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That Oceanic Feeling

One late afternoon in mid-winter, when I was three months pregnant, I took some visiting French friends to the Point Nepean National Park because they were keen to see the notorious entrance to Port Phillip Bay known as the Rip. The Park was soon to close for the day so we quick-marched past the gun emplacements and the maze of underground bunkers at Fort Nepean and did not pause until the land fell into the sea. Around the corner in Bass Strait, the surf was thunderous; line after line of ragged, blue barrels shattering into foam. To my right Port Phillip Bay was shot silk with occasional white caps. Yet in this narrow strip of ocean between the Heads – this bottleneck where the Bay and the Strait collided – the conditions were perfect. I knew it was a prized surf break but it still surprised me that this should be so. During a south-westerly gale on an ebb tide, the difference between the sea level inside and outside the bay created a wall of water that broke from Head to Head. Today, a light south-easterly was blowing. Just beyond the breaking waves a small motor-boat hovered, which I took to be a fishing vessel until I saw a small figure paddling nearby in the water.

I had spent many hours imagining my way into such a moment in my novel Night Surfing but I had never seen it for myself. Surfers have been coming by boat to this break they call Quarantine, Corsair or The Point for decades; but Point Nepean only opened to the public in 1988, and until twenty years ago it was regarded as a secret spot surfed only by the cognoscenti. The other times I had been here, there had not been a surfer in sight. Now, absorbed by the figure of the surfer, I did not notice a giant tanker stacked high with rusty red, orange and green containers approaching from Bass Strait. Suddenly its massive bulk loomed at the gateway of the Heads. The tanker nosed steadily forward, dwarfing everything it passed. Soon after, another tanker approached from the bay, this time in the south channel, much closer to the Corsair break. Against it, the surfer was a mere fly on an Icy Pole stick. No wave would ever loom so precipitously or darkly above him, or cast such a shadow. For a brief moment, a trick of perspective put the surfer and the vessel on a collision course until the ship slid calmly by, bequeathing him its wake.

Point Nepean was a forbidden place when I was young. Apart from the Bass Strait and Westernport coastline, it was the only wild bit of the Peninsula left. In the days when this area was an army officer-cadet training school and closed to the public, you could only see Point Nepean in the distance from the Sorrento to Queenscliff ferry. A rugged, ti-tree-covered headland tapering away to a small, half-moon beach with remnants of an old fort and the colonial-style buildings of the Quarantine Station just inside the Bay. The small incursions made by man on this tip of coast only accentuated its air of isolation. I was amazed there was a beach at all, that it hadn’t been swept away by the powerful currents and surging tides of the Rip.

The other image I had of Point Nepean was taken from a postcard that was pinned to the back of the kitchen door of our beach house at Sorrento. It was an aerial shot, a seagull’s-eye view of this promontory carpeted in green and surrounded by the deep blue of Bass Strait looking as benign as frozen jelly. I would often study this postcard as if it were some far-off land. In maps of the time, this end of the Peninsula appeared as an empty space. The rest of the Peninsula was a network of roads and built-up areas but all roads stopped at the beginning of the army reserve. The road through the reserve wasn’t even marked – as if its existence were a government secret that could not be divulged. What intrigued me most was how this narrow arm of land separated the wilds of Bass Strait from the dreamy waters of Port Phillip Bay. I had always thought of them as two distinct worlds. The Bay I associated with childhood, with sandcastles and lazy, endless afternoons spent snorkelling or floating on my back staring at the sky. When I was about ten years old, my older sisters and older brother grew restless with this ‘kids’ playground’ and we began to spend more time at the ocean beaches of Sorrento and Portsea, beaches which were to become the stage upon which my rites of passage to adulthood would be played out.

Sometimes we would go walking in a straggling line along the endless stretch of Portsea back beach to the crumbling arch of London Bridge. The walk always ended where the barbed-wire fence was strung across the cliff tops and signs told of unexploded shells, warning us to ‘Keep Out’. Occasionally we would hear the reports of gunfire as the officers in the army training camp practised on the rifle range. Deep inside this territory we knew that there was a graveyard belonging to the Quarantine Station, and an ocean beach where a prime minister had drowned, and a rocky stretch of coast upon which an untold number of ships had come to grief. It wasn’t until I was in my late teens, when all prohibitions were a red rag, that I dared sneak into this territory. And only much later than that, after I had witnessed the lone surfer riding the tanker’s wake, that I dared admit to myself that I too wanted to surf the Rip. 

