"It's like the mafia. Once you're in – you’re in. There's no getting out." Kelly Slater
It’s the start of summer in Sydney. The smell of Aerogard wafts up my nostrils followed by a hint of coconut that drifts in on the warm Northerly. I’m at Manly beach, North Steyne toilets, where grimy blue paint is peeling off like the skin of an English backpacker to reveal an even grimier shade of pink. A dingy yellow light bulb glows faintly, divulging three showers, each with their own mini sand pit, amassed from a battalion of near naked beach warriors. A forgotten bikini bottom lies on the grotty tiles, curled up like a dead sea snake, a welcome mat to the one toilet cubicle.
Pirouetting around the wet sand, I’m on tiptoes as I pull down my denims. The surf roars, awaiting its prey. I timidly roll up my t-shirt, breathing out long and hard. Then I stick my feet into my black neoprene rubber battle gear and inch it over my body. The crutch hangs down around my knees. It’s tough work pulling it up millimetre by millimetre. Finally crutch in place, I’m ready for attack. I step outside to meet Garth, the surf coach. Of course he has sun-bleached hair, tanned skin and a cheeky grin. He points to the waves, mini explosions of white froth.
“You see that,” he says, turning back to me, “that’s the drug,” and then he sticks his finger to his chest, “and I, I’m the dealer.”
And so my addiction to surfing is born.
It starts off at just one surf a week on the eight foot blue foamies but it progresses quickly and within six months I’m surfing every day. Up at 530 am and down to the beach at seven for my two hour lesson. My weight drops. I get in late to work. I hang out with new friends, and I swap my stilettos for Havianas. Everything is “sick”: sick board, sick waves, sick wettie. I paddle out with kooks, brazos and seppos. I know the rules. I know the hierarchy. Shortboarders rule. Body boarders are at the bottom. I know who I can and can’t drop in on.
I’m from the glam world of travel PR so I must look the part. I learn wetsuits are done up at the back, leg ropes are never dragged, Sex wax and Mrs Palmers are the best and are to be applied in circles and crosses on a virgin board.
“You’ll never ride a short board,” says Garth, an ex pro. Within a month I have my first Sam Egan, 6’ 6” triple fin short board and my goal is to get shorter. I feel I’ve made it when I receive a gift of an epoxy 6 ft fish from George, the Sam Egan distributer, for setting up a story for him in the Manly Daily. Totally sick bro.
I read Tracks and Waves and even get a gig writing for them. Matt from Manly Surf School asks me to do their PR and my life’s made. Every morning I check Coastal Watch and know where the swell’s coming from, the number of seconds between sets and from which compass point the wind’s blowing.
Out here in the ocean, it’s another world – a world of nature, of fish, of fins and spouts. There’s a slogan by one of the surf company’s ‘only a surfer knows the feeling’. It’s spot on. You see your wave coming, a perfect A frame and you paddle, you paddle hard and then you’re up and riding. Down the face you zoom and along this body of water radiating a mystical energy which pulls you along. The wave peters out and you want to do it again and again. When you begin, it’s enough just to stand up and go straight, but then you want to turn left and right, cutback, do a floater and an air, pull in, rip spray, switch foot and more. The conditions are always changing: off shore, onshore, low tide, high tide, mid tide, close outs, barrels, point break, reef break, beach break, shoreys. It’s endless.
Garth moves down the coast.
“Nick’ll look after ya,” he says.
“Where ya from?” says Nick, a blonder, more handsome version of Garth. “Pymble,” I reply.
Not for long. I move my office from what the geographically-challenge- insular-peninsula dwellers would term a ‘Western Suburbs Hyde Park’ view to hard core Manly, a two minute jog to ‘Playgrounds’ at the south end of ‘Mantown’. Surfing infiltrates my travel PR. Media trips now become surf media trips with legends whose names are revered by the local crowd, sacrosanct Poseidons whose skill is unmatched by us weekend warriors. I travel with ‘Margo’ – one of the first ever ‘free surfers’, Asher Pacey - air-king, hang out with Layne Beachley and a host of others on the “CT”- the grand slam of the surfing circuit. I surf with them all, from rock offs in front of O’Dowd castle on the West Coast of Ireland to cut backs with cricket legend, Jonty Rhodes, at his home break in Durban. Then there’s Tahiti, India and the Solomon Islands. I’m so enthusiastic about my new sport I spread the word with the tenacity of an Indian call centre. Board meetings are de rigueur and on Friday afternoons my staff has free lessons at Manly Surf School.
When there’s no surf, there are surf movies: Blue Water Crush, Big Wednesday and the ultimate, Point Break with Patrick ‘Bodi’ Swayze and Keanu Reeves. Point Break teaches me that to be a real surfer I have to jump out of a plane.
So I book the jump for my thirty-ninth birthday.
I force my husband, David, to come and tell my tandem instructor, Ray that David can jump first. I’m hoping, if my parachute doesn’t open, I’ll have someone to grab onto on the way down. Ray gives me some sick advice,
“Trust me, it’ll be epic, just scream and yell as much as you can in the free fall.”
He shouts this at me over the propeller din. I’m attached to him and he’s pulling the cord. Trust was never a strong point with me but I’m channelling Bodi now. I’ve booked a photographer too. No one would ever believe that I, the world’s biggest chicken, would jump out of a plane. (My old friends are finding it hard to believe I actually surf.) So I need evidence. I tell the photographer about my Point Break fantasy, who, with his blonde hair and sunburnt nose, could easily have been in the movie.
David’s up. He throws himself into the arms of fate.
And then, it’s my time.
It feels like suicide as I leap out of the plane. I flip over into a double somersault. I close my eyes but open them quickly. I’m going to enjoy this. The surfing is preparation. If you panic in the surf when you’re getting smashed, you have one second of breath. If you chill out you have far more time. I take a few quick breaths but then remember Ray’s advice. I scream and scream and scream. The photographer flies over and puts his arm around me. He’s seen the film. Forty two seconds later I’m thinking it’s time for the parachute to open. A huge jolt and I’m floating down to the dried out paddocks of Camden like a junkie coming down from a high. My feet hit the ground. I made it. Tick. I envisage the next Point Break initiation, robbing a bank in a Ronald Regan mask, until I see David stomping towards me. He’s minus one shoe. He tells me, he banged his foot as he jumped out with his shoe now probably embedded into some poor dead cow’s skull.
That evening, at my birthday drinks, everyone wants to see the evidence. David won’t show his at first but after the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ and ‘wow-I-can’t-believe-you-did-this’ and the ‘you’re-so-braves’, David brings his DVD out. We see his face contort like Jim Carey in the Mask.
“I thought I was going to die. I couldn’t breathe,” he says.
“Should have learnt to surf,” I say.