Mid-morning; and a blistering offshore gale is the punctuation mark on a solid 8-10 foot swell.  The car park at Margaret River’s Mainbreak is empty except for a few salt-encrusted wagons and panel vans.  Four hooded figures are huddled together in the back of a beat-up Mercedes, the boot crudely propped open with a plank of wood.  The dawn patrol have long disappeared, and these remaining bedraggled figures are some of surfing’s most pious disciples. 

 “It’s funny, the surf gets big, and suddenly everyone’s ‘gotta go to work’,” one of the men yells to his mates. 

“But then they come back and hassle the bag out of you when it’s bloody three foot.  Where are they all now?” 

In almost every relevant surf destination around the world, the arrival of big, clean waves brings a mythical breed out of the woodwork.  They are usually old, leathery characters; salt of the earth sort of people.  Typically, the shortest board in their quiver is well over seven foot, and they only begin to show interest in surfing once the waves start nudging six feet. 

The man’s name is Bentley.  He’s the eldest of this motley crew; his wrinkled face weathered by a lifetime of sun and cruel wind.  Suddenly, his distant gaze snaps to attention.  His eyes dart to a nearby van, where one his compatriots is wrestling with a lengthy gun.

“Jasper’s building a yacht down in Albany, you see, and so uses his van as a shed.  His whole life’s in that van,” Bentley mutters. 

The men flock to form a crowd around the board, perusing the sleek 9’2 with carnal desires.  Barely audible “oooohs” and “aaaaahs” murmur from the circle, each man taking his turn to admire the board’s sleek curves, and thick, sharp red rails.  

Here are surfing’s lifelong devotees.  Most have sacrificed a conventional existence – a reputable occupation; marriages; children – to dedicate their lives to chasing, and riding waves.  They don’t do it for acknowledgement, accolades, or acceptance into this loosely bound group.  Just the feeling, man.  

The men are transfixed on four adjacent deep water reef breaks; studying intently the nuances of each.  Mainbreak is mostly closed out; Southsides is wild and unrideable.  To the distant south, two tow teams are tackling Boatramps, and a single surfer is paddling over mountainous lumps feathering on The Bombie.  

“The wind will back off soon,” Bentley says knowingly. 

“Around lunchtime it should drop 5 or 10 knots and swing a few more degrees to the north.  Then we’ll be on.  Rising tide, dropping swell… Just gotta wait it out a little longer.”

Riding waves such as these requires a high degree of commitment and skill, and while these men are well beyond their physical prime, they’re veterans in the mental study of surfing.   They’re happy to watch and wait.  Their lives’ schedules are dictated by the condition of the ocean, and right now, they have nowhere to be but here.  

All photos: Tom De Souza