easter swell

As we walked to the top of the rise and the long beach came into view, the first thing I saw was a flickering ribbon of white. On the borderline between the royal sky and the navy ocean, all along the horizon, right down the middle of my vision, a huge dark thing rose silently up like a living presence, a leviathan, before transforming itself to milky foam and sheer noise and energy and disappearing again.

Oh my god, look at the swell, I said, like a kid.

I was with my wife and her sister. It was the Saturday morning before Easter. Rain had been expected all weekend on the Sunshine Coast where we were staying for the holiday. But as often happens in that place, where the Myall River meets the bay of Port Stephens by the sea, the forecasts were just wrong. We woke up to perfect crystal skies with ridiculous little puffs of cloud soaring overhead and a wonderful dry, summery temperature. We knew the water would still be warm from the northern current. So it was off to the beach.

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first saw Bennett Beach five years ago. Mile upon mile of pale sand meeting the surf with grassy dunes climbing up behind: not a building in sight from the horizon on the left to the big green headland on the right, under the infinite sky. Seemingly enough beach for all Australia, but Hawks Nest is just a small town and it feels isolated and empty, a hidden subtropical paradise. It’s one of the nicest places on earth; and I’m lucky to visit often because my wife’s parents live close by.

But I had never seen surf like this, not here, not on any recreational beach. On the day we drove Highway One through California last year there was a huge swell pounding the coast south of Big Sur. But looking down from a clifftop on a cold December day as big waves lash fiercely against jagged rocks is one thing — it seems like a distant alien landscape. Watching a ten-foot swell rise and fall on a crowded public beach on a sunny day is something else.

I stood at the weathered wooden fence by the parking lot overlooking the beach, looking at that swell. From the horizon forward to where the surf was breaking, big bands of dark and light blue alternated as the swell rippled the entire sea. As each wave reached the shore and began to break, it seemed to go into slow motion as it rose, serpentine, to its full height and curved into an amazingly regular extended tube, perfect, now frozen in time like Hokusai’s Great Wave. The sound as the foam ripped along the barrel for hundreds of yards was like an extended thundercrack. The bodyboard I was holding now seemed so lightweight. As I admitted in another post, I’m a total newbie with surfriding.

I don’t know if you’re going to be able to handle that, my wife said. I didn’t know either. But I tried not to show how impressed I was.

We went down to the beach and set up. I continued to stare at the incoming waves. Meanwhile the late-morning weather had become gently gorgeous in contrast to the tumult of the surf. It was a great day to be here.

It was almost comical to see such a vast beach with so many beachgoers hanging out in one fifty-yard area between the yellow-and-orange lifesaving flags. We could have been survivors of a shipwreck all huddled together. But it’s always a good thing for people to heed the protection of the lifesaving services; getting in the surf is a risky proposition. Potentially deadly rip currents, which can carry even a strong swimmer out to sea in seconds, are a constant danger, even on the most user-friendly public beaches. This is true anywhere, but especially Australia, where there is so much coastline and being at the beach is a way of life. A hundred Aussies drown in rip currents annually. You hear about the dangerous animals, but that’s mostly hype; only a couple of people are killed by animals a year. It’s the surf that takes lives with dreary regularity.

At other beaches, especially in the city, I’ve seen people disregarding the flags, swimming in and even taking kids into surf marked Dangerous by the lifesavers. But here, on this morning, whether because of the big surf or just incidentally, most of the punters were between the flags. The rest of the long, long beach was for the surfers. With such a swell, it must have been heaven for them. I sat and watched them awhile. I was reminded of footage I’ve seen of Pipeline and other famous breaks in Hawaii. I’m sure this was nothing compared to a truly world-class break. But I was rapt each time the swell rose and dozens of riders (evenly spaced along the lineup like beads on a necklace) slid into the drop down all at once. And I was filled with new suspense each time the barrel formed and one of them managed to get himself into it — willing him to glide all the way through. Whenever someone got a good ride in, you could hear it in the spectators on the beach, a ripple of approving ooohs and aaahhs.

