Dog’s Breath Alley

A blog from Mark Seymour about surfing.

Author: Mark Seymour.

Date: Put online 1 July 2009.

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“Surfing really did offer us a kind of a poetic dimension. It was a different way of being Australian actually. That was an important revelation as a young man. To stand on the beach and to see men do things that were beautiful. Because everything else that men had to do was hard and practical, wordless and tough, silent. Here were these guys just doing pretty things. Wow. That’s an interesting way of being a bloke”

Tim Winton (from the documentary “Bombora”)

Surfing can be liberating and beautiful. You’ve only got to stand up and turn to find that out. To be propelled down the face of a wave standing up is probably as close to flight as you can get. Do it once and it’s pretty hard not to want to again as soon as possible. Yet, despite Winton’s eloquence and the glamorous history of the sport, it is quite staggering how little is said about what really goes on in the water, on any given day, in a line-up of ordinary unknown humans.

As the sport has grown the hyperbole surrounding it has risen to levels bordering on hot air. It’s called the “gush factor”; the obsessive jargon heard in car parks, the outrageous set ups, going sick, getting slotted, the backdoor barrels, the ludicrous stories of greatness that always happened somewhere else, yesterday, or in the minds of old surfers recollecting what surfing used to be like, unless it was on the billboard you just drove past.

Promotion is over the top. There’s that huge billboard of some young hottie fresh of the pro-tour ‘getting slotted’ at Teahupoo. He’s so far inside that the cameraman could only get the shot just before they both got creamed.. but it was a GREAT SHOT MAN! He was never going to make it but hey, it had “Quiksilver” or “Ripcurl” written all over it, so it must’ve been meaningful which is clearly what millions actually think because they’re all walking around with those words printed on their clothing.

“Branding,” to use the populist marketing term, has long been a part of the way surfing has been sold to the broader population and today it’s potential still seems limitless. Surfing has a global image. Every form of clothing merchandise, from underwear to watches has been attached to the notion of whatever it is the young hot pro is going through deep inside Teahupoo. Millions covert that mysterious experience in shopping malls all over the earth, in cities as far from actual surf as you can get like Berlin or Toronto.

Somewhere within all of this bullshit, there lies the truth about what surfing actually is.

So, what is the fascination? What are these young hot professionals actually going through? Sure, we can see what they’re doing: getting air or pulling into vicious barrelling faces on a surfboards that are barely larger than a large shoe, performing acts of impossible athleticism. On the face of it the skill set of your Mick Fanning or your Andy Irons is comparable to an olympic level gymnast. There’s no mystery in that. Surfing and gymnastics are similar. Great to watch and bloody hard to do. And on the elite level, they are nothing short of spectacular but somehow gymnastics doesn’t quite deliver the same romantic punch. Why is that?

The effect of these huge surf-pictures is inextricably linked to the context in which they appear. We see them in the street while pushing the pram, stuck in traffic, doing our Christmas shopping at the local mall; which makes them all the more dramatic. Surf pics are a trip in themselves. The wave peels off on some pristine tropical reef with rainforest in the distance or some other spectacular rugged backdrop which instantly conjures up the notion of being on holiday, of not working, or being somewhere that looks better that where you are right now. Surfing is about doing something frivolous and easy. It’s about fun, although there is of course the hard reality of what Mick Fanning is actually doing. It looks easier than performing a crucifix on the roman-rings but it is a hell of a lot more dangerous. There’s no one there to catch him. And Fanning makes it look ridiculously easy, hips thrust forward, arms dangling, loose through the shoulders, and then there’s the smirk. If he hits the reef there’s a good chance he’ll suffer permanent injury or even death. The surf-pic is a ‘try-this’ and of course, many do. Even Teahupoo gets crowded on smaller days, which says volumes about the state of the sport, let alone the number of insane cowboys there are on the planet.

Obviously we’re dealing with a form of commercial manipulation here and it’s not just in the pictures we are bombarded with. It’s also in the commentary of it’s gurus that the myth is worked on and exaggerated.

“When a wave comes, the spray off of it goes two, three hundred feet in the air and if you keep watching that spray, it transcends into something else. There’s hidden things in there. If you see waves like we saw here, (Jaws), and you believe there’s something greater than we are then you’ve got some serious analysing to do and you should go and sit under a big tree for a long period of time.”

(Laird Hamilton… Big wave surfer.)

Are we talking about god here? There is no greater hype than that. Or like Bob McTavish says in ‘Bombora,’ the documentary on Aussie surfing,

“I just lived for the sun on my back. I didn’t care if I didn’t get a ride for ages. I just loved being free.”

When was that? Again, as with Winton’s observation, it’s in the past tense. Back then… In some other time. Whenever the gurus talk about surfing it’s always over the top. There’s an overwhelming sense of yearning. They talk of experiences that were so sublime they can never be repeated. It was always on one particular day, or a certain ride. Wow, you should have been there MAN! And they love to talk. Bare in mind that these blokes have a huge stake in the sport. It’s their bread and butter. Hamilton is a surfing film star who’s tow-ins at Teahupoo has become the bench mark of extreme surf film. You’ll see him dropping in on plasma screens high on the walls of surf shops all over the world. He’s also got “Oxbow’ written all over him. As for McTavish, he practically re-invented the Malibu and moves them out of Thailand by the plane-load to retailers all over the globe.

