Memorial – Act 1

I witnessed this memorial yesterday – as an onlooker and someone who knows nothing about surfboats, it was super intense.

The writing is fictional based on the actual events. This is Act 1 of 3 Acts (going out, ceremony, return).

Thundering horses of wash and spray raced towards the 5, each stallion surging ahead with force, nose down. The bitter winter wind was doing its westerly best to push each wave back to New Zealand. Foam and droplets blew off the top and more spray exploded as each foamy lip tipped, toppled and crashed into the water below. 

The 5, grouped together looked out and collectively felt the rhythm of the sets; when the gaps appeared, what monsters came in groups and where the surf’s energy was at its weakest. If any.

For this to work, they needed to be in unison. Seen from a distance the group seemed belittled and goaded by the waves to “take their chance”, to “just get on with it”, to “face the eventual”. 

Or….to capitulate and walk away cloaked in the logic of common-sense and safety. The stallions would like that – to know their reign was not to be challenged today and their fierceness was still capable of cowering both brave and foolish men.

The government had advised people to stay out of the surf this weekend and only a handful of degen waxheads (no foamies today) and one manic, flippered body surfer were feasting on a few seconds of adrenaline and glory before being pummelled, rolled and held-down brutishly to the sand underwater.

The 5 were no fools, not degenerates, not manic. They stood here in tiny skungies and ridiculous pink rashies, bare feet pressing into the soft, wind-chilled wet sand. They stood here as an act of duty and respect.

Memorial at Freshwater

One garment was different today. They wore helmets, not the usual club-coloured hats.

Behind them, the beach was full of rugged up locals, a bagpiper and a stoic grieving daughter taking her place at the stern of the wooden long-boat that would carry the 5, a wreath and the urn of ashes. She was flanked and back-patted by 2 elders from the surf club in windbreaker overcoats, this stiff uniform rarely seen – the bitter wind whipping their stiff maroon shells like an untrimmed mainsail. 

Behind them again, a row of what seemed to be 50 oars driven vertically into the sand, snaked their way along the beach, their bearers sometimes scuttling back as the waves pushed their last equine determination up and across the sand before listing and withdrawing.

Behind them again, clusters of local community folk stood to bid respect and farewell to a civic leader who had given so much to that community. In homage, the community had gathered to witness the 5, scatter ashes and launch a wreath behind the fearsome breakers.

The Sweep*, being the most experienced of the 5, spoke to the other 4 in even tones, his voice assuring, pointing out the patterns, outlining the calling strategy, not letting doubt betray any second thoughts about fulfilling the duty.

The other 4, in concert nodded and “yeahed”, each pushing doubts away. As a team the boys knew each other from countless occasions – some almost as brutal as today. Not all of those occasions ended well but collectively enough history was a downpayment of the courage to be drawn today.

“Are we right?”

“Pretty straight-forward really” quipped one.

“A doddle” chirped another.

Their observation time had taken at least 5 minutes. Behind them on the beach, the crowd shifted from foot-to-foot, jiggling restlessly, rubbing hands together to generate warmth. Those 5 minutes were an agonizing eternity, sure it was cold, but ripples of tension flowed from one person to another – all the rubbing and shifting and jiggling was signs of coping. They all hoped the mission would go well but undercurrents of doubt are always stronger in on-lookers than for protagonists.

It was agony too for the ferocious waves: Would they come? Would they dare? To make the point, another ferocious set rolled in flaring with spray and foam, aiming to “psyche-out” the crew. 

Instead, diffident to this petulant show-pony, the crew egged each other on as they drew the boat to the edge and into the shallows. “Let’s do this”, “Let’s do this for Col!”, “We’ve got the wind with us”. Jokes were always good.

The water was warmer than the wind and steeled them. With enough depth, each hopped in, grabbed their oars and locked in. Waiting for the Sweep’s word, they hovered, muscles loosed, adrenaline fueling the surging blood, wind biting at their sprayed faces.

Sweep, calmly but firmly barked “now”. The crew pushed through a temporary lull, Sweep had picked the perfect time, the sea momentarily gathering itself after charging the last cavalry of the fierce wave action. 

The 5 exploited the lull and, as one, pulled the oars together as they raced to breach a small cresting set before it unleashed a maelstrom of force. 

They pushed up the lip with ease. One down.

There was no rest. Sweep admonished them to pick up the pace. “Push it fellas!” Following the call: backs, legs, arms all moved as one, the craft accelerating starting to lift out of the water and for a moment some folks on the beach saw daylight beneath the hull. 

A monster rose up from the swelling mass of the ocean. It formed shape and direction. Making its intent clear to meet the tiny boat and crew like 2 armies on a medieval battlefield. 

Sweep took note, there was no question of wavering. Free from panic, calmly urged “Pick it up, one more set”. The oarsmen felt that calm, felt the synchronization and flow of their comrades connecting with the moments of simple hard-earned flow.

Sweep sounded out the rhythm with a slightly increased pace, they raced towards their foaming foe.

The wave took note too and raced toward them, to catch them in its force and break, catching them in wash and turmoil. Straining to form, the wave met the crew, horse-heads taking turns reaching ahead but, alas, pulling back, gathering energy. The little wooden boat started its climb up the face of the monster. 

On the beach, the wind dropped, the talk stopped, breaths held. 

The boat breached the top of the wave, lept for joy in the air and eased itself down, like a belly flop onto the flat ocean at the rear of the wave – they had made it. 

Surging with adrenaline, bristling with pumping blood – their own wave of ecstasy, relief and humble pride swelled between them. Sweep chuckled: “well that’s almost half the job done!”

Rowing on to safety they warmed down, it was now time to commence the ceremonial part of the row.

Back on shore, tummies unlocked, shoulders dropped and breathing re-commenced.

The Sweep stands at the rear of the boat and has a long steering oar. The sweep’s balance must be impeccable in rough conditions and their job is to ensure the team is calm and working in unison.