The second in our extremely popular series. This time we head back to the late 1980s with a story about falling in (and out of) love with surfing.
By Karen de Perthuis
It all started at Bronte one summer.
‘I’m thinking of taking up surfing,’ I said to a boy I was trying to impress.
‘Can you ride a skateboard?’
‘Do you ski?’ I had bought a very fashionable ski-jacket on sale once, but it was still brand new and anyway I didn’t really want to wear it in the water.
‘Surfing,’ he said, standing up to let the early morning sun frame his golden curls in a god-like halo, ‘is much harder – in fact, it’s been called the hardest and most complex activity known to Man. You see, you have to balance on a moving object.’
He looked down at me. ‘Maybe you should try boogie-boarding instead. It’s much easier.’
Going to the beach and lying flat on my stomach was what I had been doing all my life. Besides, I wouldn’t be seen dead in flippers. No, even uninitiated, I could see that the glamour was obviously in standing. As it turned out I was right. Surfers call boogie-boarders ‘speed bumps’.
After a week of pleading, Jason relented. He borrowed his brother’s board, attached me to it with a rope, paddled out to the waves, pointed me towards shore, said ‘hold on’ and I was off. The board, that is. Gasping for air, I resurfaced with the knowledge that the point of the leg-rope was so the board could act as a kind of buoy to mark where the body was. The next wave took me into shore. Turning around for Jason’s approval, I managed to catch a glimpse of his foot as he disappeared under a wave halfway out to sea. The lesson, apparently, was over. Nobody bothers wasting time with beginners when there are waves to catch.
The thing about surfing is that no matter how bad you are, it is always fun. That’s why, within a week, I had wholeheartedly entered the world of fibreglass, neoprene and wax – the local surf shop. No stranger to shopping, I had done my research and was aware of the relative merits of different brands and, most importantly, had ascertained which were the most fashionable. After some consideration, I picked out a black and chartreuse two-tone wetsuit with fuchsia trim in the latest high-cut style accessorised with a back sun-panel, detachable velcro straps and a board to match.
If I had a diary, it would mark The Day I Stood Up. Exhilarated, I jumped off grinning stupidly and shared my experience with an excited seven-year-old on the same wave. Age didn’t matter – we’d both just done it for the first time.
My personality, not to mention my wardrobe, underwent a complete change. Issey Miyake was replaced by Stussy; microfibre pre-shrunk, pre-crinkled, preposterously expensive suits hung idle in the closet, passed over for tracksuits emblazoned with skull and cross-bones. I traded in the sports car for a station wagon without worrying about the colour. Subscriptions to Vogue and Vanity Fair were cancelled in favour of Tracks and Surfing World. Tidal and synoptic charts suddenly became vitally important, and I threw about terms like groundswell, approaching cold front, north-easterly and isobars as if I knew what they meant.
I even dated the editor of a surfing magazine.
When I read that Jodie Cooper had surfed sixteen-foot waves at Sunset, my dreams started to resemble soft-drink commercials: down a 50-foot drop to a sharp bottom turn, up for the a through-the-lip re-entry, straight into a pocket snap, enter a three-minute tube, out to a 360 aerial…
Reality, meanwhile, was maintaining a tediously divergent course to my imagination. More time was spent waiting out the back, filling in the blanks with surfing small talk (‘Gettin’ any? ‘You shoulda been here yesterday’) than perfecting advanced maneouvres, but what the hell, if the sun was shining, it was still better than wearing Lacroix.
Up and down the coast we travelled: Seals Rocks, Crescent, Lennox Head, Angourie, Byron, The Box. Escaping the crowds to places that sounded like warnings: Boneyards, Buggery, Treachery. Walking for miles to inaccessible regions, catching boats, ferries, aeroplanes. Jumping off rocks in the middle of nowhere, being swept back in again, bleeding, sharing water with sharks, bluebottles, sea urchins and sewage. All in the quest for the perfect wave, which was, as they say, hard to find.
And then I met my Waterloo, my very own Big Wednesday. It was one of those days which all surfers take off work: the swell was up, the beach was closed and a perfect right was coming in off the point. I followed the boys out along the rocks and jumped off. They paddled off to catch the set that was rolling in while I, having had one quick look at the tidal wave that was coming towards me, put my head down and paddled swiftly towards New Zealand.
Once clear from the danger of being swept up and lacerated on the rock ledge, I sat up and assessed the situation. If I were to attempt catching one of these monsters I would without doubt end up having what the How To Surf book called, with typical nonchalance, ‘a horribly dangerous little moment’. I would ‘wipe out’, ‘eat it’. I gazed forlornly at the death trap that lay between me and the beach and then out to sea at the darkening skies, vainly trying to remember exactly what it was I had to do to avoid a broken neck. Clearly, I was in a ‘heavy situation’ and there was only one course of action.
When I stopped crying, nothing had changed and it really was time to do something desperate. Making the brave decision to completely lose any credibility I might’ve ever possessed, I started screaming. Eventually, someone noticed and sent the lifeguards.
Not long after this memorable day, I reassessed my life, trying to recall the original motivation that had veered me away from the close (and relatively safe) relationship I had nurtured with my credit cards. In a way I had achieved my aim. Although Jason had long since settled down with the girl from a French lingerie ad, I now spent most of my time surrounded by tanned, muscled, good-looking, amiable men, even if it was true that they ignored me as soon as a ‘babe’ entered the room, and even if I did have to endure listening to attitudes that I would rather not know existed. However, there were many that were suitably impressed.
Male: ‘You mean you surf – on a board, standing up?’
There was never much point in continuing the conversation, especially as it always somehow managed to lead to the debate about whether surfing is better than sex. When this happened I generally tried to avoid the controversy and remain silent.
You see, slowly, I was reaching the sad truth discovered by so many before me: a good wave is not the only thing that’s hard to find.
- The Sydney Morning Herald. January 17, 1995