Wandering Thoughts

September 22, 2012

At Sea

Filed under: Going Places,Staying Places,Surfing — terence @ 10:50 am

The term the TV presenters use here in Australia is cell. Thunder cell. Like an al-Qaeda cell. Clouds gone bad. Mingling together in hidden valleys. Gathering. Spilling down from the hills. Darkening. Growing. Gathering.

Jo and I have figured a way of going surfing. If I use the soft, floaty, blue, learner’s longboard, I can catch waves and ride them on my knees. It’s exercise (in the sea!) and it doesn’t hurt that much, physically. Although I hide from other surfers. Trying to find quiet lonely corners of beaches where no one will laugh at a broken guy riding a soft foam board, awkwardly, on his knees.

And so that’s what we were doing – surfing – three evenings ago while the thunder cell massed. First there were just clouds, and then ‘it was looking a little dark to the south’, and then there was a big black wall, creeping up the coast from somewhere near Moruya.

We caught our waves a little anxiously, watching its progress. The lick of the lightning; the thump of the thunder. We rode small lefts down a sandbar, peeling into a bay. Not big enough for anyone else to be surfing but folding fast little sections for us to skim across, and bent by the curve of the coast so that the ebbing nor’easter was offshore.

Arms of cloud reached out off the edge of the storm, trailing soft curves of rain, blurring the horizon behind. And through that haze, on the other side of the weather, the sun was starting to set, burning colour around the edge of the clouds.

Jo was counting the seconds between lightning strikes and the sound of thunder.

The cell had crept north, maybe over Broulee.

“Time to take a wave in?”
“Yeah, that lightning’s getting close.”
“And it will be dark soon.”

So we caught one last set. I paddled into my wave, just off the edge of the peak. Paddle. Then the motion changes. Then I pull myself to my knees and turn down the line. And as I turned the sunset flared. The half of the sky yet to be swallowed by the black of the clouds was melted, molten, and reflected in the glassy water that I sped over. The impossibly red sea also reflecting, for a moment, then a moment, then a moment, the dance of lightening across the sky. I skimmed along laughing, shouting. If I’ve ever seen anything more beautiful surfing, I can’t remember it.

After, we hobbled up the beach, got changed into towels, and drove north away from the rain.

January 23, 2012

Ballet of Agonies

Filed under: Surfing — terence @ 9:17 am

When I was a kid watching videos of huge barrelling waves, I used to dream of being able to freeze time in a way that would leave me free to walk into the maw of the giant tubes and to explore amongst the spray and exploding water. To trace the contours of the almost impossible to surf waves and to find out just how far back the tubes tunnelled into the collapsing swell they had been born from.

This video is astounding, the next best thing to my dream. Watch it. Watch it full screen.

Marvel also at the agonising ballet as the surfers try to stay on top of the water before eventually pirouetting into the all consuming wall of energy…

January 4, 2011


Filed under: Going Places,Ramblings and Musings,Staying Places,Surfing — terence @ 7:43 pm
Tags: , ,

For all intents and purposes Christmas day begins on the eastern end of Lyall Bay Beach. It’s not yet 7am but the stretched out summer day is already under way. The water is clear. The sky is clear. The wind is light. The surf is flat. The wave models were wrong. Out on the sand a couple of early risers are walking their dogs. In my car I’m chewing glumly over the absence of waves. No surf, I’m short of sleep, and my arthritic aches are more severe than usual.  Each of these things combining to add to my gloom. Slightly teary (the arthritis does that to me) and topped up with self-doubt, I’m trying to calculate my options. I could go for a swim or a paddle. But neither really seem worth the discomfort of contorting myself into my wetsuit for. So the real choice is going home and keeping mum company while she cooks, or chasing the remnants of the northwest wind swell on the west coast.

I’m good at doubting myself. So I make the decision to head west several times only to have it repealed by something akin to guilt. What sort of man chases waves on Christmas morning? The empty ocean in front of you is a sign, you should go home. It’s at least 10 dollars petrol extra if you go to the west coast. Think about how much money you’ve spent already. Think about the CO2 emissions. Anyhow, the tide’s wrong up there. And you’ll be late home.

Fortunately I’m even better at ignoring my doubts, eventually, once they’ve kicked me around a bit. And so, next I know, I’m speeding along an almost empty SH1 and into an empty car park at Titahi Bay.


The tide’s wrong. But the swell’s there. Slow sloping lefts peeling across the bay. Not bad for an arthritic old guy on a longboard. Barely pausing to look I’m shoving protesting limbs into neoprene. Hoping that my joints will actually let me get to my feet when I’m out there.

Did they?

Of course they did. Slow and sore, sure. But able to get there in the end. In time to make it down the line.

Wave after wave, after wave. And then I’m driving home, endorphins or whatever they are, conspiring with replayed rides, ridding me of aches and doubts. And the morning’s impossibly nice. Like Christmas in Wellington never is. Still and sunny.

As I drive choral music plays on the radio. And I wonder about that. Enjoying it. Agnostic. The sound is sweet – devine. First I figure maybe it really is evidence of god. Could something so beautiful really arise by chance? Could it? In the end I decide it could. Which seems forlorn in a way. All that effort and beauty misdirected. All those appeals unheard. Eventually, though, I conclude, cheery again, that, no, any god that could create something as beautiful as this music deserves some credit. It’s quite an achievement — especially if you don’t exist.

August 14, 2010

Lake Envy

Filed under: Surfing — terence @ 11:07 am
Tags: ,

Under the arthritis diary I’ve been chatting with a fellow surfer and arthritis sufferer, who happens to live on the Great Lakes. Which reminds me…

Growing up in the harbour we relied on southerly storms or huge south ground swells to provide us with waves. When they came, the ground swells in particular, could be great, but the wait in between could be agonising, especially in summer.

And so, in between the big south swells we’d do what we could to keep the surf stoke coming. Riding pushbikes miles out along a closed gravel road to the harbour mouth, to a couple of sketchy rocky reefs that broke in polluted water. Catching the ferry to Lambton quay and then the bus to Lyall Bay, pleading our way past drivers and ticket collectors, trying to convince them that they could indeed carry our surfboards. Sliding down pine-needle covered hillsides on skateboards with their trucks removed, pretending we were on snow boards (this we called Pine Boarding – it sort of worked but you couldn’t turn and the wipeouts hurt.)

One other alternative presented itself from time to time. When the nor’wester was particularly fierce, on the days when the hillsides roared with the sound of the wind tearing at the trees, and when the harbour was covered in white horses. Then we could surf at the Yacht Club, a beach that faced north west, inwards, away from the open sea, towards Petone and the other end of the harbour. The fetch wasn’t long: 7km to be exact (4.3 miles) but for a 40 knot nor’westerly that was still long enough. And so we’d surf these wind ‘swells’ in the stinging salt and sand. It was difficult, although not because the waves were too small, they’d actually get up to head high when the wind was really blowing. The trouble was the wind, and the current that came with it. Too often we’d spend all our time paddling, spindly little arms flailing against the current, slowly drifting south down the beach. Still, amongst all that we’d usually get something. It wasn’t much but we were in the water at least.

The best surf I ever had at the Yacht Club was probably my last, right on the edge of getting my driver’s license and all the open coast that came with it. It was evening, after school, and the salt spray was melting the setting sun over the Western Hills. I was out on my own. For some reason, maybe the wind was more westerly, or maybe I was simply growing stronger, I was able to hold my own against the current. And the tide, or the wind, or something was right too, and so one torn windy peak after another came to me. Short, steep and surfable. Turn after turn. Each one no-doubt much better in my head than in reality. Nevertheless, I was surfing, having a ball. Singing away to myself.

