I started riding a board when my cousin John gave me his big, nine-foot balsa (true!) plank in 1963. He had upgraded to a "poly", a board made of foam and fibreglass. Surfing was a comparatively new sport; it had only really been popular for about ten years, and so, at the age of ten, I became one of the early enthusiasts of the sport in Australia.
The board John had given me, although made of balsa wood, was heavy. But this turned out to be somewhat of an advantage, because it floated on the water with the stability of an aircraft carrier. The first time I took it out was in a moderate surf with glassy, three-foot waves gently rolling in. I turned the board, laboriously, as a wave came towards me, paddled as hard as I could, and voila - the thing was skimming across the water as if under its own volition. I jumped to my feet, and because the thing was so stable, and I was so small, I could have probably done a couple of cartwheels on it. As it was, without much elegance, I rode all the way into the beach, triumphant to the last. I was hooked.
My dad rigged up a little trolley that we attached to the back of my bike, and I would pedal into the beach every Saturday and Sunday and spend hour after hour in surfing heaven. The other, older surfers, would always laugh at the skinny kid with the "antique", but I didn't care. I would paddle out to the bombora at Nobbys Beach with them, a distance of about five hundred metres, and take my chances with these huge, booming mountains of water that would, at least half of the time, remind me of how puny I was, as I copped one horrific wipeout after another. I was lucky, really; I only ever got hit by the board a couple of times - I learnt pretty quickly that if I was about to get wiped out, the best policy was to dive for the bottom and not come up until the coast was clear. Of course, I was then faced with a swim of a couple of hundred yards to retrieve the board - boy, did I get fit.
So, by about twelve, I was a pretty confident surfer, and bloody good swimmer to boot. I used to win all of the distance swimming events at school carnivals, even though I had a "surf" swimming style that lacked the grace and efficiency of the pool-trained swimmers.
When the surf was too big and rough to ride boards, we used to swim out with a pair of flippers (they're called "fins" these days), and body-surf the gnarliest, horribilest monsters around - ten-foot close-outs that would give you about two seconds of flying down the face before the whole shebang would close in on you and send you screaming through the washing-machine, arms and legs flailing, striving to keep some air in the lungs. It was fantastic. The older guys, whom I idolised, would keep a look-out for me in these adventures; they turned out to be really fine young blokes, and had long-forgotten their early disdain of the geeky kid on the plank.
In 1966 my parents bought me a new board. It was a six-foot three Hutchinson - sleek and beautifully shaped. It cost them $120 - a fortune back in those days. It changed my life.
I was now able to do lots of the things the plank had never allowed me: huge cut-backs and re-entries; it allowed me to really command how the wave would be ridden. If the conditions were right, I could power back and let the tube engulf me until I was right on the point of being picked up and wiped, but I could then easily shift my weight and come screaming out of the tube, thrust by the air-pressure in the barrel onto the lip, where a back-hand re-entry would finish the ride in sheer ecstasy.
Fast forward to 1969 - three mates and I are on our way to the central coast of NSW. The surf has been big for about five days, with a nor-east swell pouring through, whipped up by a tropical cyclone off Queensland. We've been told by one of the pro surfers in Newcastle that a few spots around The Entrance and Avoca are going to be pumping, so we pack some tents, sleeping bags, wetsuits, boards and plenty of wax and head south. It's Friday afternoon, so we won't get much of a surf in tonight, if at all. We eventually get to Avoca as the sun is about to set.
We get out of the car; a light off-shore breeze is blowing. We can hear, but not really see, a giant surf off the point of Avoca grinding its way towards the beach. The sky is full of spray being blasted back over the backs of these enormous waves that we begin to discern in the dimness. Will we get out in it? Too fucking right, we will.
The best way to get to the break, which is about two hundred yards directly off the point, is to walk along the rocks at the end of the beach, then jump into an incredibly strong rip that is carrying anything in its path out the back and off towards New Zealand. (Of course it won't be that bad; every surfer knows that rips peter out once they're out beyond the break.)
So in we go, and, incredibly, we're out the back in seconds. We paddle off the rip towards the break, where a few other hardy souls can be seen perched on their boards, waiting. The ocean is glass. We get to the take-off point. The sun casts a bronze sheen across the water.
"How is it?", I say to one of the local boys.
"You'll find out in a minute, mate," he grins back.
Sure enough, we see a disturbance on the horizon. A gigantic swell is rumbling towards us; the setting sun lights up its face with flecks of gold, red and bronze. It's big, really, really big. It's twenty foot if it's an inch. I see where the break will start, and eight board-riders turn and paddle in unison towards it. One of my mates gets right in position, turns, and paddles on. I keep paddling, up, up the face and over the top. Enormous scads of spray blow off the back of the wave; I turn and hear my mate screaming as he goes flying down the now-concealed face. Has he made it? No-one can tell, for the next wave is coming towards us in a hurry. It's even bigger than the first.
I'm in the spot; it's my wave. I turn, take three or four big strokes, and I'm on my feet. It's a cliff; far below is flat water, and I aim straight for the bottom. I can feel the surge and power accelerating me as I go down; I hit the bottom and pull a frantic, high-speed backhand turn, and begin the climb back up the face as twenty feet of tube starts to encase me. The tube is so big I can stand upright with my hands above my head; the last rays of the sun illuminate the breaking part of the wave like a bronze waterfall, and I am far, far inside the tube.
I stay there for ages, playing with the wave, swooping up and down its face, all the while locked in the tube. It is the best wave of my life. Finally, I am near the beach, and the wave starts to buck and kick as it feels shallower water. With a last great heave, it shoots me at light-speed out of its maw and over the back of the lip.
I just sit back down on the board, twenty yards from the shore, and drink it all in. Suddenly, I'm brought back to earth by the sound of cheering. I look up, and my mate is standing in front of me on the beach laughing and screaming with pure, delirious pleasure. I paddle in, walk up to him and we start to slap each other like hallucinogenic boxers.
"You know, Loz - I think we've got just enough time for one more, what d'yer think?"
We're back at the take-off point; all the rest have called it a day. We see a set start to roll towards us, and, if anything, it's bigger than the last. My mate gets the first; he's gone with great whoops of joy fading into the distance. I leave the next, then the third comes towards me. Massive - twenty-five feet at least. It comes to me - I'm in exactly the right spot to catch it. Around I go; one, two, three and I'm up. Down the face, pull a big turn, as before, and the whole thing comes down on my head. It plasters me across the face, then lifts me and spears me to the bottom. I have a vague recollection of my legs being bent up to kick me in the back of the head; this is the washing-machine from hell. I'm dragged and spun and booted along the sea-floor; down is up and so is sideways. I have no air, I've got to get to the surface. Finally, I come up, and gulp in great lungfuls of air and water. I get my bearings, turn around to face the ocean, and see three more monsters bearing down on me. None of this is good, I recall thinking, and for the next two or three minutes I am rag-dolled by the sea. I am drowning.
I find myself floating on my back in clear water. I've been pushed back into the rip and am fast running out to sea again. With my last strength, I swim towards the rocks, and finally grab hold of something solid. Two of my mates scramble down and help me get up onto the shore proper. They're laughing fit to burst. I lie on the grass heaving salt water, knowing now, finally, what it's like to be a drowning man. My board is in two pieces, about a quarter of a mile down the beach.
I don't know how I'll afford another board, but there's got to be a way.