These days surf life savers and surf board riders happily co-exist on Australia’s beaches. In fact, many surfers are now serving members of their local surf life saving clubs. It wasn’t always so. There was a time when the two tribes hated each other… and occasionally even came to blows. This fictitious yarn about a bad day at the beach is based on real events that happened at Sydney’s beautiful Palm Beach way back in 1966. Of course, as the old saying goes, the names have been changed to protect the innocent… (or guilty). While good relations exist now between the various tribes that share Australia’s surf beaches (and much of the angst of the sixties and seventies have now been forgotten) the surfers who experienced events similar to the ones described below will never forget.
You hear people talk about the bad day they had in the surf. Ha! They whinge about being dropped in on by a thug. They grumble about a moron kook who fucked up their wave. They complain about their precious board getting a teeny ding. They whine about getting a little bruise or a feeble little fin chop. They prattle on about some horror wipe-out. They nit-pick about the shit waves. Sissies! Cats! Most people have no bloody idea what a bad day in the surf is. I’ll tell you what a bad day in the surf is. I have had a few bad days in the surf… but one stands out above the others. But you know what? Even this bad day had its upside. When it comes to surfing, even the worst possible days have a bright side. It’s the nature of surfing.
This particular bad day was November 6, in 1966. The theologically literate of you might notice the three sixes in that date. That’s quite some piece of irony because this was, indeed, a day marked by demonic behaviour!
Raging stormy southerlies had been belting the Northern Beaches of Sydney, Australia, for days and it had been impossible to find a decent wave anywhere. Finding a wave has always been problematic given the vagaries of the weather and tides but lately it had been even more difficult because of the actions of our local Shire Council (and their mates in the local surf lifesaving clubs).
Lazy useless bastards
The Warringah Shire Councillors didn’t like surfers. They thought we were a bunch of lazy useless bastards. They thought that all we cared about was surfing. They thought that we were a blight on the community. Well, they might have been right on the first two counts, but I think that “blight on the community” was a bit harsh.
A few months earlier, the Council had gotten together with a bunch of yobbos from the local surf life-saving clubs (the surf life-saving clubs liked us surfers even less than the local politicians did) and together they decided to ban surfboard riding at Freshwater Beach. That’s bad enough but, even worse, they decided to restrict surfing to small allocated “surfboard riding areas” at most of the other beaches in the region. Effectively, they had passed regulations to wipe out the best surfboard riding spots on the whole coast. See what I mean? Finding decent waves had not been easy. To be fair, most of my mates and I hadn’t taken much notice of the signs telling us where we could and could not surf but that had meant that over the previous year of so we had been having constant rows with bloody life-savers and council beach inspectors who were for ever trying to chase us out of the surf… or, even worse… impound our boards!
It’s not just in Warringah that the bully authorities hated us either. A few months earlier some of my mates and I had decided to travel over to Bondi to share a few waves with our mates from the South side and we got to experience some of the hospitality of Sydney’s southern beaches lifesavers. We had been minding our business in the water when the bastards attacked us with three surf-boats, threw fishing nets over us, pinched our boards (when they washed up on the beach riderless) and, to add insult to injury, they had had the coppers arrest us for disobeying lawful instructions. You get the picture. You might say that surfers were not well loved around 1966 and that peaceful and blissful days of surfing had become, pretty much, a thing of the past.
Kiddies Corner is going off
Back to the events of Sunday, November 6. Like I said, the weather had been stormy for days and the waves had been gnarly and crap. I had woken up early, busting for some good waves, and while I was tossing down a cup of tea and a slice of toast (plastered thick with strawberry jam), a mate called on the blower with the news that “the waves at Manly are still crap but the Palmy blokes are saying that Kiddies Corner is going off!”
Decision made. I threw the board on the roof of my Holden and within minutes I was thundering along Pittwater Road for a date with some South Palm Beach magic.
The Palmy blokes had not been bullshitting. The waves were great! While the wind was still gusting from the south, three (and occasionally four foot) clean sets were wrapping around the point and thundering down the line for a good one hundred yards making this the best surfing day that any of us had had in months. Even better, early on, there were not that many blokes in the water, so most of us were getting plenty of waves. I was ripping. It is hard to describe how good a morning of surfing feels after you have been surf-starved for what seems like ages. Council imposed surfing restrictions, bully lifesavers, fascist beach inspectors, police raids, surfboard registration rules and impounding of surfboards, bad weather and crap waves all seemed a million miles away.
