Jack is a tremendous young bloke. The just out of teens, tall, blond, lean, good looking lad, quite unremarkably for a tall, blond, lean, good-looking kid from his hometown of Byron Bay, is a fanatical surfer. Byron Bay kids just love the ocean and surfing. His passion and talent for surfing may not be particularly unusual in “the Bay” but there is nothing unremarkable about his character. Jack, like his mum and dad and brother, are the salt of the earth. Decent and kind to the core. When I mentioned to my daughter that I had been chatting to Jack about his surfing she responded, “Oh, Jack… he is such a sweetie!” Jack was only too pleased to share with me his personal horror story about the ocean.
The ocean can be beautiful or menacing, calm or threatening, powerful or gentle depending on its mood. No matter what conditions prevail, on any particular day, one thing that is always true about the ocean is that it is wild. Even when its waves are breaking onto beaches on the doorstep of great man-made cities filled with cars, roads, houses, people, factories, shops, trucks, and railroads there is nothing that man can do to stem its wildness. The ocean is its own boss. When people like Jack, who love the ocean, enter the untamed place, they know that they have to be on their guard. The ocean can (and does) play tricks on its adherents. Its tricks can be funny (but harmless), serious (but potentially deadly), frightening or painful. Its tricks can also be downright weird. Weird like you simply can’t imagine how it manages to pull off such stunts. I would fit Jack’s “Waves of Pain” story into the last three categories. Certainly frightening and painful… and most definitely weird!
A couple of years back when Jack was just sixteen he arrived at Byron Bay’s Tallow Beach for his weekly surf lesson. Jack is still a surf addict but, back then, he was obsessed. When he took a first look at the surf, on this day, his sixteen-year-old heart went straight to his mouth. You gotta understand Tallow Beach. A few days ago I gave a young American tourist a lift to Tallows and she asked, while on the way, “is Tallows as rough as Main Beach or The Pass?” I laughed. Tallows is to Main Beach as a sabre toothed tiger is to a Siamese kitten. I suggested to the tourist that if she thought that Main Beach was rough she might want to limit her Tallows swimming to paddling up to her knees. Even when the waves at Tallows are small they can break powerfully. The rips can be extreme. It’s not a place for the inexperienced or the feint hearted. On this day, the waves at Tallows were anything but small. Jacks estimates that the surf was breaking between four and six foot… with bigger set waves!
Maxing out 6ft plus!
As he paddled out with a few of his mates, who were part of the coaching session, Jack admits that he was “shitting himself.” The other surfers with him were a year or two older (and much more experienced in challenging conditions) but even they would have been anxious. When the small group had found their way past the impact zone into the line-up it was clear that Jack was not only surfing with more experienced and older mates but also a whole bunch of the region’s surfing heavyweights. He didn’t only have to contend with the big waves but also the top echelon of “the Bay’s” surfing talent.
Jack was frightened but not silly. He played the game as any smart and talented young up and coming surfer should. Initially, he just watched the waves swing in from the north and jack up on the bank. He noted that some were throwing out in big, square left barrels and occasionally there were some chunky wedges breaking to the right. He, wisely, left the bigger waves for the snapping and snarling gun surfers and gratefully snared a few of the smaller unwanted waves that they had let pass by. In this way he scored a couple of passable rights where he was able to make a few nice carving turns and a couple of good cutbacks. The six foot plus set waves were definitely a no go. Jack imagined being cleaned up by a killer set wave and then being stranded in the impact zone with bomb after bomb landing on his head thus depleting his oxygen reserves.
With his confidence building, Jack then managed to jag a left. He blasted down the steep face then pulled off a terrific little snap off the lip. The wave then closed out in front of him causing him to have to hit the eject button. He quickly climbed back onto his board and with his excitement building starting paddling back towards the pack. Things were going well. Maybe he would nail a bigger wave or two before the day was out! Maybe even a meaty big left barrel! As he was paddling he noticed the group of surfers in front of him paddling at full steam for the outside… like lemmings charging towards the edge of a cliff. “Shit! Set waves coming,” he thought. He paddled for all that he was worth. He just managed to scramble over the top of one building wave when he realized that the first really big wave of the set was right behind the one that he had managed to get over… and it was bearing right down on him. He was still well and truly in the impact zone for the bigger waves and he was going to wear this beast right on top of his head. He just had time to think, “Oh shit!”
Jack explained to me that after the initial impact he was rag-dolled… and rag-dolled… and rag-dolled for what seemed like minutes. While he was still being pounded and rolled along the sandy bottom he started to feel a strange pressure in his left foot. Slowly the energy of the wave abated, and he was able to fight his way back to the surface. When he finally broke through the soup he rejoiced at being able to fill his lungs again with oxygen. The relief he felt at being able to breathe again was quickly replaced by horror as he experienced massive waves of pain surging up his left leg. “What the hell,” he thought. He had never felt piercing pain anything like this. As he bobbed around in the churning water he checked out his throbbing left leg and realized that his leg-rope had wrapped itself around his leg and was now cutting off all circulation to his foot and toes. He realized that the disorientation and sensory overload associated with being battered and tumbled (continuous underwater cartwheels, as Jack described it) by a brutal killer set wave had initially disguised what was now turning out to be enough pain to power a medium sized city. Worse still, the tangle of the leash was so bad that he couldn’t get the damned thing off his leg.
Jack clambered onto his board and paddled for the safety of shore as quickly as he could. When he hit the beach he picked up his board and dragged his now non-functional left foot up to where the sand was firm. The sight of a young kid limping horribly and yelling in pain must have been scary for the spectators on the beach. When Jack saw his dad (and another dad) who had been watching the action come running down the beach to find out what was wrong he plonked himself down on to the beach and in between yells tore at the tangled leg rope and strangled leg to show the men what the problem was. Initially, they just stared at him with mystified looks on their faces. When realization set in, they swooped onto the knotted leggy and tried to find a way to release the tangle. Meanwhile Jack lay back and grabbed and squeezed fistfuls of sand in an attempt to stem his screaming and prevent himself from giving the appearance of being a sissy. Even in agony, sixteen-year-old boys are aware of the importance of not being a sissy. In what seemed an excruciatingly long operation the dads finally managed to find a way to untangle the rope that was turning Jack’s foot a ghostly grey. Jack described to me how, as the leg rope fell away, immediately a sensation of warmth travelled down his ankle into his foot and slowly into his toes. He breathed out an enormous sigh of relief.
The dads, who hadn’t experienced five minutes of “dead foot” agony sat back in the sand and rock with laughter at what they thought was a particularly strange and humorous injury. I’m sure that Jack thought that it was strange too but I’m quite sure he didn’t think that it was funny.
The word that Jack used to describe the little trick that the ocean played on him was “random”.
The word I would use is weird. But that’s the way the ocean is. It does weird stuff. People who love to spend time in the wilderness shouldn’t ever expect normal. Weird is normal!