Surf and the city are uniquely close in Sydney, where thousands of urbanites spend their days dreaming of the perfect break. Malcolm Knox, novelist and surfer, captures an obsession from the inside ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Winter 2008
At first I thought his name was Neezy, and I didn’t like him. He talked too much. Even at six in the morning, the hour when cranky surfers are sitting on their boards in the dawn light willing their sleepy heads to wake up, wake up, get out of bed, when the line between being a morning person and a not-morning person is at its prickliest, Neezy yammered away as if it was cocktail hour.
His subject never varied: conditions, swell direction and size, wind direction and strength, forecasts, tides, sandbanks. He was a one-man weather bureau. Of a swell coming in at the wrong angle, Neezy barked: “Too much south in it.” Of an upcoming rise: “High’s parked in the Tasman; generate some nice offshores.” He only stopped talking when he paddled for a wave.
I never believed you could talk too much about surfing, but Neezy exceeded the limits of my tolerance. I wanted to say, “Just shut up for five seconds, let us enjoy some silence.” But I couldn’t, because at Maroubra, the toughest urban beach in Sydney, Neezy was a local. That was why he always had someone to talk to. To the locals, loud chatter is what urinating is to dogs: it marks their territory. Those of us who sit in silence are wallflowers and blow-ins. The chatter is all about making us uncomfortable.
There was another reason I didn’t backchat Neezy. I thought they called him that because he rode a kneeboard. The real reason he was called Kneesy--not Neezy--was because he had two knees but only one full leg. When I saw him hopping down the beach against a howling cross-shore wind to fight his way through the shorebreak into the water, I felt a wave--yes, a wave--of compassion and admiration. He surfed every day. What I’d taken for idleness now appeared a mark of great spirit and determination.
Kneesy was a builder’s labourer. City or country, the Australian surf is filled with tradesmen. When the swell is up, the car parks are full of SUVs and vans stacked with paint-spattered ladders and plumbing tools. Somewhere, home renovators are asking why the carpenter hasn’t turned up. If they watched their forecasts, they wouldn’t be wondering.
Surfers become tradies so they can manage their own time. But there are also lawyers and doctors and accountants and company directors and management consultants in the surf. Wetsuit collars have no colour, blue or white. Is the surf classless, then? To an extent, no--the local tradies boil when an unfamiliar SUV pulls up in the car park, but that is probably more a matter of crowd than class.
Nobody likes the scourge of city surfing, which is overpopulation, and the toughest proletarian surfer would prefer to share the waves with three corporate lawyers than with 30 removals men. There is another sense, though, in which all surfers are a single breed. What unites us is that every morning and evening, like Kneesy, we look at the weather. We sniff the wind, check the tides, listen for the swell. A combination of natural factors--in the Tasman, the Antarctic and the Coral Seas and inland--will determine our first decision for each day of our lives: will I go surfing today? That is what we share.
What we also share is that we are fortune-seekers, bound by the founding goldfields spirit of this country. The gold--or quicksilver--for which we are all panning lasts only a second, or a few seconds, but it is buried beneath years of longing. Every wave that is caught has a history, extending both outside and inside ourselves. Outside, its history reaches over the horizon to some distant weather event--the fact of a storm in the Southern Ocean setting off a chain of natural events that delivers a wave for me five days later in Sydney is still something I find, frankly, miraculous; a gift from heaven.
Inside myself the layers of history behind a wave are even more important, because whenever I start paddling in front of that green wall of water, hoping I have timed my line so that I will arrive at the exact point and angle to maximise my speed and stability on take-off, I hold within me the years of having admired surfers before I did it myself; the defiance of doubt that such a complex act, balancing on a moving fibreglass board upon a moving, shifting shape of a liquid substance is possible at all; the years of practice and frustration; the aches and injuries; the disappointment of so many crap or crowded days; the clashes and intimidation from tougher surfers--all of this lies behind me as I paddle for this wave.
The ecstasy can be distilled to a moment: when you rise from your chest onto your feet and you see before you the face of the wave, slanting cleanly across you, reaching out ahead; it’s when you know that you are on a good one, forming a wall for you to draw your lines across. Surfing can present the thrill of survival--when the waves are big, and you hold on to escape the churn of the wave breaking behind you, heading for an escape hatch of clean green water--or it can be a thrill of artistry--in smaller waves, you can scribble a graffiti of foam, literally writing on water. The great surfers can write this script even on the big, heavy, frightening ones.
The proximity of surf and city is unique, I think, to Sydney. Perhaps Durban has it, but Durban is nowhere near as big as Sydney and its breaks are neither as plentiful nor as diverse. Honolulu? Don’t start. Los Angeles, San Diego? They have the surfers, but not really the surf. Sydney is a large, for the most part ugly, suburban city based on finance, trade and services; but it also has 30 distinct surf breaks within half an hour of the Opera House.
