By Tim Baker
Living with cancer does predispose me to bouts of nostalgia, the “before times” when life felt free and easy, without this mortal threat lurking in the shadows.
There’s a common notion that you re-visit the scenes of your most glorious adolescence or young adulthood at your peril, that we risk tarnishing those youthful memories by attempts to rekindle them. But there are risks just getting out of bed in the morning, and this is a risk I’m prepared to take.
I’ve decided to spend Christmas in my old stomping ground in Victoria. My dear old mum deserves a Christmas after my 30 years in Queensland. I’ve got brothers, nieces, a COVID lockdown nephew I’ve never met. It’s time to go home.
My whole life’s been a series of relocations, from Melbourne to Perth to Montreal, Canada, and back to Melbourne as a kid, five different schools by the time I was eight, following my dad’s work, managing oil refineries. Making new friends each time, forgetting old ones, adjusting to new schools, cultural nuances, accents. From Melbourne to Sydney to the Gold Coast as an adult, pursuing my own ludicrous career in surf journalism.
With the kids nearly all grown up, some work opportunities beckoning, the deep connections with family and old friends calling, I’m considering re-locating entirely, reversing a migratory drift I took in my 20s. The chief sticking point for me is proximity to the beach, such a vital part of my self-care.
All families come with their baggage and ours is no different, but in my current circumstances it feels deeply nurturing to be surrounded by the clan I share blood ties and DNA with, an inseverable bond. Mum’s thrilled for the company. I have young adult nieces now who are a pure delight – smart, funny, stepping out into the world. And my daughter’s moved to Melbourne to go to uni, an arts degree majoring in creative writing. Just what we need, another writer in the family. I jest but am giddy with pride.
Happily, we also have another surfer in the family, our young bloke whom I’ve persuaded to join me for a week in Victoria to catch up with relatives and endure an excruciating nostalgia tour of some of my adolescent haunts. He’s 17, entering year 12, and time with his dad is not a high priority. But if I get him alone in Victoria, I figure he’s at my mercy, unable to escape to mates’ places or pull his famed vanishing act in unfamiliar terrain. It’s a cruel, selfish plan but I sense there’s a window of opportunity here to reconnect with my lad before year 12, then cars, travel, girls, career, sweep him away for good.
AB, as I call him, is not entirely happy about this. I pick him up from Tullamarine airport on Boxing Day, after he’s done Christmas on the Gold Coast with his mum and her family. He’s eggy, ill-tempered, hungover, and not happy with this intrusion on his own unfettered summer of surf and partying on the GC. I need to get him in the ocean, stat. We overnight at my mum’s in Melbourne’s bland, outer eastern suburbs, which used to be a delight when he was a young boy but now does little to improve his mood. But tomorrow’s going to be offshore, an old mate has a holiday house with a spare room on Phillip Island and I have a plan.
So, I set the alarm for 5 am, pack a bag of snacks, arise in the suburban darkness and make coffee. AB’s unimpressed with the early start but I tell him all he has to do is get in mum’s little canary yellow Honda Jazz with a pillow and a blanket, recline the seat and fall back asleep and leave the rest to me. We haven’t brought boards with us but I’ve borrowed one from my older brother in Melbourne, so we have one board and wetsuit between us. There are all kinds of ways this could go horribly wrong.
“There’s not going to be any surf,” he predicts, based on zero knowledge of the area or prevailing swell and weather conditions.
“It’s going to be pumping,” I assure him, praying to the surf gods that I’m right.
We pull into first car park Woolamai 90 minutes later as he stirs. There are a few locals standing around but no sign of anyone suiting up or heading out. We jump out, struck by the enormous tableau of the Southern Ocean bathed in the golden glow of the sunrise and lingering sea mist, as ruler edged swells explode on straight banks. There’s no one out except for one jet-ski team attempting step-offs without much luck. It’s a solid six foot, maybe a touch bigger on the sets.
In a remarkable about-face, Alex bounds around the car park, videoing sets with his phone, texting and snapchatting mates, attempting to inflict the same dose of FOMO he was suffering from only moments earlier, convinced he was missing the swell of the year back on the GC. The young bloke optimistically points out makeable moments amid the drama but he’s tripping. I like his bravado, but it looks like a bad risk/reward ratio.
“There’s a reason none of these locals are paddling out,” I counsel him.
I manage to convince him to check out a nearby reef/point despite his scepticism. I get briefly disoriented in the indistinguishable gravel side roads, dotted with old fibro beach shacks and the odd new McMansion. My anxiety’s rising proportionally to my son’s impatience, so it’s a relief to find the old dirt car park and spot a solid set approaching a rocky outcrop a few hundred metres offshore. There are only a few cars in the car park, even fewer surfers in the lineup and I’ve been vindicated. It’s pumping. Four to five feet, sheet glass, heaving rights exploding on shallow reef. With only one board and wetsuit between us I send the young bloke out first and he’s inordinately grateful for my selfless gesture. Everything will be easier once he’s had a taste of Southern Ocean surf stoke.
From the clifftop I watch him paddle straight into two set waves, carving them up with a series of smooth cutbacks, dodging boils, rocks and weed in the tricky lineup, apparently perfectly at home. I settle in for a long wait, happy to sacrifice my own surf time for his. To my astonishment, he rides the second wave as long as possible, prones out and returns to the beach, trots up the steep wooden steps and hands over the board, eager to let his old man have a crack. So begins a glorious two days of father/son wave sliding, passing the board back and forth like a baton, until I manage to hire a soft top from a local surf shop for a combined attack on the feeble little righthander I learnt to surf on in a small bay further west. As I walk down the beach and watch him coolly launch into a clean set wave and soul arch through its zippering contours, I’m in a time tunnel, his and my teenage years colliding.
We surf four times in one day. I can’t remember the last time I did that. Everything aches but in the most delicious way. He and I are assigned a small bungalow out the back of the holiday rental my teenage best mate Pat and his family are in, and we collapse in our twin single beds, exchanging banter in the dark like kids on a sleep over, until slumber overtakes us.
Its cooler, smaller and slightly cross shore the next day but Alex is keen to surf so I let him go in my wetsuit and with the proper board, while I watch him dance over the chest high peelers from the car. My body’s too sore to surf again, until suddenly I can’t resist. I grab the soft top, brave the southern chill in nothing but boardies and join my son in the near-empty lineup.
I don’t even feel the cold.
About the Author
Tim Baker is an award-winning author, journalist and storyteller specialising in surfing history and culture, working across a wide variety of media from books and magazines to film, video, and theatre. Some of his most notable books include “Occy”, a national bestseller and chosen by the Australia Council as one of “50 Books You can’t Put Down” in 2008, and “The Rip Curl Story” which documents the rise of the iconic Australian surf brand to mark its 50th anniversary in 2019. Tim is a former editor of Tracks and Surfing Life magazines. He has twice won the Surfing Australia Hall of Fame Culture Award.
Tim was diagnosed with stage 4, metastatic prostate cancer in 2015 with a Gleason score 9. He was told he had just five years of reasonable health left, but seven years on, at 57, he’s still surfing, writing, and enjoying being a dad. His latest book, Patting The Shark, also documents his cancer journey and will be published in August. Tim will be sharing weekly insights into his journey to help other men who have also been impacted by prostate cancer.
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