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Senior surfers on a roll

by Malcolm Knox - Book Release August

Malcolm Knox: surfer
'It was not for fitness that I took up surfing. Surfing took me up. I didn’t even know I was a committed surfer until I was already in too deep to come back.' Photograph: Andrew Quilty/Oculi/Agence Vu

Pressed down beneath tonnes of sea water, in a place where the light turns strange and you are flailing in a frothy fourth element, neither air nor water, the tears rising at the thought of how much you want to see your children again: not, perhaps, the best time to realise you are too old for this surfing business.

Yet once you have survived this immediate peril, you will dedicate yourself to it fanatically, rearrange your life around it, find in it beauty, camaraderie and a solace almost spiritual. Knowing you are too old for this is precisely what brings you back, again and again, for you have reached the roaring 40s.

I first heard of the roaring 40s through the masters swimming scene. Richard Dill-Macky, a former top-line Australian swimmer now in his 50s, says, "They retire in their 20s, raise families in their 30s and roar back in their 40s. They realise they've got one last crack." Mark Morgan, a Commonwealth Games gold medallist in the 100m freestyle at 21, re-entered competition swimming with such commitment in his 40s that he reached a national open-age final at the unprecedented age of 44. Now 54, Morgan says, "It's not unusual to see more athletes setting superior world records aged 40-45 than at 35-40 or even 30-35. In their 40s, they're ferocious."

My roaring 40s started on my 37th birthday, when my wife gave me three surfing lessons. A friend said to her, "What, you don't want to see your husband any more?"

I was not an athlete returning for one last sip at the fountain. I was a writer, and a reader. Sedentary isn't the word for it. I didn't think of myself as a blob exactly, but a week's skiing a year and an occasional round of golf don't exactly constitute a fitness regime.

It was not for fitness that I took up surfing. Surfing took me up. I didn't even know I was a committed surfer until I was already in too deep to come back. It's insidious. It started off as a once-a-month thing. I bought my own board, a 7ft 2in Mini Mal, in 2004, and within two years was trying to surf once a week. By 2006 I had a shortboard, and in 2008 I moved my family to the seaside, so I could cut down on petrol costs and travelling time to feed what was now a thrice-weekly habit. Then I quit a full-time, good-benefits, high-paying, ultra-secure job at the height of the financial crisis, about a month after taking on a huge mortgage. Salaried employment was getting in the way.

I've tended not to do things by halves. I don't put down half-read books or quit writing half-finished novels, no matter how bad. I finish. I had a grandfather who wrote in a diary every day from 1929 to 1993, every single day. Let's say it's in the blood.

In the roaring 40s, you race the clock against your looming decline. You seek the company of others with your condition. This can get you into trouble, as it did around 2009 when a surfer friend, Rob Abernathy, also breaching his 40s, made an inappropriate suggestion: would I join our local boardriders' club?

Boardriders' clubs are to coastal Australia what the village cricket side is to England. They gather once a month, set up a tent and a sausage sizzle, and stage miniature versions of professional contests. In 15-minute heats, wearing coloured singlets, surfers perform before a panel of judges and a watching crowd. Hooters signal the start and finish of heats. The knockout format takes most of the day. The Queenscliff Boardriders Club, of which Rob is a faithful servant, is divided into six grades: A-grade, B-grade, over-45s, women's, under-18s and under-14s. "You're over 45, aren't you?" Rob said. "No? I guess you're B-grade, then."

"Why would I want to surf in competitions?" I said. Why compare myself with others? Isn't that kind of relentless competitiveness what we surf to escape from?

"You get a discount at the surf shop and the pub! Come on, see you Saturday!"

For months I fended him off on the grounds of being too hopeless and certain to make an arse of myself. The first thing to note is how intimidating such community groups are. From within, 40 or 50 surfers embody the best of local community esprit de corps, the kind of thing our entropic societies need most. From without, they resemble a menacing murder of crows, gathered in a pack to caw and roar in that indigenous Shane Warne nasality. Comedian Chris Lilley, in his television show Angry Boys, has such groups pissing on their neighbours' beach literally to mark their territory. Once in, you're a good bloke for life. If you're outside, and you feel frightened off by them, then that's a side benefit.

