St Kilda is, apart from an isolated archipelago in the Outer Hebrides, an inner suburb of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. It is famous for coffee, the arts, as a backpacker Mecca and the setting of the onetime very popular television series ‘The Secret Life of Us’.
[photo by Rodney Hyett]
Melbourne is located on a huge bay, Port Phillip Bay, that has a twin, separated by the Mornington Peninsula, called Westernport. Sitting at the mouth of Westernport is Phillip Island. As a surfer, to get real waves, I have to drive to one of three ‘coasts’. The Island, the Peninsula, and the West Coast. There are other distant, legendary, alternatives.
There’s no surf in St Kilda.
On a huge southerly blow a wave comes under the pier and there can be a serviceable left peeling for about 18 metres. Cowabunga. Eighteen inches of fighting fury that I watch from the rowing machine at the gym. Yes, it’s that good. Every time that wave breaks I make sure I’ve got some wax in the car to wax the windows of those brazen enough to ride it. Or to take photos.
Being a local is a strange thing. You feel protective. Territorial. The waves are your babies.
Unfortunately I still have that 25-year-old block of wax, because I have never seen anyone out there. Well maybe once, from a distance, but it might have been a penguin.
The reason no one rides it is it is self-editing. It’s crap.
Elsewhere in Victoria, the locals are restless, though I’ll not talk about that yet.
The thing about being a Melbourne – or any city-bound – surfer, is you are a local nowhere. The entire coast is both your oyster or your downfall. Melbourne is blessed with the above three coasts to choose from, all about an hour-and-a-half’s drive from the CBD. It’s a unique situation, with most winds covered and pretty much any swell will produce a rideable wave, if you know where to go. So if you must be a city surfer, Melbourne is a very good choice.
Because my career meant I needed to be city-bound, I persisted with that hour-and-a-half drive, minimum, for every surf I got. Then kids came along, around the time I realised I didn’t want to live in a city. By then though I was stuck, by a mortgage and a city-loving wife, so that still, 40 years since beginning to surf, I continue to make the hour-and-a-half drive just to get wet.
What it all means, after years and years and years, is that there is rarely a spot that I go to where I don’t know someone. I can always have a chat out the back, and generally feel pretty welcome – or at least not resented – wherever I go.
This has proven true all over the world. In my dark – and not-so-dark – past my travels have taken me to a fair few surf spots. France, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Sri Lanka, Bali, Sumatra, Fiji, Tonga, Oahu, Kauai, Maui, England, Wales, New York, LA, San Francisco, Tasmania, King Island and all coasts of mainland Australia.
I have never paddled out anywhere, when there are other guys already out, that I have not known someone in the water, or somehow had a connection with them. The surfing world is tiny.
Victoria has not been cursed with localism to any great degree. I’ve seen it occasionally, most recently on a passable day at The Spot, when a group of after-work splashers did the loud, “where do all these idiots* come from?” thing as they drifted in a tight little pack out the back.
(*not fit for print – use your imagination…)
I think the guys that do this are usually a few brain cells short of the minimum requirement. Their loss is a smile and perhaps a yarn with someone who might turn into a friend. Their gain at these antics? Maybe a misguided sense of ownership, of rights, and sometimes, perhaps, protection. Most likely of fragile ego and sense of self.
My point – and this should not seem new – is that we are all locals, everywhere. It is our ocean, not yours by dint of geographic accident. Some of us have the good fortune of living right on the coast, and that proximity shows in their surfing. That is the local advantage, and that should be the end of it.
The best ’locals’ I have met have been the guardians of their spots, in the sense that sometimes they can be the keepers of a local flame. The man who comes to mind is Baddy Treloar at Angourie. Baddy is a hot surfer, still, at what must be 58 or 59. Out in the water he is gruff and loud, and polices the line-up against drop ins and kookiness, but not against outsiders. He is just connected to that place, loves it and tries to keep it working.
One day I paddled out on a moderately sizey day, maybe 6-8ft sets. I was on my little board.
I’d been struggling to get into the waves, that poppy under the lip take-off unfamiliar territory to one used to the ramps of Winki and Bells.
After missing a hooter for the second or third time, Baddy gave me heaps.
“Get a bigger board if you can’t get in.”
So I did.
That bit of extra foam was all I needed.
After running back to the flat, changing boards, running back again and paddling out I found myself sitting inside Baddy when a good one came through. I spun and dropped in, only to find his nibs in front of me and driving. Not wanting to call him off it, naturally, I just rode behind, got a barrel, and pulled out in his track as he exited the wave.
“I got a longer board.”
Then we had a chat, and we still do if I manage to make it up there.
Other locals, worthy of respect, are the elders, like Jack Finlay or Joe Sweeney at Bells, or guys who have, as I said, a connection to one particular spot. Steve Demos down at Express Point on Phillip Island is a case in point, as is Russ McConachy, Rhino, and the late Shadow, at the Break That Cannot Be Named… on a Certain Coast.
Let’s call that break Voldemort, and that coast, to mix our literary metaphors, Mordor.