Among the other side effects (terrible surfers ear for a start) of the Yacht club days, one thing I acquired was an ongoing interest in surfing in confined bodies of water. We found an old surf guide once that claimed there were surf sports on Lake Taupo. We wondered what they’d be like. One, supposedly, was a point.

“Points never break any good in wind-swells” my friend Jerry informed me authoritatively. He was already a Yacht Club sceptic.

We read also read about the Great Lakes, in Surfing and Surfer magazines. Their Californian editors were sceptics too of course. Although, I, ever the day-dreamer, got my atlas out and measured the fetch of Lake Superior: over 200km. If 7km was enough for head high waves, who knows what they got on those lakes.

I don’t think I ever surfed the Yacht Club again after that best-ever surf there. With access to a car, I was able to go to Titahi Bay instead when the Nor’Wester was blowing. Still not a great surf spot but actual ocean waves of a sort. And then there was the South and East coasts with real groundswells and offshore winds.

Crazy as it seems though, I’m still kind of hopeful I might get to surf the Yacht Club again. Nostalgia, of course, and curiosity (did the waves really get that big?) and also the fact that when your last memory of a spot is a good one, you always want to surf it again.

Come to think of it, I still day dream about getting to the Great Lakes one day too. Although, for the time being, I’m just hoping I’ll be well enough tomorrow morning to get down to Bawley point for a few.

May 15, 2010


Filed under: Surfing — terence @ 12:52 pm
Tags: ,

The tale of how I ended up organising surfing contests is a complicated one. By nature I’m not much of an organiser and, other than a brief phase as a teenager, contests don’t interest me. Organising them takes time too. Lots of it. Time which, to be honest, I’d sooner spend surfing myself.

Or, at least, the tale of how I ended up organising surfing contests should have been a complicated one, but it wasn’t: in reality I’m just no good at saying no. The club needed someone to run them. I got asked. I said yes.

And so I ended up at Riversdale on a summer’s day striding round, corralling potential judges, drawing up heat schedules, and explaining the rules. That morning, when we started the event, the surf had actually been pretty decent. We’d located ourselves about 50 metres south of the surf club, in front of a series of sand bars on which glassy waves peeled left and right. Head high sets maybe bigger. Which is about perfect size for Riversdale – if the waves get any larger the paddle out becomes a nightmare.

Inevitably the sea-breeze came up and the waves became messier as the day went on, but they held their size. Maybe even got a little bigger. It was a nice day to be at the beach too. Warm Wairarapa summer weather. The clubbies had their flags out, kids were swimming, two lifesavers in an IRB patrolled the beach. And we plowed on with the contest.

By mid-afternoon we were running the long-board ‘final’. Which was, in reality, just a mega-heat for the 6 longboarders who had shown up that morning. I gave them half an hour in the water. They needed it. It was low tide and the paddle out took even the better longboarders 10 minutes slogging out against windblown lines of white water. A couple of them struggled to get out at all. One overweight guy only made it through a triumph of will that should have seen him awarded first prize simply for tenacity.

Anyhow, eventually they all made it out the back and we started the heat. Which was when the head lifesaver came jogging down the beach towards is, beer belly bouncing under his yellow shirt, jandals kicking sand into the wind.

“Hey. You gotta get your surfers out of the water. The guys on the IRB radioed in to say they spotted a shark.”

He then turned on his heels and ran off to help in summoning the teenage swimmers to the beach.

“Shit. What do I do?”

Lars was nonplussed.

“Don’t worry about it. It’s probably just a dogfish. And, anyway, they’re only long boarders.”

The other judges were no more help.

“Uh dunno mate. Up to you.”

Such is the loneliness of leadership.

“Fuck – alright. We gotta get them out of the water. Hey. HHHHEEEEYYY!!!! Come in. COME IN. Shark!”

James started sounding the siren which we used to start and finish heats. And everyone began waving towels and t-shirts.

“Shark! Come in! Shark!”

It took them a while, but eventually the longboarders figured something was up and came crashing in through the white water. Gathering around me. With puffed and puzzled looks on their faces.

“Sorry guys. The lifeguards spotted a shark. I just thought it would be safer to get you out of the water.”

“Are you sure mate – we didn’t see anything.” The overweight guy looked particularly pained. All that wasted effort.

“Yes of course I’m sure. The water’s as murky as out there. I’m not surprised you didn’t see it.”

“There’s no sharks at Riversdale…”

“…it was probably just a dogfish.”

“I’m telling you. The lifeguard said it was a shark.”

And that was the moment the lifeguard chose to return.

“Just heard back from the guys on the boat. You can start your contest again. The shark’s only 2 foot long.”

“Two feet?”

“Two feet. The fin looked bigger but it’s tiny. Just a dogfish.”

“Oh, um, good news. Great, um back out into the water then guys(?).”

And so it was that the only casualty of the great Riversdale shark siting of 2005 was my already tenuous motivation to run surf contests. Eaten by a dogfish.

May 8, 2010


Filed under: Going Places,Surfing — terence @ 7:37 pm

I was camped by the coast and keen on surfing alone. The plan was to get up pre-dawn and paddle out in the twilight. I set my alarm for six: early enough, I thought, and drifted into uncomfortable sleep.

I woke up in the light. No alarm, just light. I must have slept in. Or maybe dawn was earlier than I thought? I was bone tired and hazy, but – loyal to my plan – I pulled on my clothes in a hurry, joints protesting the contortions, and crawled out of the tent. Outside, where it wasn’t dawn at all. Instead the moon hung in the sky. A mirror for the sun, full enough and bright enough to have the campground lit up. I could see the trees and cars and tents around me. Shaking my head I climbed back into bed.

Although I didn’t last weekend, there have been times, camped at the coast, where I’ve sat in the moonlight watching the waves. Listening to the crack and swash and imagining myself riding on silvered water.

Like almost everything about the sport, night surfing is easier to imagine than to do. It’s cold in the middle of the night. And the sea is black proper. Sharky and eerie. And so, although I’ve thought about it a lot, I’ve only ever tried night surfing once, in small glassy waves at Freshwater. Late summer in Sydney, with a friend to accompany me, and the vague thought that night surfing had to be safer in a bay.

The moon that night was bright but not quite enough. Waves arrived unannounced and the half-light skewed perception. Which made it pretty hard to surf. All the more so in the short sharp beach break waves. Still, in between spills we got rides, enough to be happy. And in between rides we marveled at the patterns the moonlight made in the shallows, white ripples, refracted by the sea, crisscrossing the sand. And just that once, as we sat waiting for waves we were free not to about the dreaded crowds of the northern beaches. At one point I managed to duck my head into a little barrel, watching it spin, without colour, only light.

Like everything else about surfing, riding waves in the moonlight is difficult. Difficult, but on that one night at least – worth it.

April 30, 2010

Nostalgia –

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings,Staying Places,Surfing — terence @ 11:24 am

– an aging related process in which the past begins to take on more promise than the future. After all, memories tend to focus on the significant, so tedium and drudgery are quickly erased. And – up to a point – times of trouble and things gone wrong can be discounted, because we made it through them. Which leaves the good memories free to be cleaned, polished and enhanced. The future on the other hand has more than its fair share of what seems to be dreary certainty along with worry inducing uncertainty. Also, as you get older, there’s more past and less future.

And so, walking into university today I caught a whiff of a chemical smell. I don’t know what chemical, but the smell was the same as the one from the factories south of the high school I went to. The smell you smelt when the southerly was blowing. The smell that meant surf. Now, years later, the smell means memories of excited chatter on the bus home; climbing into damp salty wetsuits behind the shelter of storm-blown pohutukawa trees; riding short, steep waves in an icy sea; and all these variables combining in a slightly implausible equation with an end result of giddy happiness.

