The Flyer: Sunset Beach, Kerry Packer, and Me
It's back on tour and this week it's been the scene of much drama, so howsabout a Sunset story?
He who hesitates is lost. Look before you leap.
Two proverbs that can apply to the same situation. Each sounds good in your North Shore mission statement yet each contradicts the other. To charge, or not to charge? That is the question.
On the 19th October, 2000 I flew out of Sydney bound for the North Shore. It was the best surf trip of my life and by far the most expensive. Before disembarking I quit my job, sold my car and packed everything in. I committed to the season in full. Upon landing I immediately hooked up with friends who sorted me out with a job and a place to stay. The work was minimal and unpaid – a few hours a day for a roof over my head – yet it was essential if I were to see the season out.
At around this point I should remind readers of Australia’s economic state in the spring of 2000. At the dawn of the millenium dollar parity was a distant pipedream. Back then the Aussie dollar was the proverbial Peso of the Pacific, getting barely 50 cents to each American dollar. Heading to Hawaii? Take your travel budget, now divide it by two.
After a week or so of good-sized Sunset I felt like I’d picked up from where I left off the season prior. Confidence was welling up and the season had barely begun. As any Hawaiian visitor knows a good beating can instil confidence as profoundly as any barrel and I was testament to that. On Christmas Day I had a 20 foot set break 20 feet beyond me at Waimea Bay. On the morning of the 2001 Eddie I went under a three wave closeout set at Waimea before parking my arse on the point and watching Ross Clarke-Jones win it. I was even dealt a literal beating by a 16-year old brudda for being the only whitefella at V'Land.
Between the character building punishment I even caught some waves.
The confidence was also building on land. Erick Regnard of Tungsten fame, employed me as a lighting guy for photo shoots. Half of them involved unclad wahines, the other half watermen such as Tom Carroll, Darrick Doerner and Cheyne Horan – all clad fortunately. I’d bought a car for a six-pack and I was running with a good crowd.
Things were happening. I had a spring in my step and was reckless in the surf. Better yet, I was pulling it all off with aplomb. Introspection, reflection, that whole thing about discretion, I had no need for that. He who hesitates is lost.
Early in February I surfed Sunset on a weird, short-range north swell. The waves were around 10-12 feet but the lineup was like nothing I’d ever seen. It appeared almost impossible to get out the back, there was always another set further out.
Sitting about halfway out on the north peak a wave stood up offering an entry. Leaping before looking, I spun and paddled for the wave.
It was the worst decision I ever made.
The wave jacked hard coming across the reef and the takeoff was all freefall, I didn’t have a chance. The first point of impact was the side of my head and my thoughts were immediately scattered. As I struggled to make sense of what was happening I saw blue sky, realised I was in the lip with the base of the wave below me, and yet I hadn’t felt myself getting sucked up and over?
Through a thick cognitive fog I realised I’d broken my eardrum and I wasn’t registering motion – I couldn’t feel up or down. I also knew I was in strife, I’d missed a good chance of a breathe and the wipeout was only just beginning.
What followed was a wipeout that brought order to my mortality. A wipeout that rejigged my religion. A wipeout that, like Kerry Packer who died and came back to say, “there’s nothing there,” turned me into a casual – though much better looking - commentator on the other side. I’ve no idea how long it lasted: I panicked and swam into the bottom thinking I was swimming upward; I heard a second wave roll overhead; I relaxed then panicked some more; I watched myself from a distance. And then I gave up and breathed in.
Through layers of foam a friend who saw the wipeout pulled me onto his board. I had just seconds to breathe in air before the next wave separated us but it was all I needed. He and another surfer got me to shore where I vomited a bucketful of blood-flecked foam then lay back on the sand under the soft tradewind and the care of a capable lifeguard. Warm pus ran out of my ear.
I was driven to Kahuku Hospital where I had my first encounter with the US medical system. In serious pain with alien fluid coming out my ear a doctor told me to scram: “No papers. No service.” So we drove back along the Kam Highway, picking up my travel insurance papers on the way, to Wahiawa Hospital. The people there were no better. “I don’t want to be filling out goddamn forms for the next six months,” said a doctor when presented with my insurance details. I went home, necked a row of Panadols from my first aid kit and rocked myself to sleep.
I couldn’t fly with a broken eardrum so I had to stay in Hawaii. Fortunately I found a good ear, nose, and throat doctor who helped my recovery. She gave me painkillers, tested my hearing, and gave me advice. But she didn’t come cheap. After six visits I’d paid her nearly $8,000 for medicine and services wiping clean two credit cards that I hadn’t intended to touch. There was nothing to worry about, I told myself, it was all covered by travel insurance. I’d simply claim it when I got home.
I arrived back in Australia on the 15th March, 2001. The newspaper headlines that day were all announcing the same news: “HIH Insurance Collapses”. It was Australia’s largest corporate collapse yet the story meant little to me. Until, that is, a few days later when I attempted to claim my outstanding travel debt. It was then that I found out what the role of an underwriter is and who was underwriting my goddamn travel insurance.
I had no job, no car, and not a cent to my name. Thanks to HIH collapsing I also had a debt of $8,000 American dollars which, given the exchange rate was actually a whole lot more. Take your debt, now times it by two. I owed $16,000 for one dumb takeoff.
Beware the advice you heed.
This story first appeared in 'White Horses' Vol. 1 No. 1 - onya Gra
Sunset made a thumping return to the Championship Tour, a 12-15ft northwest swell that created much excitement and a fair whack of controversy too. Steve's recaps didn't shy from the issues.
Hurley Sunset Open: Day Two
Hurley Sunset Open: Day Three
Just as they did on the Pipeline webcast, the drone footage at Sunset Beach provided a wonderful overview of the vast lineup. What they also revealed, was how much real estate was being ignored by the surfers.
The eleven-time champ is vaxxed and ready to rumble. Getting the jab seems to have disappointed many people who thought Slater was one of their own. What this makes clear is that arguing about a principle is different than acting upon it, and you don't become dominant by backing any other side than your own.
At any rate, he's coming to Australia, so expect fireworks, lots of headlines, maybe even a scandal, swooning MILFs, crowds of gaggling autograph hunters, a good measure of schmaltz, and among it all, some hot surfing from Old Baldy.
There's nowhere to go with this story. It's one of those ones I want to know about yet don't. Like most surfers, I spend long periods in the ocean, and that's not going to change, and nor will the behaviour of sharks ever change. That leaves a vague middle-ground, uncontested until tragic news like this occurs.
RIP old mate, and take care everyone.
Drop in for a few drama-filled days at Nazare, featuring a whistle-clean paddle session, a hell of a swell jump, and then a brutal beatdown that fractures Jamie Mitchell's back.