The Petchary came across a video recently of a surfer with the wonderfully gritty name of Garret McNamara, who recently found himself riding what is suspected to be the highest wave ever surfed.
“Very mysterious, very magical,” is how McNamara described the 90 foot tall, dove-blue curve of water, fringed with foam. The white track of his slide follows him down this mountain, like a skier on blue, with the continuous roar of the sea in his ears.
I try to imagine what that must feel like. How it feels in your ears, your arms, your legs, your stomach. How it sounds, how it tastes on your tongue.
Mr. McNamara was born in Massachusetts, but lives in Hawaii, the mecca of the endlessly traveling surfing community. They seem a restless crowd, always in search of the next wave – not necessarily a bigger wave, but one more challenging, different. Our Jamaican surfers – an enthusiastic young group of surfers, sun-bleached dreadlocks flying – practice on the much smaller waves that adorn the shores of our somewhat placid Caribbean sea, and then venture further afield to compete.
I believe they do well.
It is this combination of intensity and at the same time a mellowed-out approach to life – listen to Jack Johnson for too long and you will be flat on your back on the couch, moving just enough to reach for a glass of wine – that is so fascinating about the surfing lifestyle. The other thing that fascinates me is the sheer physical effrontery of it all. The Petchary recalls a visit to the famous Bondi Beach in Australia a couple of years ago (not as kitschy as I expected it to be). I sat on the balcony of the swimming club there, and watched the small figures of surfers down below, paddling themselves out on the enormous swell of the ocean, to catch a wave.
I have always been a physical coward. Some years ago, I became frozen with fright on the battlements of the medieval castle in Carcassonne, France – unable to move forward or back, clinging to a thin metal rail, while the wind blew. For the remainder of that holiday I refused to climb anything resembling a castle, settling myself firmly on a grassy knoll at the foot of each terrifying edifice. So, the thought of setting off – alone – with a piece of board for company – no protective clothing, no hand to cling on to – on a shifting and surging wall of green water; and then standing up on that piece of board, gazing down the falling slope as the wave curls above me… No.
And yet I found the short video – Mr. McNamara’s feat was achieved in just a few minutes – exhilarating. The most exciting part was when the wave broke above him, his figure becoming blurred, his shouts broken up by a fractured screen of white foam like sheet glass breaking over him. (At this point, I would have been screaming rather than shouting).
I envy Mr. McNamara for his boldness, his freedom. This is not about “conquering nature” – it is about becoming almost – almost – overwhelmed by it, and emerging cleansed and beautiful at the end.
The wave that Mr. McNamara rode was in Nazare, Portugal, where there is a 1,000-foot deep canyon in the sea that throws up huge waves – which then in turn crash against 300-foot tall cliffs. Mr. McNamara is a specialist in big-wave surfing. In Australia there is a kind of wave called the “bombora” – a series of large waves that break over a reef or a shelf of rocks, normally quite far from shore. ”Bombora” is an aboriginal name for “reef,” and it sounds like the roar of the ocean.
Indeed, surfing has become an obsession in Australia over the years – not just a Californian Beach Boys thing – and this brings me to my book review, below. I read this book (not very long) while waiting for an operation on my broken wrist, two years ago. I was captivated, and forgot to feel nervous about the surgery. This book does not glamorize the art of surfing – but for the teenage boys in the story, it is like a pulse throbbing in the wrist, surging in the veins.
And the bombora is waiting out there for them.
The act of breathing and the object that is breath seem so close; but in fact one is mastery over the other. Breath is controlled, held in place – stopped, momentarily, or for always. It is the essence of our being, and remaining. For that reason alone, this essential breath is monotonous, predictable; even boring.
And boredom is one of the overwhelming emotions – if it can be so described – in the life of an adolescent. Brucie Pike and Loonie, two twelve year-olds living in a quiet town on the wild coast of Western Australia, are determined to keep that boredom at bay. They work at it together – at first, inseparable – with ever more thrilling escapades. Their fascination is with water; first the river, then the ocean, waiting its turn. They are impatient to take it on.