I knew it was a crazy idea. I hadn’t surfed for fifteen years. Occasionally when the subject of surfing came up in conversation, I would remark that I still had my wetsuit and board and that I intended, at some stage, to return to the water. But as I entered my late 30s, the claim was starting to sound wishful and even hollow; an expression of nostalgia rather than one of genuine intent. I lived in the inner suburbs of Melbourne 100 kilometres from the surf, I now had a young child; life had settled into a comfortable routine. And yet, when sitting in the local park watching the other parents playing with their children, I would be gripped by a quiet feeling of panic. During holidays as I swam in the shorebreak at Sorrento back beach and played with my baby boy in the rock pools, I would find myself casting furtive glances toward the surfers out beyond the break, like Prufrock watching the mermaids riding seaward on the waves and wondering, ‘Do I dare?’ If I didn’t make a move to join them soon, I feared I never would.

I had always known that water was my element. When I was a girl, I wanted to be a swimming instructor. The man who taught me to swim had an indoor pool in his backyard and ran a private swimming school. The pool was less than twenty-five metres long, yet in my child’s eyes it was vast. Gold veins of reflected sunlight danced on the ceiling, the air was fuggy with chlorine and voices echoed strangely as if in some undersea chamber. Pools were greener then. And like some ancient shepherd, the instructor would stand at the edge holding a long pole with a crook to rescue floundering children. I loved the other-worldliness of this steamy, glassed-in realm; this place where normal boundaries seemed to dissolve. But as I grew older and my family began spending more time at the ocean beaches, I discovered the slap-in-the-face exhilaration of the surf and the call of the blue yonder. The finite world of the swimming pool lost much of its appeal. In my restless, adolescent eyes it became an oversized concrete trench, the refuge of the landlocked suburbanite. There is no yonder in a swimming pool.

When, in my mid-twenties, I gave up surfing and resigned myself to the concrete trench, the young woman I had once been remained disdainful of the life I had chosen to lead. Although I learned to tolerate the hot, deserted streets of Melbourne in late December and early January when the rest of the world was down at the beach, I could never throw off the feeling that I was only half alive when I was away from the sea. Waves loomed in my dreams. I would be standing at the water’s edge or perhaps bobbing in the shore break when, without warning, a mountain range would rear up out of the ocean and advance in slow motion toward the shore. I would feel the undertow, the suction of the on-coming waves dragging at my legs as I tried to scramble to the beach before the first wall of water descended. I’d wake before being engulfed but strangely, I did not wake in fright. I was left, as always after dreaming about the sea, with a residue of hope and longing.

For many years I found a million good reasons why I couldn’t take up surfing again. Then, one wintry day, when the novel that I had been wrestling with for months finally ground to a painful halt, I saw all my good reasons for what they were. A week later, I was in the car heading down to Sorrento to see if I could still squeeze into my old surfing skin, the wetsuit I had not worn for fifteen years. It hung on a hook in the corrugated-iron sleep-out behind our beach house along with all the old beach paraphernalia – buckets, beach balls, kick boards, boogie boards, hoola-hoops, deck chairs and badminton shuttles. 

As I drove through the city and down the Nepean Highway lined with car yards and furniture showrooms, I thought of the moment when the Ocean Beach road swoops like a gull diving, the ti-tree parting to reveal the etched blue lines of Bass Strait and the honey-combed amphitheatre of Sorrento back beach with its rock pools and heaving dumpers and seaweedy depths. I remembered how excited I had been when I took my French friends, Nelly and Marc, to the rotunda lookout at the top of the cliff overlooking the beach. And how, as we gazed down on it all, I’d felt as proud as if I had carved those craggy, ochre cliffs myself; as if I had arranged for the waves to break in perfect, thunderous lines along the coastal shelf, leaving trails of milky lace; as if the flayed cheeks of the sand dunes and the wind-sculpted, rolling scrub and the silver coin of the bay behind us were my own creation. I wanted to tell Nelly, who speaks as little English as I speak French, what it meant to me. C’est la côte de mon coeur, I said, knowing it would sound corny in English, but hoping I could get away with it in French. It is the coast of my heart. 

