Tuesday, May 23, 2017

I hate Byron Bay and surfing*

Kids and parents play along the shoreline and the surf is busy: daughters and sons bobbing hopefully near their parents, awaiting instruction and/or parental pride; a Sunday Boardriders contest, the competitors gaudy in fluoro pink, green, yellow and blue rashees; young men positioned in the critical take-off spot, right next the rock shelf that generates this point break; older men on longer, thicker boards, knowing as much, or more, than the younger showponies, but betrayed by their bodies they wait further down the line, hungrily asserting themselves from the inside; those on the outside, avoiding the fray for all kinds of reasons: skills, age, vibe, preference, or some other knowledge about the break born from experience; and scattered throughout are women young and old, taking their time, staking their claims, with no distinctions between their skills and the others, the men – as far as I can observe they’re no worse or better at surfing. But I already knew that.
On this warm, north coast beach, everyone is tanned, but white. Everyone is relatively fit, toned and confident. Everyone is comfortable and of the coast. They move as though they are here a lot, as though sand and salt water and bright sunshine are usual weekend fare. These are my people. But I no longer feel as though I belong with them. It’s not about the place itself - on these white sandy beaches I dress and move in ways they recognise. I know what to do, what to wear, and my body and attitude are (relatively) fit, slim, confident and comfortable. My board fits in to the local aesthetic, and I greet people I know as we walk to the water to paddle out. My discomfort is not about the place and community. It’s about the scene, the culture, the lineup.
In other places further south, my body, my movements and my board easily designate me as coastal, but what I wear and ride, and how I ride it make it clear I’m not from there. I’m from here - that stretch of coast from Noosa to Coffs Harbour. It’s a stretch of coast that is viewed and experienced by so many people as an extension of their own lives in places far away. This stretch of coast finds itself co-opted and adopted by lots of crew in parts of Sydney. Regional, rural and urban aesthetics have twisted into each other, becoming entangled through mobile surfers, shifting between places, but folding aspects of each place through the others. Stories in Australian surf history - stories of migration between city and rural areas - illustrate this over and over. Noosa Heads-Byron Bay-Sydney. It’s the stretch of coast you know from Instagram, through #vanlife #goldenhour #gurfer.
I’m from here, a place that is known for point breaks, thickly resined logs, longboards and other retro shapes, whose surfers trim and glide rather than turn and boost. And for hipsters. We’re well known for hipsters in the surf, those people my friend calls “smiling assassins” because they paddle into waves from your outside, beaming at you with white teeth and long hair, and enjoying the drop in they’ve reclaimed as “sharing”. You can shortboard here too, of course. There’s an abundance of thin, light, clean, white chips being carried about the place, but shortboarding is no longer the most visible part of surfing in this area. Shortboards are surfed on the open beaches, in punchier waves, by people I don’t know. Shortboarding is barrels and boots and flannys and beach tracks and silence. Shortboarding is reported on in Tracks, while the rest of it – the highly visible colour and carnival of popularised longboarding - is talked about in Surfing World and White Horses. Longboarding and logging used to be alternative and niche in relation to the aesthetic of shortboarding, but it’s not anymore. These days it turned into many of the things it critiqued – it’s dominant and defining, it’s corporate and hypocritical. It’s turmeric lattes and #liveauthentic #longhairdontcare, with $2000 glossy boards for beginners, and bikinis and wetsuits that are cut revealingly high on the hips and low under the arms on the chest, and as much pride and investment in vans as seems to go in muscle car culture. This version of surfing offers inclusions and sunlight and fun with one hand, while promoting and excluding and claiming place and #authenticity on the other. You want this, but you can’t have it.
I remember watching the current scene emerge – slowly at first, as small rebellions against the hyper-masculine status quo, as alternative options, as promoting women, as an engagement with the past, rethinking shapes, functionality and aesthetics that had been discarded by the mainstream – but after a while the shifts were fast and broad. You don’t notice change when you’re immersed in it, but now, this version of surfing is the mainstream.

