Almanac Surfing: Surfing and the middle-aged accountant

He’s an accountant.



“Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.”


It’s a very confronting thought: mortality.


I confronted it recently in the pounding surf. Though that sounds more dramatic than it actually was.


I’m a Montmorency boy. A Cat who grew up among Magpies. Montmorency was a very proud Catholic village nestled among the trees between mud-brick Eltham and cream-brick Greensborough, in Melbourne’s north-east. The peculiarities of the old VFL zoning system put it in Collingwood territory meaning we played footy in the black and white jumper, even though my heart had been captured by the blue and white hoops of Geelong.


When I was a kid Montmorency was about billy-carts and asphalt grazes; it was footy all winter and cricket all summer; it was Mr Del Din’s heroic bonfires on cracker night that lit up the district so thousands of kids could explode the bull ants’ nests with penny bangers and watch them storm out of their dirt mounds with ears ringing and nippers at the ready; it was about bike crashes and fights with the State School kids. We threw ripe plums at the baker’s van as he made his daily deliveries then jumped on the back of it to take a joy ride around the block, we watched the old street sweeper talking to his horse with a quiet “gee up” or a louder “whooaa” as he patiently shovelled leaves and mud into his cart; we took to the Tarzan swing that hung precariously from a tree over Peck’s Dam and if we fell in we swam furiously to the bank for fear of the car bodies and other bodies that supposedly lurked beneath the surface; we dashed out of the house to school on freezing winter mornings and heard the greyhound walker sing out “O’Donnell where’s ya trou-sers!” through the mist (weird); we caught tadpoles in the puddles that mysteriously appeared in the shale ground after a Spring downpour; we climbed up and fell out of trees, we held world heavyweight title fights amongst ourselves on the back veranda (complete with the grand entrance draped in our green checked dressing gowns), and football matches with socks in the bedroom. This was my cosy world.


Secondary school took me to Whitefriars College in Donvale requiring a daily trek across the Yarra River and through the forbidden territories of Templestowe and Doncaster. These suburbs were like Greensborough on steroids. The paddocks and orchards were carved up, and new money built houses where design had more value than function. All the dunnies were inside the house, some had swimming pools, and one monstrosity on Williamson’s Road was built in the shape of a medieval castle (albeit clad in white faux brick).


Whitefriars was a ripping place. The Carmelites who ran the college took something of Jesuit approach to education (minus the pretence), rather than the Christian Brothers Darwinian views on child-nurturing. I played football and bled with my mates as we crashed through or crashed out. There is hardly a better way to get to know another bloke. We munched on the half-time oranges with bloody knees and braved the coach’s verbal sprays. And if we were victorious, we celebrated. If we were defeated, we still had stories to tell. These friendships have endured as waistlines and mortgages grew, and as life dragged us in different directions. There has always seemed to be a reason to gather for a few bitterly cold frothies somewhere. A good many of us still catch up regularly. At one lunch someone (probably Woody) stood up and said, “What a Bonza Bunch of Bastards you are!” The name stuck. A Bonza Bunch of Bastards lunch is not for the faint-hearted, especially when they’re ‘on’.


Recently I turned 50. The Bastards gave me a surf board.


Some of The Bastards have surfing in them. Smithy took it up when he retired from playing football at Balwyn at the age of 35. But Spinko, Bakes, Butch, and Scungy Harrison have been surfing since before Elle McPherson did the Tab Cola advertisement.


I didn’t surf as youngster. Montmorency is an eight day camel ride from the closest surf beach, and I had the wrong hair.


There are two types of people in this world: those who grow thick, moppy hair, and those who grow thin, long, blond hair. Somewhere along the extensive path of human evolution surfers fell into the latter group. Who ever saw a surfer with hair like Paul Medhurst? Surfers also acquired the treasured cool gene.


I’ve been struggling on two fronts – all my life.


One of my older brothers surfed. He had the right hair. He also had the ankle high desert boots, a pair of treads, a Quick Silver windcheater and a Rip Curl T-shirt, Status Quo records, a hand-knitted beanie made from home spun wool, and the ability to smoke all the way home on the school bus without acquiring the smoker’s stench. I envied him.