The suburbs of Melbourne seemed to go forever as if it were folly to try to escape them, as if this were the only kind of life you could lead. As I hit the Frankston Freeway, which in my mind marks the beginning of the Peninsula, I slipped on a CD of The Best of The Eagles, the soundtrack to my surfing memories. The opening, twangy riff of ‘Take It Easy’ sent a shiver through my body and soon I was singing at the top of my voice, silently laughing at my nostalgia yet alive with a sense of adventure I had almost forgotten. Lighten up while you still can/ Don’t even try to understand/ Just find a place to make your stand/ And take it easy. The suburbs had turned into fields, the invisible ocean beckoned and I could hear the past rushing towards me with the explosive crackle of a broken wave. 

In the 1940s, when my father was a boy, he spent his summer holidays camping amongst the ti-tree in the foreshore dunes of the Sorrento back beach with his parents and a few other families. (Now it is a National Park and camping is prohibited.) They would play in the dumpers and swim in the rock pools and go fishing off a squat monolith called Darby’s Rock, but to go out beyond the break was considered pure madness. They knew how quickly these beaches could become a graveyard for unwary swimmers. Occasionally they would catch sight of a tiny figure out the back where no other swimmer dared go, riding his giant, three-ply surf-ski. They knew him as Snowy Man. He was the only surfer my father remembers seeing around these beaches when he was a boy and he cut a memorably heroic figure. Snowy’s unwieldy ski made it hard work for him to get out beyond the break, and once there, he spent a lot of time paddling and positioning himself. But every wave he caught was a marvel. When he finally emerged from the water with the ski balanced precariously on his back, people would line the beach clapping and cheering.

Things had changed dramatically by the time I began surfing in the early 1980s. Although no one looked twice at the sight of a black-clad figure sliding down the face of a wave, surfers were, in many respects, a race apart. Australia liked to promote itself as a surfing paradise but surfers as a sub-culture were still regarded with suspicion and bemusement by the mainstream. They were beach-bums, drop-outs, ragged-haired louts who spoke their own patois and, in my parents’ eyes, could not be trusted with their youngest daughter. I had always loved the sea and now I fell in love with a surfer and through him, with the thrill of riding a wave. I was also in love with the spirit of rebellion that surfing embodied, the escape it offered me from my sensible, suburban self.

The Best of the Eagles was just finishing as I pulled into the driveway, cut the engine and ran straight to the sleep-out. I lifted the wetsuit off the hook fully expecting it to fall apart in my hands. Gingerly I turned it in the right way, arm by arm, leg by leg, looking for spiders. A small one fell out and I quickly pounced on it. A handful of sand gushed from the second leg and I wondered what beach it was from. The beach of my last surf. Possibly Woolami on Phillip Island where I was reporting on a surfing carnival. I remember that it wasn’t a very satisfying experience. I don’t think I caught a decent wave. My surfing memories were littered with similarly frustrating experiences – surf too big or too small or too tricky for me to catch; getting stuck in the shorebreak and endlessly battling the white water; paddling out to the line-up only to be beaten to the waves by more experienced surfers; gutlessly pulling back from a wave I should have caught. 

Above all other obstacles, it was fear that had held me back in surfing and later, kept me out of the water. Fear of failure, fear of being an imposter, fear of being out of control. All these fears coalesced in the tell-tale corrugations of a big set looming out the back, that unstoppable phalanx of pure, liquid energy from which there was no escape. It was my hope that this time I could begin to overcome the more debilitating aspects of this fear. And yet perversely, certain aspects of it – the awe I felt in the presence of this natural force, a force so unfathomable that it grants you an inkling of infinity – were instrinsic to my attraction to surfing. Eighteenth-century philosophers like Edmund Burke, and later the Romantic poets, called this phenomenon ‘the sublime’. In Wordsworth’s description of his young self wandering the mountains and lonely streams of the Wye River valley ‘more like a man/ Flying from something that he dreads than one/ Who sought the thing he loved,’ I saw myself out in the surf. The ocean was a source of the sublime, according to Burke, because it produced ‘the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling’. Burke emphasised the stimulating influence of the sublime on the imagination and so heralded a new, aesthetic relationship with the sea. ‘I wantoned with thy breakers,’ wrote Byron. ‘They to me/ Were a delight; and if the freshening sea/ Made them a terror, ’twas a pleasing fear.’