But I wanted to be in. The hazards of being a kook, or beginner, are, first, the kind of near-drowning experience mentioned at the beginning, which I underwent on a weekly basis for three years. Second, the constant confrontation with your personal incompetence, and third, the abuse you get from members of boardriders' clubs. In your kook days, you are not pitied but despised by surfers who shout at you so viciously that you will, in fact, cry, even though they are 16 and you are 40. Is it scorn or derision? It doesn't have to be an either/or. You are as welcome as the species of "brown trout" Sydney beaches hosted before the sewage outfalls were redirected offshore. I remember dropping in on an experienced surfer – that is, getting on to a wave he was already riding – and feeling quite thrilled with myself for standing up until he said, "What was the point of that?" I said, "Sorry, I didn't see you. I won't do it again." He said, "Just fuck off and do something else." He might have been 25.

I also thought going in contests might give my surfing some point. In the roaring 40s, everything needs a point. No sooner does someone take up jogging than they are training for a half-marathon. Forty-seven-year-old runner Steve Hawkins has this year recorded lifetime bests in the 5,000m and 10,000m. "I like to be focused," he says. My own wife, who had never laced up a running shoe in her life – and who mocked me mercilessly for my addiction to surfing – took up exercise at the age of, you guessed it, 40. Two years later, she competes in so-called fun runs, performs multi-kilometre time trials and is training for the unfunnest run of all, Sydney's heartbreaking City2Surf.

Surfing might appear to lie outside these quantifiable sports; surfing is meant to be about soul, about nature, about communing with the secret language of tides and swells. That's one way of looking at it. Another way of looking at it is as an activity that has the purest addictive properties. It is unbelievably hard to be good at. It is unbelievably hard even to be bad at. As with golf, swimming and running, you suffer so much mental and physical torment as a beginner that you are locked into constant practice to stop slipping back.

Addictive sports offer numerous immediate horizons. When I began, I had one ambition: to paddle out the back on a fibreglass board, sit on it without falling off, then paddle into an unbroken or green wave and stand up and ride it. Then I could die a happy man. Needless to say, once I did that, new horizons appeared.

If I can ride a shorter, less embarrassing board. If I can stop hyperventilating with exhaustion and panic in big surf. I never wanted to sit in the beautiful, warm ocean and exalt at the sight of a dolphin. I never wanted to meditate and divine life's secrets. I wanted the next step. Before it was too late. Forget that dying happy business.

I kept turning up at the boardriders' contests, watching and chickening out. Then, one week, after another call from Rob, I manned up, decided to compete. After a sleepless Friday night, I turned up as they were setting up the tent and the hotplate. Rob and I discussed the surf.

It looked Goldilocks-perfect: not too big, not too small. After 15 minutes, I went to Cav, the then president, to sign up for the day. (Everyone in the club goes by a nom de guerre: Marvo, Meggsy, Samson, TM. The current president is Wave Rat, or just Rat.) I handed over my $50 annual fee.

"Sorry, mate," Cav said. "It's past eight o'clock."


"Club rule – you don't put your name down by eight, you can't surf. No exceptions."

I looked to Rob. "I've been here since ten-to. Have you signed up?"

Rob nodded. "You didn't put your name down?"

Of course I was relieved. Commitment to action was the first step. Surely that was the only step that counted? Once I'd committed, I didn't actually need to surf.

The next month was a team event. I chickened out again. There's competition, and there's competition. In contest surfing, you perform in front of a crowd and are, literally, judged. In a team, your failures let down not only yourself but others. In the roaring 40s, though, team sports are just as popular as narrow-eyed individualism. Sydney's veterans' (over-40) field hockey association has more than 30 competing teams.

