The Worst And Best Of Humanity

The moon was full, the night was black, and the surf was, if not exactly pumping, then at least moderately pleasingly accommodating. There were waves to be ridden, so we heeded the call.

Three of us, Snake Catcher, Uncle and Baboon, paddled out into the night, gently bobbing up and down on the breakers as they came our way. Rising over the top, breaking through their crests; very occasionally, on the big ones, rolling over turtle-style to let it wash over us.

We made our way up to First Rock, the rocky fingers sticking out from the rock formations behind us, where waves push up against, arc up and break into slippery slides for us to ride. The point is often referred to as Singapore. As in The Battle Of Singapore, because it is, every day without fail, hotly contested and fought over, and vicious and callous atrocities are committed in the name of Snatching A Wave on a daily basis.

We have he great fortune of having a world class wave here, at our break. A long sandy-bottomed shallow bay stretches away from a point where waves break in perfect clean right-handers that, on a good day, can go for up to 800 metres. It's a phenomenally long wave, it's often very tidy and user-friendly, and it is for good reason that it attracts hordes of starry-eyed would-be riders, both from overseas and from interstate. All these people crowd into the one spot, much too close for comfort, and unfortunately and inevitably tempers rise, bad blood boils, and all of humanity's ugliest sides come out: petty-minded obstructionism, dog-eat-dog self-servingism, a word I have just invented, and nasty and vindictive elbow-wielding competition for any wave at all. It occasionally results in actual fist fights, people have been hurt, and depressingly regularly there are fine displays of violent verbal abuse involving the invocation of other people's matrilineal descent from a variety of undesirable flea-riddled and addle-brained animals, and, occasionally, questionable mythological creatures. Baboons come to mind.

Not long ago, one of our number, The Shredder, Lord Of Deep Vertical Take-Offs And Scourge Of Small Furry Animals, was in a mild tussle with a boogie-boarder. It had been a particularly rewarding day, with waves breaking sharply into long peeling barrels, and, on the low tide, such boogie-boarders as were in attendance were lapping it up: being on short boards and lying down they were able to get into small pokey holes us longboarders could only dream off. The Shredder however, Tyrant Of The Toothpick, rocking the show on a Very Short and Very Skinny board, formerly used by his grandma as a crocheting needle, was able to get in there and amongst them and give them a run for their money. This hadn't gone down well, and, as he had been paddling back up alongside a random boogie-boarder, The Shredder had casually mentioned that the boogie-boarder in question had better back off and mind his manners a bit more. This is unfortunately a fairly standard sort of an exchange in the relentless competition for waves. The boogie-boarder had looked at him funny, paddled up a bit closer, and sideswiped him an elbow-blow alongside of the head. Thanks for coming.

These are the things that give the world of surfing a bad name. And for good reason.

These are also the very reasons why we paddle out in the dark of night, by the light of the Milky Way and the full moon, and catch our share of waves in the dark. It's the only time there's peace and quiet on the water. We can sit back and relax, pick and choose our waves, and take it in turns and share the load amongst ourselves, companionably and peacefully. We have been doing it for a long time, and we have learned to see in the dark.

The Snake Catcher had seen something in the dark.

'I just went right over a shark,' he said. It was hard to tell by starlight, but he looked positively green behind the gills. 'But it's all right,' he continued with terminal optimism, 'it was only a little one. Only about 5 foot, probably.' He pulled his left earlobe pensively. 'Probably,' he added, nodding encouragingly, carefully re-moulding the shape and size of the memory in his brain. His nose grew longer.

'Right,' said the Uncle and me, and huddled a bit closer. 'Did you get a positive ID?'

'Yeah, maybe ... I think it was a bull shark.'

That was great news. Only the third most aggressive and dangerous shark in the ocean. Well that was all right then.

'But it was only a baby, really,' the Snake Catcher added hopefully, visibly perking up. There is no end to the amount of positive reinforcement and creative imagination that the human brain is capable of. Or, to put it differently, delusion.

We looked around apprehensively, then shrugged it off. It was part and parcel of what we did. You knew they were out there somewhere, you just hoped they had better things to do that day then to come and harass you, and you kept an eye out over your shoulder, just in case.

In this case that wouldn't be too hard. The visibility underwater was astounding: the water was crystal clear, and the light of the moon illuminated every grain of sand and every waving strand of seagrass on the ocean floor. If there was anything nefarious under the water we'd be sure to spot it before long, provided, of course, that it wasn't stalking up from behind.

Remember it's not just because you're paranoid that they're not out to get you ...

The moon wheeled placidly through the sky and we were joined by Chief Switchfoot, magical acrobatic surfboard jumper, and creator of mindblowing ocean photography. We shared the good news with him. He was mightily pleased.

Our golden time, or, more precisely, our silveren time, is that slot between the high full moon and the rising of the sun. While the sunrise is always a very welcome sight, and, in the middle of winter time, can be the only thing that can save us from acute hypothermia and chronic vitamin D privation, it also unfortunately brings out The Crowds. Every man and his dog come charging down the beach at first light, flood the water, and ignore any and all rules of negotiation, surf courtesy, and commonly accepted protocol and procedure.

So I wasn't surprised when I got snaked by two blow-ins. Snaking means paddling around someone so you end up closer to the start of the wave, the foam ball, the source of energy of the wave, its breaking point. Technically that gives you right of way, but only if you got there by honest means.

