Southern Ocean Winter Dawn Raid

I had the most satisfying surf I’ve had for many many months this morning. Travelling down the spine of the Fleurieu Peninsula, a storm was driving rain into the windscreen and I had a sinking feeling. Normally I like surfing in the rain, but in the dead of winter it’s hard enough getting into your wetsuit, let alone having to contend with the rain.

But when I got to the carpark at Parsons just before dawn the storm had passed on to the East and its remnants were getting torn ragged by the trailing northerlies – straight offshore at my local. A quick glance from the lookout revealed that the bank down the far end of the beach was still in place and the small swell was hitting it, if only intermittently.

There wasn’t a soul around to see me do the winter wetsuit dance, but when I made it down to the beach I saw that I wasn’t the first to arrive. A pride (not sure what the appropriate collective noun is) of sealions was circling a large school of Australian Salmon up in the corner where the channel runs out along the rocks. One was bodysurfing in the shorebreak and it stuck its head up and checked me out as I wandered along the sand. I waved, then watched as it ducked under the next wave and swam off, only to emerge 20 metres further out with a fish bigger than its own head in its jaws, which it proceeded to dismember and consume while riding the current out towards Antarctica.

“Hmm, let’s see,” I thought. “Sealions eat salmon, sharks eat both sealions and salmon. Cass = prey species #3. I’m heading up the other end of the beach.”

Five minutes later I was clambering over the rocks, leaping into the sea and riding a surge back out past the break. Another sealion greeted me as I sat up on my board, swimming over to take a look before heading off around the headland. Occasionally it would stop and just sit there with its head down and back flippers sticking straight up into the air. Just because it could, I suppose.

There was a peak breaking cleanly alongside the headland so I stayed there for 15 minutes or so and caught a couple. I even kept my hair dry for the first couple of waves, which is a blessing in the southern winter, when every head-dip means a 30-second ice cream headache.

While I was doing this, I kept seeing waves forming up on another peak 50m further down the beach and they looked bigger and longer than the ones I was catching. So I abandoned my sheltered spot next to the rocks and paddled over for a closer look.

Best decision I’ve made today.

The first wave caught me a bit too far inside, but as I duck-dived I watched as it reeled off down the bank for 75m, droplets of spray blowing off the back in the stiff offshore breeze. “Nice” I said to no-one in particular.

I was exactly where I needed to be for the next set and caught the first wave that came along. It was, as I’d already said, nice. But I happened to look back over my shoulder as I got to the end of the ride and saw two more waves running down the bank behind me, both bigger than the one I’d caught and perfectly formed.

Note to self; don’t catch the first wave of the set.

There was a fair wait between sets – up to 15 minutes at times – but eventually another one came along and I let the first go through to the beach. Good choice. It was a two-wave set and the second was all mine. So good. Clean, fast, long. So good.

And I think my board, the Bastard Fish/Mudskipper was made for waves just like this. It turns out that it loves to stay right in the pocket and will turn with only the slightest encouragement. I played with this wave like it was a cello and I was Yo Yo Ma. At least that’s what it felt like, and there was nobody else there to testify otherwise.

This set the pattern for the next couple of hours. Catch a set wave, pull off in the shorebreak laughing hysterically at how much fun it was, paddle back out, wait 10 minutes for the next set then do it all over again. In that whole time I didn’t see another soul, except for a pod of dolphins in the distance and a tern that flew overhead at about the halfway mark.

It’s hard not to think about sharks when you’re in the Southern Ocean alone, at dawn, with fellow prey species in abundance around you. But when the sun came out as the storm moved out to sea and the waves just kept coming, I was distracted enough to put it to the back of my mind and just enjoy the moment.

Eventually my fingers started to go numb and the wind had picked up and bent around so that it was now more out of the west than the north. So I waited for the next set and headed for the shore on a nice shoulder high peeler. Instead of driving down the line and playing around out on the shoulder, this time I decided to try to lock myself into the pocket to see what would happen. My rail dug in, I stuck my hand into the wall and the lip curtained over me. For the next two seconds I was encased in a green vortex, only to be spat out with a sigh, my jaw dragging in the water like a sea anchor.

As I walked up the beach I tried to remember a more perfect end to a surf, but for the life of me I couldn’t. By then there were two more people on the beach, back down in the corner casting into the middle of a mass of salmon less than 30m from the shore. They said they’d already caught enough to eat, so were throwing them back, but they couldn’t stop because they’d never had such a good fishing session before. I wished them luck and climbed up the trail to the car.

While I was getting changed a car came into the empty carpark, but seeing that I was the only person there, they sped off without even looking at the surf. People are such fucking sheep, surfers especially. But thank Christ they are, because it worked in my favour today.

The only thing left was to crank the music, pour myself a coffee from the thermos and start the long drive back to Lobethal, an hour and a half and a whole world away from that one perfect moment.

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