So, at 50, The Bastards expected me to get over those lifelong impediments and engage in the noble art of wave-riding.


In the days leading up to my maiden voyage I decided to get on You Tube and suss out the whole surfing thing. I learned that waxing your board is quite simple and painless, that “the pop up” needs to be mastered, I learned what “yolo” means, and how to be uncool on the waves. The last one really worried me.


The Bastards decided that this initiation should take place at a pleasant little backwater called Rye Back Beach. Or St Andrews Beach to me more precise, which is at the Jeff Fenech end of Rye.


St Andrews is magnificent – if you’re a Great White shark or a seal.  High, sculptured sand dunes line the beach. The wind buffets them and carves them till they’re curved like a wave. They appear to be bowing to the water. The waves themselves roar in from Bass Strait and smash the rocks, relentlessly, and kelp gathers in hideous brown forests. And then of course there are the rips. They surge angrily beneath the surface; immense, invisible drain pipes, sucking everything out to sea or, in the case of St Andrews Beach, out and across towards the rock shelves.


What could possibly go wrong?




We stood at the water’s edge. It was seven on a brisk late-March morning. The water was a steely grey colour, more like the North Sea than an inviting Tahitian lagoon. The shore break waves pummelled the sand and grabbed at my ankles.


“Ready Dips?” asked Feuta, smiling mischievously.


Bakes was adjusting his leg rope. His Nordic ancestors, who had taken to the wooden longships and plundered the Celts, Europeans and the North Atlantic, would have been well at home in these thunderous seas. He’s a seasoned surfer but hadn’t taken to the water for some time. I could see a smirk on his face; the same smirk I used to see on the football field just before he poleaxed a hapless centre half forward.


“Just jump straight into the rip,” said Smithy, “It’ll take you out past the break really easily.”


This coming from a bloke who sprinkles glass on his cornflakes. Smithy looks fitter now than he did in Grade 7, all muscle and gristle and sinews.


Meanwhile Spinko, in his perpetually laconic state, had already entered the fray, plunging into the wash and paddling through the breaks like he was on a Sunday picnic at the Studley Park Boathouse. He played footy the same way. Every time he got the ball it seemed he had a month to dispose of it. He’ll never die of stress.


“Just time your jump,” Smithy yelled over the ocean’s thunder. It seemed to be a common theme. The water was breathing and heaving like giant bellows; a metre deep one moment, a millimetre the next.


I took the leap and found myself in a whirlpool of angry white water. With the rip at my back I made good time. In a few moments I was out there, rolling in the swell; a lamb to the slaughter. I sat on the board trying to catch my breath. At this point my arms were still functioning. But I was ignoring one of the critical aspects of surfing when in the vicinity of a rip and rocks – just keep paddling. Without really noticing I was drifting sideways.


I figured that if I’d made the effort to be out surfing I should really try and surf. It looked easy enough on You Tube. A wave came. They never stopped coming. It didn’t look too ominous. Probably only about six metres high. It rolled at me like Godzilla. I momentarily marvelled at how this swell of water may well have travelled all the way from the Antarctic – and found me. We were about to meet. It gently lifted me, with the same finesse we once used to pluck butterflies off a rose bush before putting them into our bug catcher. I paddled in a frenzy; arms and legs flailing about like I’d just won The Price Is Right. But with zero propulsion. I was in a lift that was express to the top floor. There was a moment of absolute exhilaration; I was on top of the wave!


In surfing this is a bad thing. A surfer shouldn’t be on the wave, but in the wave. Being in the green room, they call it (I believe).


The adrenalin of being perched on top of the wave quickly dissipated when I noted that the surf board was no longer on a perfectly horizontal plane. It was now pitched precariously on the 45, and dipping fast to the vertical. Before I could say “Holy shi………………….!” the board’s nose was pointing at the sand and I was going with it. I say “sand” but was firmer than that and, in the moment, I recalled Mr Delaney teaching us in science that sedimentary rock is a thin veneer of compressed minerals and particles over a crust of igneous and metamorphic rock. It tends to be harder than a human cranium.


