Indian Ocean Coast
I am woken at dawn by bastardised Australian and Swahili. ‘Wakey wakey hands off snakey,’ says Abo. ‘Comin’ out, malango?’ These are my surfing buddies: Daudi, Tony, James, Bumblebee, Mud Prawn. Surfing should be cool and fashionable. But our average age is 50. We look like vagrants. Abo has gout and walks with a loping crouch reminiscent of Early Man. Bumblebee crams a cannonball frame into a black and yellow rash vest with a bright-yellow bucket hat and is very dangerous when he catches a wave because he is unable to swerve or stop.
The waves are poor. This is neither Hawaii nor Bali. The local town pumps raw sewage into the bay where we surf. Only experience helps you balance swell charts against the times that municipality staff decide to void the tanks. The dilemma comes when this happens on a big spring tide day: should you surf and risk cholera, or stay safe on the sand, left to your thoughts of old age — such as, ‘How many seasons do I still have, how many swells?’
Despite all this I sense that everybody in our circle has personality disorders, some acquired, in my case possibly genetic, for which the only therapy is getting wet. I have rarely felt more at home with a group of people than I do with this bunch.
Tony becomes twitchy if left on dry land for too long. He has partially webbed feet. He calms down immediately on water and says, ‘On a day like this, it transcends the physical.’ He’s right. Each of us has found a kind of nirvana on the wave. For me the revelation is that much of my life was wasted not surfing. Surfing endorphins expose all dry-land ambition as a tiresome diversion from the main action.
Unfortunately, I am a very poor surfer. And at 44, I will never be any good. Sadly, I never learned to stand up. I started on plywood belly-boards and graduated to boogie boards. My friend Tonio tried to teach me how to stand up on a proper Malibu. For one season he bellowed at me. I was nearly on my feet when he died. I went back to boogie boarding.
Last month I cancelled all work, determined to focus on standing up by September. My problem is that I have myopia and astigmatism. I am unable to see wave sets until they are breaking over me. When I started this season I got puffed so quickly I could not paddle into the take-offs. I had shooting pains in my arm and chest and thought I would have a heart attack. My board is cumbersome. It is like turning around an oil tanker. Gnarly waves smash me up repeatedly.
‘Prize for today’s wipe-out goes to Aidan,’ says Abo. ‘You looked like a hamster in a washing machine.’
But the dividends are swift. Four weeks ago I was unable to see my feet while standing in the shower. I will never have a six pack, but time surfing in the hot sun equals less beer drinking. Dehydration by itself knocks off a few pounds on the scales. I feel much better.
Abo and the others know how bad I am, but my wife Claire thinks I can stand — which I can, but only for a second. I enjoy not telling her the truth. The first time I caught a wave and fell off James said to me, ‘Now do that 1,000 times more. It’s going to take you three years.’
‘Dad, Da-a-a-d!’ shouted the kids. ‘Take us surfing, Dad. Gow-wan. Take-us-surfing!’ So we took them to the bay. Abo and Tony came to help. We told them the basics and I figured they would fall off and then I could give them a lecture. Within several goes they were standing up and zooming in on the white water. Had I not felt so proud I would have been jealous.