The geography of these breaks is divided into three. Nearest to the city are Bondi, Tamarama, Bronte and Maroubra. Each faces the sea at a different angle, influencing the behaviour of the waves. To the south, the coast is interrupted by Botany Bay, after which come the cluster of beach and reef breaks at Cronulla, the only Sydney beaches serviced by the railway line and hence culturally both diverse (more outsiders can come in) and defensive (the locals hate them). North of the harbour is our surfers’ paradise, a necklace of spectacularly varied breaks, from Fairy Bower and Manly in a 20-kilometre line-up through the world-class breaks of Dee Why Point and North Narrabeen to the far north of Avalon, Whale and Palm.
Nearly every one of these beaches can boast a former world champion, as well as a bunch of locals, male and female, who have been, are or will be among the world’s best in the sport. Australian world surfing champions Tom Carroll, Damien Hardman, Barton Lynch, Nat Young, Midget Farrelly and Layne Beachley all came from Sydney’s northern beaches. Some surfers will cruise the city for the best break on any given day. Many others, like my friend James Allcock, who lives overlooking North Maroubra, “only go for a surf when it’s breaking outside my bedroom window”.
Fixed local surfers love their beach, whatever its negatives. Bondi, because it is crowded and lawless and doesn’t handle big swell, is detested. For anyone who was born before 1980, Bondi was never much of a draw. It is heavily populated, with apartment blocks squashed onto the sandstone headlands, its shops are ugly and exploitative, and instead of a tree-ringed parkland facing the beach it has a four-lane thoroughfare called Campbell Parade, big concrete car parks and a windswept park. It is a city beach, though more city than beach.
But Luke Kennedy, the editor of Tracks magazine (“the surfers’ bible”), lives and surfs at Bondi Beach, noting that it has gone through a renaissance since the removal of the sewage pipes that deposited much of the city’s effluent into the waves (hence the extinction of the famous “Bondi brown trout”). He is one of the thousands of surfers for whom Bondi’s very urbanness is its lure. “Nowhere else can you have a great latte, do world-class shopping, talk to a beautiful girl, go to a bookshop, and have a surf all before lunch,” he says. “Bondi’s a city beach for city people.”
I tried to count the number of surfers in Sydney. In good conditions in summer, there will be about 30 surfers on each break from dawn to dusk, in rolling two-hour “shifts”—making about 300 a day per break. That makes 9,000 regular surfers, not counting about four times as many irregular ones. Nobody’s measured it accurately, but when I’ve floated the figure of 50,000 surfers in the city itself, it gets a nod from those who’ve thought about it even more than I have.
Fifty thousand, then, who are like me, many sitting in offices and meeting rooms wearing collars and ties, sniffing the wind, knowing it’s turned offshore, sensing the swell direction, knowing there’s a low-pressure system in the Tasman throwing something over our horizon. The pain is excruciating--you carry this feeling for the sea and the winds inside you like a pregnant woman carries the sense of her baby. You are not where your body is. Your soul is out there, picturing the next wall of green water rising, brushed smooth by the offshore breeze, holding up in a peeling line, just for you.
It is a kind of torment, shared by those 50,000 other dead souls who can’t make it to the beach today. Trying to live a competitive modern existence so close to paradise makes concentration difficult. The novelist Tim Winton
, who lives fairly close to good surf south of Perth, in Western Australia, recently told me that he doesn’t want to live in a house with a view of the waves “because if the conditions and swell are right, I wouldn’t be able to sit and write, I’d have to get out there.”
It’s overpowering. Last winter I had to attend a two-day course in financial accounting. As if put there by a devil of temptation, perfect two-metre waves with offshore winds had arisen on those two days to torment me. Surf like this only comes around three or four times a year. I attended the course with white knuckles and gnashing teeth. The only solace was that another of the students was sharing my agony, and we could assure each other that the waves might be too big, and those who were out in them were probably getting frustrated.
The splitting of one’s soul has the potential to interfere with work. I recently read an unpublished manuscript by a journalist who’d been sacked from his job because he surfed too much. Once, when I was at school, a star batsman in an under-16 cricket match was 60 not out at lunch when he went for a surf. He didn’t come back. My best friend Adam, a barrister who lives at Bronte Beach, jokes about wearing his board shorts underneath his wig and gown and rushing guilty pleas through the city courts so that he can get back to the surf. At least, I think he’s joking. My conveyancer, Anthony, sits in an office overlooking Dee Why Point. A brand-new surfboard lies against one wall. “I’ve been sitting here with a client, looking out the window,” he says. “I can’t leave the board here, it’s destroying my concentration.” Five minutes ago Anthony called me to talk about a real-estate contract; he ended up e-mailing me a URL for a custom surfboard-maker.