For a moment there this morning I was more excited by those waves in the past than by the ones I hope to get this weekend. Even though the water here is 7 degrees warmer, the wind kinder and the rides better. That’s nostalgia for you.

March 13, 2010


Filed under: Going Places,Staying Places,Surfing — terence @ 6:08 pm

As a kid I learnt to surf on a succession of dinged-up old boards. Like everything else in my teenage years, it was a source of embarrassment. Big and bulky, and browned by the sun – these ‘dungers’ didn’t look anything like the sleek white boards that all the good guys owned. I felt like a frumpy gumby carrying them down to the water’s edge. It wasn’t fair.

Despite the start,  I learnt to love old boards. Some still surf great once you figure them out. And it’s nice to rescue a forgotten board from the back of a shed and return it to wave riding life. I also learnt that the least cool thing in most surfers’ eyes isn’t owning an old board but rather being learner with a bright new one. If you’re going to learn you’ll do just fine on something old and floaty. A new board under a beginner’s arm will be a waste of money. A sign of vanity. Or that’s how most surfers feel.

Better still, is if you can paddle out on an ancient old clunker or obvious learner’s board and rip. That’s got style.  And everyone else will be so surprised you ought to get a few extra waves while the crowd re-adjust their expectations.

Or, at least, that’s the story I told myself as I lugged a big bright blue learners’ soft board down to my favourite surf spot. It’s the same wave where I’ve failed at least a couple of times in recent months. Fast walls and chunky sections, down into a bay. Out the back thick swells which are hard to catch. None of this easy for a broken old body. Nor quite what learners’ boards are made for. But I’d shipped everything else to Australia and I really wanted one last surf before departing. And so there I was, quite a sight to the guys out the back as I stumbled into my wetsuit. And lugged the board down the beach. Paddling out from the wrong part of the bay because I was too tired to walk any further.

The one good surfer in the pack paddled around me like I didn’t exist. Fair enough. I wasn’t sure if I existed either. Or more accurately. I wasn’t sure I wasn’t sure I’d actually make it to my feet. Or that the board would let me down the line. I floated about in sparkly blue sea wondering about this for a bit. Looking up at the eroding grey hills. And out into the patterned ocean. Waiting for a swell, a manageable wave to come my way. When it did I paddled just as fast as my lungs and heart would let me and half lept, half staggered to my feet. It wasn’t graceful. But my feet ended up where they needed to be and the board, big blue and floaty, turned just fine. Off I sped down the bay. On subsequent waves I started taking off deeper and turning harder. And the board, this blue pop-out thing, cut from soft foam so as to be safe for learners, went just fine. It flew even. Down drops. Past sections. Into turns.

Who knows what the other guys out there thought off all this. The weird old guy on a learner’s board and in a sun hat. But I’m figuring they were surprised. They sure let me get my waves. Let me have my chance to say a surf-happy goodbye to my favourite slice of coast. Left me with plenty to day-dream about over here in Canberra. Not to mention inspiration to take the blue board with me on the two hour drive to the nearest bit of Australian coast. First chance I get.

September 27, 2009


Filed under: Aortic Valves,Reactive Arthritis,Surfing — terence @ 6:55 pm

I woke from a God-awful dream. For a little while I just lay there, letting it melt away; leaving the place where anxieties shape reality and returning to the world where they only reflect it. The Southerly was blowing. Listening, I started to go over the plan, born of a mid-week weather map and argued ever since. A Tasman low, a west swell and a reef tucked in out of the wind. My doubts moved across the wind (too strong?), the swell (already gone?) the crowds (everyone knew), before settling on the real issue – my body.

I’d tried surfing three times since surgery and since the arthritis came back. Each effort a mixture of failure and success. In the water, (in the water!), but in aching joints, meaning I could only just get up, slow and awkward, often as not too late to my feet.  This time though, I figured I had an almost solution, I’d started taking Methotrexate on Wednesdays, so as that the full force of the drug would be felt over the weekend. The difference wasn’t huge but it might be the enough to allow me to surf properly.

“Get up and give it a try,” I told myself.

Written now, after the fact, it seems simple enough. Give it a try, and if it doesn’t work, oh well. But as I drove along the weaving road the sea, with nervous internal chatter I managed to pull the problem apart and look at it a hundred ways.

At the ocean’s edge, my doubts were answered one at a time. The swell: small but a perfect size for me. The crowd, mostly just guys milling around in the car-park complaining that the swell wasn’t bigger. And the wind, strong, but ok.

I paddled out on my own, in the channel that ran between the point and the reef itself. Out the back, heart hammering and breathless as ever, I waited for a wave. Behind me, at the head of the valley that tilted down into the bay, a giant white windmill spun, turning the Southerly into electricity with patient sweeps of circling arms. Beyond it, the hurrying sky carried clouds and blue off into the north.

Eventually, a wave came my way and I set my own arms circling, trying to build speed to tap into the steepening slope. Paddling, paddling and then in an instant I had it and reflex took over. To my feet and this time, in time. Slow. Sore. But fast enough and free enough to have me up and off down the line. The swell steepened and walled up and I sped along the face, around the bend of the reef and into the bay, where I coasted over the shoulder and into deeper water.


Behind me, the windmill kept spiralling away. And out to sea another set of waves lifted the shimmering water, and I took protesting arms and constricted lungs and paddled out the back just as fast as I could. So I could catch another. So I could catch as many as possible. Making the most of the window I had.

August 23, 2009

A Year and two days

Filed under: Aortic Valves,Reactive Arthritis,Surfing — terence @ 9:08 pm

Yesterday, a year and two days after open heart surgery, on a day when the nor’easter spilled out over the sea and a small South West groundswell curled over the sandbanks, my wife, her friend and I went for a surf.

With the white V’s of snow covered mountains behind us, and the sun dodging licks of high cloud, we waded into the sea. I managed to pilot my big, blue learners’ board beyond the whitewater. Out back I waited until a small clean right hander rolled my way. As the wave picked me up I attempted to jump to my feet – back, knees and ankle all protesting the contortion. Ankle especially – the sharp shock of pain cleaving through it almost toppled me. But it didn’t. And the friendly little swell forgave my clumsy start, leaving me time to turn down the line. I swept across a couple of sections adjusting, trimming, turning – sailing – sploshing down eventually in the shallows.

It was a very shaky return, each wave hurt my ankle more, my heart felt funny, and I struggled for breath worse than I ever did before surgery. And, when I paddled down the beach to try and surf some of the steeper lefts, I failed, more or less.

But I made it. Nothing so certain as a come back, my body feels too fragile to try it again for a while. But I rode a few waves. I surfed again. And that was pretty sweet.

July 18, 2009

The Comeback

It was the best day I’d seen at the best surf spot around these parts. Surf law says I can’t give the game away and tell you where it is, or even reveal too many telling details. So maybe it was a beach-break with the best sand bar ever, or maybe a rocky point, swells crunching down its length. Or maybe a river bar after the flood of the decade. Or maybe a long shallow reef. The main thing is, it was the best day I’d ever seen. Just the, best, day. Double head high sets, blue-green walls, held up by an offshore wind until they spun off down the line, in hissing curving tubes.

The car park was full. Someone videoing the action. Someone nursing a snapped board. Hangers on, restless dogs, people exchanging excited diagnoses. Out the back was a serious pack of serious surfers. Old grumpy guys, locals, rippers, wanna be rippers, and one weird guy who limped down the beach and paddled into the line-up wearing a single white shoe.