Yet I knew that my love of the sea was not solely derived from the attraction of the sublime, the need for awe. Most surfers – apart from those driven purely by the competitive urge – talk openly about the sheer joy of being in the water and the visceral need for an intimate relationship with the ocean. Informing this kind of understatement is a whole philosophy – sometimes couched in spiritual terms – about connecting with a force vastly greater than oneself, about returning to ‘the source’. It harks back to a sensation invoked by the French writer Romain Rolland in his metaphor, ‘the oceanic feeling’. Rolland used this phrase when writing to Freud about an essay of Freud’s that treats religion as an illusion. He agreed with Freud’s views on religion but felt that Freud had not appreciated the true origin of religious sentiments. Such sentiments were borne, Rolland said, of a feeling which was always with him and which others too had confirmed; a feeling which he described as a sensation of eternity; of something boundless or oceanic. Freud did not regard this oceanic feeling as the origin of religious belief, but he did concede that it may be a residual memory of that earliest phase of psychic life when the child and the world are one.

Few images better capture this primal ‘at-oneness’ than that of the surfer crouched inside the crystal, womb-like tube of a breaking wave; an image made all the more exquisite by our knowledge of the wave’s imminent destruction. No sooner has the surfer returned to that all-embracing amniotic realm than she is unceremoniously expelled into the harsh light of the world. In fact, this birth analogy is built into the Hawaiian word for surfing, he’enalu. The first part of the word means ‘to run as a liquid’, while the second refers to the surging motion of a wave or the caul on a newborn child.

Whenever I tried to pin down what this ‘at-oneness’ felt like, one particular moment in the surf always came to mind. While whole years of my life had disappeared into a hazy blur, I have never forgotten the few seconds on this wave. I was surfing with a friend at one of the many breaks between Sorrento and Rye that can only be reached by hiking through the National Park and clambering over acres of sand dunes. It was a glorious summer’s day and it must have been very hot because I remember that I was wearing only a long-sleeved vest over a pair of bright red bathers. The swell was sizeable but not too big for me to handle. As soon as I began to paddle for the wave, I knew I had been waiting all my surfing life for it to come along. I remember the water swelling beneath me and how I was perfectly in tune with its rhythm. I remember a surge of energy lifting me high above the hollowing water, the thickness of the shoulder, the glowing desert-like appearance of the shore. Above all, I remember the instant at the top of the wave just as I rose to my feet to ‘take the drop’, poised on the brink with the weight of the in-rushing ocean behind me and the wave unfurling beneath me. The spool of my memories always froze at this last split-second of clarity and separateness before the screaming descent where mind, body and wave became one.

The wave had become to me like one of Wordsworth’s ‘spots of time’, a moment from the past that remained preternaturally vivid, a singular memory that I could draw on for imaginative nourishment and solace whenever I felt the need. The phrase ‘spots of time’ comes from Wordsworth’s great poem ‘The Prelude’, but the idea is echoed in ‘Lines Composed A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’ in which he speaks of the ‘tranquil restoration’ which his memories of the Wye River Valley brought him when he was oppressed by the din of towns and cities. Wordsworth’s version of the ‘ocean feeling’, of the inter­connectedness of all things culminates in his famous lines:

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

In the lines that precede these, Wordsworth has been reflecting on how his relationship with nature has changed. How he has come to accept that the ‘aching joys’ and ‘dizzy raptures’ of his youthful encounters with nature are now a thing of the past. It is the perspective, you might think, of an old man. Yet Wordsworth was, at the time of writing, only 28 years old – one year older than his sister Dorothy whom he addresses in the second part of the poem. Dorothy reminds him of his former instinctive self. He assumes that she will, in time, take the same path as he has, that her ‘wild ecstacies’ will inevitably mature into ‘sober pleasure’ – the pleasure of memory and of ‘elevated’ reflections on the time they spent together in this valley. 

But was this path really inevitable? As I contemplated my return to the water, it wasn’t sober pleasure I was after. Why couldn’t the more mature understanding of nature as something we all ‘half-create’ co-exist with the immediacy of youthful rapture? I wanted to believe that it could. Otherwise I might as well sit back in my armchair and replay my surfing memories, and save myself the trouble of getting wet. 

Cautiously I eased the wetsuit on. Apart from a tear at the base of the right leg, it remained in one piece. The cool, damp rubber over my body felt strangely familiar. I pulled up the zip and went to look at myself in the mirror. I grinned at my reflection. Fifteen years seemed to fall away. Flinging open the back door, I leapt down the steps and did cartwheels across the lawn. 

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