It destroys relationships. At Maroubra, where I mostly surf, I reckon more than two-thirds of the male boardriders are either divorced or separated or at war with their partners. Obviously this can’t all be attributed to the winter low-pressure cells to the south and the summer cyclones to the north, but it seems there’s an extremely high divorce rate among male surfers. One of my surfing friends, Steve, has a wife and a six-month-old baby. An artist with a media company, he surfs nearly every day before going to work. His wife Jo has just dragged him into counselling. “It’s not that he surfs so much,” she says. “It’s that he’s always, always thinking about it, and rushing off to his computer to check the web cams. He surfs about two hours a day, but all the other hours, he’s not really with us.” Steve doesn’t want to talk about it. He bristles, as if something is about to be stolen from him.
I don’t think female boardriders suffer in the same way. In summer, women and girls account for about one in ten of the surfers on Sydney’s beaches. In winter, it’s more like one in 30. Therein lies the difference: women surfers tend to do it when it’s nice and warm and the waves are smaller. This is quite possibly a sign of higher intelligence. It is certainly a sign of lower obsessiveness.
It’s the men who hurt more when they know it’s good and are unable to get to the beach. The best comparison for this division of our souls is a religious cult. We do what we do, in the city and in our homes, we pay our mortgages and meet our deadlines, but the overriding call is from elsewhere. Other loyalties are all subservient to it. Winton likens creative activity to waiting for a wave generated from some weather event thousands of miles beyond the horizon, but for most surfers their creative activity is of a lower order to the signs those weather events are sending us. The first decision of each day is dictated by the surf. Will I or won’t I? If the swell and wind aren’t right, and I’m not going to surf, then I can go about my normal business calmly. But if things change during the day, I’ll have my eye on it.
Here’s the important thing, the big new change. In the past, if I wanted to keep a constant eye on the surf, I had to be at the beach. I had to live or work, like Anthony, overlooking the sea. This meant that surfing communities were fiercely local--you had to be there to know what was going on. Then, with the advent of mobile phones, you didn’t have to be there, but you had to have a scout who was there and would pass the news on. Headlands and lookouts in Sydney are always populated with young men in hoodies with mobile phones pressed to their ears, sparking up the bush telegraph.
But in the past few years, you don’t need a scout or a line of sight. We have web cams. Sydney has two websites with permanent robotic cameras overlooking the main breaks. Coastalwatch.com
is the bigger of the two, with cameras scanning most of the breaks and a surf reporter venturing out each dawn to give a verbal summary of the conditions. Its rival, Swellnet.com.au
, has fewer cameras but more reporters posting a “dawn patrol”. These sites also feature news, information for lifesavers and fishermen, and chat forums. Another site, Realsurf.com
, posts still shots and verbal reports throughout each day.
Significantly, the sites also have forecasts. At any point of the day, I can go to Coastalwatch.com and see what’s happening at my nearest break, Maroubra, even though I work a 20-minute drive away. Three times a week I can log into its reliable three-day forecast on upcoming surf conditions. I plan my week around it.
The internet has triggered a DIY world, and so it is with surfers. It has spawned a generation of amateur weather forecasters. The website forecasters aren’t always right, so surfers will go to the source material--charts provided by the main government meteorology services--and make up our own minds. These include synoptic charts showing movements of barometric pressure, but also the buoys that measure wave height, direction and period length. The buoy data is put into graphs showing rises and falls in height and period (more height is better, and a longer period means more distance between the waves and therefore more power in each one). When you go in the surf now, you hear not only the unspecific talk of a low on its way or a cyclone building, but very sophisticated data about periods rising from seven seconds up to ten (good news!), a building low over the Snowy Mountains turning the winds offshore, and a rise in heights at the Eden buoy, hundreds of kilometres south of Sydney, portending good waves for tomorrow morning.
To me, it is everything. Not only am I walking through the city’s concrete canyons sniffing the air like a migratory bird, but when I get to my office computer I will be checking the tidal and synoptic charts, the wind maps, the marine forecast, and a number of marine buoy readings. When I get into the surf, I’ll be able to bore the boardshorts off the best of them.
Which brings us back to Kneesy. I will be leaving him soon. I’ve just bought a house closer to the beach, but farther from Kneesy. Property is too rich for me on the eastern beaches, so I’m going to the north side, where there are 20 beaches to choose from rather than four, where I will be able to step into the waves ten minutes after putting on my wetsuit and walking out of my front door. I’ll be testing Tim Winton’s demon--will I be able to write if I’m that close to the surf? And my friend Steve’s--will I be an attentive husband and father? We’ll see. I suspect that the harmony of my family life will depend on my ability to convert my children into surfers.
For Kneesy, those decisions have been made. He was, as I mentioned, a builder’s labourer. It was while working in the construction of a high-rise office block that he lost his leg. He fell from scaffolding and shattered it on the concrete slab where he landed. “Better than getting it caught in machinery,” he says, as if it matters now. Kneesy lives on compo: worker’s compensation. His life is as dedicated to surfing as if he were a professional. He’s not married, he has no children or any other interests outside the waves. He annoys the hell out of a lot of people, but it’s his whole life. He grew up in a housing commission flat with his single mother and two brothers so close to Maroubra Beach that he could hear the waves while he lay in bed. Where he lives now, in a flat paid for by his accident, he can hear them still.