The thing about Mordor as a coast, and Voldemort as a wave, is that both are entirely self-editing. Just like St Kilda.
A few weeks back the swell in this rather swell-eventful year hit overdrive, with Bells and its environs occupying an intense purple patch on the swell maps. Four metres at 20 to 22 seconds saw close-to-if-not 20ft wave faces.
Only surfing could mix its measuring systems so perfectly.
Meanwhile, in Mordor, those who cared knew it was going mad, with waves nearly twice as big. Since we know that wave power is proportional to the wave period and to the square of the wave height, this meant it was packing a mighty punch.
Particularly in the morning. While the tide was low and the wind offshore, the sun not yet hidden by approaching clouds, Voldemort was a magnificent thing, and luckily someone was there to capture it.
But I can’t show the picture here.
The fact that it has had feature spreads in multiple magazines over the years, is in every surf guide known to man, and is located on a major tourist route seems to mean nothing. It is no real secret.
My time visiting this coast began in 1972 and I have been going there with varying degrees of frequency since then. I’ve watched a generation grow older and near as damn die out, and watched from a distance as a new bunch of kids grow into a very hot local crew, some of whom have developed a pretty misguided attitude to Mordor and its visitors, encouraged by some of their ‘mentors’.
Under the guise of Sacredness, you can surf here, but you can’t take pictures, or talk about it, or… anything really.
Pull up as a tourist and if you’re unlucky you might just get told to put the camera away.
Take a picture of a sunset.
“What a beautiful bird!”
“Stand there darling.”
Why should I have a beef with this?
Well, for one I like to take pictures. For self expression, art, and memory, I enjoy it.
They tell me I saw that, I was there, and this is how I felt.
What right does someone have to tell me what I can do? If I set up my easel on the headland overlooking Voldemort, would I be told, NO PAINTING?
And so to Voldemort. One of the best and worst big waves in Australia, if not the world, by dint of (in)consistency, isolation, relative cold, and the fact that to get in you jump off a 15ft cliff into fuck-all water. It’s a quarter of a mile paddle from there to the take-off. To get out of the water – broken board or not – you have a paddle of a mile along a hundred-foot cliff line, then a dash across a black channel criss-crossed by the odd chum-smeared fishing boat that’s been working a coast that could be referred to as the Highway One of Australia’s great white shark population.
If you bugger up you rescue yourself. End of story.
Compare this with the legendary Waimea Bay. I’ve surfed Waimea a few times and though I’ve not personally ridden a wave over 20ft I did come close and saw a close-out set come through while I was thankfully on my way in.
That was the day I got a salt water enema so thorough I was lucky I didn’t find three stingrays and a gummy shark in the toilet bowl that evening.
At Waimea you have an easy paddle out, and a relatively easy exit. There are lifeguards and helicopter rescues. To die there you have to be very unlucky. The take-off – with the right equipment – is easier than Voldemort, and Waimea is, basically, a take-off.
Contrast that to Voldemort. Over 25ft, I doubt whether anyone has successfully ridden it paddling in. Too ledgey, too fast.
The intimidation factor alone would be sufficient for most if the wave height wasn’t enough.
I’ve never seen it really crowded… maybe eight or ten in the water at a maximum, and when it gets to tow-in size, just a few teams work it, if any.
Those times it really turns on it is a wonder of the world, a thing of great beauty, but only if you know where to look.
A tourist pulling up at the town headland would see a mass of horror, not noticing the tiny traces of ants darting across the vast walls. The sight of their dropping jaws when you point out what their untrained eyes have not seen would be worth the price of admission to Disneyland.
On the day I mentioned earlier, there were tow teams surfing, a couple of locals, and a couple from elsewhere. There was a cinematographer, and a famous international surf photographer.
They were told to put away the cameras.
They stood their ground.
The shots I’ve seen are beautiful, magnificent and terrifying.
Non-surfers look in awe, as it is truly only when seeing surfers on giant waves do non-surfers truly ‘get it’.
Most surfers react the same way, but their desire to surf these waves is usually in direct proportion to the value they place on their lives, or on what they determine as fun, and fun, as Derek Hynd most succinctly put it, is the key.
Every surfer in the world capable of surfing Voldemort is aware of it. I would guarantee this. Most of these surfers have their own Voldemorts, and don’t feel the need to come and invade our temperamental beast. If one turns up occasionally to sample its delights, so be it.
One world. Our world. Their wave as much as anyone who lives there. If they choose to record this visit, that too is their right. One day it may be all they have from a unique time in their lives.
And photographers, from happy snapper to professional? They should be free to pursue their art and livelihoods. Just as the surfers who live there claim a right to work or study where they choose, so should photographers be able to record what is rare and beautiful. They give the fleeting, permanence. It pays respect to what is and can be.
In Voldemort, its extremes are treasures – diamonds rare and glittering.
Perhaps we should thank our lucky stars that we have been blessed with technologies that share what otherwise might be the fading memories of the few who are lucky enough to live across the road from a wonder of the surfing world.