Western Waves

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Western Australia
By Cat George

The town of Yallingup.
The town of Yallingup.
I squish into the car beside an eight-foot length of sandy fiberglass for the ride into Yallingup, a town three hours south of Perth, Western Australia. My friend Mike is looking to try out his rookie surfing skills and the town — like most places in Australia — is a great spot for waves. It sits on a wooded slope above a crescent sand beach, a handful of houses ride the breaking crest of the hill, the mirror image of surfers on green waves in the water below.

I’ve been exploring this southwestern corner of Australia long enough to indulge in most of its pleasures: an abundance of boutique wineries, eucalypt forests, endless sand beaches, great weather. The one regional draw I haven’t experience yet is its reputation for great waves. All along this Indian Ocean coastline, experienced surfers enjoy beaches so empty they seem private while beginners have their pick of companies offering lessons. Today is my first enticing glimpse of the joys of surfing as a spectator sport.

“Make me look like a pro,” Mike tells me when I bring out my camera. “Standing up, if I manage it.” He paddles out and bobs twenty meters offshore, eyeing the waves for a non-threatening one.

Grommets — Aussie slang for young surfers — show off on the biggest waves. With the advantage of living beachside, these kids seem almost pro. They ride forever, nonchalant, dipping lazy fingers into the wave face. Reaching the peak, they pop into the air, splash down and disappear behind the wave. They chase the green room – the rounded space between the face of a wave and its curling crest – and some succeed in entering it. I shed my shoes and wade into the water for a closer view. The sun drops, haloing hang-ten silhouettes in its light.

Mike gestures to me: his perfect wave is rolling in. He struggles to his feet, crouches and flings out his arms for balance. I snap a shot. As the wave dribbles to a stop, he staggers, then tumbles backwards. In the photo, though, he does look like a pro, suspended in one sublime moment of control.

I know Mike is somewhere in the crowd a few days later when I head to the Salomon Masters Surf Competition, a qualifying event for the surfing World Championships. But there are too many people to find him in the throng. This surf comp, held annually at a beach just outside the leafy town of Margaret River, forty-five minutes south of Yallingup, is popular with both locals and visitors. The crowds for today’s men’s grand finals are large.

There’s no assigned seating, just beach blankets on a cliff top overlooking the waves. Men and women alike are tanning in their bathing suits and dripping meat pie innards onto the grass. There are fans on the beach below the cliff, too, enjoying a courtside view while swimming in sheltered rock pools along the water’s edge. I snag a great spot right at the cliff’s edge.

The paradise spread of Yallingup's beach.
The paradise spread of Yallingup’s
The next four hours are a crash course for me in how surfing competitions work. Two surfers paddle out and have about thirty minutes to ride the waves. The rules become clear after a while: wave “priority,” whose turn it is to surf, jumps back and forth between the surfers. Judges score riders out of ten for how they ride up the wave and then turn to go back down. Each surfer’s two best scores are added together to determine the winner. One thing I do know is when to cheer; I can’t help but root for the home team. There’s one Australian, Troy Brooks, still in contention. Of course the crowd is rooting for him. Even the commentators aren’t hiding their bias.

While the surfers wait for a good wave, these commentators fill the air over loudspeaker with typically off-colour Aussie jokes and chatter, but when something happens on the water, they turn into unofficial referees. The surfers, hundreds of yards offshore, want to know their scores and how much time is left.

When one of the men waves his arms, the commentator shrieks “Neco, you need an 8.6 to win this round,” into the loudspeaker. I wonder if Brazilian Neco Padaratz is looking at each successive wave and thinking, “Is this one big enough to get an 8.6? This one?” He doesn’t get the score, and loses his semi-final to Hawaiian Roy Powers. That sets up a final between Powers and Brooks, the Australian.

Most of the day the waves have been about two metres high, but now they’re starting to falter, so when Powers gets two good scores in the first five minutes, the crowd goes glum.

“7.17,” comes from the announcer in response to Brooks’ questioning wave about his required score to win. The clock ticks down. Fifteen minutes of flat water passes. The sky goes grey to match the crowd. A minute and a half remaining; Brooks has priority.

Look, I can surf! Mike stands up to his wave
Look, I can surf! Mike stands up to his wave
“He’ll need a superman move to win this,” one of the commentators says. Something splashy. He needs that perfect moment of control I captured Mike in. A mediocre wave rolls through and Brooks stands up and does something no-one else has today: he gets massive air. He floats a foot off the crest, lands cleanly, slices back up and down three more times, and splashes off the wave at its tail. Seconds after he lands the aerial, the crowd goes berserk. I cheer myself hoarse with them, dragged into the euphoria of the moment. Everyone knows he’s nailed the necessary score. The commentator cheers, “Troy, that was a 9.67! You’re in the lead.” Forty-five seconds later it’s over and I’m heading into town with the grinning crowd. Australia’s western waves haven’t disappointed.

This year’s Salomon Margaret River Masters will be held from March 27-April 2. All surfing except the men’s grand final free; final $8.00. For more information on attractions, accommodation and transportation in the southwest of Australia, visit www.westernaustralia.com or www.downsouth.com.au.

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