Here is a special story from our “Waves of Pain” collection. In a surfing world dominated by hyperbole… the west wave… the best day… the best secret spot… the best surfer… the best barrel… the best board etc this column pays homage to those not so best days in the ocean. In truth it is some of these not so best days that are the most interesting, most moving, most exciting, most hilarious and most dramatic. Today’s contribution is from Northern Rivers legend (shaper, writer, artist, philosopher, sociologist, ecologist, intellectual, teacher and above all, surfer) Angus Brodie Goozee.
The ocean is a remarkable place. A wild place. A place that demands our respect. This moving and beautiful story from Angus Goozee takes us to a place that is even more remarkable, more wild and more demanding of respect than most of the seaside places where us puny beings normally hang out. I know the place that he writes about. On its most placid and gentle days it still leaves one with a feeling of awe. It is a mysterious place. A special place. A place that reminds you that wildness is still possible. Angus’s telling of this story (of a morning that shook up his life for years) reminds us of the consequences of not being fully on guard when you visit wild places!
Strange how memory can work so well when bad things happen and so poorly the rest of the time. Some recollections come back in high deﬁnition, slow motion even, zoomed in, rewound and played over and over. For a while there, I thought this might be my last vivid memory. Maybe that’s why it weaved itself into the grey matter of my mind and crystallised there.
It was only a moment but it’s signiﬁcance stretched it out, enlarged it to ﬁt into the enormity of the place where it happened. A place without scale, the kind of place that engulfs you unexpectedly as you approach it. It’s accessible enough, and it’s beautiful in photographs, but The Cape really demands respect. I returned there yesterday to go spearﬁshing and whilst the memory of what happened there doesn’t keep me from returning, it does arrive with me when I do.
“Dwarfed by cliffs that are, themselves, dwarfed by the horizon!”
There is something about being in the water there, out where two currents converge. The marine life doesn’t hang around for long and the waves do unexpected things. The sand there is packed like hardened cement. The jagged rocks point deﬁantly out to the ocean, not away from it as you’d expect. It’s as though they were shaped by the sweeping pull of an ancient tide more than the relentless pulse of swell. Fifty meters East of the cape and you’re in a sanctuary, a friendly lagoon. Fifty meters to the west and your surfboard feels like a life raft in the abyss of the Paciﬁc. The point in the middle my friend calls the plug hole. Looking back up from the water, you see the lighthouse, but it’s dwarfed by cliﬀs that are themselves dwarfed by the horizon that everything else curves around. From sea level it ﬁlls all your peripheral vision. It’s immense. Far larger than me, that’s for sure.
Several years ago, I’d walked out there at sparrows. I used to live in a converted garage nearby. The rent was cheap, but the most expensive real estate and the best sunsets in the country were on my doorstep. It was raining softly that morning, dark with a thick sea mist. I ran through the rocks to Little Wategos with a short board of some description under my arm. It smelt like rotting kelp. I remember it feeling like a dream, a vivid but uneasy dream that you know doesn’t end well. I’d snuck out of the house again as I often would, quietly to not wake my girlfriend, but it was like I hadn’t quite woken myself either. It was early. Too early for the silhouette of that girl to be standing there in the dark on the cape in the rain.
“I was pulled into the spot where the continent ends and the wave starts…”
I slipped into the rip that empties the Bay. The rip that meets the swell at the plug hole where they eddy around together before the southern water lifts and oﬀers a wave out to sea, not into shore. With dry hair and no need to paddle, I was pulled onto the spot where the continent ends and the wave starts. I’d surfed there the night before and had fun, but knew straight away, as surfers know, that today was diﬀerent. No bigger, but longer intervals perhaps. The night had been cold and the western ribs in the waves were ugly. Classic morning sickness. I wanted to be back in bed. I remember thinking it was early and it was cold. I remember questioning why I was out there and not at home with my girlfriend. Was I avoiding something? I remember thinking I should have checked it ﬁrst. I always checked it ﬁrst.
A Pied Cormorant popped up next to me shaking its head dry. It was happy with the morning and happy about the rain. Not me. I was cold, and I was squinting into the weather, waiting for a pulse to hook around the headland. It ducked back under the surface when the wave arrived. It was a small one. I remember it moving fast. I remember thinking, catch this little one. Get your feet in the wax, they’re slippery from the rocks and the kelp and the rain.
It was a small right hander, maybe shoulder high. Just another small right hander like all the others I’d surfed since arriving in the Northern Rivers. I was half asleep, but I knew I could count on muscle memory to sweep my legs underneath me as I grabbed my rail and knifed into it. The step in the wave was what threw me. The wave drew over that last bit of rock, that last tip of eastern landmass. The water pulled backwards faster than forwards and I was far too sleepy, too casual in my approach. It caught me; I didn’t catch it. I pushed the nose of my board down into the steep bowl of water and lifted my feet, but the wave lifted way faster. My timing was terrible. The thing with small waves is they break in less water and this one wasn’t tall, but it was thick. It had grabbed me by the torso, and it had thrown me out with the lip. I pushed the board aside to keep it out of my way, hoping to dive through the bottom of the wave like I’d often done in these moments of misjudgement.
