A mongrel sprints insanely across the sand. A man wearing a small skullcap sticks out his hairy leg and trips the dog. His teammates giggle nervously as they windmill their arms to loosen their muscles. Then they reach back to roll up their swim trunks into G-strings, exposing their buttocks to the crowd. All is silent now, except for the 30-knot wind blowing from the sea.
A whistle is blown. Four wooden boats, each attended by a crew of five, are pushed across the sand and into shallow water. A man in white shorts, his face smeared with protective cream, stands a few yards offshore and raises a rifle to the sky. The world's most spectacular spectator sport is about to begin.
Bang! Each team leaps into a boat. Four men strain mightily at the oars, rowing blindly into the heaving sea at their backs, while the fifth, the sweep, screams, "I want guts now, meboys! Pull!" The first wave pitches one boat's bow to two o'clock high, then smacks it down into the trough. The next wave spins the boat sideways and fills it with water. The third wave, smelling rout, sends this boat crashing into another one. Spray flies, oars fly, bodies fly. The crowd yells, "Whooooah!"
The fourth wave chucks one of the 26-foot, 400-pound boats like a spear. A crewman staggers to his feet in the foaming chaos, and his sweep hollers, "You all right?" The boatie's head rolls sideways, and he crumples into the water.
February 11, 1985
The proceedings are taking on the look of a bungled beach invasion. The injured man's teammates pick him up and rush him to the sand. He's semiconscious; his eyes and tongue flutter wildly. An ambulance rolls onto the beach, a stretcher is unfolded, a doctor presses an oxygen' mask to the boatie's face. A fat red ball has risen on his forehead, and blood seeps from the back of his skull. "Fractured skull," says someone. A teammate kneels next to him and sobs. Beyond this alarming scene, the two boats left in the race clear the breakers and tear their oars into the royal blue of the Pacific Ocean.
One more competitor will be carted off to the hospital during this day's surf carnival at Kawana Waters, on the eastern coast of Australia, 60 miles north of Brisbane. At the end of one race, a gasping boatie says to a visitor, "We come to row on the surf—not on a river, mate. You blokes don't do this in America?"
No, mate, we don't. Somehow, in our quest for new Saturday afternoon landfill for television, we've missed the boat.
But the Australians sure haven't. From October through Easter each year, on the beaches that necklace their continent, thousands of lifesavers lash on funny club caps and go to war. They compete in events that are rough, tough—and wonderfully imaginative. In one, a guy swims out to sea and pretends to drown, and his five teammates are graded on how skillfully they save him. In another, competitors lie flat on their stomachs on the sand and, at the blast of a whistle, jump to their feet, spin 180 degrees, race 20 meters and dive for plastic batons protruding from the beach. There is always one fewer baton than there are participants, and so the field is whittled down until, in the final skirmish, two sand-covered creatures battle for the last baton.
The surf-ski competitors paddle long, narrow, colorful craft, using foot pedals attached to a rudder to steer. Swimmers bolt from a starting line on the beach, high-step through the breakers and then swim freestyle toward the open sea. Surfboard paddlers kneel on a board and scoop both hands in unison to propel themselves through the water. The Iron-men, the glamour boys of the sport, combine variations of those three events—surf-ski, swimming and surfboard paddling—with a dash along the shore. The beach sprinters, the sport's pretty boys, race barefoot across the sand, and the boaties, its madmen, plow 400 to 500 meters out to sea and back. The belt racers reenact the old style of rescue: Four men play out line from a reel on the beach that is attached by a thick belt to a swimming lifesaver.
This is no sport for dabblers. No one may compete unless he or she belongs to a surf club, is a certified lifesaver and patrols the beaches for a required number of hours each year—without pay. The best competitors train as many as 6½ hours a day to prepare for the weekend surf carnivals that culminate in the national championships, this year from Feb. 28 to March 3, in which about 4,500 take part. They compete on seas that might be lullabies one day, man-eaters the next. While in some events they may finish without their equipment intact, if they finish without their caps tied beneath their chins, they are disqualified.
Ever since it was organized, in 1907, the Surf Life Saving Association has prospered, its sport insulated from most of the world, on beaches with aboriginal names that ignite the imagination—Coolangatta, Mollymook, Mooloolaba, Maroubra and Maroochydore, Dee Why and Wollongong. The image of its practitioners is of barrel-chested, beer-drinking, shark-sneering men with nicknames like Bunger and Horrorful, Gimme and God, Sniffer and Itchy, Schizo and Senile, The Ant and Wonald the Wooster.