There were a number of bodyboarders, outfitted with fins, out to tackle big waves. They seemed to be handling this swell pretty well. Or not. It seemed like for every one I saw race along the front of a wave, fins trailing a jetstream of white, or go over the top and get a couple of acrobatic spins in the air, I saw another absolutely swallowed, chewed up and spit out as the barrel collapsed. It’s always hard to tell at first if you’re watching someone get killed, or just taking a spill in the normal course of things. The wave crashes down, the boardrider is tossed like a ragdoll, you’re waiting for him to surface, hoping he didn’t break his neck — and everyone on the beach just laughs.

I turned my attention to the area between the flags. It was packed. I was amused to see families getting into this unbelievable surf with the same carefree spirit they would show if it was Walden Pond, laughing, beckoning to their kids, taking toddlers into the surging foam. As huge waves crashed into the kids playing, knocking them about like bowling pins, I couldn’t help but think that elsewhere they would be kept away from these conditions — danger, beach closed. But here in Oz it was a sunny Saturday and everything was golden, and folks were dragging their kids into it.

There was a big extended family setting up on the sand next to us, several kids and many adults. As they broke out their blankets and towels and umbrellas and eskies, they chatted and chirped in loud, musical Aussie fashion. They seemed to be catching up with each other; apparently some were visiting from out of town for the holiday. A glimpse into a genuine Aussie tradition, an Easter family reunion on the beach. A chubby adolescent holding a bodyboard and fins broke off from them unceremoniously with a couple of mates, looking like he meant business.

I’ve never seen a swell this big, one of the older women in the family remarked.

Aha! I thought.

There were in fact a couple of younger boys bodyboarding between the flags — no fins, going straight in on the smaller waves (there were no truly small waves today), which as I have mentioned is about my skill level. I thought I couldn’t really go without giving it a try. If these kids can handle it I can handle it. I suppose men hurt themselves or die on a regular basis doing all sorts of stupid things because they don’t want to be shown up.

Hey, Mum, Mikey’s caught a good one! cried one of the young girls in the family next to us.

I looked where she was gesturing, and caught a glimpse of the chubby kid as one of the barrels shattered in a flash of white and tossed him flailing headlong, fins in the air, as if he’d been in an explosion.

Go Mikey! his mother shouted, laughing.

I decided I was getting in, but without my board, just to see if I could handle it. The ladies still weren’t too sure about the surf, so I was on my own.

The first thing I noticed was the water’s warmth, how balmy and spa-like it was. Not sure why big motion somehow made me think it would be cold. As I stood at ankle depth, I felt the force of the water as it pushed its way onto the beach, and then was sucked back out again: jets of bubbling foam ran across the sand where the little kids were playing. By this time the safe zone had become very crowded — of course it was crowded, it was Saturday, it was a holiday, and the weather was awesome. The kids were grouped roughly by age, getting older the further out they were. As I ventured further myself, the bubbling and foaming became near constant, white water all around, like being in a gigantic jacuzzi. It was that pleasant too — but it was not relaxing.

I was about knee deep when a huge set wave came in, surging through the kids in the surf like floodwaters running through reeds. Shouts and squeals and laughter rose up as water poured over them, covering them up, knocking them around. As the water gushed against my legs, it nearly knocked me over. I righted myself just in time for it to come at me from behind as it made its way back to the sea. The next wave really did knock me down — or more accurately, knocked me right into a kid standing behind me. On the next set wave, I tried to duck dive, but was just pummeled back into the sand. When I got up I realized I was laughing too. Better writers than me have expounded on the playful nature of the ocean, how being in it is like playing with a divine childlike presence.

The noise made by the kids was repeated every time a new wave came crashing in.The swell would rise up, and they would start chattering and shouting with mounting excitement as it made its inexorable approach. There’s a big one! Go for it! Jenny look out!! Then it was rushing in with amazing speed and force, filling the air it seemed, and wherever it could not reach was filled with spray and the rushing sound and the screams and squeals and laughter of the kids. It was all part of it. The breaking waves and the yelling and splashing part of one big rhythm. Ecstatic communion just a few steps away from ordinary life.

Further out I got my first good look at one of the set waves as it broke. My amazement only increased with proximity. From here it seemed less like the wave was approaching, and more like it was happening. The surface of the water, the very surface of reality seemed to tilt upwards as the wave gathered itself and rose out of the sea, blocking the horizon completely. The sheer mechanics of so much water moving at once with clockwork regularity was stunning.