I had been sitting, bobbing up and down, for a little while. The others had caught waves in quick succession and had disappeared down the line, carving their path through the shimmering green and golden light that the rising sun was casting over the water. It was my turn, and I was waiting for the set.

In the lull those two blokes paddled up from the beach, and, not saying a word or even looking in my direction, paddled between me and Singapore point, thereby snaking me and preparing to steal my wave. I noticed glumly that one of them had no legrope. A sure sign of trouble.

Legropes are things which were invented for safety. They tie the surfboard to the surfer's leg and serve two purposes: 1. the surfer doesn't lose their board when they wipe out, and, in extreme cases, doesn't drown because they've got something to hold on to and lie on. A very valid reason, and one I have in the past certainly had cause to be grateful for; and 2. the board doesn't fly off out of control like a runaway train, ploughing through assembled crowds of unsuspecting people, gouging out eyes and breaking arms, legs and ribs. Another pretty valid and justifiable reason for using one.

Over the years a fashion has grown up though that has seen some people disdain the use of the legrope, on the supposed grounds that it gives them more freedom to move around on the board, and that it, somehow, signals a return to a "purer" form of surfing that was practiced "in the good old days" before legropes were invented. The fact that surfers in those good old days did everything they could to try to tie themselves to their boards, such as using old socks, washing lines and suspender belts, is conveniently ignored. There's nothing like the passage of time and the absence of personal experience to make a shithouse thing from the past look attractive.

My wave arrived. By all road rules and established terms of engagement it was mine, because I had been waiting the longest. I looked left and saw one of the blokes start to paddle for it. Of course. They were now on the inside and could, technically, claim right of way. I thought "bugger it, it's my wave", put my head down and paddled hard. As I pulled into the wave I glimpsed out of the corner of my eye the other fella pull up behind me. I turned my back to him and rode away, and sure enough there came his voice, sounding pissed off, going "hey, hey, hey!". Presumably he thought that was going to make me pull off and leave him the wave.

Little did he know Hay Is For Cows.

I ignored him and kept on sailing away. My wave. See you later, loser.

I heard him splutter and curse in impotent fury. 'Aaaaarrrggghhh!'

Maybe his fury was not all that impotent. Maybe he had designs on making it Omni Potent.

Because as he dropped back and pulled away, not being able to get past me, I saw him lean back, move his legs just so, put a little bit of pressure there, and, describing a long lethal arc through the air, his board came swinging right up to my head, missing it by mere inches, and barely failing to decapitate me or at the very least inflict concussion and potentially serious brain damage. What the fuck?

I ducked away and kept going, ignoring the splash behind me and the muffled, bubbling underwater protests. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

I finished my ride, dived into the water, and came up, as it so happened, next to Shawn Of The Dead, also known as The Bulldozer. A man who lurches around on his board like a zombie, he had once run me over wholesale and comprehensively put my back out, three days before I went off on a skiing trip. The results were interesting, and involved a lot of gnashing of teeth, painkillers, and large amounts of hot sake. But it had been an honest accident, he had felt terrible about it and had apologised profusely, and I had never told him about the aftermath.

So now I turned to him, flabbergasted, unable to believe what just happened.

'Hey mate,' I gasped, blabberring indignantly, 'you wouldn't believe what just happened! Some arsehole just tried to take my head off!'

'Yeah, I saw it,' The Bulldozer nodded. 'That was dangerous, mate.'

Until then I hadn't been quite sure if I had been imagining it, whether it had really been a purposeful act or whether it was an accident. I didn't think so, but it was worth getting a reality check. My imagination can be very creative.

'That bloke swung his board around and tried to hit me in the head with it!' I said. 'At least I think so. You saw it, what did it look like?'

'I saw it,' The Bulldozer repeated. 'There's no way that was an accident. That was on purpose, mate.'

'Fucking hell.'

I sat back and thought about it. What to do? Go back, pick a fight and smash his brains in? Get my brains smashed in? Round up all the boys and mount a gang fight? Make it into the papers, if not potentially into the Country Magistrate's Court, and bring further discredit to myself and the world of surfing in general?

I looked around.

The sun had risen, had come peeping from around the corner of the low crag where our waves break, and was filling the world with light, colour and warmth. The water was shimmering green, gold and blue, the sand was a brilliant dun below the surface; all around us were people of all ages, enjoying being out on the water, having a good time. Why make a bad thing worse?

I paddled off, went and found Chief Switchfoot far from Singapore Point, on the wide side in Switchfoot Alley, where waves break on a reef of seagrass where turtles feed, swim, float and doze, and there we caught waves in peace and quiet.

Eventually we got out of the water, happy and relaxed. Went and had a cuppa, and debriefed, reminisced, and commiserated; celebrated, hung out and shot the breeze. All the good things in life.

Three hours later, 30 km to the north from us, a three metre Great White Shark appeared out of nowhere and viciously attacked a surfer. It all but bit off his left leg and caused massive haemorrhaging.

The bloke who was attacked was out there surfing by himself, but surrounded by people he didn't know.

As the shark attacked him, several complete strangers came to his rescue. They got him away from the shark, dragged him onto his board, and paddled him back to shore as fast as they could.

All the way back the shark continued to attack.

Those random, complete strangers, who had never seen this bloke before in their lives, fought off that shark tooth and nail, putting their own lives on the line, and they never gave up.

They beat off the shark, and made it back to shore.

That poor fella, he died on that beach, there and then. There was nothing anyone could do.

But it wasn't for lack of human support, and of humanity showing itself from its brightest and most beautiful side.