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Sad surfer boy: how growing up at Perth beaches shaped a wave-riding career

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There are three very cruel things about being a surfer under the age of 17 in Perth. One, the beaches are shadowed by offshore reefs thereby making rideable waves an exception not a daily reality. If you can't shake school or work when the waves are on, you're screwed.

Two, the prevailing onshore winds tear the waves to pieces and unless you have a parent motivated to hit the road before 6am you're screwed.

Three, a few hours drive south and half-an-hour by boat offshore, are some of the best waves in the world. Waves so good they make photographers weep and big-wavers straddle planes for 20-hour transcontinental rides. But if you can't get to them, if you don't have a drivers license or parents who've socked away enough money to buy a boat, you're screwed.

Worse is to be under 17, boat-less, and you live in some weather-beaten eastern suburb. Like Willetton. A paradise for the football and cricket-inclined (those vast parks!) but hell for a little surfer boy.

That's where I grew up. An hour from the nearest rideable wave. And I lived for surfing. My $5 a week pocket money went straight into the save-for-a-fibreglass-surfboard fund.


My best friend shoplifted the imported Surfer magazines from the news agency for me ($7 a shot! And this is 25 years ago! Robbery!) and every Saturday morning at 6am I'd sit on my letterbox waiting for my pal and his dad to pick me up for a surf, which they did, roughly once out of every 10 promised arrivals.

Most mornings my mum would hurry up the driveway in a dressing gown that ballooned in the morning offshore breeze, help me down from my letterbox perch where I'd been scanning the street for my ride for the past hour-and-a-half, and hold my hand as she led me inside, my surfboard hanging from a strap on my shoulder.

I'd would walk back into my room, prop my surfboard against the wall in the corner, nose down, just as I'd seen it done in the surf shop, and lay down on my bed, looking at the trees outside my window and waiting for the onshore change that always came by 9am.

Oh, Perth! The cruelty. So cruel. Waves that are exhausted by the time they swing past Rottnest, Garden Island, even little Seal Island off Mindari and whatever else hunks of reef are out there shadowing all that glorious swell.

And sandbanks that refuse to order these tiny, tiny swells into something you might ride for more than a second or two.

I vowed to split town as soon as I was old enough to drive or, at least, until I could save a thousand bucks to get me to the east coast. I remember the first time I eyeballed Burleigh Heads on Queensland's Gold Coast.

The water was turquoise, the waves rolled along a visible sandbank for 50 metres or so and… there was no one out. I dived into that warm water and didn't leave until the sun was well beyond the skyscrapers of Surfers Paradise.

The lack of surfers perplexed me and it took me years to understand. See, by Gold Coast standards, the waves were terrible, unsurfable even.

But to a boy from Perth who would spend five hours standing in waist-deep water attempting to surf waves that staggered toward shore like drunken midgets before collapsing in a bed of seaweed half a second later, this was as good as it gets.

A quarter of a century later, I'm still marked by my half-a-dozen years surfing in Perth. The surf is never more crowded than Trigg Point. The waves are never as bad as Leighton in summer.

Perth tortured me. But it also made me.

Derek Rielly runs the Beach Grit website, on which a version of this story originally ran.