the board placed right, and at the right
moment, too; but missed the connection myself. The board struck the
shore in three-quarters of a second, without any cargo, and I struck
the bottom at about the same time, with a couple of barrels of water in
me. None but natives ever master the art of surf-bathing thoroughly.'
I’m rather glad I never read old Sam on ‘none but natives’ before my own saltwater journey began, but maybe I would have taken heart from this, written by Jack London, the adventure novelist and travel writer,
'I shall never forget the first big wave I caught out there in the deep
water. I saw it coming, turned my back on it and paddled for dear life.
Faster and faster my board went, till it seemed my arms would drop
off. What was happening behind me I could not tell. One cannot look
behind and paddle the windmill stroke. I heard the crest of the wave
hissing and churning, and then my board was lifted and flung forward.
I scarcely knew what happened the first half-minute. Though I kept
my eyes open, I could not see anything, for I was buried in the rushing
white of the crest. But I did not mind. I was chiefly conscious of
ecstatic bliss at having caught the wave.'
The ‘ecstatic bliss’ was short-lived. London got shockingly sunburnt that day at Waikiki and was rarely seen on a surfboard again. On the other hand, and more than a century later, Pulitzer Prize winner William Finnegan’s captivating account of his first wave, ridden at San Onofre, California, at age ten, describes the beginning of a lifelong quest:
'I wobbled to my feet. I remember looking to the side and seeing that
the wave was not weakening, and looking ahead and seeing that my
path was clear for a very long way, and then looking down and being
transfixed by the rocky sea bottom streaming under my feet. The
water was clear, slightly turquoise, shallow. But there was room for me
to pass over safely. And so I did, again and again, that first day.'
I know so well that feeling, that moment of sheer amazement that you are skating across gorgeous coral reef with just a thin column of clear water and a plastic-coated plank between you, but for me that all came later. The memory of my first time is a blur spanning a couple of early ’60s summers, during Australian surfing’s general transition from balsa to foam surfboards and my personal transition from a Narm rubber surfoplane to other people’s surfboards and then, finally to my very own, presented to me on my thirteenth birthday.
It may seem strange to surfers of subsequent generations that I got my first surfboard at the ripe old age of thirteen, having already squandered half a dozen good years that might have been used to develop my skills.
This can be explained in part by the fact that surfboards were so heavy back then that small children simply couldn’t manipulate them. But it also has to be remembered that there was no such thing as a surf school. Despite the growing number of surfboard riding clubs up and down the coast, few had embraced such ideas as junior training and development.
The boardriding clubs were more inclined towards surfing’s answer to military bastardry, known as ‘grom torture’, in which fledgling surfers of my generation were subjected to humiliating and often painful pranks, such as having their heads flushed in the toilet bowl, or being buried up to the neck in sand as the tide advanced. At my home beach, older surfers would occasionally pelt us with ‘brown elephants’, or human excrement, to call a turd a turd. Whenever we noticed a couple of our surfing heroes drop silently off their boards and start to wriggle out of their shorts, we knew to paddle like crazy, away from the barrage of disgusting missiles that was about to be unleashed.
Perhaps understandably, many parents—my own included—were deeply suspicious (maybe even fearful) of the ‘blossoming surfie cult’ (to quote an ABC Four Corners program of the time), and did everything they could to steer their offspring towards more wholesome pursuits, such as soccer or stamp collecting, both of which I had a fling at. But in my case, persistence paid off. It probably helped that I was the youngest surviving child, more indulged than my older sisters.
The birthday board was a dog of a thing, a purple polyurethane foam Barry Bennett pig shape, one of the earliest foam surfboards produced in Australia. It had been pigment-coated by one of its previous owners to cover up the waterlogged sections and the general yellowing of the inferior foam.
Having heard that a neighbour had a full-sized foam surfboard for sale at a price my parents might consider affordable, I didn’t think to inspect it, I just dropped a few hints as my birthday approached. My father purchased it for nine pounds, having haggled it down from the ten quid asking price, as was Dad’s way.
Dad knew nothing about surfboards, but nor did I, so we were both pretty chuffed when he led me down to the garage, where the waterlogged Bennett had been artfully displayed on a couple of sawhorses, the family’s Wolseley sedan and the workhorse Commer van having been backed up a few metres to heighten the dramatic impact. ‘Well, what do you think?’ he asked.
I paraded around the hideous thing, pretending to admire its contours, running my fingers across the rough and waxy surface. As I recall it, the Bennett was about nine feet three inches long, with a slightly tilted wooden D-shaped fin that extended just beyond the rounded tail. It seemed to have been dropped on its tail during delivery, and through the smashed fibreglass I could see the splintered ends of a thick balsa centre stringer bordered by thinner redwood ones.
