We live in a world where there are shark attacks, and we partake in a sport that exists in shark zones. They are in our conscious often enough, we occasionally spot them in the water, but it’s usually just a glimpse from a long way off. We morbidly endure National Geographic Shark Week instead of Friends re-runs, and we silently bare witness as the shark cage diving boats go out beyond pristine surfing locations, well aware that they are about to start diligently chumming the chilly waters so that awestruck tourists can get their kicks and their colour photos of the Whites. We know what we are doing when we go surfing in murky river mouths no matter how good the waves are, when we paddle out in the dark for a dawn patrol, when we stay out late in the growing dark, wanting to come in on a bomb and not bow our heads and paddle in. We know what we are doing when we surf alone.

Two days after a fatal shark attack I was down at the point. I was a couple of hundred kilometers further up the coast, but still – the same stretch of water on all maps. I was on my way home when I decided, out of curiosity, to swing by the car park and have a look. Whenever there is a shark attack the surfing gets a little quieter for a few days as fear sets in. This usually lasts one swell and one swell only. On this day the rain was falling softly, and the sky was thick with clouds. It gave forth a totally uninviting grey affect to the afternoon, but then I saw the first set. It was only three feet but it was solid and strong, with a nice bit of push behind it. The first set swung wide, hit the end section and just reeled off towards the beach. Three perfect waves, unridden.

There was no one around. No one in either of the two car parks, no one on the side road and no one on the beach. Another set poured through.

Since I was a grom, surfing at the mellow rolling waves of my local beginners beach, I had it drummed into me not to surf alone. It had been such a consistent and recurring theme that I had become totally accepting of this ideology, and totally convinced that surfing alone was making a mistake. I never surfed alone, and if ever I were the last guy left out during a session I would immediately catch a wave in. Now, for the first time in as long as my memory would stretch, I was preparing to paddle out alone. I wasn’t happy but the dichotomy of perfect and empty waves kept me tantalized.

‘Someone will come and join me,’ I thought to myself. ‘This a popular right-hand point-break, it’s always busy.’

How does your mind react to an empty lineup? Photo: @benbugdenphoto

I slowly pulled my wetsuit on in the drizzle. I pulled the quad out of its cover, slowly waxed up and scraped the deck down, all the time watching the car parks and the road for a possible partner. No one arrived, so I danced over the slippery rain-wet rocks and paddled out off the front, as opposed to going to the somewhat lonely back-channel keyhole.

I surfed for an hour by myself. It wasn’t about the danger of a shark being in the water near me, or the fact that I could bang my head on my board or on the shelf, it was just the fact that I was breaking my old golden rule, a rule that was in place partially because of sharks. I was doing a double fault. I was surfing while the country’s mainstream media were still screaming about the attack, the cage diving industry, and the various other outlets of blame, and I was surfing alone. There was no one even watching.

The waves were pumping, and the hour sped by. I quickly caught my 10 waves and remained on in the water. After each little wave I would paddle back up the point, hugging the rocks, scraping my fins, never going near the deeper water alongside the point. I was focused and jumpy. I was startled by a bird, spooked by a rock boil. My senses were heightened and tingling. I found myself in a rhythm, not falling off, not making any mistake while paddling for a set wave, and not blowing any take-offs. Nervous excitement was making me function. 

After an hour or so a few cars arrived simultaneously and 5 surfers paddled out around the back keyhole. They were soon sitting near me, next to me, on top of me. My solo rhythm was gone, I blew a take off over the suck-up, got dragged over the falls on a little double-up, and I felt my energy leak out like a blown tire.

As I messed around in the car park, getting into some dry clothes and checking my iPhone for the usual stream of missed calls, Whatsapps, emails, Instas and Facebook messages, I realized that a little monkey was off my back, and that my solo session wasn’t too traumatic after all.