Somehow McTavish manages to create a link between not getting a ride for ages and being ‘free.’ By doing so, he’s alluding to much more than the physical act of surfing itself. He’s talking about a way of life. Wave count doesn’t count. It’s all about the time spent in around the activity itself. It’s everything ‘about’ surfing, the ‘get away’, the longing for escape; Bob is in fact ‘selling freedom’…

That same sales pitch screams from the ripcurl bill board high of over the entrance to the surfing mall as you drive through Torquay on your way to Winky-pop. When you finally get to the Winky-pop car park you gaze down on a line up of sixty plus rubber-clad blokes.. stretched out along the reef, who’ve all done exactly the same thing you have. They checked the internet first and then drove down from Melbourne.

Which leads to the question: “Is there still freedom in surfing?”

Well there’s one guaranteed way of killing off this sort of self-indulgence and that’s by getting slammed. When you think you’ve paddled out into something that’s just a bit beyond your skill-level, taking a drop that you couldn’t make definitely clears your head, especially if you come to the surface seconds later realizing that the wave wasn’t as heavy as it looked. It’s satisfying to know that your limits are probably not as close as you thought they were. Still, the fact remains, and this is where the ultimate truth about surfing probably lies: what makes it so addictive is the amount of guess-work involved. You can go for it, but you might not ‘make it’. That’s because, whatever the gurus say about the spiritual side of it, surfing is hard work.

The fact is, we all find our own level sooner or later even if we don’t want to admit it, for one simple reason: there’s probably somebody in the water who’s better and that even applies to Mick Fanning. Yet despite this humbling fact, the gratification remains as strong as ever which means you’ll always be left wanting to “have what he’s (or she’s) having”. Greed can be a great motivator and a teacher as well. Sometimes it gets the better of you and the slamming you got was entirely self-inflicted. Still, you’ll always be pushing yourself internally even though your skill level wont let you.

Surfing is an arm wrestle with the psyche. It’s hard. Still, if there’s one thing ALL surfers will tell you… they can’t stop.

Clearly, there’s a contradiction in this. Who can explain it? Well, Gurus like Bob, Tim and Laird won’t be able to. That’s because they’re all over it. They’ve been doing it for so long they don’t sweat the small stuff anymore. They’ll talk about the great mysteries forever because the practical side is second nature. So if you’ve come up against those Winky-pop situations, looking down at Flinders Street Station, still deciding whether to put your wet suit on and you start wondering what the point of it is, then think of this: you’ll only find the answer by getting wet. There’s already too much been written about what surfing ‘means.’ Reality begins and ends in the water, which is a long way from Quiksilver Berlin.

Take Gunnamatta for example. It’s a long open beach on the southern edge of the Mornington Peninsula, bombarded by a south-western swell that surges in from Antarctica and really gets going in winter when the water temperature drops to about 9 degrees Celsius. It’s a hard relentless slog. Sure, the rides are mammoth but you’ve got to get them first. The water slams up onto the sand, sweeping across the banks and back out.

There is no time to sit and wait for the wave. The ocean is moving fast all the time, the swell shifting direction with each set. Finding the sweet spot is hard enough but staying there is harder. You’ll need to find a patch of grass or a fence post back up on the dunes to check position. You’ll be looking for it all the time because the sweep will keep pulling you back into the channel or too far inside. One way or the other, there’s no rest. The paddling never stops.

The sets loom like giant walls of deep blue, the peaks fraying with spray. If anything Gunnamatta will teach you how to deal with yourself. There’s nothing pretty about it. There’s so much grunt in these beasts that anything over four foot will cane you if you miss the pop up. Once you’ve been done over, turning into one them becomes an act of total self-belief. You have to go. Of course, there’s the pay-off. The wave will drive you hurtling towards the beach, your weight forward to keep with it, measuring the shifting face with you back foot, tucking up for the sections then when it dissipates in the channel, you’ll still be fifty metres from the sand because you started from a hundred and fifty. The paddle out took close to ten minutes in the first place. Long slow strokes to keep position. Lactic acid. Dead arms. It’s hard silent work. Nobody talks; which adds an ironic twist to Winton’s vision of blokes doing pretty things. Yes. It is beautiful, but it’s still as wordless as digging a trench..

Then there’s the other kind of place. The place where the aussie surf dream was invented, source of the great Aussie Holiday Deal. QUEENSLAND; state of excitement. Yep. And you’ll see a young hottie getting air on a billboard somewhere on the side of the road as you drive north out of the airport and head into SUNSHINE BEACH. There isn’t a take away to speak of, only chic boutique apartments festooning the hills full of gardens thick with rainforest. The place is quiet, sophisticated, filthy rich. Just south of Noosa, the surfing capital of Queensland, famous for soul surfing, point breaks and plenty of relaxed attitude to share around.

“How are you? Here for long?” Even the bloke in the bottle shop puts out. Well, there’s nothing new in that. Everyone who lives here has bought in. No stress. No hassle and there’s no turning back.