Pike is the quieter boy, with older, conservative but kindly parents; his mother makes scones for tea. Loonie’s family is less secure, and his spirit is unfettered. From the start it is clear that Loonie’s daring is more sharply honed, more refined than his friend, “Pikelet,” who observes, “He never backed away from anything or anyone; that was just how he was.”
The grace and beauty of surfing was never discussed between the boys; but it was all a part of the joy of daring, of “dancing on the water.” A large part of the enormous pleasure of reading this book was, for me, sharing this joy with them, through the gorgeously descriptive prose which begins with their first surfing experience. Winter storms, perilous rocks, swells and treacherous currents; the sea is beautiful and increasingly terrifying in its power. The sea roars and rumbles its way through the narrative, a restless companion for our fearlessly happy young surfers. You feel it with them when the salt water burns their sinuses, and they are tossed down to the sea floor.
It’s not just a pretty picture, it’s a raw sensation.
This could be a happy coming of age story; but we know this is not to be, from the disturbing prelude, narrated by Pike as an older man. Our young adventurers meet the old hippie Sando, and are drawn to the enigmatic man with a long grey beard and a carelessly bold style of surfing. Through their troubled, ambivalent relationships with Sando and his young, embittered American wife Eva, the teenagers venture further into strange and difficult territory. The risks become greater, the shadows lengthen, and the boys become old beyond their years – with no way home. They are literally out of their depth, their feet no longer touching the ground.
They are holding their breath.
Yes, another thing about breath – like surfing, it can be addictive. Whether it is his father’s mountainous snores at night, the boys’ childish underwater contests in the cold river water, or the much more adult pleasures taken at Sando and Eva’s house on the hill, breath and the control of it brings risk. The sour taste of real danger mixes deliciously with the oxygen-filled delights of the wave and its depths.
When I visited Australia last year, the surfers were there. They were there at Bondi Beach, boys and girls and men and women, floating on the vast blue and white moving patchwork of sea and foam; young men with bleached hair, peeling their wetsuits down to their waists in parking lots. At Byron Bay, they were fathers and sons, laughing together at a secret joke as they tucked their surfboards under their arms and headed home; and the lone surfers were out there in the glowing dusk (a time of day when the sharks come out), clinging to the waves as if they were catching the very last one to fall onto those silken shores.
We never spoke to a surfer, did not want to disturb them. They were in their own world. As Sando says (“hippie shit, mate,” scoffs Lonnie), “It’s about you. You and the sea, you and the planet.”
Author Note: Tim Winton was born in 1960 in Perth, Australia. He has been making his living as a writer since his first novel, “An Open Summer,” won the Australian/Vogel National Literary Award. He began the novel at age nineteen while taking a Creative Writing course at Curtin University, Perth. He also wrote “Cloudstreet” (1991), which was adapted for the theater and toured Australia, Europe and the U.S.; and “That Eye, The Sky,” (1986), which was adapted for the theater and made into a film. “In the Winter Dark” (1988) was also filmed. “The Riders” (1995) was short-listed for the Booker Prize and won the Commonwealth Writers Prize. After six adult novels, he wrote his first children’s book in 1988 and subsequently several others about a 13-year-old, Lockie Leonard. He is also the author of two short story collections, “Scission and Other Stories” (1987) and “Minimum of Two” (1987). His novel “Dirt Music” (2001) won several awards and “The Turning” (2005) tells seventeen overlapping stories. “Breath” (2008) is the winner of the 2009 Miles Franklin Award for Literature – Australia’s top literary prize – which he has now won four times; and was short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers Prize. It is his first novel in seven years. Winton is active in Australia’s environmental movement, in particular the preservation of the marine environment. For more about “Breath” see http://breath.timwinton.com.au/
- Hawaiian Garrett McNamara surfs a 90-foot wave off the coast of Portugal.McNamara has been working with the Portuguese Hydrographic Institute to understand how the waves reach such record-breaking heights at this particular point By KILIAN DOYLE (theboldcorsicanflame.wordpress.com)
- From Indigenous Creation to International Sensation: Surfer Breaks World Record by Riding 90-foot Giant Wave (indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com)
- Surfer Garrett McNamara: ‘It was only when I got in the wave that I saw the size. I was in awe’ (guardian.co.uk)
- http://www.jamsurfas.webs.com/ Website of the Jamaica Surfing Association
- http://petchary.wordpress.com/?s=Jack+Johnson Petchary’s Blog on Jack Johnson
- Flyer for “Bombora: The Story of Australian Surfing” (2009 documentary)
- In the depths of Winton (theage.com.au)
The Petchary is not writing about the world’s first African American heavyweight boxing champion. Nor is she referring to the politician from the American state of Maryland, who seems to be in a lot of trouble right now (and there seem to be quite a few of those floating around).