It's not rare for lifesavers to train out beyond the protective nets, where the sharks and manta rays play. But Bill Hutchinson remembers a 1959 swimming race at Northcliffe Beach, on the east coast, when the water turned red and someone yelled, "Shark!" Thirty yards behind him a swimmer flailed in the water, bleeding profusely from deep gashes in one leg. Even more terrifying, Hutchinson and the eight other swimmers could not locate the fin. They banded into a group and gingerly approached the victim, saving him from drowning. "Bloody hell," Hutchinson says. "For a moment, I was almost a Catholic."
What men! you say, what machismo! Wait. At midday of the surf carnival at Kawana Waters, the swimmers, the sprinters, the surfboard paddlers, the surf-skiers and the boaties all pause. The beach becomes quiet. Suddenly, Scottish bandsmen in black shoes, knee-high socks and kilts stride onto the sand, bagpipes wailing. The athletes, dressed in old-fashioned bathing suits, pop out of their club tents and march in units of 12, with gray-haired, potbellied men clutching flags in the lead. Officials scurry about jotting scores on their clipboards, judging the marchers for posture, pace and unity as they step across the sand in rhythm to the Scottish tune.
The March Past is one of the sweet traditions of the sport, a time for the older, more advanced beer drinkers of each surf club to pull on matching tank tops and participate with the young. At a "Nippers" carnival for children at Southport not long ago, a man with anchor and eagle tattoos on his arms barked at a group of 11-and 12-year-old girls trying to master the marching tradition. "Concentrate, concentrate!" growled Barry Thomas, a member of the Kurrawa Surf Life Saving Club. "Keep yer heads up! Shoulders back! Blue, stay in step!"
"This is important," said Thomas. "These kids have to learn discipline. When you're conducting a beach rescue, you can't have everybody running willy-nilly. I love the March Past. When you wear these old togs and carry these flags and suck yer gut in . . . you own that beach, mate!"
As Thomas spoke, a school of fish went thrashing into the surf, surrounded by nine men in orange caps. The fish were actually a flotilla of 6-year-olds, accompanied by club members, practicing for the day they grow up to become 7-year-old Nippers and can begin competing in carnivals. The elements of community, of belonging, are inseparable from the lifesaving movement.
On the day of a carnival, a beach becomes a roped-off, five-ring circus, each group of competitors in a colorful world of its own. At one end are the 25-man groups of boaties—thick, bearded, tattooed—cursing and grunting as they hoist the boats onto their shoulders, each vessel looking like an amphibious semi-centipede as it's transported from the club truck to the beach. The boaties lovingly massage their craft with beeswax and grease to make it ready for the lunacy of the sea, and then roll their bathing suits into G-strings so their bare buttocks will slide more easily across the seats as they row.
At the other end of the beach, ski paddlers bend over their hollow surf-skis and blow furiously into a hole at one end—the more air pressure inside, the better the flotation and the less water will seep in. In the middle area, the beach sprinters strip off their multicolored designer track suits, jangle the kinks from their legs and comb their hair so the wind won't crimp their possibilities with the bronze sheila baking on a blanket a few yards away. (Boaties loathe beach sprinters.)
Nearby, the surfboard paddlers and the swimmers cup their hands over their eyes and study the sea for alleys where the surf looks less cruel. Meanwhile, the Ironmen sit in the shade of their club tents, conserving energy and discussing strategy. The spectators, numbering anywhere from 100 to 40,000, stab umbrellas into the sand, butter themselves with protection against the subtropical sun and file off to the beer tent to stave off dehydration. Some of the crowd are weather-wrinkled former competitors, rooting for the lifesavers from their surf clubs, and some are honey-skinned women in truly inspiring bikinis, who simply wish to bask in all this virility.
"I hate it," says boatie Paul Auer, otherwise known as Schizo, "when we're out their getting knocked silly by the bloody waves, and all you can hear over the surf are all the sheilas squealing every time we get clobbered."
The competitors' love of the sport runs deep and clean, unmuddied by money. Many have written wills requesting that their ashes be scattered on the open sea by fellow club members.
Dennis Green, a 53-year-old who trains two hours a day for masters kayak competitions, bangs his fist on a table. "The surf lifesaving clubs are the only place left in our society where there's still discipline," he says. "There's no corporal punishment for criminals here anymore, no caning allowed in the schools anymore. But at a surf club, if someone younger than me raises his voice to me, I'd kick his bum or put his head through the bloody wall. In a surf club, prima donnas don't last long. The Prime Minister or a garbage man can join, and in their shorts and sandals, they're all just club blokes."