“You’ll need to get up early if you want decent waves.” This from Peter at the surf shop. “Sea breeze picks up from the south during the day and then it goes to shit. Ha Ha. Although, while we’re on the subject, it’s a prevailing south easterly anyway so it’ll be earlier. Try Dog’s Breath Alley. It’s just up the beach towards Noosa. At the mouth of the creek. You’ll get a wave there.”

“Why’s it called that?”

“Because that’s where people let their dogs shit on the beach.”

Six am on the balcony of a penthouse apartment overlooking the cliff top with a view of the entire coast all the way down to the towers of Maroochydore looming on the horizon. The light is golden, the pacific ocean is spread out almost iridescent blue to the horizon, sparkling and full of promise. There are neat glassy little peaks in either direction; two to three footers, peeling left and right. And nobody on them. Go!

The hangover doesn’t help. Which way? North or south? There are too many options. The binoculars pick out a small crew floating well out, about a k up the beach where a bigger swell is rolling in. Blokes are wandering up and down looking. Some are paddling out directly below the hotel. Back to the crew up the beach. A set is building further out. It looks bigger. Somebody gets up. What is it? Three to four? It’s hard to tell through the binoculars. Forget it. Just go.

Slog up the sand. There’s a younger bloke up ahead carrying a surfboard. About fifty metres. Everyone else is walking south. Lot’s of dogs. It’s just him and me going north. There’s a creek to get across and the smell of shit. There it is up ahead on the sand, little round lumps of it, directly below the biggest houses on the cliff, mansions in glass and stone, with people sitting out on their decks laughing at their good fortune. Dog’s Breath Alley.

The young bloke stops just passed the creek. He bends down and ties his leash on. By the time I reach the channel he’s about twenty metres off the beach. Walk out until it’s waist deep when the water starts to drag back out, slide onto the board, slowly paddle out along the edge of the bank, the crew off to the left about a hundred metres further out. The bloke is up ahead staying wide moving away quickly now, caught in the rip. The water is sparkling, glassy.

Then a shadow line forms on the horizon. The heads of the crew turn towards the ocean. They start paddling towards it. The bloke I was following turns and goes. He’s well wide. The first wave slips under the crew. They roll off the back and the young bloke picks it off. I go wider and rise over the shoulder as he turns behind me then cuts back. There isn’t much to it but it looks like fun. I go to where he was, still wide and well away from the crew. One of them looks over at me then turns to the others and says something. I can’t hear it. Whatever. Another wave pushes through. It’s bigger. They all miss it again. I’m still wide but then another one’s coming and this one’s peaking wide too. I glance over at the crew. They’re all floating and chatting. Okay. I’m going. I get on it, hard left, push hard on the back foot then a quick cut back from the shoulder, then the channel opens up. It’s over. I pull off. Not much too it but the take off was good. I start paddling out again. I feel pretty good.

Another set is rising. I’m still well in the channel out of the way when one of the crew paddles wide to where the young bloke is. He’s big. In fact he’s a real slug of a bloke. He’s got a beer gut on him that makes it hard for him to keep his arms in the water. The first wave starts to darken and line up. The kid turns into it. So does the big bloke. The wave feathers. I paddle wide over the shoulder. They go past me… paddling like it’s the last wave on earth, their arses bouncing, chests down, arms flailing, only feet apart. Wait a second. The big bloke is on the outside. Is that right? Only seconds before he wasn’t. He must’ve gone round the kid.

Something is brewing. I look over at the crew who are all looking back at me then back at the two going for it. They’re up. Then the big bloke, who has deliberately tried to shut the kid down, starts screaming back at him. He’s literally looking back at the kid as he shoots down the wave. You can see his jaw working and his right arm jabbing the air. The kid freaks and turns hard to the right and collects a nice little right hand section that takes him well out of range of the vitriol coming out of the big bloke’s mouth, which you can’t hear yet because he’s too far away.

But soon you can. They’re both paddling out now.

“You fuckin’ little wanker,” he says. “What did ya have to come to this break for you fuck wit? There’s surf all up and down the beach. Why don’t you fuck off? You’re not even a local.”

Ah yes. ‘LOCAL’. Hear that word once and the spell is broken. It was a beautiful morning; a Queensland beach, bathed in golden light. Still, looking back nostalgically, as all surfers do, was there magic out there for while in that handful of quick little rides? The feeling of fulfillment they delivered, was there something spiritual there perhaps? Or was it the satisfaction of knowing how to use rat-cunning for twenty minutes, staying wide, moving in to pick off the sneakers, while the “local” crew just sat there scratching their arses and the other bloke took all the heat?

I got the hell out of Sunshine Beach. It wasn’t surf anymore. It was real estate, like the mansions on the cliff top.

As for being ‘free’? Hell, the big bloke obviously felt pretty ‘free’. So free in fact that he felt completely at liberty to drop in on somebody just because he hadn’t seen him ‘around there’ before. Go figure. Still, down south at Gunnamatta, I’m not sure if being ‘free’ or even ‘local’ actually means that much. The surf is so heavy there everybody gets cleaned up sooner or later.