The weird guy, that was me, of course. My heart hammering as I paddled. Watching the waves, breaking faster and angrier as they sped down the line. I tested the shoe with my good foot. I had to wear it; I couldn’t stand on a surfboard without it. The pain in my heal was too much. The padding of the shoe helped, got me into the gentle waves round home. But now as I paddled out along the edge of the exploding whitewater towards the serious pack of serious surfers I wondered what would become of the shoe and I should we actually catch something.

It wasn’t that I hadn’t surfed waves like that before. I had – plenty of times, from the outer edge of Atlantic Islands, to the murky beaches of Mexico, to the coral reefs of the Indian Ocean. But I’d done all that when I was whole. When mind and body worked as one. Now I wondered: could I even get to my feet quick enough; would I trip over the shoe; would I snap if I did.

In the end it all came down to one wave – my first. It broke wide, away from the pack and I spun into it a little way down the line as the barrel started to race. Lots of things could have happened: I could have been caught in the lip and pitched into the shingle; I could have nose dived on the drop and slapped into the shallows, I could have slid sideways under the lip as I tried to angle into the tube. Could of, could of, could of, but – in that instant, in that moment the story hangs upon – didn’t. Instead my feet fell into place under me, I made the lurching drop and pivoted into the tube, racing the raucous breaking swell. In the end I lost the race – flipped over the falls. But by then I knew all I needed to know. I knew I could still surf. I paddled out the back, where the serious surfers bobbed like black swans, and started catching waves, big draining barrels, beaten by some but making most, swooping through tube after tube, board chattering, hurtling towards the channel. Even the grumpy old guys hooted me on a couple. I can not tell you how happy I felt.

That was 2005. Back in the present, the methotrexate is helping. I’m getting round a lot better. But I’m still a long, long way from surfing again. Hoping though, as you can imagine, for another chance at a come back. They’re almost worth going away for.

May 4, 2009


Filed under: Ramblings and Musings,Surfing — terence @ 7:51 pm
Tags: ,

The really short review: if you read only one surfing novel in your life, read Breath by Tim Winton.

My attempt at a longer review, complete with another one of my surfing tales (any excuse!), is up at the Scoop Review of Books.

Review now over the fold too.

Click here to read more…

April 13, 2009

The Evening

Filed under: Staying Places,Surfing — terence @ 8:44 am
Tags: , ,

The wind was howling when I got there, clattering out of the valley, blowing chops up the faces of the waves, blowing plumes of spray off their backs. It filled the air with salt water rain, making it almost impossible to see. Still wondering if I should have stayed at home and finished that essay, I paddled out and caught a couple, free-fall drops, bouncy walls, racing barrels.  A few other surfers joined me. It was fun enough in a difficult sort of way.

Eventually, the evening worked its spell and – sun beyond the horizon, water changing colour – the wind dropped back. The waves got better as the day ran out until, right on the edge of dark, the set came through: shadowy swells filling the bay, the biggest waves of the afternoon. One of the Maori guys who lived up the valley caught the first one, dropping out of the lip to the hoots of his mates. I was next in line, the second one was mine, thick low swell bent into the bay. Humming with nervous excitement – don’t blow it, don’t blow it – I paddled out, spun and starting paddling in, matching the wave’s speed as it steepened, jumping to my feet as it became vertical. With a yell I called an interloper off and dropped, board falling under me. Turning at the bottom, I could see the wall beginning to bend in on itself. After that everything was instinct. I held my turn back for a moment, then angled up the wave, stalling, loosing speed, and then back down again, now pointed for the shoulder, in the pocket, accelerating. The wave turned concave, it’s dark-dark green lip throwing over me, and I was standing in the tube, chattering mind silenced for a moment, weaving my way through, section after section throwing over me.

Just before the closeout the wave backed off, letting me out and leaving me time to straighten out in front of the whitewater. Laughing, singing to myself; happy, happy at the end of the day.

April 10, 2009


Filed under: Going Places,Surfing — terence @ 9:10 am
Tags: , ,

On You Tube – the Verizon Wireless big wave wipeout awards. For what it’s worth, Ross Clark Jones gets my vote.

Funnily enough, the worst wipeout I ever saw didn’t involve a surfer at all. I was travelling north through Latin America and had stopped for a week in Puerto Escondido. The last two days the swell got huge – long lines of menace heaving in from the unending Pacific. Grinding top to bottom closeouts exploding sand-saturated water into the sky. Evil rips snaking out to sea.

I quit while I was ahead and, along with everyone else, sat it out in my hammock. Safe on the hill, yet still swallowing adrenaline with each set that thundered in.

On the second afternoon, cooled by a gentle sea breeze, I was sitting watching, scaring myself with thoughts of actually going for a surf, when I saw the Pelicans. Just beyond the breaking waves, two of them, feeding on a school of fish.

Pelicans are actually amazing surfers. You’d see them in the morning at Puerto, riding the offshore breeze, skimming along the tops of the steepening swells, sailing to safety on the updrafts above the breaking waves.  But these two were concentrating on the fish – caught up in a feeding frenzy. And, as any big wave surfer can tell you, when the surf’s huge it really pays to keep your eyes fixed out to sea. They’d been feeding for maybe 15 minutes slowly following the fish in, when a giant set groaned in out of the green and blue. Tripping on the shallower sand, the waves stood up like apartment blocks. And the Pelicans figured it all out too late. Desperately flapping, clumsy in take off, trying to get above the rising swells. The first bird made it, just squeaking over the top of the biggest wave. The second one didn’t stand a chance. By the time it was flying properly, the wave – at least five times overhead for a human, impossibly huge for a bird – was on top of it, a giant, barreling righthander.

It was hopeless but, in do or die-mode, the bird did everything right. Rather than try and fly over the beyond vertical breaking wave, it banked off the wall and sped south, heading for the shoulder and a chance of escape. It’s exactly what any surfer would have done. And for a moment I thought it might win the race, gathering speed in the mouth of a cave-like barrel, desperately aiming for unbroken water.

But it wasn’t to be. Not quite fast enough, it got winged by the upwash of the exploding lip and in an instant was gone, engulfed in detonating water. Unaware, the wave steamed on in but I was on my feet now, shouting at the wind.

Caught right in the heaviest part of a huge set wave, on a maxed out day at one of the world’s most dangerous surf spots, the bird had to be dead. Ripped wing from wing, I figured. Sitting back down, I stared out over the stella white sweep of foam that followed in the set’s wake, looking for a body. Nearly a minute went by. Then, all of a sudden, there it was! Way on the inside, near the beach, flopping around in the water. Alive, but broken surely. It tried to take off, but got hit by a whitewater, and washed further in. And then, in a gap between waves, the impossible happened. It steadied itself, flapped its wings, built up speed, got gliding, made it over the next whitewater, and soared to safety out to sea.

Up on the hillside, the witness to all this, I stood back up out of the hammock and started to clap and cheer.

March 4, 2009


Filed under: Going Places,Surfing — terence @ 6:39 pm
Tags: , , ,

On the subject of ants.

The waves in Sumbawa were good, but busy. Which meant that every morning Bill, my Welsh travelling companion, and I would get up in the almost-cool, pre-dawn-dark and paddle through the dusk out to the reef. Doing this earned us a few waves, half an hour maybe, before the pack hit.

You had to be quiet though. Any noise and the definitely not soundproof bamboo walls meant you’d wake the other surfers. And they’d be hot on your heals.

You can imagine my surprise then, when one morning our painfully quiet routine was interrupted by a yelp.



“Fuck, fuck, ow,” SLAP, “ow,” SLAP, “FUCK!”

