One of my earliest memories is of my mother’s fear of the sea. My father, who loved sailing, was taking us out to an island in Wellington harbour. The wind was fresh enough to have his yacht on a heel and mum was screaming ‘stop it tipping, stop it tipping’.
Her distrust of the ocean didn’t stop her, though, from being surprisingly supportive as surfing took over my teenage years. It must have taken quite some bravery and skill in letting go to watch as her slender thirteen year old son did his awkward best to paddle to the horizon. Yet she did it; and every May until I got my driving licence she would rent a batch on an East Coast beach and take my friends and I on surfing holiday for a week.
Some boundaries remained, of course. The most begrudged stemmed from a sign she found on the first day of our first trip to the beach. “Danger,” it warned, “rip tides make this beach unsafe for swimming. Swim only between the flags in front of the surf lifesaving club at the northern end of the beach”. There were no flags, nor lifeguards. They were only ever to be found for a few weeks at the height of summer. By May the surf club, like the beach, was empty – the ocean too cold for anyone other than hyperactive teenagers wrapped in wetsuit rubber. Yet, to my mother’s eye the sign still suggested safety in front of the dilapidated surf club. We were prohibited from surfing elsewhere.
The year of our first visit coincided with a strong south swell, the brunt of which was being borne, predictably enough, right in front of the surf club. The waves were not only big but closing out – breaking all at once, churning sand and sending walls of white water rumbling shore wards. Not only were they hard to surf but it was almost impossible even just to paddle out the back beyond the line of the breakers. After two days of battering white water and dark, frightening hold-downs frustration set in. Frustration that was heightened by a painfully obvious alternative being denied to us.
The batch we stayed in was about half way down the beach, wrapped in dunes. Each morning as we trudged north towards the surf club we would watch the waves on the way. The gentle bend of the sand meant that the beach in front of our house faced due east and so was sheltered slightly from the swell. The waves were smaller and better too; standing up like A-frames and then breaking, in an orderly fashion, off to the left and right.
We pleaded with mum. We told her that her quest for safety was placing us in greater peril rather than less. We watched miserably out the window of the batch.
Eventually she relented. It was the second to last day of our trip and the combination of a soft offshore breeze and the spiralling waves visible from the living room were driving us to distraction. And we were driving her in the same direction
“Okay. You can surf out there, but wait for me to come down and watch.”
Our wait wasn’t a long one. We sprinted over the sand dunes, mum following in our wake.
It was mid afternoon and the distant winter sun was already falling for the western hills. The beach was empty except for my mother and sister, and the sky was a lonely blue.
Along a hundred metre stretch of coast waves rose and reeled across sandbars shedding soft spray; lifting the wind-ruffled autumn green water and sending it crashing to into white.
We scampered into an ocean cold enough to ache the exposed skin of our hands and faces but our hollering was for happiness and anticipation, not pain.
After days of battering at the northern end of the beach the paddle out was almost easy: we navigated our way into the line-up using the deep water between the sandbars as a pathway through the waves. Once we were out there all that remained was to catch one. Mark and Dom were both better surfers than me and quickly got rides, paddling back out gleefully confirming how good the waves were. I took longer, trying to find my place in the sea, missing a couple of waves, and narrowly scraping out of the way of a bigger set. Eventually, I was in the right spot; a wave stood up in front of me and I pivoted towards the shore, my still not quite coordinated paddles desperately trying to pull my board to a speed sufficient to catch the gathering swell. I had it! I leapt to my feet and veered to the right away from the peak of the wave and out towards the unbreaking shoulder.
As the wave began to hit the shallows the wall in front of me steepened and instinct had me do something I was going to become truly accomplished at in later years. I crouched, grabbing the outside rail of my board, slowing it and altering its course slightly. As I did this, the lip of the breaking wave pitched out over my head and I was wrapped within the tube, water spinning around me as I rode, untouched, through the space between the wave’s face and its falling curtain. For one glorious moment I could see the mouth of the tube in front of me and beyond it the arc of Riversdale Beach. In the faint distance Castlepoint punctuated the ocean’s curve. Then, I over-balanced and, wham!, the wave sent me pitching off my board and into the churn. This type of wipeout was different from those of the days previous though – the excitement of what I had just seen carried me through and I emerged spluttering with delight, racing back out to tell the tale to my disbelieving friends.
We had been out in the surf for over an hour with another set of waves approaching us when Mark yet out a yelp.
“What was that!”
Focused on catching the incoming swell I barely even heard, all my attention on the wave I wanted to catch. Suddenly, a black shape, maybe four foot long, shot underneath my board. I stopped paddling in shock. “Faarrkk, fuk, fuk, fuk!”
The grey shape sped on, catching the swell I had been paddling for. From the back we could see it, surfing within the wave, streaking northwards away from the broken water. Just as wave was about to close out it burst through its back soaring through the air for a moment and reconnecting with the sea beyond.
Mark’s statement of the now obvious dispelled some of our shock.
As we watched, it swum past us out to sea and then turned, propelling itself into another wave.
For about fifteen minutes it surfed circles around us, literally. A couple of times we tried, half-heartedly, to catch waves, only to stop as it zipped past us catching them itself. Not that I think it would have minded: sharing a ride with the three awkward, wetsuit-clad apes. Indeed, the fact that it chose our one section of the long empty beach to go surfing suggests to me that this was what it intended all along.
Sadly, though, we weren’t up for the game. It wasn’t that we were afraid of the dolphin exactly; we knew enough water law to know that dolphins were perfectly safe. It was just that, that grey shape – sleek and torpedo like, swimming past us, guiding our eyes to the deep unending green of the sea – resembled too closely other creatures which might also inhabit the water beyond our toes.
“Well, at least it will chase off any sharks,” Mark was trying to ease our anxiety with a joke. But, unwittingly, by putting a name to our fear, he ended our attempts at being brave.
“I’m going in,” I can’t remember who said it first. But no one tried to answer. Instead we all sped shoreward, not wanting to be last in line – first into the imaginary crunch of the imaginary jaws. We traversed the water in record time.
From the safety of the sand we watched the dolphin – confused, possibly and disappointed perhaps, by its intended companions’ hurried exit – as it rode a few more waves. Riding within the waves as opposed to on their surface it put us and most every other human surfer to shame. It would speed through the wall, across impossible sections, ending its rides with amazing aerials.
After maybe quarter of an hour it swum back out to sea. The only dolphin I’ve ever seen at Riversdale Beach, and one of the few I’ve seen surfing in New Zealand, vanished back towards the horizon.
The story that I’ve just told you is a favourite of my mother. Although her telling of the tale places less emphasis on the ban and my nascent tube riding skills, and more on how quickly us teenage boys fled the harmless marine mammal.
Hearing it like this always irritates me. Not because her version of the story is any less accurate than mine – it’s not. If anything, it is closer to the truth. Nor does it rankle because I feel teased. My frustration, instead, all comes from the reminder of the missed opportunity; the lost chance, on the autumn day, to interact with a type of surfer that I’ve never again seen on that stretch of coast.