Everything went into slow motion. The board plummeted into the white, frothy, boiling surf; my legs flipped up my back and came out my ears, and sea water rushed up my nose and gave me a colonic irrigation (in reverse). I was a vegetable tossed into a blender at full pace. I was on my back, then my front, then my back again. The sea played with me. I felt the board pull on my leg rope as if it were trying to escape my incompetence.


About a month later I surfaced.


A few of the Bonza Bastards were lying on their boards watching this hilarity.


“Welcome,” Reggie drawled like a farmer leaning on the front gate.


“Nice plant!” yelled Feuta. “Hah. It gets easier!”


Disorientated, dishevelled and almost disembowelled, I hugged the board close to my chest and took up the foetal position. But the ocean was not finished with me yet. The rip was still to have its fun. I fell into its grasp.


In a flash I was being dragged away from the rest of The Bastards so I began paddling in their direction but, strangely, I was making all the progress of the Carlton Football Club. I was sucked sideways. Powerless and totally knackered I drifted towards the pointy teeth of rocky outcrops, and the menacing shadows beneath me. A piece of childhood advice came to me: “if you ever get caught in a rip don’t panic, just go with it.”


So I did; all the way to Portugal. Or so it felt at the time.


Eventually Scungy Harrison (he is the only bloke I know who actually is built like a brick shithouse) casually paddled up to me. For Scungy a rip is a minor inconvenience. For me it was life-threatening.


“Where are you going Dips?” he asked.


“I have no idea Harry,” I muttered, “I’m stuffed.”


“Grab hold of my leg rope,” said Harry, “and dig in!”


By this stage my leaden arms were useless. I just wanted a rest. Scungy paddled as I bobbed about like the one of the Flower Pot Men. Eventually he found a suitable landing and got me back on terra firma.


I sat on the sand and watched the others go at it. The sun was kissing the morning swell. A light haze hung over the dunes and the breeze was whipping off the tops of the waves in a gentle spray. The boys were having a ball. I felt pathetic, defeated, even belittled. Despite the fact I was exhausted and my major organs were shutting down, I had a burning desire to get back into the waves. Even though the ocean was laughing at me.


I’ve been for a surf pretty much every week since. The ocean and I have come to know each other a little better. I am its pupil. Bakes and I went again just last week. The temperature was one degree as we got out of the car at Second Reef, but we eagerly stripped down to our bathers and put on our wetsuits, keen as mustard to plunge into the foam again. I’m now on the never-ending search for the perfect wave.


And I’ve got The Bastards to thank.


This piece was first published in the Almanac’s sports writing journal Long Bombs to Snake. There has been one edition so far. It is available for $15 (which includes postage). Enquiries: [email protected]




Footy and "Long Bombs to Snake"



Have a read of Dips’ latest piece on surfing here. That’s how to celebrate the Queen’s Birthday.




About Damian O'Donnell

I'm passionate about breathing. And you should always chase your passions. If I read one more thing about what defines leadership I think I'll go crazy. Go Cats.


  1. Had cause to re-visit this. Super piece. Love the opening line.

    “I’m a Montmorency boy.” That might as well be Bourke when it comes to surfing.

  2. Yes the only waves Montmorency had were those caused when kids from the State School and kids from the Catholic School had brawls on the way home from school. Plenty of parental angst.

    Still got that board – old faithful now.

  3. Dips,
    Would I be correct in saying that that is how you are dressing for Zoom meetings at present??

    Dips I just had to re above fantastic article you’re far better and more game than me.I got a deal with the sharks we each don’t invade each other’s territory

  5. Luke Reynolds says

    Enjoyed reading this again every bit as much as I did in LBTS.

    Bring back zoning, especially that Collingwood Northern suburbs area.

  6. Smoke – yes!
    Rulebook – I’m usually too tired to worry about sharks!
    Luke – the zoning seemed to work well in the old VFL. Now some teams get virtually the whole State!!

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