Surfers were the last of this planet’s great explorers. They followed the paths forged centuries earlier by missionaries and colonisers, seeking not subjects to convert or conquer but locals to help them survive on the hedonistic hunt for new world-class waves, usually in blissfully warm tropical waters.
As a result, they were inadvertent forebearers of commercialism, encouraging villagers in remote coastal corners of developing countries to capitalise on their natural resources by building hotels and restaurants. Mexico, Central America, Africa, Pacific Islands, Indonesia… visit the coastal tourist hubs in any of these places and you will find they were almost always pioneered by surfers. In some cases, their legacy also included a thriving drug trade, but hey, not all western influence is entirely wholesome.
That era ended in December 2015, when Kelly Slater, the greatest surfer in history, who has surfed every excellent wave on Earth, unveiled his man-made wave pool 100km from the coast in California. It was a sign that surfing’s gold rush was over, and a new era of aquatic alchemy had begun.
Or had it? I have little interest in surfing Kelly’s or anyone else’s artificial wave. The charm of surfing is its serendipity. Modern weather forecasting is still not entirely reliable, so even a carefully planned adventure can disappoint while a spontaneous roll of the dice can yield unforgettable memories. And the thrill of surfing is not only riding the wave but predicting what it will do. Like all artificial things, manufactured waves discard these essential elements. This is why travel always was, and always will be, a fundamental part of surfing. The challenge now is to simply find new ways to do it.
As I join the queue of other passengers for the early-morning flight from Sydney to Avalon, near Geelong, I feel a similar anticipation to when I boarded my first trip to Indonesia in my youth. Matt, a surfer friend in Melbourne, and I conceived this plan a few weeks earlier. He’d pick me up from the airport, we’d surf Winki Pop, which on its day is one of the best waves in Australia, have lunch in the surf town of Torquay (birthplace of Rip Curl and Quiksilver), and squeeze in another surf before he’d drop me back at the airport for the evening flight home.
One week out, I’d seen a forecast for favourable winds and swell that even with a wide margin of error looked almost certain to make the $220 flights worth the investment. We locked it in. Most of my Sydney mates were shocked. Didn’t I realise how cold it was down there?
Matt picks me up, and we hit the highway south, eagerly discussing what sort of conditions await us 40 minutes down the road. I’ve only surfed here once before, and that was more than 20 years ago, so the excitement of (re)discovery, even on a coast already well-populated with surfers, is impossible to suppress.
First, we stop at the warehouse of Need Essentials, a new wetsuit company that is disrupting the old surf industry. The big companies have helped grow the sport and culture in many ways, but have along the way acquired enormous overheads, such as vast offices, expensive marketing and old-style retail shops. Need Essentials, a two-person operation, has none of those, choosing instead to sell its wetsuits in a Model-T range of colours through its website for half the price. Despite the trippy idealism with which they are usually associated, surfers are mostly born capitalists, and good at it.
It’s 9am, and while we wait for the Need staff to arrive, Matt and I chat with an employee of the board company that shares Need’s warehouse. He’s in his 50s, and has surfed this area for decades, but no longer at this time of year. ‘There’s nothing between here and Western Australia,’ he says, shivering at the thought. ‘The winds just come across the plains.’ He recently bought a house in Bali.
This coast is too cold for the locals? I’m encouraged. As we jump back in the car with my new wetsuit, I imagine this means there will be more waves for me.
The light westerly does indeed have a bite, and is messing up the waves a bit at Winki Pop, but the flipside is that there are only eight surfers out, with plenty of good waves going through unridden. I can’t get into my new wetsuit fast enough.
There is a lot of chatter at Sydney breaks. In warmer water, you can surf to pass the time, and a lot of people treat it as a social occasion. Here, the talk is minimal, and not only because some of the surfers’ ears are covered by wetsuit hoods. We are a handful of people paddling against a slow current, focused on scoring our quota of waves before the cold water makes our fingers, toes or ears numb.
In two hours I get two rides that will log in my memory, representing less than five per cent of my time in the water. Why do we do it? My theory is that surfing breaks some of the shackles on our physical movement, reconnecting us with the prelingual skills of hunting and evading predators for which our brains were originally wired. Surfing is all about finding the most powerful curved line on a wave and following it to the best of your strength and ability. Even ageing amateurs like me, straying way outside the lines followed by professional surfers, get an indescribable thrill from it. I honestly can’t imagine life without a hobby like it.
Torquay symbolises the evolution of the surf industry. We have lunch at the Quiksilver store, a mishmash of surfboard shop, fashion boutique, barber, cafe, bar and live music venue. Above the stage where the bands play is a sign bearing the slogan, ‘If you can’t rock ‘n’ roll, don’t f–king come’, a reference to a magazine ad the company ran in the 1980s, when surfing was still a rebellious subculture with a dark underside. One of the surfers in that ad, Gary Elkerton, later lamented in his autobiography that the sport was awash with drugs at the time, and a lot of promising young athletes, himself included, wasted their opportunities to achieve greatness. Reflecting the sanitisation of the sport, a couple of kids play under the sign while their parents eat lunch.
Matt and I have Winki Pop to ourselves for the afternoon session. The tide has come in, and the wave has been broken into sections that are difficult to connect, but I manage to log another couple of rides in the memory bank.
I disembark from my return flight to Sydney well into the evening, and find myself surrounded by blank-faced commuters on the train ride home. None of them seem interested in knowing why I am smiling so broadly. By 9:30pm I am back in the bed in which I awoke that morning. My last thought before drifting into a sound sleep is to wonder if the day actually happened.
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