I turned on the light, illuminating a scene which has stayed so much longer than my other memories from that trip. Bill, a 6ft tall Welshman with snow white hair, was naked, his boardshorts round his ankles, desperately slapping his backside and swotting at his genitals.

“Ants man. In my board shorts.”

The shorts had been on the floor of the hut all night and, tempted by the damp I guess, the ants had crawled in as we slept.

Now, attacked by some hideous beast, they were fighting back. It was painful to watch. Clearly, there was nothing I could do. Except chuckle encouragement.

Eventually, Bill won the battle and, in a different pair of shorts, joined me on the way to the surf.

Funnily enough, if my memory serves me right, the waves were still uncrowded that morning. Perhaps the other surfers, woken by the war cries of an enraged Welshman, decided to wait until the sun was safely in the sky, having chased away the demons that haunt the jungle’s Sumbawan night.


Naturally enough, I was punished for my schadenfreude a few days later when I picked up my Lycra rashshirt from the ground and, whap!, was stung by a scorpion.

March 1, 2009


Filed under: Ramblings and Musings,Surfing — terence @ 10:10 am
Tags: , ,

“Saltwater is poetry” ~ Janet Frame

If you need convincing of this, have a look at the gallery of Clark Little’s photos in the Guardian.

H/T: The Surfer’s Path Blog

February 24, 2009


Filed under: Surfing — terence @ 6:58 pm

The surf’s bunk. But the three guys out are all good surfers. So I’m standing there watching the waves limp in out of the grey-green sea. The onshore’s strong enough to be tearing the occasional whitecap from the water, and cold enough for me to be hunched, trying to stay warm. Next to me, sitting on a bench are a family. The old man has a winter white beard and a tatoo on his leg. Mum is worn out, middle-aged. They’re watching the surf cause the kids want to. The elder child’s maybe eleven and pretty excited by it all, but the younger kid, seven perhaps, with a tom-boy’s hair, is jubilant – laughing and screaming at every ride. And I’m thinking, remembering myself a long long time ago, and hoping that she gets to grow up to be a surfer.

January 29, 2009


Filed under: Going Places,Surfing — terence @ 8:20 pm
Tags: ,

From the scrapbook.

The scungy courtyard and scrawny rooster could be anywhere. The surfboard snapped in three couldn’t: Puerto Escondido


January 25, 2009

The Plan

Filed under: Going Places,Surfing — terence @ 2:56 pm
Tags: ,

A day off work, a small sou’-west swell and a remote bay with a reef break. That was the plan. Drive over at night, sleep in the car park and beat the onshore.

But an old friend turned up. Called as I was packing the car. So I ended up out of the way, in a pub in Eastbourne swapping stories over beer. I didn’t start the drive until close to 10. Highway, hill climb, country roads, gravel roads and finally a track, marram grass shishing under the car. It was midnight by the time I got there.

I stopped the engine, replacing music and the thwap of three and a half cylinders with silence. With no moon there was nothing to see, just a dark so thick it wove shapes at the edges of my headlights. Stretching my legs, I stood for a bit in chill of the offshore breeze in the empty lonely car park. Out in the the dunes somewhere, something’s footsteps rustled.

Quickly, before the isolation began whispering me ghost stories, I put down the back seats, made my bed, pulled the boot shut, cracked the windows ever so slightly and locked the doors with a clunk.


Not quite 5 hours later the beep of my alarm stole my dreams and dragged me into the almost morning’s almost light. Groggy in the grey, I crawled out the door. The sky was filled with thick low clouds; the offshore had gone. A gentle puff of wind crept in from the sea.


I was as early as I could be, but the onshore won the race. With it’s arrival went my chances of surfing the reef in the bay.

Plan B.

Twenty minutes away was a point. If the southerly stayed light it would still be clean. Not reef break barrels but long loping walls at least.

I ate as I drove; boards, sleeping bag and mattress bouncing in the back with the potholes.

The road led south, past empty farm houses and churning shingle beaches. In front of me the coastal ranges reached into the clouds, yielding to the sea only at the last possible moment, conceding in steep, scree covered slopes.

Amongst all this the second car park brought better news. A light onshore out the back but calm on the inside. Waves, maybe head high, maybe head and a half, long clean sets with long clean walls. No crowd of surfers. No one at all.

With the wind still light I wasn’t about to wait. I tugged on my wetsuit and set myself a forced march over the steep hill that stood between the end of the road and the paddle out spot. Half way up, I came to a halt. My lungs were rung free of air.

“Damn hill’s getting steeper.”

It was the best explanation I could think of. Though I didn’t know it then, the problem wasn’t the hill but my heart and the valve that no longer worked.

When the air returned I resumed my walk, over the hill and down to the rock point. I picked my way carefully to the jump-off spot.

I lept in on a surge of whitewater and paddled out, oily kelp slipping past my hands.

With the point to the myself I chose a take off spot down the line a bit, where the swells had bent enough to be clean. I’d barely had time to get my bearings when a wave came through. I spun and paddled. To my feet, angling down the line, around the first section and then sweeping turns along the wall.

Paddling back out I started singing to myself.

Later, when my arms gave out I walked back to the car. I changed and ate, and pulled the mattress out and lay on the grass. It was still quiet, no one round, just the lapping of the southerly breeze. The silence that had been eerie in the dark the night before was now only peaceful.

After weeks of commuting and computer screens, work plans and crowds of people, I drunk in the space, watching the waves. When I got my energy back I headed over the hill for another surf.

Later still, driving home with rain starting to fall and the rising southerly traipsing through the trees, I saw my first car for the day – a surfer, heading towards the sea.

“Good luck,” I mouthed as we steered past each other.

Foot back on the accelerator I pondered my own fortunes. I never got to surf the reef but was happy all the same.

The best laid plans often go astray. Sometimes though, everything ends up fine even so.


January 19, 2009

The One Legged Man

Filed under: Staying Places,Surfing — terence @ 9:16 am
Tags: ,

Damian and I were bored out of our brains. Becalmed mid-summer.

All our hope lay with the southerly that had blown in earlier that day bringing with it a low, murky sky and the faint possibility of surf.

Acting on that, we checked the waves on an hourly basis – flat, flat, flat – each fruitless survey accompanied by much positive visualisation.

“Looks a little bigger now.”

“Yeah, that last one almost broke.”

“Yeah, maybe the incoming tide will bring in a bit more swell too.”

“The tide’s going out.”

“Oh. Well maybe it will break more on the low.”


Then we’d drive back to Damian’s parents’ place and watch another surf video.

“Green Iguana?”

“How ’bout Wave Warriors 4?”

And so the afternoon went. Until some time around 5pm when our surf check revealed something completely unexpected: waves.

Bad waves: onshore and closing out. But waves all the same.

I didn’t even stop the car. We raced back to Damian’s to get the boards.


“Before it goes flat.”

Remarkably we returned to find that, far from going flat, the swell was actually getting bigger.

“Out there!”

“Yeah, quick.”

“Before it goes flat.”

We’d been in around half an hour, the only surfers in the water, when the southerly died away.

Without the wind to cut it up its surface, the sea became oily, smooth as a mirror, reflecting the grey back at the sky.

The swell kept rolling in though; the waves were a little over head high now and instantly better without the chop bringing down sections. Bent in by the outside sandbars, the swells stood up just to the north of the small steel and wood groin below the car park.  Taking turns, we’d catch them right at their peak and speed south, past the groin,  zipping over the shallow sand. The waves would barrel, back off for a moment and then close out in the shallows allowing us the chance to imitate the manoeuvres we’d been watching in the videos all afternoon.

The waves were unreal. We hadn’t anticipated surf like this.

We didn’t anticipate what happened next either.