I also noticed again how impressive surfers are when you’re in the surf with them. From the shore you think, That looks cool, or, That looks fun. But from the water, watching them stand on waves that tower overhead, they look like giants, doing strange and wonderful things. No wonder it was considered the sport of kings in Hawaii.

I eventually decided I would not be bodyboarding this morning — not from being intimidated, but because there were too many kids in the safe zone. There was no way I was going in outside of the flags in this kind of surf. But I had a fine time just sitting on the beach the rest of the morning, watching those waves one after the other, watching the surfers ride them.

The next morning was Easter. We had decided to climb to the top of Yaccaba Head — the tallest point in the area, a relatively easy hike and a common destination for its amazing views of Port Stephens and the surrounds. We set out mid-morning; the weather was warm but volatile as ever. Clouds and rainshowers came and went, leaving sun and blue skies in their wake only to return an hour later.

To get to Yaccaba you have to walk along Bennett Beach for a mile or so. This is one of my favorite things to do in life. It doesn’t take long to leave more populated parts of the beach far behind, and then you are in a mostly deserted place with only the surf on the left, the dunes on the right, and Yaccaba ahead. But it always takes longer than you expect. You look up and realize the headland is much bigger than you thought: its majesty reveals itself only humbly as you keep walking, until it takes up most of your vision, a singular entity, its sandstone flanks covered with lush green growth in contrast to the arid dunes. And the strand that forms the only road to this place seems to be always increasing. Away from everything, moving forward but with no sense of time, the people you are with inevitably space themselves out so that everyone’s walking alone, in a sort of meditation. You only have the sand you’re walking on, the sunlight, and the sound of the surf. The sound! Here on the borderline, the sound takes up all your reality.

Especially this day. The swell was still as big as the morning before. No people in it. Well, a couple of surfers not far from the rocks at the foot of the headland, looking like seals in their black wetsuits; their isolation seemed to add to the tableau. No boats or any other craft. Not even that many birds. Just color, light, impossible movement, thunderous sound. The hike to the top of Yaccaba was memorable, but the walk along the beach was primal.

That evening I drove back to the beach alone. I wanted to try and get some bodyboarding in with fewer people around. And I was just a little obsessed with that swell.

I got there about four-thirty; the sun had started to set and a breeze had picked up; the air was actually a bit chilly. Hazy golden light suffused everything for miles. There’s nothing like autumn in New South Wales as I’m discovering. It looked like a beach in winter (something like, say, Montauk) but there was a summery richness to the scent in the air, an unmistakeably Australian balm, and indeed there were a few people swimming.

The swell was was still big as ever. If anything it had picked up, but the breeze (headed straight out to sea) made it a lot more choppy. There were a few people on the beach, most of them wearing jackets or huddled in their blankets. A group of livesavers in their yellow-and-red gear were hanging out together near their station, looking loose and jovial, no doubt getting ready to pack up for the night.

I was a little surprised that there were no surfers at all. None, as far as I could see, up and down the long beach. It was hard for me to decide if it was because of the headwind, or because it was just about time for Easter dinner.

It was weird but pleasant to be in water so warm when the air was that brisk. But again all of my attention was focused on the surf. In the evening light, with not many other people, and with the breeze going, it seemed fiercer than ever. The set waves looked like Cape Horn from this range. I realized I wanted nothing to do with the breakers and started riding the foamy stuff in the shallows. As I’d guessed it was pretty strong and felt like riding actual waves.

A couple of kids in wetsuits swam past me. I heard one of them call out, Don’t go that way! There’s a pretty bad rip over there! He was gesturing just beyond the flagged area, close to where I was. His tone was nonchalant in that Aussie way, but at the word rip I froze up a bit, and gazed out to where he’d pointed. I couldn’t tell a difference. I decided I was done for the day anyway. It was getting late, the breeze was cold wherever my skin was exposed to air, and there was hardly anyone left swimming nearby. It may not have been life-or-death, but this surf was nothing to be trifled with either.

I sat on the beach drying off, cold but enjoying the sunlight, still powerful even in fading. I gazed at the surf a while — in this epic light it looked like rolling hills of crystal.