I know this world well because I used to live in this world. Or maybe this world used to live around me. I’m not sure anymore, but even though I now live north in Brisbane, I am part of it and I still surf in those places when I can, and I still watch it unfold in magazine, films, online and on social media, and I sometimes even contribute to those unfoldings. As difficult as it is to admit my place in this world that I don't always like, to imagine being implicated in all of this, I am.
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This little beach is a bit different than further up the coast. It’s less famous, less popular, less cool. There are no high cut swimmers, no 12-foot boards, no mandala tattoos, and while there are vans, there’s no #vanlife. Instead, it’s grittier and more low key. Still busy and still mainstream, but photographers do not (yet?) line this beach and drones don’t hover over the lineup. People here support shark nets. This is not my usual place, but I know it well and I appreciate its community and politics.
I came here to meet friends I’ve not seen in too long, and to surf, which I haven’t done much this year. I live further north now, a decent enough distance to make day trips to the beach an irregular occurrence. It’s lovely to feel the sand between my toes and the autumn sun on my skin. It’s nice to be in this world that is so much a part of me, but which I’ve given up daily access to. For now.
As soon as we walk towards the water, I feel a lack of confidence rise in my chest. I worry about paddling out, about my capacity to read the waves, about my ability to negotiate this lineup. O the beach a friend had recounted an infuriating run-in with a “Walrus” who’d snaked her and her daughter. She was so pissed off that rather than stay out, she’d paddled in. We laughed at the self-sabotaging effect of her tactic, but I understand her choice – I’ve done the same in the past. It’s easier to protect your integrity of you’re not fuming and/or crying over idiots like him. I worry about being in that scene today. I worry I’m a kook, because not surfing much means I’m shaky and unpractised and so it’s more intimidating when I go.
I’ve been out of the water, I’m unfit, I’m unsure. My body feels likes a hull, rolling around on the deck of my board – an awkward counterbalance to its more gently curved surface. My arms feel weak and heavy, and can’t reach down to drag through the water – usually they pull with confidence – and my upper back and the cross bar of shoulders ride high near my ears, pulling my centre of gravity away from my hips, ensuring my balance will suck.
Suddenly, these past months of runs not taken, commutes not ridden, classes missed and chocolate eaten are apparent and I feel out of place and unconditioned for it all. It’s not just my body though. It’s, everything.
“It’s like riding a bike” replies my friend, when I tell her it feels weird to be back in the water. It is. And it isn’t. “I don’t feel at home on my board,” I explain. “You know when your body hits your board and you know what to do? Like, you know what to do without thinking? I don’t feel like that anymore.” She surfs a lot, so it’s likely hard for her to know what I mean exactly, but she knows that I’m feeling out of place and that I’ll work through it. She’s getting a bunch of little peelers on the inside and with a big smile she encourages me to, “Come over here!” I really appreciate her support. I know I’ll get more waves there, but I’ll also be deeper in the politics of the lineup: more likely to be in the way, to have to jostle and hassle for waves, to be snaked, to get frustrated. I don’t want to be part of all that today. I just want to surf. I just want to be in the water amongst the waves, and to find my way back to my board and into my surfing body.
Part of being in my body is using it to take note of al the things of surfing that I love. Of the feel of the water, the light on the waves, the birds flying by, the shadows of the rocks, the curve of the swell bending around the point, being in the water with my friend, being in a lineup full of people stoked to be there, watching younger folk get stoked on waves, watching my niece playing on the sand. And catching waves. And being stoked on the waves I catch – slow and fast, glassy and crumbly, big and small, forming up and closing out.
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Unlike when I surf back home, here I’m not much of anyone. I’m just some woman on the outside. It’s pretty good, really.
At the break I usually surf, things have changed quickly in response to the popularity of both surfing and the place. I’ve been part of part of that, for sure. I only started surfing as an adult, so although I grew on these beaches, I can’t make claims to being part of their surfing world. But even then, these processes of taking over have been going on for over 200 years, which is a blip in the history of the place, but significant in terms of the changes they’ve wrought. Like the cultural changes, it’s hard to see all this when you’re so implicated in a place, and it’s the getting away from it that’s shifted things.
The other day a social media post linked to a t-shirt for sale, that is printed with the words ‘I hate Byron Bay and surfing’. You can buy a trucker cap version too, but I'm not linking to either of them - you can find them yourself. The design is a copy of a shirt worn on a Warumpi Band cover for an EP of their song 'Jailanguru Pakarnu (Out of Jail)', which was the first ever rock song recorded in an indigenous language. It's recorded in Luritja, from the Western Desert region in central Australia. I'm not sure who designed the t-shirt originally, nor who the person is who has appropriated the design for a new time. 
I hate Byron Bay and surfing.
It made me laugh when I saw it and I reposted it with the caption, ‘A new new era in surfing’. Surfing in Byron Bay has become too mainstream for the very people who made it that way by selling the images, the films, the art, the clothes, the boards, the lifestyle, the t-shirt, that are all meant to offer a way in to belong to it.
I hate Byron Bay and surfing.
My map of the town has become one that skirts the edges. I avoid the town centre, driving over the hill at sunrise and sunset, to try to avoid the heat, the traffic and the crowds. It doesn’t always work, and anyway my map is increasingly similar to many others’. The town centre is for tourists, the edges are for surfing.
I hate Byron Bay and surfing.
The truth, however, is that despite myself I can’t imagine a time when I won’t always go back there. Go home. I can’t imagine not being part of the place, the community and the chaos. Because in amongst the too-cool culture and all that entails, there is so much that is solid and real to me. I can’t imagine not returning to the beaches where I know that in the morning when I turn up, my friends will be sitting that the same picnic table as always, eating breakfast and drinking tea and teasing each other. I can't imagine not returning to paddle out into that water, to being asked how I am, where I've been, what I've been up to. To hearing everyone around me talk about how clear the water is, how lucky we are to be there, on that day, that morning. That's why it's busy, that's why its popular.
I love Byron Bay and surfing.
For better and worse this town is changing, and it long has been. The surfing crowd talks of halcyon days of “having to look for someone to surf with”, but in the nostalgia they fail to recall that these were also golden days of sexism, and scum-baggery. While I’d happily see the back of the insane crowds, I do like surfing with other people. The town is changing and the truth is, I’ll change with it, or alongside it, or in spite of it.
*I love Byron Bay and surfing.

My versions of them anyway.



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1 comment:

  1. This is probably the post I can relate more to.
    Because I'm a later in life beginner/learner, because I can only surf on weekends, because if I don't go swimming or stay active in general, my semi-surfing body will complain at all levels, because I'm never at home in a surf break, because I always have to negotiate my place, because I'm not sure where I belong, since my surfing life is not part of the surfing stories.
    And because I love Byron and I hate the fauna in it!

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