“My spine compressed together… folding in on itself one vertebra at a time… “
For its own reasons, this wave was having none of it. The water had drawn so quickly oﬀ the sandbank that it was barely a foot deep. The wave felt like a pole driver… and the crown of my head was the blunt tip of the star picket being hammered into the sand, vibrating like a tent peg ﬁnding a stone. My spine compressed together, folding in on itself one vertebra at a time like the bellows of an accordion. I surfaced slowly thanks to the buoyancy of my body and I lay face down in a foot of water, ﬂoating like a dead ﬁsh drifting ashore. I didn’t see stars. I only saw blackness as I surrendered to the gentle pull of the lagoon.
I was in shock, but I was calm, and I was very still. I moved my ﬁngers ﬁrst, then my toes, then I arched my lower back to stretch my spine out. I gasped for air, I rolled over and sat hunched in the shallows. Reaching into my hair to feel my scalp for blood, it was sandy and sore, but it wasn’t bleeding. l looked back to the rocks, the girl and her silhouette were gone. I was glad she hadn’t seen me but now I wasn’t sure I’d seen her.
Looking up at the cliﬀs in the blanket of cloud I was dizzy with vertigo. For a moment I thought I would vomit. That being overly dramatic, I managed to hold the retching off. I pulled at my leg rope and regathered my board. I fought the gravity of what had happened and got to my feet. I stood there swaying there for half a moment and started walking home. I think I remember two women in green raincoats, walking in my direction on their daily loop of the lighthouse. They asked me something as we passed. I’m not sure what. Something about the waves or the fog or the loneliness. I remember replying twice and not knowing why. I think I remember looking back and they were looking back at me. I’m not sure who was more confused.
When I made it back, I dried oﬀ and climbed the mezzanine into bed, still salty. That’s unlike me. I like a shower after a surf, and I hate sand in the sheets. My girlfriend was still sleeping but the creaking ladder had stirred her. I told her I’d bumped my head, but I was ok. Relieved to be home I laid on my back, stretched my spine again and stared up at the ceiling just a meter away. The conﬁned dark space felt safe. I replayed what had just happened. I felt lucky that I hadn’t drowned in a foot of water… and I felt lucky I was able to walk – but I was rattled. I wasn’t sure what the ladies in their raincoats had said. I wasn’t sure what I’d replied. I wasn’t sure if I was ok.
“My forehead was swollen, my face pale and I had two black eyes”
I went to work that day. I was working in the booking oﬃce of a surf school. The rain meant we were quiet. I don’t remember serving anyone until one of the coaches came in for a visit around midday. Straight away he asked me what had happened. Apparently, my forehead was swollen, my face was pale, and I had two black eyes. I hadn’t seen a mirror all day. I told him about my morning and he oﬀered to cover the shop, insisting that I go to the hospital around the corner. I remember the ﬂuorescent lights and the plastic chairs. I remember a junkie with a water dragon in the waiting room. I remember pretending to read a National Geographic to avoid making eye contact. I remember laying down in a neck brace, being wheeled around from room to room. I remember an old nurse being kind and an old doctor who hated his job and wasn’t too big on people either. They checked my vision. They scanned my brain. They tapped my knees and my elbows. They crossed all their T’s and told me I was ﬁne and sent me on my way.
That was the same year I was writing my honours thesis. I’d planned to lock myself in the library for the three months before it was due. That was the plan… but like many plans, it wasn’t working out! I would read and I would forget what I’d read. I would write and I would forget what I’d written. I was terriﬁed that I’d fucked my brain forever, but I was too embarrassed to talk to anyone about it.
I researched the symptoms of concussion and they seemed consistent with what was going on. Lawsuits involving elite sportspeople were making headlines at the time. Players were suing clubs for preventable brain injuries that had ruined their careers and in some cases their marriages and their families. Top athletes couldn’t remember where they’d parked their cars, their children’s birthdays or their anniversaries. The fear of living in the unknown and the vulnerability of always questioning ones’ memory is surely the path of least resistance toward spiralling mental health. I read that the memory loss could last six months to a year. I’d say it lasted two, maybe three. The irony is you never really know because when you struggle to remember what a functioning memory felt like, how can you know when you’ve recovered it? I submitted my thesis, but I knew it was second class. I was devastated and completely drained. It had taken so long, and it was so exhausting to write. I found it so disheartening to conclude ﬁve years of study that way that, aside from my Nan’s eulogy, I haven’t written anything since.
That wave, the cape, the enormity of that moment of poor timing, that smell of kelp and that silhouette in the dark in the rain. I remember all of it. Total recall. Every detail like it was yesterday. But if you asked me to describe the years that followed, it would be a foggy recollection at best. It would be a story that never strays too far from the lighthouse, or from my therapist who explored my memory to explain my unusual caution in relationships and my non-commitment reﬂex which I now attribute to small and shallow right handers.
Thanks, Gus, for your remarkable story. Your tale reminds me of the extraordinary documentary film titled Mountain. Near the end of the film, Willem Dafoe tells us, as his narration is drawing to a close, “Mountains don’t seek our love… or seek our deaths. They want nothing from us. And yet they shift the way we see ourselves. They weather our spirits. Challenge our arrogance. Restore our wonder. More than ever, we need their wildness.” Gus’s story shows us that the ocean can be very much like the mountains that Dafoe describes. There is a fascinating conflict between positive and negative in his tale. While there are extremely negative consequences to forgetting to respect wild places, there is no doubt that Gus still believes that we need the ocean’s wildness. Like the mountains the ocean restores our wonder.
All of the photographs are taken by Tim Edwards. They show various scenes around the most easterly point of Australia near the lighthouse at Byron Bay, New South Wales.