I noticed two little brown-haired girls, perhaps three and five, run out to the water in front of me. They were both outfitted in pink wetsuits, like tiny surfer girls. They could not have been cuter. They ran around excitedly on the sand at the very edge of the surf for a minute, looking like pink sandpipers, before running back up to their parents, who were on a blanket not far to my right. It was obvious they had just been let loose on the beach and were overflowing with kid-energy. Their mom smiled and said a few words to them, adjusting their little wetsuits, and they were off again, pink streaks headed straight for the water. It was touching to see how keen they were to get in. I was a little surprised neither parent accompanied them, but decided to reserve judgment.

The older girl was first in, bouncing around in the shallow water, splashing with abandon, immune to the chill air. The younger one, not much more than a toddler, hesitated at first, looking a bit shaky on her feet, but soon joined her sister. They were bubbling and foaming with joy as tangible as the surf — splashing about, running, falling on their hands and knees, sitting as if in a bathtub, leaping up again. Now they looked like pink penguins. They were not remotely intimidated by the strong surf. The older girl stepped pretty far out into it a number of times. As the powerful waves rolled up onto the beach even the white foam was often moving the girls around as if they were pieces of pink fluff.

At one point the older girl was knocked down by the remnant of a set wave, a foamy wavelet nearly as tall as her, and carried a few feet from where she had been standing, away from the beach, toward the sea. She sat up again in water that was waist high for her, then got to her feet and made her way back to the beach. All part of the game for her. A few moments later another wavelet knocked her down again. This time I did not see her for a couple of heartbeats. The water was really churning right up to the shore. I leaned forward a bit, looking out for her. At the same time I looked over at the parents. I could not see that they were concerned at all. Soon the little head was poking out of the water again and the play continued.

As I watched, the scene became quite striking to me. There was basically no one else in the water. The beach was quickly being deserted as evening drew on. Just the two little pink things remained, bobbing about carelessly, by themselves at the edge of the whole dark blue ocean, the roiling white swell lit starkly from the front by the setting sun.

Now I really wondered why the hell the parents were not with them. I looked their way. They were relaxed, smiling as if their daughters were in a kiddie pool. I willed them to get up off their blanket and get a little closer to their girls, but they just sat there.

I looked at the girls again. They kept falling down, kept getting pushed around by the water, splashing recklessly further out than they should, disappearing under the foam. It was comical but hard to watch, like a silent film in which the child actors are doing absurdly dangerous things with no stuntmen or special effects. Anxiously I leaned forward again. It wasn’t just my imagination, because now the younger girl was straying to my left, tottering to the other side of the flag, out of the safety zone. This was just where that kid had pointed out the rip a few minutes before. Now it seemed I could see it quite well: a strangely glassy belt of water, eerily calm, disrupting the pattern of the breakers.

I really wasn’t sure what to do. I felt a dull sort of dread, but tried to shake it off. Not my kids, not my business. Then I saw one of the lifesavers, a stocky middle-aged lady, stroll down to where the little girl was playing outside of the flags. In a gentle, unhurried way, hardly taking her hands out of the pockets of her red jacket, she collected the little girl out of the water and escorted her back to the flagged area. Then she strolled back up to where the parents were sitting and had a few words with them, smiling the whole time. I fleetingly hoped it went something like, If you don’t feel the slightest desire or instinct to attend to those little girls when they’re playing in such rough surf, I take it as evidence you’ve been smoking cocaine and I will now call the authorities. Please remain calm until they arrive.

But it was probably something like, Look, keep ’em between the flags when it’s a bit choppy will ya? Ta. Yer all right.

Then she left them. The girls were still out in the water.

I couldn’t watch anymore. I got up, put my shirt on, collected my things, and left.

Note: The next day we were at an Easter Monday barbecue back in Sydney, with a bunch of kids about the same age running around the backyard. I described the surf I’d witnessed up north with somewhat wide eyes to our hostess, an old friend of my wife’s. She smiled and replied matter-of-factly, Oh, that’s what we call the Easter Swell.

This made my day. I knew the ocean’s currents move in patterns, of course; but I was pleased to hear an aspect of it is so reliable it’s identified with a holiday. A holiday, if you think about it, that jumps around the calendar from one year to the next. Nice to hear something about my first Easter in Australia was both lucky and quintessential.

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