When you are not a surfer
Way past the low-rise outdoor mall buzzing with the steady hum of coffee machines that populate ever-gentrified cafes; past the cinema where teens in fraying Daisy Dukes and skinny jeans and skate shoes hold hands, or pretend they hate holding hands (or maybe they really do detest it); around the corner from all that, past the unconvincing sports bar and a row of public changerooms, is the North Cronulla Surf Life Saving Club.
We visited in February, the fizzing tail-end of summer. It was the weekend and there was an exhibition upstairs, Surf Retrospect: 100 Years of Surfing. I assumed this meant 100 years of surfing in Cronulla, a beach suburb with the standard accoutrements of any other Australian beach suburb: cars with roof-racks fitted for boards, salty old-timers, a majority Anglo-Saxon population. I was right. Duke Kahanamoku, the Hawaiian-American Olympic swimmer, was out here in 1915 riding waves on a solid-wood board. The locals—previously wed to bodyboarding—were transfixed. News of Kahanamoku’s prowess made headlines in the regional paper.
It’s hard to display surfboards here. The clubhouse walls—already full with memorabilia—are no use, so boards are splayed haphazardly across the floor, fins pointed at the ceiling. I tiptoe around them. Men with matted hair and fishermen’s sweaters are sipping coffee and nodding in appreciation or slapping each other on the back. My boyfriend is ogling at a specimen from the 70s, its resin coat worn down. Beautiful! This one is sick! I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be looking at. The boards are old. Cool. I pretend to scrutinise their inner workings and wish I understood.
I have been dating a surfer for almost half a decade. That’s a long time for someone with no interest—read: skill—in negotiating with vehicles of any breed (I cannot ride a bike; my learner driver’s licence expired years ago). When I wake up in time (around 4:30 am for South Coast trips), Saturdays are spent as a hanger-on. A car is loaded with the necessary gear: board, leg rope, wax, wetsuit. We drive alone or in a pack with other cars, front passenger seats warmed by other girlfriends. The destinations vary. Within this social subset Greenhills is the preferred spot in Cronulla: surrounded by sandhills instead of concrete, better exposed to south and southeasterly swells, somewhat sheltered from the summer northeasterly. It’s quieter too—the required partial on-foot journey means less punters are bothered to make the trek. We visit McCauley’s in Thirroul, Bellambi Point in Corrimal, North Beach in Port Kembla, and Shellharbour—usually Mystics or The Farm. The routine plays out like this: park; check wind, swell, tide, crowd, rips; mumble weather-related platitudes. Get back in the car and move on to the next spot. There’s a lot of waiting.
If you are not a surfer, but you move in circles with those who surf, it’s all but impossible to get by without succumbing to its romance—even when the attachment is secondhand and inauthentic. Despite a lack of physical ability, I have grown in recent months to find myself very attached. I wait in the car or on the sand, sniffing salt water and dregs of seaweed. I squint at dotted wetsuits, trying to tell them apart. I like the smell of damp neoprene and the grit of coconut wax. I like shirts and towels and pullovers stamped with faded surf-brand logos. I like to sit in a big hood and drink something hot and watch the swell. I like driving for three hours, pulling up at a tiny store, and rifling through beat-up secondhand boards. I try to spot the good ones.
Most attractive, as an outsider, is the distinct vernacular: broad and farcical and interspersed with expletives. The etymology seesaws from straightforward to obscure, much of it hard to pin down with any certainty. Good surf, for instance, offers a veritable feast of descriptors: offshore, pumping, all time, epic. It’s going off like a frog in a sock, or a prawn in the sun, or off its lemon spread (going off its head). At my request a bodyboarding friend, Rich, texts me a comprehensive list. “A sloppy jalopy is an aqua bog,” he writes, matter-of-factly. “A piss in your wetsuit is a wetty warmer. Sharks are referred to as a man in a grey suit. Novice surfers are kooks, billies or train billies ‘from out west’ [inferring distance travelled].” He explains that bodyboarding was socially unacceptable growing up in the 90s and early 2000s, but he’s always felt more natural on the boog. “Surfers call us speed humps, shark biscuits and esky-lid riders. We call them stix.” The most pleasing piece of jargon is a seemingly recent invention reserved for puffed-up paddle boarders: they are known, my smirking boyfriend tells me, as the janitors of the sea.
The pavements running adjacent to the beach are scalding in summer. So too is the sand. You end up arching your feet, forcing your toes to a point, and darting to the stretch of white froth, begging relief from the empty sun. Stix and boogs are used to this; their soles have hardened to withstand harsh temperatures. They’re used to abandoning plans at a moment’s notice, too, letting auspicious conditions dictate their schedule. A lot of time is spent talking ‘out the back’. The unspoken rule when a promising wave approaches is to abandon conversation without warning, turn, and paddle with the water’s momentum. The guy I date has been surfing 20 years. I figure that’s a lot of half- finished sentences.
Voice recorders are uneasy objects at pubs but I take mine out anyway. I ask him if he feels attached to a community. “When you’re working full time and you can only go out on the weekends, it’s hard to feel like you’re properly part of that subculture—you don’t know what you missed during the week. The conditions might have been great, and become shit on the weekend. You see all the people who are just… ‘weekend warriors’, they’re called; they dust their longboard off once a month or something. And then you realise you only get to surf a little more than they do.”
“But you think you’re better?”
“I think I’m more part of the culture. I don’t know why.” “Where does the ‘warriors’ part of the name come from?”
“They’ll just go out anytime, even if the conditions are awful. It’s a mark of desperation—you only have limited options to surf, time-wise. That’s almost part of surfing’s romanticism; it’s not like a soccer field where you can go out at any time, even play in the rain. There’s only a limited window when the wind is right, when the waves are right, when the crowds are good. You’re always waiting for it to be great, and when it is you have to lunge on it.”