Ian Jessup, 46, who has played hockey since childhood, says, "I play better now than ever. I never got fit when I was young, and now I'm fitter. I play smarter." Jessup is convinced his veterans' team could beat most of the top A-grade sides in Sydney. "We're about to expand to include 35-40-year-olds. They're a lot weaker than we are. The 30s, they drop out because they have young kids. The 40s are much stronger."

Rob kept calling and emailing. If I didn't turn up, it was, "Where were you?" As if the whole club was waiting. Which was what frightened me.

Experienced surfers forget this, but for the first five years or so, every time you surf, there's a part of you that worries that you won't be able to stand up today. Just a little voice. I can safely say I was the only member of the Queenscliff Boardriders Club who still heard this voice.

Eventually, I ran out of excuses. I turned up before eight, put my name down, and committed. I put on a red singlet and said hello to my B-grade competitors. They looked promisingly old and said they hadn't surfed for a month. What was my excuse? I'd been surfing every day, in training.

The hooter went and I followed them out. This was my first mistake. A 15-minute heat is a blink of an eye, especially when, as it was this day, the surf is big enough to make the paddle-out a battle. By the time I was out the back, I had only nine minutes left. Also, B-grade surfers are really good. A-graders are indistinguishable from pros. B-graders are a little less skilled, but not much. And, finally, the B-graders who were ripping up the waves were not the guys I'd paddled out with. Those guys were in the next heat. The ones in my heat had been out the back before the heat started.

In my nine minutes, I didn't get a wave. There was a positive, though. Nobody at the hotplate seemed to notice. Didn't even know I was there. I handed in my singlet, and it was taken with the same indifference as the singlets of the B-grade demigods who had progressed to round two.

The next time I committed to a contest, and slept not a wink on the Friday night, I got to the beach and the waves were massive. The time after that, they were too small. Just as my horizons had been adjusting upwards through my general surf education, so they were with competition. My first goal had been to join up. Next, commit to a contest. Next, get in the water. Now, I aimed to commit, get in the water (in time) and surf a scoring wave. Just one would do. And then die a happy man, again.

So the day came, the waves were small but clean, I put my name down in time, I had a warm-up surf at dawn, I got out the back in time, even caught a good wave before my heat's hooter went off. I got chatting out the back with a woman, Courtney, in a fluoro singlet. I asked if any rules of etiquette were waived for singleted surfers.

"If you're in a contest," she said, "you can drop in on people who aren't in it. They don't have to get out of your way, but you can take their waves without penalty. Just don't drop in on someone in your heat. Then you'll score an interference."

Pff, I thought. As if I don't know that! The hooter went off, a nice wave walled up, I paddled. I glimpsed Courtney getting on to the wave, but as she was warming up for a women's heat I stroked in and took the wave. Turn! Score! Die happy!

"Sorry for the drop-in," I said to Courtney, "but I was just doing what you said."

"What do you mean?"

My throat went salty as she said it. "You aren't in the heat, are you?"

She nodded. "Not enough girls today, so I'm surfing with the B-graders."

Hell. My first scoring wave is not a scoring wave. It's the opposite: an interference. My first scoring wave is a negative score. I am now a minus-surfer.

For the remaining minutes of the heat, I thrashed around, giving Courtney an especially wide berth (she got about five waves) and eventually I did get my scoring one. And another. They were crap waves, but I'd got up, I'd slid along the face, I'd done my signature slow-motion arthritic-old-man very-roundhouse cutback. I came into the beach. I was fourth of four in my heat, and if I hadn't done the interference I'd still have been fourth. But that wasn't the point. The point was something else.

I turn 45 in October. Oh yes, they're going to see a different surfer then. Watch out, old men.

But then I scoped the over-45 group, and they're as good as the B-graders. I should have known that. They're the roaring 40s, some in the roaring bloody 50s, too, still charging at that last chance.

The Life, by Malcolm Knox. is published by Allen & Unwin on 1 August.