I really didn’t know what to look for in a surfboard, but I knew it was none of the above. My dream board did not feature a purple pigment disguising a waterlogged and rotting core. My dream board was brightly coloured like a rainbow, and it shone and glistened in the sun. But this was a surfboard nonetheless, and it was mine.
I said to Dad, ‘It’s beautiful. It’s grouse. It’s a gas. I love it!’
My dream board was in fact a composite of the kinds of boards that had been loaned to me over the summer of 1963–64, when I had decided it was time I learned to ride a proper surfboard. Several of the surfers who frequented my home beach were prepared, if somewhat reluctantly at first, to let me struggle with their heavy boards down to the shore and try to catch a broken wave without decapitating myself. But one of the older boys who would arrive in packs in their station wagons and utility trucks on weekends and summer evenings, would not only loan me his board at the end of his surf session, but would also show me what to do with it. He was the most skilled of the surfers who visited our beach, and his name was Bobby Brown.
I loved to watch Bobby Brown surf. He would flick his head and shoulder in the direction he wanted to go, and his heavy board would obediently follow. Other surfers used the same dramatic flourish, but it looked like a pose. When Bobby flicked, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. He was a teenager who had just reached driving age and was a carpentry apprentice near Cronulla, on Sydney’s southside. In midsummer there was plenty of daylight left after knock-off time, so if the swell and the wind were favourable, Bobby and his mates would drive the hour south to my beach.
Bobby Brown probably only loaned me his surfboard three or four times, but on each occasion he gave me a piece of advice to take into the water with the board. One time he waded out into the water with me and showed me how to paddle hard seaward and then jump up on the board in a parallel stance and let the momentum push me through the breaking wave. It was the coolest thing in the world, and I mastered it long before I could actually ride a wave with any conviction.
A few months after teaching me the basics, Bobby beat the great Midget Farrelly in the New South Wales titles, and went on to surf in the first world championships at Manly. Bobby was my first surfing idol. I never saw him hurl a turd in anger, or humiliate a grom in any other way. But less than four years after I attempted to stumble to my feet on his board, he was dead at twenty-one, the innocent victim of a vicious glassing in a Cronulla pub.
Which brings us back to that first wave. Certainly, I caught waves and stood up on borrowed boards over that summer break, but I doubt it was pretty, and none of those rides has survived in my memory bank. For me, the first real experience of the thrill of the glide came at the end of that summer, on a board borrowed not from the older visiting surfers but from one of my new friends at Corrimal High School, where I had begun my secondary education at the end of January.
These surfing buddies were almost exclusively the children of European immigrants who had settled with their large, loud families and strange cooking smells in low-cost fibro cottages a block or two back from the beach. They had odd names like Jurek and Piet and Gunther, and many were in the lowest classes of their form because their command of English was hampered by the fact that they spoke another language at home. The beach and the surf were new to them, but they learnt quickly, usually with a quiet intensity that my own approach was sadly lacking.
On one of those February or March evenings on the Coal Coast when the hot, dry wind from the escarpment backs off and the ocean develops the texture of golden glass, on one of those special evenings that even now, more than half a century on, I can still feel and smell, I paddled into a small wave and got to my feet in one swift movement, then turned the board slowly and deliberately and trimmed along the face of the wave, the heavy board beating a rhythm as it slapped the swell under my feet. My confidence grew with every metre I travelled, and when finally the wave petered out on the shore, I knew I could do this, I knew I could become a surfer. It wasn’t the first wave, but it was the first one that mattered.
I also knew, as I pedalled my Speedwell Special Sports up the darkening hills towards home, that I would be late for dinner and there would be all hell to pay. And that in the new scheme of things, this didn’t matter a damn. I was a surfer now. I ran to my own set of rules, danced to the beat of a different drum.
**This is an extract from Life of Brine published by Hardie Grant Books. To purchase, click through on the 'Buy' button that appears when you move your curser to the bottom (middle) of the page.
Phil Jarratt has worked in surf publishing for almost forty years, and is regarded as one of the sport's foremost authorities. Phil has been a journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald and The Bulletin, editor of Playboy in the 70s, a former editor of Tracks and Australian Surfer's Journal and associate editor of Surfer. Phil has authored more than thirty books including award-winning surf histories and bestselling biographies. His books on surfing include Mr Sunset (the biography of American surf legend Jeff Hakman), The Mountain and the Wave, Kelly Slater: For the Love, Salts and Suits, Bali Heaven and Hell. Phil has received the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame Media Award three times and has won numerous other awards for his work. Phil has also worked within the surf industry both for Rip Curl and Quiksilver in the US, Australia and Europe. Documentary films include Bali Heaven and Hell and Men Of Wood & Foam. Phil currently lives in Noosa Heads in Queensland, Australia where he surfs everyday there are waves.