No, it’s the lovable, boy-next-door Hawaiian singer, songwriter, child surfer and environmentalist. The Petchary is listening to one of her favorite albums of his, the wistful “Sleeping Through the Static,” which was recorded entirely using solar power.
Jack Johnson has perfected the art of “laid back.” His gentle voice, sometimes whimsical lyrics and simple, ambling acoustic arrangements can carry you away to a lazy beach somewhere, a breeze quietly shifting the palm trees, pelicans diving out at sea.
And his ocean connections are very strong; the son of a well-known surfer in Hawaii, he started surfing at age five and stopped after a nasty accident at age seventeen. But at age thirty-five he is still quietly living by the sea in Hawaii, married to his childhood sweetheart and their three children. He is a family man. His latest album is entitled simply “To The Sea.”
That is not to say that Jack is simply chilling. Apart from keeping his fans happy, recording and touring, he is busy putting a lot of the money he has earned into his favorite causes – largely surrounding environmental awareness and children. He set up the Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation to help under-privileged children and to help children understand and treasure the fragile Hawaiian environment. The foundation was set up with the entire profits of his 2008 tour; now he is giving all his profits from his 2010 tour to his latest venture – All At Once, his social action network that includes 150 non-profit organizations.
Jack is simply an idealist, with some simply great ideas. The slogan for All At Once (allatonce.org if you want to jump on board) is “An individual action, multiplied by millions, creates global change.” He may have something there. Renewable energy, plastic-free environment, climate change, oceans and rivers, sustainable living, tree planting… all are Jack’s concerns. He just won Billboard’s Humanitarian Award for 2010.
And Jack and his wife also run the Kokua Hawaii Foundation, which focuses on environmental education. They recommend real Christmas trees, by the way – not plastic ones, although they are reusable. The Petchary feels vindicated by this, as Mr. Petchary has been trying to tell her that plastic is more sustainable… Which never felt quite right.
So there you have it. If you want to lower your blood pressure, then Jack is your man. The emotions are muted, he sings about banana pancakes and the fruit trees in his back yard. But every now and then a sharper Jack emerges, as in his song “Enemy”…
After we spoke I had a dream that I broke/The teeth from the mouth of a snake/Then I choked on the teeth, they were mine all along/I picked up the pieces when I woke up/I put them in a boat made of things that I don’t want to see/I blew on the sail, watched it drift out to sea/The further it drifted the closer it came…
We can’t be mellow all the time, can we. But while hard core rock fans may find Jack just a little too, well, soft – the Petchary wishes people like him could be cloned.
Then perhaps the world would be a more livable place.
- Musician Jack Johnson Receives Billboard’s 2010 Humanitarian Award (ecorazzi.com)
- Jack Johnson Takes A Stand Against Disposable Plastics (ecorazzi.com)
- Will the Real Jack Johnson Please Stand Up? (spinner.com)