"I got angrier the longer I stayed out. Everyone’s face looked punchable. The rain and wind kicked up a notch. Conditions deteriorated. More people kept coming out off the rocks."
Recently, in some imagined bout of creeping fever, I liberated an old favourite from the surfads bookshelf.
On the Beach, by Nevil Shute. Published 1959.
Post-apocalyptic pulp before it was cool.
Set in ‘50s Australia after a global nuclear war has wiped the bulk of the human race. A cloud of radioactivity drifts slowly south, clearing out what’s left.
Melbourne is one of the last cities in the world breathing.
But not for long.
The novel follows various characters as they go stoically about their business, knowing death is drawing in on them.
Their ends are met in a very formal, downturned, British manner.
Politely. Discreetly. Still doing their jobs and with minimum fuss. Social order maintained until the very last.
A morbid choice, maybe.
But why not now, if ever?
It certainly gives stark contrast to our current bin fire. In 2020, the first whiff of a breakdown in societal mechanics has Australians clawing at each other while simultaneously disregarding the government’s pleas for social distancing.
Grocery workers stabbed for toilet paper.
Medical supplies stolen from hospital loading docks.
Fist fights in waiting lines.
Record crowds still meeting at our beaches.
And the worst hasn’t even hit here, yet.
It’s different in Europe, where the dead are piling up. Different in America, too, where the nightmare that is neo-capitalism unravels one uninsured patient at a time. Different in Costa Rica, where cops fire warning shots and arrest pro surfers. Different in South Africa, where Jeffrey’s locals hold firm and do their part for the greater good, even in the face of pumping waves.
Here in Oz, outside of Sydney’s eastern suburbs where beach closures have forced local surfers’ hands, an uneasy detente rests.
Our virus numbers are still sorta kinda low.
Beaches are open, even though attendance is discouraged. The volunteer clubbies have finished their season early, but the professionals are still on duty.
The flags are up, for now.
To surf or not to surf?
I’ve been following the guidelines, even though ‘rona cases in my local area are even smaller still. Surfing, yes, but alone, away from most others.
Working from home, and lucky enough to still have a job. Keeping clean and laying low.
But on the weekend I cracked.
I needed a wave, and the only place breaking was my usual local. Inner city, always crowded. A stormy day. Wrong wind. The beach doing its best impersonation of Point Break’s final scene.
Driving rain, no one about on the usually bustling promenade.
Despite the onshore there was a wave. A small ENE swell pulsing runner lefts and short ramps on the rights.
I paddled out.
The lineup was teeming. Thirty-five surfers blanketed across the one bank. More than there would be for these conditions usually, even.
There were party wave gals on mini-mals. Hurley/JS/gym bro warriors. Surf dads with groms in tow. Only a handful of regulars.
Who were these cunts?
Were people deliberately defying government recommendations, just ‘cause they can?
“They can’t tell me I’m not surfing. The ocean doesn’t belong to anyone. YOLO!”
I cursed them just for being in the water.
Why were they out here?
Didn’t they know the world was ending?
Didn’t they know our chief medical officer was enforcing a one-and-a-half-metre distancing rule?
But then I also asked: why was I out here? YOLO too?
Whatever, I grumbled in the realisation I was just as shit as them.
I don’t give a fuck.
I got angrier the longer I stayed out. Everyone’s face looked punchable. The rain and wind kicked up a notch. Conditions deteriorated. More people kept coming out off the rocks.
I paddled in. Which is rare for me. Rare for anyone, probably.
I was annoyed. Confused.
The wheels are falling off the world and here we are in Australia crawling over the top of each other to chase two-foot of windswell.
We’re the same sorta people who will cry out when we’ve run out of ventilators or are stuck overseas and the government won’t rescue us.
But I get it, this is a big change.
The sort of systemic disruption that’s usually only forced by war, or death.
The way we operated in 2019 is not the way we will operate now.
Adjustment will take time.
And while our YOLO culture runs hard, Australia is suffering from a lack of leadership. We have a conservative PM too scared to make a hard shut down if it’s gonna hurt the budget’s bottom line.
Plus there’s state v federal confusion in messaging.
Picture Cuomo v Trump.
We sit in this open but closed, business as sorta usual limbo, where nobody really knows how to act.
To surf or not to surf?
Nick Carroll asked Dr Karl, our very own Neil de Grasse Tyson, if surfing can transmit the virus. Even the smartest man in Australia didn’t know. There’s just too much we don’t know.
What’s the moral imperative here?
Will we be able to keep surfing?
Will you flout the laws when your beach is closed?
How long can you hold out for?
Are we all fucked until they find a vaccine?
Perturbed, hunky surfer seeking answers.
Post script: The Prime Minister has just announced a ban on public gatherings of more than two people. Skate parks, playgrounds etc are being closed. But does that include the beach? A Monday morning surf check would suggest not. That same bank, even smaller again, had another thirty packed onto it. Surely it won’t be long now ‘til we get the ban hammer too. Cough cough.