A guy appeared, standing in the evening murk at the top of the stairs that lead down to the beach. He was wearing a one-legged wetsuit. He was propped up on crutches. He only had one leg.

Very, very carefully he climbed down the stairs and made his way out onto the beach. He stopped about 10 feet from the water’s edge. Following in his footstep was a kid, maybe 10 or 11 years old. The kid was in a wetsuit too, carrying two surfboards: one for him and one for the guy on the crutches.

When they stopped the older man set down his crutches and the kid gave him one of the boards. With it, he hopped the rest of the way to the sea, falling with a splash into the shallows. The kid followed and they both paddled out.

We watched in wonder. Not so much wonder though, that we missed the set that was coming our way.

“Go Damo, go! I’ll take the second one”.

By the time we’d each caught a wave and were paddling out, the old guy and the kid were in position for the next waves that came through. The kid got the first one and rode it pretty well for an 11 year old.

The old guy was up next. We watched, waiting for him to fall. But he didn’t. Somehow – and I still can’t figure out exactly how – he ‘stood’ in a crouch propped up by a bent leg, the stump of his missing leg, and his arm.

He dropped down the fast steepening wave, turned, and shot along it. He wasn’t graceful or entirely in control but he made it.

Faces opened up with surprise Damian and I stared at each either, neither of us saying anything, neither of us really sure what words to use. The old guy paddled back out.

“Does it often get this good here?”



“Not often”

“Well maybe sometimes.” We were still struggling with words.

Technically, Damian and I being locals and the guy and the kid coming from out of town, we should have been grumpy, surly even, at their intrusion at ‘our’ spot. But really? We’d just been joined in the best waves we’d had for months by a kid and a guy who rode the impossible. Pretty soon the four of us were chatting happily.

The newcomers were from up north somewhere, visiting friends who lived over the road from the beach. They’d brought their boards and just happened to stop by on the only day in months that had surf.

The old guy had lost his leg to cancer, but was determined to keep surfing, so had. The kid was his son.

After about an hour they got out and headed to their friends’ for dinner. Damian and I surfed to dark making the most of the waves.

That surf was almost half a lifetime ago now. Damian lives in Australia. I’ve – mercifully – still got both legs but, for now, they’re no good for surfing. The beach we surfed at that evening is almost gone – swallowed by shingle.

I like to think though, that the old guy might still be surfing, up north somewhere. Weaving along wave faces on a stump and an arm. And I hope his son is too, travelling and enjoying all the other good things that come with being a surfer.

January 8, 2009

An Incident at Arawhata Road

Filed under: Going Places,Surfing — terence @ 7:15 pm
Tags: , ,

Andy was driving too fast, he always did back then. A hundred and fifty kilometres an hour down a straight but perilously thin country road. Jeremy was in the front, paler than usual. His left hand was holding his right, squeezing it tight. I was in the back, hunched in something approximating the brace position.

Things sped past: letter boxes, trees, cows, fences…


A black shape hit the windscreen and bounced up into the boards on the roof.

“What the Fffff…”

“Holy Shhh…”

Jeremy and I swallowed our profanities. Andy was Christian. Swearing pissed him off. He drove faster when he was angry.

“Pukeko”, he said as he slowed the car to a halt. “Lucky it didn’t smash the windscreen”.

“Heck yes,” Jeremy’s face was inches from the point of impact.pukeko_new_zealand

We got out of the car. The bird was still there, wedged in under the boards. Gently, remorsefully maybe, Andy pulled its limp body free and placed it on the road.

“I should run it over, put it out of its misery.”

“Run it over?!?” Shock was giving way to anger now. I liked Pukekos.

“Put it out of its misery?!? The bloody thing is already dead. It just hit the goddamn windscreen at something approaching the speed of sound. Trust me, there is no misery left to put it out of. The. Bird. Is. Dead!”

My mouth hadn’t even had time to close after the last exclamation mark when “the bird” took the opportunity to disagree.

It stood up, swayed, took a couple of unsteady steps, shook its head a few times, took one look at the three unshaven humans looking at it, and sprinted off into the bushes.

[Image from Wikipedia Under Creative Commons. More info here.]

December 24, 2008

Scrapbook Xmas Goodies

Padang Padang, back in the days when, so long as you ate there, you could stay for free in the beach-side restaurant.

And then, in between naps and reading, you could keep an eye out for  moments when the crowds vanished and the waves kept rolling in…


…it’s all changed now, but there are still places like this if you look. So, if that’s your thing, my Christmas wish is that I hope you find one. And, if it’s not your thing, have a happy holiday, Christmas day, and new year all the same.

December 21, 2008

From the Scrapbook

We camped for a week in the rain, on a tiny lava island, in a small decaying tent before we got to the day this photo was taken. But, as the scrapbook suggests, it was worth it…


December 6, 2008


Filed under: Going Places,Surfing — terence @ 1:55 pm
Tags: , , , ,

For the first time in almost five years, as the four-wheeled drive taxi stumbled along the track out of Liberia, I felt a sense of home. It stemmed from nothing much; just the colour contrast of the thirsty brown hills and the midday-blue, wind-ruffled sea. If you go surfing in the Wairarapa in summer sometimes the colours you see, winding your way down hills on gravel roads, are almost the same.wavesmall

The feeling came from nothing much and it didn’t last long. Pretty soon the fauna of north-western Costa Rica were doing their best to remind me that wherever I was, it sure wasn’t home.

My first night in the campground descended into an escalating battle of wits between me and the local mapache (a type of raccoon). They expressed interest in my bag of food. I hung it out along a rope between two trees. They climbed along the rope. I tied another rope to the first so that my food hung in mid-air between the trees. They began to clamber down. I moved the food into the tent with me and spent the night cuddling it. Several apples still went missing…

The next day I met the Army ants. A metre wide column of them crossing the nature trail I was walking on. Like an angry and dangerous queue they seethed forwards while nature did it’s best to get out of the way. All around small insects hopped, flapped and fled. And plenty didn’t make it. It was grim to watch but fascinating in a macabre way: an insect would be overtaken, and swallowed under a mass of ants, it’ struggles would cease and it would be maneuvered back down the column.

Later, having leapt over the ants and continued with my walk I met the monkeys. From high in the trees a whole gang of them watched as I passed underneath. First with sullen suspicious silence, then with jeering hoots, they let me know they weren’t so keen to have me there. I retreated back towards the camp.

In the mornings, as I walked down the beach to surf, I’d stumble across straggling baby turtles, still trying to make it out to sea. One evening playing cards, they guy next to me discovered a large scorpion climbing up his leg. I found a dead sea snake on the beach.

I’d been there just about a week when it really happened, though. I’d surfed ’til dusk in small waves, the tide was unusually high, and the sea had washed in to meet the lagoon. What used to be a sand spit was now covered in shallow water. And as the sun set I waded along this towards the beach proper. The warm tropical air was full of salt and colour and I was half lost in day-dreams.

The alligator can’t have been more than three meters away when it reared out of the water. I saw its jaws, its head, its front half, rise up, then splash down, then disappear.

Guided completely by the second bit of my fight-or-flight mechanism I turned (I had been walking straight towards the creature) and ran. In an attempt to get more speed from my legs I also began to holler: “aaaaaarrrrrrrgggggggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhh”.

The noise sustained my sprint almost all the way to the sand dunes, where eventually I stopped. Needless to say there was no alligator behind me. Indeed, amapachesmalls I turned I could see it, no more than six feet long, swimming out to sea at speed, performing, I’m sure, the alligator equivalent of the same mad dash I’d just undertaken.

Whatever else you might say about the Wairarapa, you won’t meet too many aligators there. At least not in this geological epoch.

