The Surf Carnival

The Surf Carnival, by Ross Renwick

It is a bright and sultry day and the sea is a wild animal chewing at the land and the sky.

On the beach older men in white cotton shorts and shirts are tapping red pencils on blue clipboards and looking watchful. It¹s alright for them to smile and laugh amongst themselves because they aren¹t the ones who have to enter the raging surf.

The older men have SLSA printed on their white shirts. It stands for Surf Life Saving Australia so they have probably been in seas like this, some of them, and they have no intention of offering us mercy.

They are honour bound never to cancel a surf carnival even if it looks like a few of us could die.

When a rescue¹s on you have to be ready for anything, they say. They¹d rather have a corpse than a cancellation.

My problem is this. The night before the carnival l have agreed with Tony and Col to join them in the surfboard race. I had not then seen the ocean and there¹s no pulling out now. I¹m more scared of the sneering than the drowning.

There has only been one change. The surfboard race has been changed from being the tenth event to being the first event.

This suggests to me that the old buggers are nervous about starting any event at all. Then l see that one of them is counting us, using his pencil like a wand. They¹ve never done this before. I can¹t believe it.

They¹re losing their nerve. They are going to decide whether they can run the swimming events based on what happens when the surfboards hit the sea.

The surfboards we are racing on are sixteen feet long and waterlogged, as they always are, and weigh so much that few people under the age of eighteen can carry them. At their length and weight they are difficult to control, but they run a straight line fast, real fast.

There are about sixty starters waiting on the beach and the officials get ready to start the race. We are all yawning nervously. Sixty guys standing looking at twelve foot high thunderous waves and we are all yawning our heads off. They usually start by yelling ŒGo,¹ but the noise of the sea is so loud they have found a starting pistol somewhere.

A few minutes ago they told us that if they decide to stop the race they will activate the shark alarm and we must come back to the beach immediately.

Several midnight activations of the shark alarm have proved that it can startle the sleeping as far away as four suburbs.

The race is about to start. I am in a medical condition that is known as scared shitless.

The gun goes off and about sixty surfboarders hit the edge of the sea. Even in the first twenty metres of whirling white water the sea suggests a power that l have never felt before. I¹m paddling on my knees and the white water hits my knees hard, then my chest, and then the sixty of us are washed back onto the beach. It all begins again and l point my board slightly south, attempting to get close to the headland where there is a rip and slight cover in the deeper water. Tony and Col and a few others try the same
wobbly plan.

There are five or six rows of thundering white water and then there are two breaks, the first about three hundred metres out and the second about four hundred out. As a small group we now reach areas of comparative calm. It¹s not much of an advantage but we take it. By paddling hard on the spot we can
hold our position, more or less, while expending a large part of our available energy. And watch. And wait. And hope.

After a while, and with I guess half of my strength left, l detect a break in the corduroy pattern of the ground swell. At water level there is very little to see with troughs this size. When you go over some white water you gain a little height and you might think that the distant waves will be smaller. But they might not. And in this case, as I catch a glimpse through the wet and the noise and the great unremitting strength of it all, I can see that they are not smaller. That means bigger.

But Col races forward and we all ignore our screaming muscles to follow. We go over a few green waves and we can suddenly see the buoys we are to paddle around as a big wave lifts them skywards. They¹re a few hundred metres away and it¹s about twenty minutes since we left the beach. There are
seven of us as we race for the buoys and as l turn around them l see the headland and beach. There are people watching from every vantage point.

I glance seawards and there are some more very big waves approaching. Col and Tony are ahead of me and I am coming third. As l turn at the last buoy l see several things. The first is that the three of us are the only ones to reach the final buoy. The other four have apparently been washed back to the beach.

So l am now coming last.

Then l notice that Col and Tony are far enough ahead of me to be in some danger from the first of the waves that are now quite close. Waves often come in groups of three, the third being the largest. I judge that the first wave will break on Col and Tony and they will lose their boards and have to swim into the beach.

