Placeful understanding in the wild west
Rugged and wild coastlines are often home to reclusive and wild people, who have a relationship with the sea that exists outside of modern surf culture. Surfing, in these landscapes, is about knowing the water intimately.
I travelled to Australia’s far west recently, to the remote, weather-beaten Abrolhos Islands, 60 km off the coast of Geraldton. This is a place inhabited by cray-fishermen and old school surf nuts who prefer to spend the better half of their year bare footed, keeping civilization at a safe distance. It also has a history of barbarianism that’ll blow your socks off.
In 1629, a Dutch ship called Batavia wrecked on the Abrolhos and a mutiny and massacre ensued. A small band of mutineers embarked on a murderous rampage, killing 125 men, women and children. When a rescue ship arrived from Jakarta three months later, the mutineers were apprehended, a gallows built on the islands and the men hung. The ship sailed back to Indonesia with the few remaining survivors, leaving the perpetrators’ bodies dangling limply in the relentless southerly wind.
Some 350 years later traces of the massacre began to resurface. In 1963, a cray fisherman dug up a human bone when he was burying rubbish under his clothesline. The whole skeleton was later accounted for, amongst many others, lodged in shallow graves all around the island. It is one of Australia’s most bloody and barbaric historical moments, but is little known on the East side of the continent.
These days, the Abrolhos is a seasonal home for cray fishers, and for most of them, a place they hold close to their hearts. It is still wild country. A place off the beaten track, where shit can go south very, very quickly.
Like much of WA, finding quality waves in this area requires a specific kind of know-how. A bit of what Pulitzer Prize winning author Bill Finnegan describes as placeful understanding.
Finnegan says: “Surfing requires the most accurate and dynamic possible reading of a small patch of coast, a force field of moving water and natural violence. Getting it wrong has immediate, occasionally painful consequences. Getting it right can test the upper limit of bliss. And it usually takes a dogged, longitudinal study, pursued through seasons and years and all possible combinations of wind and tide and swell, just to begin to get a place wired” (Outside Magazine).
The cray-fishermen I met on the Abrolhos represent this species of surfer. The old-school recluse. The waterman without the awareness of the label. People whose whole lives and livelihoods revolve around the ocean and knowing the coastline’s every contour. Unlike me, bobbing on my surfboard on the surface of the water, blissfully unaware of the wide world below, they see themselves as part of the network.
The Abrolhos is a fickle location for waves. All the elements must line up perfectly for a good day out there. The wind has got to swing north, which happens only occasionally in the winter months, and the swell must march in clean and shapely from the far reaches of the Indian Ocean. You need your own boat, and you need to be a mariner of sorts.
And when you are a seasoned seadog, the stories you take back to terra firma are oftentimes unique. One surfer/fisher told me of numerous encounters with sharks and other frightening yet majestic creatures. Like the time he dived down to unsnag his cray pots to find a white pointer patrolling the area. He sunk to the bottom of the sea floor and waited, as still as his adrenalin-fueled body would allow. It swam surely and unhurriedly by, so that he was able to look right into its unblinking black eye. It had a whole eco-system with it, he told me. Referring to the pilot fish, remora and cleaning fish that are the best known companions of sharks, that swim alongside them and swirl about their mammoth jaws. There is nothing more glorious, he reckons, than coming face to face with a creature of that ilk.
Sharks to me are a mysterious man-eating creature of the deep. To these guys, they are one part of their incredibly rich eco-system. This surfer see’s himself as a custodian of the sea. The aim is to give and take in equal measure.
I think there is something to be valued in the stories of the nameless surfer who inhabits wilderness landscapes, who lives outside and beyond modern surf culture and everything it entails.