Drive Thru: Northern Beaches
As of this month I've been living on Sydney's Northern Beaches for six months. In that time I've surfed every wave from Winki to the Joey and therefore I'm in an excellent position to cast judgement on the region and its many famous waves.
It is an area that offers so much and delivers so little. South swells, by far the most prevalent direction on this coast, are treated with disdain by Northern Beaches surfers because so few places handle them, and those that do have a hundred out at daybreak.
North Swells send the local surfers – all 134,598 of them – into a rabid froth. And so they should get excited, for the Northern Beaches pumps in this direction and those three days a year should not be missed!
So then, here is my directory of Northern Beaches surfspots, sourced from my own field research and objective observations:
When is a wave not a wave? When it breaks just once a year? Or when the only reason it gets ridden is the conspicuous absence of quality waves nearby? Don't spend too long thinking about it because Deadmans, the southern-most spot on the Northern Beaches, is both. Calling it a wave is arguable and I'm not the arguing kind.
Just north of Deadies is Winki, which breaks very similar to a wave in Cronulla called The Patch. But whereas the Patch is a low-orbiting wave used only as a warm up for Shark Island, Winki is the centre of it's own bodyboarding universe. It's limited and fickle, but the prone crew are fiercely attached to it.
Fairy Bower was a wave that I always wanted to surf when I was growing up. The voice of the old boys travelled long and loud and I was regaled with stories of Snowy McAllister, Bob 'Surge' Evans and Nat Young taking on the big ones at the Bower. Yet to ride it now is to understand how far surfing has progressed, for the Bower is a museum piece. It is a majestic, south-swell dodging, longboard-loving relic of history. Remember, the old boys once considered Crescent Head a performance wave too.
Then there's Manly, my new home beach. Manly is the promised land for climate refugees from the northern hemsiphere who ditch longboards with aplomb and buy property by the pound. It's lively, cosmopolitan and an excellent place to perfect your closeout floater.
Curl Curl picks up a lot of swell...and doesn't know what to do with any of it. Like an overladen waiter it wobbles this way and that until something has to give. Usually it's your left knee as a three foot high backwash hits halfway through a reo. Down at the south end there's a young cadre of bodyboarders who claim ownership of the reef. In an endearing display of optimism they call it a 'wedge'. But it ain't a wedge, it's a wobble.
Dee Why Point is the go-to spot in a south swell, apparently. It is also the most dependable reefbreak on the Northern Beaches, apparently. Well, let me tell you that if Dee Why Point was located outside of city limits Mark Warren would never have included it in his Surfing Atlas. If Dee Why Point was in, say, a country town the locals would simply drive straight past it on their way to somewhere half decent. Dee Why doesn't handle a south wind and once it gets over six foot it washes through. When it does break it's as jumpy and unpredictable as the heavies that call it home. You go to race and the wave backs off, so you back off and it goes to race.
Long Reef looks great on a map, jutting eastward as it does and offering wind protection on both the north and south sides. Lovely. If the Gods were really smiling on the Northern Beaches there'd be Lennox Head on one side and Black Rock off to the other. Instead there's White Rock and bloody Butterbox.
Butterbox! When I first moved to the Northern Beaches a fella said to me that Butterbox was the northside equivalent of Voodoo. After surfing Butterbox a few times, even at some size, I can only deduce that the fella was suffering an acute and incurable case of delirium, or he had never surfed Voodoo. Butterbox isn't an answer to anything. Butterbox is a problem. It is the only lefthander I know where you spend more time going right and it wobbles more than half-set jelly. In a good swell the view from the top of Long Reef is incredible, defined swell lines approach the reef...and then they scatter like marbles in every direction.
As for White Rock, well, I've seen many rock shelfs that could do with some human augmentation, you know, just to improve what nature has created. A few rocks placed here, a few gaps filled there. Whiterock is a place that could benefit from construction of this kind. With a bargeload of concrete and landfill you'd have a lovely rockshelf to fish off. As for surfing? Forget it...
Years ago I was surfing at North Narrabeen and got dropped in on twice in a row by the same bloke. After the second time I arced up and was duly sent in. Not happy with sending me in Mr Angry then wanted to blue me on the beach. I walked to my car and tried to drive away. As I did, Mr Angry, who'd dropped in on me, still wanted to fight.
North Narrabeen is full of tradesman. Angry tradesman. Angry tradesman whos last two customers have defaulted on payment and they don't kick dogs around here, they go surfing instead. Peace and love and goodwill has completely passed this suburb by, and even though Terry Fitzgerald starred in Morning of the Earth he is the King of the Angry Tradesman.
Warriewood has the best southerly corner on the Northern Beaches. A place where you can get protection from the prevailing wind and still get a bit of size. The only problem is that when it's blowing south the carpark is full of tradesman's utes, and you know who owns them...
Mona Vale was very good in June 1987. Long lefthanders were running down the beach just like Uluwatu. The legend of Monawatu was born and it's never gotten as good since.
In November I had a session at Mona Vale Basin and was hassled by an unruly pack of lids. Obnoxious little twurps they were, talking-tough in high-pitched voices. A quick lesson: Humans have always fought over land, the concept is as old as religion. And the intensity of battle bears no relationship to the riches of the land. In 1973 over 10,000 men lost their lives in a battle for the Sinai Desert, a waterless, God-forsaken expanse in Egypt. Gimme the Sinai Desert over the Basin any day.
Shhhhh...somewhere around here is a...secret spot. This...secret spot is visible by no fewer than 100 dwellings. It lies just off the main arterial road and has a carpark with a great view right above it. It doesn't barrel, doesn't handle a south wind and every surfer on the Northern Beaches knows of this...secret spot.
Newport Reef reminds me of a skateboard bowl, albeit one set with lumpy concrete and devoid of vertical sections. It's an ideal wave for longer boards, and when it breaks that's what the locals exclusively ride. Not 'longboards' as in malibus, but 'longer boards' as in guns of the Hawaiian variety, even when it's just six foot. On their ten foot Brewers they pick up waves earlier than the keenest of SUP's and angle never-so-gracefully toward the channel. The rest of the beach is a closeout aside from the Peak where you can do one pump and half a cutback before the closeout.
Last year I was suiting up in the carpark at North Avalon when a middle-aged fella driving a slick, late model BMW rocked up with the Ramones blaring on the speakers. He was sporting a pair of Rayban Baloramas and was catalogue-perfect in his beach attire. This cultural disjuncture pervades the whole suburb where superannuated baby boomers desperately cling to memories of their youth. At the south end, LA has a takeoff area the size of a dinner table and the locals are always ravenous.
Further beyond is Whale Beach and Palm Beach, both a good hours drive from Manly. For the same travel time I'd advise heading to the Central Coast, Cronulla or Wollongong, where the crowds are few, pies are cheap and parking free.