Fear and Stoking on the NSW North Coast
Grey, grey, grey.
Grey water, grey sky, grey disposition.
We all have those flat days. No spark, no motivation, no chutzpah.
I’m surfing an inside shorey bank metres from the beach, hoping the little waves will jump-start my grey disposition, but instead I’m jumping at shadows.
Terns flit up and down on the water's surface. Dolphins leisurely cruise the back of the break. Out wide, Humpbacks and Right Whales head south on their migration back to the cooler Antarctica waters for summer.
Straight up Attenborough shit in the Rainbow Region, AKA the NSW North Coast.
So why the hesitancy?
Well, the spectre of fear stalks my consciousness.
It’s grey too.
It lurks in the inside gutters. It approaches from my left, always the left, as I sit and wait for sets. It hurtles at me out of the deep.
That’s what the little voice in my head whispers anyway.
Days earlier I’d sat on the outer reaches of a rockshelf, looking into the maw of the region's pre-eminent rivermouth.
Tuna busting up. Dolphins tail slap the surface stunning bait fish. Hell, even one of the great levithians chasing krill tight in against the headland, inside of where I was surfing. The predator/prey dynamic was in full bloom, prime conditions for what is now disingenuously termed a shark interaction.
If I was ever going to receive a Ballina Hickey from a Great White you’d think it would be now. However, the spectre doesn’t haunt me that day. Hunting slabby barrels occupied the mind instead and I surfed without a care.
Surfing is as much a psychological as a physical challenge these days on the North Coast. Headspace and fear management is often as much of a factor as conditions in defining enjoyment in the water.
It used to feel like there were rules for avoiding an attack: Don’t surf at dawn or dusk, not after rain or when the water was murky. Now, the apparent sheer randomness of where and when an attack might occur is what is so disconcerting.
For all the promised drone surveillance, smart drum lines, eyes painted on boards and stripey wetsuits, it all still seems to come down to wrong place, wrong time, but the number of wrong places and wrong times seems to be expanding.
Prior to last years attack cluster, the spectre of fear had never stalked me. My modus operandi when chasing aquatic stoke was finding the most isolated peak in an area still rich with opportunity’s for solitude. Bobbing alone without anyone in sight was nirvana.
I buried my head in the sand for as long as I could and tried to rationalise why each attack meant I didn’t have to change my behaviour:
“There must be something peculiar about the Byron region”
”Port Macquarie is a long way from here”
“Statistically someone was bound by get hit at the Superbank“
However, at some point the reality of the “new normal” had to be acknowledged. With the attack dial turned up from 'improbable' to 'possible', surfing now involves a lot of extra mental calculation.
I catch myself staring at the line up, weighing the scales of risk vs reward, the pull of aquatic addiction against the possibility of disaster. Scan the surface for ripples from bait balls, interrogate the inshore gutters for shadows, observe the birds for signs and meanings, stitching it all together like an oceanic conspiracy theorist trying to discern the unknowable truth of what’s happening under the surface. What may or may not be lurking there.
I’ve taken to dodging the kids before I go coastal. “Just going out for a run up the beach,” I lie. The thought of them being in the line up triples the anxiety. Triples the chance of potential disaster.
On land, the North Coast is experiencing another population surge as the cashed up and COVID-weary flee the cities chasing the utopia mythology popularised by the free love 60’s hippies and drop out surfers. A place to take your shoes off, leave all your troubles behind and live the carefree lifestyle.
In the water, it’s never felt more intimidating. The news of a shark attack, particularly between April to September, has shifted from shocking to expected. “How many this year?” now a common refrain.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the probably future outcomes when a burgeoning human population on land increasingly interacts with a growing population of potential predators in the water.
On a micro level, the continuous psychological warfare between the lifetime pull of surf stoke against the lurking spectre of fear continues to play out. The rules of the game have changed, so those still wanting to play will have to as well.
What is certain is that surfing isn’t as much fun anymore.
// DAN DOBBIN