November 29, 2008


Filed under: Going Places,Surfing — terence @ 7:59 pm
Tags: ,

There are plenty of surf spots where you’ll spend time waiting for the surf to pick up; there are a few where you’ll spend as much time again hoping it goes down.

For three days the waves in front of the village had been huge. Somber green-grey lumps of North Atlantic that focused on the point. To catch them you’d take the largest board you could find, put yourself in their way, turn, and paddle with all your might. If the wave was feeling kind, and if your frantic arm-strokes summoned you enough momentum of your own, at the critical moment you’d be at right place with enough speed to tap into the sweeping wall of energy. You’d leap to your feet as gravity pulled your board underneath you and speed away from the exploding peak towards the shoulder and down the point.

If you got it wrong you’d fall and be steamrolled by endless tonnes of whitewater that tore you to bits and pushed you down into the deep black below. Sometime later feeling bruised and bedraggled you’d be let up for air.waves-maderia-b

It was fun, I guess.

Some surfers thrive on the adrenaline that comes with riding big waves. To be honest the thing I enjoyed most was the weary, elated relaxation I felt at the end of the surf. It was the relative absence of adrenaline – the pleasant after-glow once it was gone – that I got off on.

Anyway, three days of oxygen deprivation and adrenaline inundation was about enough for me, and so when I woke on dawn on the fourth morning to the sounds of a calmed sea I was actually excited.

Maria and Lydia were already awake and into their chores, their conversation bursting back and forth in strongly accented Portuguese. I said good morning, grabbed some bread and wandered onto the patio to check the surf. Even in winter dawn was barely cold. It was dead calm and the only motion to sea was that of the swell that still wrapped and rolled down the point.

“Smaller”, I said.

It was still there but definitely smaller. As the waves bent and broke the glassy sea they looked nothing so much as fun. I was still sore from the day before but wasn’t about to waste any time. Give it an hour and everyone would be out – making the most of the change in conditions. And I didn’t fancy hassling for waves. So I pulled on my wetsuit, told my big wave board it could have a rest day and grabbed my 6’6″ – the board I used on the fun days.

There wasn’t a surfer in sight when I got to the boat ramp where you start the paddle up the point. “Keep waves-maderia-dsleeping guys,” I thought cheerily as I watched four waves, double head high max, roll down the point. This was going to be fun.

Such was my hurry to get a few to myself that I didn’t bother to try and time my paddle out from the boat ramp. When the swell was big waves broke right in front of it washing around jagged, barely submerged boulders. But the swell was small I figured, and the other surfers waking any time now, so I skidded hurriedly down the mossy concrete and sploshed into the sea.

I’d made it out about 10 yards – enough to be safe on a small day – when I found myself desperately paddling over the low tide shallows trying to dodge a wave that came from nowhere and which stood bigger than it ought to be, draining water off the rocks. There was no way I was going to make it past it, so I tried to duckdive. Caught right where it was breaking. Whump! The whitewater hit me and, while it wasn’t huge, it was strong enough to tumble and drag me back to the shore. By the time I got there my knuckles were bleeding from bangs on the rocks and my board had another ding.

More carefully the second time, I waited for a gap and paddled out. The swell might be smaller, I figured, but it still had a kick.

waves-maderia-fIt takes about ten minutes to paddle from the boat ramp to the part of the point which you surf. You can actually paddle round from the back of the point too – it’s shorter, but I always prefer the paddle from the ramp. It gives you time to watch the waves as they break, and figure out where to sit and what you were in for. Even on a small day it’s worth doing.

This morning, though, the main thing I was learning was that it wasn’t actually that small at all. Wave after wave rose out of the deep and along the lava rocks. The surf still looked amazing, but I was kind-of disappointed: fun and small was what I wanted. I was also beginning to worry whether my 6’6″ was up to the job.

There was only one way to find out.

So I got out to the point and sat there, just off the shoulder of the main peak, marveling at how quick the waves were getting bigger again. Behind me, perched on terraces above the point the village was as peaceful as sleep. But twenty metres to my left oxen-like waves were rising out of the ocean, steepening and growing as they hit the shallows before plummeting into broken white.

There’s no point watching surf like that for too long. If you do, fear takes hold, and you’ll fall for certain. You just need to get a wave. And so when a slightly wider set stood up in front of me I swallowed, turned and set my arms spinning. Big waves travel fast and you need to be doing the same if you want to catch them. The trouble is, even with the best of intentions, once a wave gets big enough, you’ll never get a 6’6″ moving with speed sufficient to hop on board. I was in the wrong place too – away from the first peak but because this was a wide set, sweeping in from the west, the wave was busy redoubling its efforts right where I was trying to catch it.

I caught it, I guess you could say, although it would probably be more accurate to say it caught me. I jumped to my feet but I was never going to get clear of the falling lip. So, continuing the motion, I lept – clear of my board and out into space. When things go wrong in big surf leaping isn’t such a bad idea. If you’re lucky you’ll land ahead of the wave. Like a leap from the high diving board at the pool, you’ll hit the water with a bang at the bottom, but iwavesmaderia-gf it all works out you’ll penetrate and the worst of the wave will wash over you.

I didn’t penetrate.

Instead I hit the water with a thump that knocked the air out of my lungs and then skidded under the breaking lip. An instant later the falling whitewater found me, tore me in several directions at once and finally settled on dragging me into the depths.

Once the worst of the turbulence subsided I opened my eyes. If the water’s clear enough after a wipeout, this is a good idea. You can get your barings and figure out which way is up. The water was clear alright, off that sandless lava island. But I opened my eyes to find my self surrounded by black. Even if the water is clear, if you’re deep enough, you still won’t see much.

Surprising myself given the circumstances I didn’t panic. It wasn’t the first time that winter I’d found myself in water deep enough to be inky. The trick then was to use your own buoyancy to give you a sense which way up was and start swimming in that direction. Pretty soon the sun will appear, a floating orb guiding you to the world of the breathing.

Except this time it didn’t – after a couple of strokes, with the water as black as ever I started to feel afraid. Maybe, disorientated, I wasn’t swimming up at all?

With an intensifying ache my lungs pleaded for air.

I paused for a moment. And finally saw it, like a dim light wrapped in green cellophane above me – the sun. I was swimming up, I’d just started from somewhere awfully deep.

By the time I got to the surface I was my lungs were screaming and I felt faint. I burst panting into the air.

Things could have been worse. There could have been another wave breaking on top of me. My board or leg rope could have snapped. But the ocean was calm again – it was a one wave set, and my board bobbed happily, and in one piece, next to me.

I climbed on, paddled limply away from the point and any other breaking waves, and lay for a while gulping down air. Eventually, I mustered the strength to catch a little one down the point to the boat ramp.

Back on land I stood dripping for a while and then figured I couldn’t give up. The surf was big, bwaves-maderia-hut it was breaking perfectly. And if I quit now I’d beat myself up about it for days.

And so I went and grabbed my big wave board, waited for a nice long lull, leapt off the boat ramp, and paddled back out.

By the time I made the lineup again it must have been well over an hour since dawn. I knew everyone else was awake, I’d seen other surfers watching from the village as I paddled for my ill-fated wave. But, all of a sudden, no one seemed to be in a hurry.

So, long after first light, as I guided my 7’4 into it’s first set wave of the morning, I did so, in an empty sea, still on my own.

November 26, 2008

On the Harbour

gtcrop1There are days when the Nor’Wester blows so strong on Wellington harbour that it brings surf to Eastbourne. These aren’t open ocean waves like the ones that sometimes weave their way through the heads in a strong southerly swell. These are harbour waves, starting their lives as ripples barely 8 kilometres upwind off Petone Beach. Such is the strength of the gusts that carry them, that by the time they’ve crossed the harbour they’re big enough to surf. It’s the same way that surfable waves are sometimes formed on lakes.