America has no equivalent of the Australian surf club—a frat house with a truckload of sand thrown in and no graduation ceremonies to cut off the good times and cold beer. The clubhouses often include weightlifting facilities, a bar, a pool table, an administration office, a locker room and a bunk room for those who don't live within staggering distance. The smell of stale beer is strong enough to reignite a hangover. The sign on the wall at one club, advertising an upcoming dance there, reads LIVE BAND. FOOD. WOMEN. AND HEAPS OF PISS [beer]. BARGIN [sic]—$3.
There are 245 lifesaver clubs in Australia, with 59,000 members, including 15,000 on active beach patrol. On the club walls are pictures and the roll of past heroes, among them those who died on duty. Some of the Animal House appeal of the clubs has been muted by a 1981 rule change that enabled women to become full-fledged members, but the social factor remains one of the clubs' most powerful lures. Young and old gather for a schooner or four of beer in the evenings and talk of such legends from the past as Bill Clarke, who is said to have trained during World War II by swimming alongside his Navy ship while his deck-mates protected him from sharks by spraying the ocean with tommy-gun bullets. Or of the wild train rides to distant carnivals, with one-hour stopovers in remote western Australian towns where athletes would spew from the cars like locusts and literally devour every available drop of alcohol, every crumb of food.
A reverence comes into their voices when they talk of Black Sunday. On Feb. 6, 1938, as a day of intraclub events was about to begin at Bondi Beach near Sydney, the water became strangely calm. Suddenly, a series of monster waves struck, sucking about 200 people, most of them not lifesavers, out to sea. The athletes jumped into action; the beach became a frantic place of whirring rescue reels and barked instructions. Forty people were pounded unconscious, but only five died. The day stands as a stark testimony to what officials of the Surf Life Saving Association keep reminding everyone—that 281,273 people have been saved since the movement began and that the competitive part of their operation exists mainly to propagate fitness and enthusiasm for the lifesavers' real task.
The public Down Under is convinced: Last year more than 400,000 Australian dollars—an Aussie dollar is worth about 80 U.S. cents—was raised in donations. "It's easier to raise money in Australia for surf lifesaving than it is for the blind or paraplegics," says Green. "Your lifeguards in America don't get that kind of respect. They're paid."
Sidney Richard Goodfellow, a 66-year-old resident of Adelaide better known as Super Sid, has raised more than $A55,000 by himself. "Fifty-five thousand, four hundred and ninety-nine dollars and sixty-five cents, as of now," said Sid last November, "from a total of 67,490 people. I started on the 25th of November, 1975, at 6 p.m., and have collected for 5,067¾ hours, covering 2,627¼ miles. I've worn out 14 pairs of shoes. I wear a crash helmet with SUPER SID on the front and an eye on the back to watch if anyone tries to rob me. I collect three hours a day, Monday through Friday, 10 hours every Saturday and 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. every Sunday."
Jeepers, Sid, you must love the beach.
"You kiddin', mate? Bloody water goes up and down and spoils me stomach. I lose me breath. I nearly drowned three times as a prisoner of war when the Japs made us go in the river for a wash. Then I was in three cave-ins working the mines as a prisoner, and when they stuck me under a shower to clean all the muck off me, I was so scared I almost cleaned all the Japs up meself.
"But if those blokes hadn't pulled me out of the river back in Burma, I wouldn't be around, so I decided I ought to do something to help lifesavers. This is special, mate. There's no love in other sports."
Sir Adrian Curlewis, 84, a district court judge for 22 years, knighted for community service, spent part of his early life riding surfboards while standing on his head. He was president of the Surf Life Saving Association from 1933 to '75, except for the war years. And even the 3½ years he spent as a prisoner of war didn't diminish his passion. One night, after another day of slave labor in Changi, Malaya, he slipped through the darkness to the Japanese guardhouse, stole a rope and a pair of khaki shorts, and then had another POW convert the shorts into a thick stomach belt. The next day, while some sunken-chested Australian prisoners were collecting salt water from the sea for boiling rice, Curlewis gathered a group around him. He didn't show them how they might escape. He showed them how to perform a reel rescue.
Nothing has changed—and everything has. On a warm evening last November, thousands of people line the streets of Coolangatta, gawking at the Cadillac and Rolls-Royce motorcade of celebrities that purrs toward the town's swankest movie theater. From one car steps a bronze-skinned, blond, blue-eyed, tuxedoed Adonis with a beautiful blonde affixed to his arm. He strides through an aisle of women wearing stunning gold bathing suits and strained sequined dresses, while a band blares and a young girl wearing a long white gown strews a carpet of flower petals at his feet. Representatives of the press, resembling 1940s movie caricatures of themselves, leap in his path and encircle him, snapping pictures and questions.