Then it happened! I was just about to paddle for my next beautiful three-foot peeler that was charging around the point when a mate tapped me on the shoulder and pointed towards the beach. Off in the distance I could see a bunch of surf life saving club members waving at us and clearly signalling that they wanted us to get out of the water.
“Are they fucking joking? What do they want?” I screamed at my mate. “I’m not fucking getting out! No fucking way!”
“Nah. Me neither,” chimed in my mate.
One or two of our brethren obediently paddled for the beach but it seemed that most of us had decided that, this time, we were not going to be pushed around and bullied out of our fun. Twenty odd blokes ignored the frantic waving of the life saving club captain (and several of his heavy mates who stood with him) and stayed in the line-up. I guess we all knew that trouble would follow but the consensus among my surfing mates and I seemed to be that the time had come to draw a line in the sand. This time we would not be forced from the water without a fight.
Things went rapidly down-hill. Initially, the club captain chose to employ his small arms. He sent out his two belt and reel swimming teams into the pack of surfers. Swimmers, belts, ropes and surfers became hopelessly tangled and surfers who lost their boards had to take the long swim back to the beach where they found that their boards had already been impounded and carted off to the surf club lock up. Then the captain pulled out his heavy guns. He ordered his two surf boats into the water to mow down as many surfers as they could. That’s two thirty-foot-long boats armed with five enormous oars attached to five enormous rowers versus a cluster of blokes on surfboards.
“Come on fellas! We’re a road-grader! Mow down the surfy bastards!” hollered one of the sweeps (of one of the surf boats) as it caught a wave and thundered through my mates and me. The five waving oars belted one surfer behind the shoulder, smacked another bloke on the back of the head and thumped a third surfer behind the knee as he attempted to catch a wave to get away from the surging monster. A fourth surfer bloody nearly got run over by the hull of the boat, but he abandoned his board and dived for the bottom just as it surged through where he had been.
“You are deadshits… a bunch of fucking deadshits,” I scream at the rowers as they pass. “You are going to bloody-well kill somebody.”
The next thing you knew, the second surf boat was being rowed towards the group of us remaining surfers at full speed. I dived off my board and headed for the sandy bottom as the first oar skimmed past my head. When I popped back to the surface, I looked around for my board, to discover that two halves of my beloved Midge Farrelly Signature model were bobbing around sadly about ten meters away. The oar must have smashed into it and snapped it as I had abandoned ship.
Things looked bleak. A very good day had suddenly turned very bad and it was unlikely that they would get any better. Undoubtably police would be called. I could see that angry surfers were already amassing on the beach and groups of surfers and surf lifesaving club members were pushing and shoving each other on the beach. Many boards had already been impounded. More would be grabbed by the authorities. Fines would be handed out. People might even be arrested.
As I said earlier, there was one bright spot to this really crap day. I don’t believe in violence. I am a lover… not a fighter. As a rule, I believe that almost anything can be sorted out without fisticuffs. But sometimes, when a line is crossed, people need to stand their ground. To defend themselves. To stick up for their rights. As the second surf boat continued to pass through what remained of the original cluster of surfers one young bloke, who was seemingly about to be mowed down, reached up and, with a miraculous feat of acrobatics, swung himself up onto the bow of the surf boat.
Eyes as large as saucers!
As he fell forward, he belted the bow rower across the ear with a back hander. He then managed to thump the number two rower on the chest with a closed fist. Number three rower copped a hook to the chin. The stroke rower was winded by a shoulder to the stomach. The seventeen-stone sweep (the bloke steering the boat with an oar at the stern) looked up at the approaching young surfer and, even from my spot in the water ten yards away, I could see that his eyes were as large as saucers. He could not believe what was happening. His darkly tanned skin seemed to turn several shades lighter. The young bloke thumped the standing rower with a massive rugby tackle that knocked the big bloke clean out of the boat. The invading surfer then casually dived off the back of the surfboat, where his trusty surfboard was waiting patiently for him, and calmly paddled away.
The surfers who saw his heroics let out loud cheers and hoots of triumph. It didn’t seem to me that that the celebrating surfers were so much impressed with the punches thrown by the young surfer. Their joy was more about the fact that a kid (who was one of their own) had shown that he wouldn’t be pushed around anymore.
It was a bad day. Plenty of bruises. Plenty of impounded surfboards. Fines galore. Lots of unnecessary ugly violence (that luckily didn’t go too far). Plenty of disgraceful behaviour that could have resulted in life-threatening injuries. A beautiful day (of fantastic surfing) ruined. Still. There was a bright side. The surfers present demonstrated that the days when they would meekly allow surf club bullies, local politicians and beach inspectors to restrict their rights to a fair share of the ocean were over.