Needless to say they aren’t great waves. Small, short and torn ragged by the wind. But you can surf them and as surf-starved kids we did.

I can remember one day when I was thirteen catching the bus from Point Howard to Eastbourne. Board stashed in the back, the bus ride was easy; my difficulties began trying to get from the bus stop to the beach. To do that I had to walk upwind, towards Windy Point, and around Dellabarca corner onto Marine Parade.

At the time I was using a surfboard I’d borrowed from a cousin. Even back then it was old, a board from the late ’70s. It wasn’t huge, but I was tiny. And as I battled against the wind, the board clasped under my arm turned into a sail. It kicked and tugged, and right on the corner became too much. All of a sudden I was out of control and back peddling, feet slapping on the footpath. Luckily, there was someone behind me. A stranger from the same bus. With an arm on the board he stopped my flight.

“Need a hand mate”.

“Yes please!”

And so the two of us, him holding the front of the board and me the tail, battled our way around the windswept corner. Safe on the other side I was able to scamper into the shelter of the sand dunes and change into my wetsuit. And then stumble through the swept, stinging sand into the surf.

I can’t remember now what my surf was like that day but I can guess. Lots of duck-diving the incoming wash. Lots of paddling against the current that swept down the beach. And just enough short crashing rides to keep me enthused. After my arms gave out I would have retreated back to the dunes, watching the setting sun give colour to a sky full of salt spray and waiting for mum to come and pick me up when she’d finished work.

I’m thinking about this surf right now not because the Northerly a couple of days ago was windy enough to have made surf in Eastbourne (although it probably was) but because I’ve been reunited with my gtcrop2cousin’s surfboard. Thinking nostalgically (and also because old boards can be fund to ride) I asked him about it a few weeks ago. It turns out he still had it, collecting dust and occupying space under his house. I offered to buy it off him, but he was happy to give it away.

I’m stoked. It’s the first board I ever really thought of as mine. It was borrowed of course, but I had it long enough to develop that strange attachment I have for inanimate objects – cars, plants, clothes – which join me in my wanderings.

The first thing that stuck me when I saw it again was how much smaller it looked. And older. The change in size makes sense of course – I’m a little bigger now. But the aging surprised me. This, I guess, was because I’d always thought of it as old – even back then when I first rode it, it was a relic of the 70s. And so I wasn’t expecting the already aged to be older still. But then I did the numbers: it’s over 21 years since the day I surfed in that Nor’Wester. Which explains it.

So the plan now: fix up the dings. Hope my body repairs itself. And take the old board surfing.

November 18, 2008

The White ‘rolla

Filed under: Going Places,Ramblings and Musings,Surfing — terence @ 7:37 pm

Another old surf-mobile.

Like the Blue Streak it made up for in heart what it lacked in horsepower. The carpet began to rot and it rusted to bits, but it fit the boards and you could sleep in the back. And most of all, on the day in question, and plenty of others, it wove its way around the endless gravel bends, bounced over the rocks, splashed through the fords, and made it to the beach.

August 17, 2008


Filed under: Going Places,Ramblings and Musings,Surfing — terence @ 7:20 pm
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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.

August 10, 2008

Before Dawn

Filed under: Going Places,Ramblings and Musings,Surfing — terence @ 9:05 pm
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If you arrive at my favourite surf spot just before dawn you might find a window of opportunity. If you pull into the car park when it’s still too dark to guess the height of the waves. If you feel your way down the track as the driftwood and dunes start to take shape in the grey. And if you paddle out into the bay squinting, trying to pick the swells from the gloom…then you might get a few to yourself. You might beat the crowds and the westerly that tears chops from the water. And, if you do this, by the time the sun is above the eastern hills you’ll be back on the beach letting it dry the water from your skin, knowing you’ve had the best of the day.

Of course it’s no guaranteed thing: sometimes, no matter how early you get there others have beaten you to it; sometimes you arrive to find the wind wrong or the swell gone. And then there’s the question of timing. It might have been a few months since you last surfed there and seasons come and go. The earth tilts on its axis and your guess is as good as mine just what time dawn is right now.

Last spring I guessed wrong. I dragged myself out of bed at 5am and drove off into the clear black night. It’s always dark when I leave home but what normally happens – what I was expecting to happen – was a patch of faintest grey to arrive in the east and then bleed into the sky as I drove, becoming twilight as I got to the coast. But this time the sky stayed black. I drove round the near-calm harbour with stars twinkling and no hint of dawn. I drove over the hill in the dark. And I wove down along the river with no light but that coming from my car. There was no moon either – so when I stopped and turned off my headlights at the end of that empty coast road I was surrounded by the dark. The lights were off in the few farm houses and mine was the only car in the car park. One headland back a lighthouse blinked.

I still had momentum from the drive in me though so, even though there was nothing to see, I pulled on a second jacket and got out of the car.

I had to use the LCD light on my key ring as I made my way down to the bridge and over the river. ‘Once your eyes adjust,’ I told myself, ‘you’ll be able to see how big the waves are’. Above, the stars bent across the sky – a million keyring lights pointing back at me. I got to the gate and the beginning of the track to the beach. Falling out of the valley the katabatic wind was cold even with two jackets on. It wove round the struts of the gate and coaxed ghost song from the almost-frozen metal. Of course I couldn’t see the surf. But I could hear something, the sound of breaking swell and maybe, just maybe a glimpse of white water peeling into the bay. The wind was right, there was noise enough to let me know there was was swell, now all I needed was light. I walked back to the car amongst a night that was showing no signs of going anywhere. I sat in the driver’s seat for a bit, but with nothing to read and adrenaline born of the swell I’d heard I was antsy.


I got out and in the shivering cold started to go through my stretching routine. As I lay on the grass, I caught my first glimpse of grey in the sky. Stretched but certainly not warmed up I got back into the car and pulled on my wetsuit twisting for lack of space but at least out of the wind.

Dawn, when it broke was surprisingly swift. The determined night of quarter an hour ago surrendered to the twilight with barely a fight. I ended up jogging to the beach – partly to keep warm but partly because now I was there, now I’d waited out the dark, I didn’t want to miss a wave. There was still no one around.

I paused at the water’s edge watching the waves in the dusk, trying to gauge their size. An hour had passed since I first arrived and in the almost light it was now obvious how good the surf was. I waited for a gap and jumped into the sea, paddling out through the deep of the bay, watching as swell after swell peeled along the reef edge, clean and even, the north wind blowing manes of spray from their crests. Hundreds of miles from the Roaring Forties gale that first sent them northwards the waves’ journeys ended where my day began, on the edge of the half-light.

August 7, 2008

Update, a date, and gratuitous surfing

Ok, PET scan results are in and there doesn’t seem to be any active inflammation near my heart. So, barring the unexpected, it’s full steam ahead for the 20th of August for surgery.

The PET scan seemed to indicate that my aorta is less dilated than it appeared, too. So I’m hopeful – though no one can be sure until the actual surgery starts – that I may only need the valve replacement.

The only actual ‘bad news’ as such from today’s trip to the surgeon is that my previous understanding of the risks involved in the surgery was a little on the positive side. In reality it’s more like approximately 1% risk of death for simple valve replacement, 5% for valve and lower root, and 10% for valve and arch up to vicinity of arch.

[Warning, if you are reading this and in a similar situation as me, these numbers are not exact – they are just my surgeon’s educated guesses based on my own particular set of circumstances. You need to ask your own surgeon.]

So there we go.

Now, time for the surfing bit.

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