I am now becoming excited because l am in a perfect position to catch the first wave and win the race. I have won a few swimming races but never a surf board race. There will be plenty of kudos from wining today. As l paddle onto the wave l am very high above them and a bit to the north.

My board gathers speed and as l stand up on it my right shoulder dislocates.

I am now about four hundred metres out to sea, racing down the front of a wave three times taller than I am, which is about to break, with a dislocated shoulder. Prior to this my plan was to stand until the board reached the bottom of the wave, then flop onto it and hang onto it until l reach the beach. I cross that idea out as l now have no arms since my left arm is holding my right arm against my body in a vain attempt to minimise the shocking pain that is occurring. I know from experience that my brain is pissed off with me for bringing it into this danger and has shut my throat to prevent the forced entry of sea water. A frightened brain can do this, from malevolence.

I now have about a quarter of a second to choose from my other two options. One is to take the bounce, standing as long as I can, and hoping that, armless, I will be washed into the beach. My other option is to step off the board into the green water with pointed feet in an attempt to get as deep as I can so that I don¹t go over the falls when the wave breaks.

I step off the board. I go a long way down. I have no arms so l kick my way to the surface. It takes a long time. When l come to the surface there is a very large wave about to break on me. I go down a very long way again, but this time the decision is made by the wave, and I have not had a chance to take the huge breath my screaming lungs are demanding. and I take a long time coming up.

When l do l come up I am in green water and I am over a sandbank which is probably thirty feet down and it¹s where the very largest waves break. I cannot stay here so I start kicking myself out to sea. As waves lift me l can see the beach in the distance and as far as l can tell nothing much is happening. What I really want to see is some sign of my imminent rescue. I put my left arm up to make sure that they know I am in big trouble.

I¹m looking at it this way. There are seven surf clubs on the beach so there will be about three hundred life savers. Thirty or forty of them will be very good swimmers and capable of bringing a surf line to me. There will be at least seven surf boats, powerfully driven by four rowers and a sweep.

All l have to do I wait.

I am now swinging into semi consciousness as every now and then a big wave catches me and holds me down. I have seen the white light and l have no idea of time.

Unknown to me attempt after attempt is being made to get a line or a boat out through the surf. But no one can do it. An hour has passed since the surfboard race started.

I have become disinterested and time is a piece of string. Then I hear a loud slapping noise. Then I hear it again. Again and again. A large waves passes under me and then a long slim white shape comes over the wave and nearly brains me as it slaps back into the water.

It¹s a big double ski. Sitting on it looking at me is a huge man from the same surf club as me, staring at me and looking angry. His name is Tim, the local stand- over man. At lunch one day he is asked, not by me, how many people had he killed. I expect the question or to be killed within moments but he laughs and says, "No one. But don¹t go spreading it around or you¹ll ruin my reputation."

ŒThanks, Tim." I say.

ŒStupid prick.¹ he says. ŒGet on the front.¹

I can¹t climb on board because l have no arms. He drags me into the front seat of the surf ski. He does not drag me gently. He begins paddling out to sea. There are some very big waves coming.

The bones in the top of my arm are now living in my armpit, thanks to Tim. I am told later that I walked up the beach by myself. Not that I remember. Then gentle people in white are taking me to an ambiance and I look around for him. I can¹t see him so I say to myself, ŒThanks, Tom."

I swear I hear him say "Don¹t do it again you little shit." But I don¹t know for sure.

I discover a few days later that the surf carnival was cancelled.

Editors note: Brilliant stuff about my old mate, Timmy. Ross writes:

I was reading your stuff this morning. I've nearly completed a book of short stories about the northern beaches in the 50's and 60's. This one's about Tim.

It's true. I'd have died at age 22 but for Tim. He gave me more than 40 years and still counting. After this incident he looked after me sort of. Please pass this on to anyone you like, especially Max and Matthew.
Best Wishes
Ross Renwick


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Surf Life Saving Australia