Surfing in the Time of Corona

Before the end of February this year all that Corona meant to me was (not so) cheap, watery Mexican beer (that I am convinced is only consumed with a slice of lemon in a vain attempt to make it half-palatable). I was vaguely aware that in Spanish the meaning of the word had something to do with rays of the sun, but that was about it. Flash forward just a few short weeks and suddenly that word has a whole new meaning and the global landscape has changed considerably.

People like me who used to avoid reading the news (because let’s face it, it’s usually always pretty bad) are now checking our phones daily, hourly. The situation is changing so fast that it’s almost impossible to keep up. First cruise ships were being quarantined and people flying into the country were being forced to self-isolate (a phrase none of us had heard before). Then Australians were being urged to fly home quickly, suggesting that the nation’s borders were about to be sealed off from the rest of the world – unheard of! Add to all of this social distancing (another brand new expression that essentially means we have to treat each other like lepers and maintain a separation distance of 1.5M at all times), basketball, cricket and footy games all being played without crowds, and the cancellation of the Australian leg of the WSL, and one could almost be excused for thinking that the end is quite possibly … well, nigh.

At the time that I am writing this, closures of state borders have been announced, pubs, clubs and cafes are shutting their doors and the Australian Football League (the AFL) has revealed that after one round (of games played within a shorter-than-usual timeframe) the season has been placed on hold until, at least, the end of May. (Although seeing how poorly my beloved Brisbane Lions played in that one round, maybe it is a blessing in disguise).

But where does all of this leave us, as surfers? Well for some of us, it will mean that long-awaited trip to Indo or Fiji or the Philippines has now been cancelled – an absolute slap in the face for the hard-working Aussie surfer who has saved his or her pennies and anxiously counted down the days and weeks until it is finally time to load up the boards and jump aboard that plane. Even interstate surf trips are off which, for me personally, means I am going to have to wait a bit longer (or maybe a lot longer) before I can jump on a plane and give my brand new epoxy Firewire a run at the new Urbnsurf wave pool in Tullamarine – I am gutted! But is the impact even more than that? What is happening right now at all of our local surf breaks? Well for me as a Perth surfer that is an easy question to answer – absolutely nothing! Perth is typically one of the most surf-cursed capital cities in Australia. At this time of year, a tack-flat ocean is not unusual but it’s also when we start anticipating the first swells of the year.

Are people staying away from the lineups in the same way we are being forced to at cafes and restaurants? If the photos that emerged on the weekend of thousands of tourists flaunting the social distancing rules at Bondi Beach are anything to go by, I would suggest not. And let’s face it, as surfers we find it extremely hard to keep away. For decades we have become famous for not letting a whole lot get in the way of the giddy thrill of gliding along the face of a wave – not even school, work, family gatherings, birthday parties, or even weddings, when we know conditions are going to be epic (and it is very hard to adhere to social distancing rules at reefs and slabs with a tiny three by three-metre takeoff spot when there are ten or twelve of us in the water).

However, it’s images like the now empty Bondi Beach shots, and announcements like footy going on hold that has made it hard not to wonder if the lock-down, as we’ve seen in Italy and China (the only country that seems to have flattened the curve i.e. potentially halted the spread of the virus), is not too far away. And what then? That means even my backup trip to Margaret River is off the cards. And essentially it means grabbing my board and jogging down the end of my street to surf my local beachie is out too right? Can Aussie surfers really be trusted to obey this rule when the first crisp swells of late March and early April start rolling in, wave faces groomed to perfection by a gentle offshore breeze? It seems very unlikely to me that we can all be trusted in a situation like this. But let’s not forget the Aussie who decided to go for a jog around Beijing during lockdown a week or so ago. She made global news for her shameful display of selfishness and was deported home to Australia, fired from her job and disgraced. So if lockdown happens around Australia, are we going to see Aussie surfers in news headlines around the world put to shame for flaunting society’s rules and giving in to the calling of our selfish pursuit?

If so, we might find ourselves in the middle of a regression back to the hedonistic days when being a surfer meant mainstream society viewed us all as rebels, drop-outs and social outcasts. However, while a hint of rebellion may seem kind of cool on the surface, I don’t want to glorify a blatant disregard for the rules, nor be seen to be advocating this type of behaviour. This virus is no joke and we all have a responsibility to contain the spread, lest too many more lives are unnecessarily lost.

One thing is for sure, it is going to become very challenging for me personally, as it will for thousands of surfers around the country, to keep ourselves in isolation should all of the climatic variables – wind, swell, tide and wave period come together in that perfect (and rare) combination that we just know means our local reef break is firing. Our powers of self-restraint will be tested even more, the longer we are kept indoors.

When we have eaten all of our 2-minute noodles, exhausted our Netflix wish list, played X Box until our thumbs are sore and lost fifteen consecutive games of Monopoly to our partners (or our kids); And when we are being forced to wipe our bottom with a Chux Super-wipe, ruing the fact that we sat back taunting the toilet paper hoarders for being idiots instead of getting with the program ourselves and buying up big when we had the chance; And when the four walls in our lounge rooms start to feel like they are closing in on us, these are the moments where we will be truly tested.

It’s hard to imagine Aussie surfers emerging onto balconies en masse in Cronulla and Coolangatta and breaking into song like they have been in Salerno and Naples, giving up our very best renditions of Aussie cult classics like Khe Sanh or Highway to Hell or even Waltzing Matilda. Not when the swell is up and the wind is offshore. More likely we will be jogging down to our nearest beach, diving into bushes at the first sign of a cop car, or perhaps risking our lives trying to surf a six-foot swell at night by the light of a quarter moon.

To quote a great Aussie rock band from the 1980s, ‘these here are crazy times’ and who knows what tomorrow is going to look like, let alone what will become of the world by the winter of 2020. I won’t make any predictions. I am not Nostradamus and I don’t own a crystal ball but I know one thing for certain – I will not be alone as I pace around my lounge room looking outside at the leaves on my neighbour’s gumtree to gauge the wind direction and speed, chewing my nails nervously as I wrestle with the pros and cons of the 2020 equivalent of a university campus nudie run, no doubt accompanied by my wife’s idle threats, something along the lines of “don’t even think about it mister”. All I can say is, let’s collectively pray that it doesn’t come to this and that this virus has soon run its course and that lock-down never happens! Otherwise, Aussie surfers may be faced with the greatest dilemma we have ever known since the fateful day The Duke picked Isabel Letham out of the crowd and introduced surfing to our fine shores. To surf or not to surf.

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