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rodneyhyettI’m a St Kilda local.

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.

Correction.

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.”

“Good.”

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.

No photos.

“What a beautiful bird!”

No Photos.

“Stand there darling.”

NO PHOTOS.

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.

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  • Stephen Bailey

    Thanks for this.

  • Damo

    I think Tony Ray deserves a mention as one of the best to surf this place ..Tony actually surf’s the place not just’s survives it !

  • Walt Johnson

    In General I agree with a lot of what you had to say,

    but as you said you chose career and the city life with all its comforts and secruites over actually living the life of a surfer ,who puts his love of riding waves above all else, and maybe it is for that reason that sometimes local surfers resent the fact that surfers like you can sit in there comforatble melbourne offices and click on to the internet and see that in 2 days time there is favorable surf conditions so you can tell your secretaries to re- arrange your meetings so you can leave the office early and do your 2 hour drive down to the spot for your surf. Once upon a time we had an advantage over the part time surfers like yourself, unfortunately due to the internet our once slight advantage has been taken off us, is it any wonder that the locals mutter under there breath when part time surfers like you appear at there local breaks.

  • Matt UK

    Im with Walt on this too, very well put.

    I also agree with Mick, a friendly attitude is always a winner when traveling or surf spots away from your regular breaks. It is weird though how we get incredibly protective of our ‘Local’ break, that said if a strange face shows up with a smile and sits patiently waiting for a wave, respecting the obvious ‘Locals’ they will be welcome, have a few of the best waves and everyone is stoked.

    Thats what I expect to happen when I travel and surf other breaks.

    Simple really isn’t it, shame a few people spoil it with greed and disrespect.

  • DeanC

    Its possible to be a city surfer and a local, look at North Steyne/Manly, Bondi, Maroubra in Sydney, but what does it mean? the first two city beaches are completely overun by latte sipping mal riders who appreciate the comforts of cafe lifestyle and and an easy paddle in, leaner backpackers, and as far as Bondi beach Sydney goes, its even worse, a beach that use to have a hot crew of surfers, do any locals surf there now ? a few diehards. Most surfers driven out by surging property values and lazy latte drinkers. If the rural guys or Bra boys are putting up some speed bumps to homogenisation of surf culture then more power to them. As Mick notes, if you have done your time, paid your dues, take the right attitude, you can usually get a share of waves…….. but if you just lob up for the one cranking sesssion the locals had been waiting for months for, then get to the back of the line.

  • Thanks everyone for getting involved. I have to respond to Walt’s heartfelt comment though as sometimes choices are not that easy. Melbourne was chosen for me at 10. My industry chose me as it was the only thing I was vaguely good at. Then love came in the form of an English girl who refused point blank to go coastal and continues to do so 25 years later. I still love her.

    Life is far more complicated than you can imagine.

    Walt, you are the luckiest of men.

    And I have never had a secretary.

  • Pingback: everyone is a local « thenaturalhigh()

  • Hicko

    Futhermore to your comment Mick, Walts atttitude is just the kind of seed that creates for negative experiences for those that are not living by the sea. I grew up on the door step of a beach from birth and have seen the changing attitudes within surfers at my local. I know the posers that have moved into the area that believe now cause they have been here a couple of years it gives them the right to treat others that are not so fortunate to live by the sea like they should’nt be breathing! And its not unique to my state it happens all over the country.

    But what really gets me Walt is people like you that support this behaviour due to you believing that you live the life of a surfer! Vomit. You guys pick up a book and read about the early guys and the way they lived and believe your life somehow resembles this….as if you are still a virgin from the commercial world that exsists. example. I have seen a middle aged guy who has moved in to the area a couple of years ago with the word ‘SOUL’ printed all over his board absolutely rip into a guy cause he was obviously not a local. This poor guy after being abused actually left the water and packed up and went home. Do you think that is behaviour of a true surfer??? People like you need to get real…the waves are not going to magically stop….there will always be another…relax. If you cant get enough stoke from just one wave…just one wave then there is something wrong with you. I would much rather share a wave with an out of towner than one of your hypocritical types.

  • An hour through snow and sheet glass. There was a barn owl out on the broads, almost invisible. Every ten minutes a much bigger set and, in the right spot, a glimpse under the lip. Life at one beach is rich beyond measure, but making it everything clamps your horizons. Travel.

  • good points…travelling definately makes you a better mannered surfer, you have to deal with some proper cunits, and meet some nice people…but it helps chill out the meanest local, especially if you take a beating from a bigger meathead somewhere else.

  • Billy

    Surfing, like everything in this life, is made better with mutual respect. Yes, out-of-towners need to respect ‘locals’ in the water. But the respect has to go both ways. I grew up landlocked in a city (Brisbane) and due to circumstances of life – relationship and work – I now live in Adelaide, again a long drive from the surf. All my life I have been a local nowhere, and horribly envious of people for whom a surf involves a ten minute walk down to the beach after work. It’s a big effort for me to get my weekly salt water fix; being treated like a dog turd just for paddling out when the crew are all over it on a good day is pretty much par for the course for us non-locals. Having said that, paddle out with a smile and a ‘g’day’ and it’s usually all good. The Walts of this world might be full of resentment that we’re encroaching on ‘their’ patch of water, but their attitudes might loosen up a bit if they stopped to think about just how lucky they are to live somewhere with constant access to waves…

  • christian

    Walts – you still have a 2 hour advantage over Mick and whilst you can pop back home for a dump and a bite eat a quick kip etc and back into the surf…. Mick has to drive back another 2 hours. You still have the advantage. Maybe you should chill and invite him back to your place and share a pot of tea or a joint before heading back out and sharing some waves?

  • Hicko

    Im with you Chris, Bill and Whip

  • Walt Johnson

    Good points you guys, I agree with all of you in a way, but Hicko,like me, at times you obviously also shoot off from the hip sometimes without getting your facts straight, I,m a n old man, I have children who have children.., i,m not trying to be one of those lucky ones from a by gone era, I am one

    And by the way Hicko Ive never met a surfer who is satisfied with the stoke from just one wave, we all want another one , or two, ore three or………………………

    I get your point though.,

    And sorry about the secretary bit Mick. Happy Silver anniversary, Well Done.

    Kettles on the boil.

  • Thought that might be you Sowry. Good story!