"I didn't see the emotion coming. I stood up by myself and these tears started rolling out. I couldn't stop them. I had to stand in the darkness by myself."
In June, the former pro Rob Bain, who in 1990 and ’91 led the world tour for two -thirds of the year only to be stymied in his dream by Tom Curren and Damien Hardman, revisited Grajagan in east Java for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 1994 tsunami.
Rob, who won the title of World Grand Surfing Wizard in the Azores last year, is one man who’s looked into the void, decided it wasn’t for him, and stormed back to take life by the horns.
Ten years ago, he snapped his neck surfing at North Avalon, a breezy sorta Sydney reef.
And, in 1994, as I say, he was swept to, almost, oblivion by a tsunami, generated by a wild earthquake in the Java trench, that struck in the middle of the night. Three villages west of G-Land were levelled, killing 223 villagers.
Also on the trip were fellow pro’s Simon Law, Richie Lovett, Richard Marsh, who initially thought they’d been overrun by tigers, Shane Herring, Neal Purchase, the photographer Peter Boskovic and filmmaker Monty Webber, brother of fast-talking Greg.
Rob woke up under water, his wooden hut collapsed on top of him and wrapped in a mosquito net. He says he channelled the fury of a wild animal to escape his prison and was helped in his endeavour by Monty Webber.
When Rob heard that a twenty-fifth anniversary of the event was being held, he thought it would be a good thing to pay his respects to the Javanese who died on that night and to reflect on his own good fortune.
“I felt the need to go back,” he says. “It’s funny because twenty-five years is quite a long time but I was sitting the other day with Billy’s mum Kath watching Slater in Haleiwa crushing young kids’ dreams. I’ve been riding away for twenty-five years and he’s still on tour!”
Rob also brought along his son, Billy, who is twenty-seven and also a screwfoot shredder. Billy was two years old and asleep at the family’s Avalon home while Daddy was being torn apart by nature.
“Me and Billy have got a close relationship,” says Bain, who lost his own father when he was thirteen to lung cancer.
Billy was seventeen and on the beach when Rob busted his neck at North Av.
“Fuck, he thought I was going to die,” says Rob.
And, so, this trip, for father and son, was something special.
“The joy to be able to go back all that this time later with my son and to see him ride barrels, and for me to ride barrels, and to share barrels, like most fathers you get so much joy out of watching your sons.”
The ceremony, says Rob, hit him in the guts.
“When you’re facing death, when you’re in a situation where you’re going to die, it has a big impact on you. Going back there brought up a lot of emotion, but it was cathartic, especially thinking about all the local people that did die. Knowing people there had lost family to the ocean was a big one for me. And I didn’t see the emotion coming. We got there, surfed, settled in and that night the ceremony was on. We were sitting there in the darkness with the locals and it was candle lit under a big tent looking into a black ocean. You could hear it. I stood up by myself and these tears started rolling out. I couldn’t stop them. I had to stand in the darkness by myself.”
One year after the tsunami, and in an uncharacteristically poetic gesture, Rob retired at the Quiksilver G-Land Pro.
He knew he was on a roll, knew the event was his.
But, in his round four heat against eventual finalist Jeff Booth, as he was sailing through a tube to victory, and he could see his caddy Simon Law whooping for joy in the channel, he got clipped and rolled.
And he remembers, underwater, thinking “My career is done. It’s all over. Finished. That was the end of it.”
After the event, he stayed on at G-Land with Kelly Slater, Jim Banks and Joel Fitzgerald and slayed an empty, epic swell.
“It was a very fond memory,” says Rob.