"How 'bout a little peck on the cheek, mate?" requests a photographer. Grant Kenny, 21, the Ironman of all Australia, plants a kiss on 1984 Olympic swimmer Lisa Curry, just for the boys, and then walks inside to watch himself in the world premiere of the movie The Coolangatta Gold.
"Grant Kenny," says Mick Porra, four-time national surfboard paddling champion, "is what every father in Australia wants his son to be, the one any girl in Australia would do anything to jump into bed with. He's fitness and toughness personified, the number one sporting personality in Australia."
In 1966, Hayden Kenny won the first national Ironman championship held in Australia. Fourteen years later, his 16-year-old son Grant did an extraordinary thing. He won the Junior Ironman title, establishing himself as the best combination ski paddler-swimmer-runner-surfboard-paddler in Australia under the age of 18. Then, with 15 minutes' rest, he dashed back into the sea and won the national Senior Ironman championship. No one had ever achieved that double—or even considered it—and the news caused furor across Australia.
Grant went on to win the Senior Iron-man title an unprecedented four straight years, missing a chance at a fifth in 1984 when he pulled out with an infected foot. The Kellogg people splashed him on TV commercials and on their Australian Nutri-Grain boxes. A national TV network signed him to host a sports program and a game show. The makers of The Coolangatta Gold, a clichéd but visually riveting movie about two sons trying to win their father's affection by defeating Kenny in a 43-kilometer Ironman event, signed Grant to play himself. An insurance company hired him to promote its new Lifesaver policy. A clothing company signed him to promote his own line of casual wear. He also won an Olympic bronze medal in the 1,000-meter double kayak in Los Angeles. Kenny had become the all-Australian boy. He had fallen in love with Curry, and every little rumor about the couple, every little peck, became a hot flash for the tabloids.
Suddenly, the surf lifesaving movement had a personality around which to coalesce. Sponsors lined up; revenues from the government leaped to this year's record $A905,000. The image of the surf lifesaver had become that of the model modern man. Kenny didn't smoke; he didn't drink. He was kind, honest and articulate, piloted airplanes and knew karate. And, most important in a society that harbors utter disdain for self-centered celebrities, he was humble. "I try to tell people that Ironman is the name of a 10-minute event, not of me," says Grant, who still lives with his parents. "I'm not obsessed by it all. I'll be competing in the surf well after my peak, because it's fun. Why give up something I like to preserve a reputation?"
The night before Hayden Kenny won the first Ironman, he slept in the back of his station wagon. The Aussies had known no such event before that year, plagiarizing the idea, ironically, from American competitive lifeguards during a U.S. tour in which Hayden had participated the year before. "It didn't have the macho connotation then that it has now," he says.
In 1963 Hayden established his family in a resort town called Alexandra Headland, so close to the beach that Grant once gazed from the front porch, saw a man drowning and raced to save him. There Hayden began what became a thriving surf-craft business, and started training Grant and a younger son, Martin, 16, who has won some local Cadet (13-to 15-year-old) Ironman events. Talk of a family dynasty is spreading. "I'll try to win a national Ironman," Martin says, "but I won't go for the double. It'll never be done again. Grant's a freak."
The freak is the first man to make money from surf lifesaving, a sport that has historically drained thousands of dollars a year in traveling, training and equipment expenses from its faithful. In Grant's wake, the entire approach to his sport has undergone a revolution. Iron-men around Australia began going to bed at 8 p.m., arising at 5 a.m., training for two hours, gulping breakfast in the car on the way to work, falling asleep on their desks at midday and then returning home at five to train for another 2½ hours. They added coaches, lost lovers and ingested protein drinks and megavitamins.
Grant isn't finished overhauling his sport. He and Porra, the surfboard paddling star, plan to start an Australian circuit of six or seven professional carnivals and professional marathon Ironman events a year. Most lifesavers agree it is an evolution long past due, but a few worry that so much seriousness may leech the sport's lifeblood.
"Hey, I remember us winning the New South Wales team race when I was a 12-year-old, and our club captain taking the four of us into Sydney to pick out whatever pro [prostitute] on the street we wanted," says 30-year-old Robbie Nay with a laugh. "Those were the good old days. My type of guy, who wants to have fun, will soon be phased out. I realized it when I walked down the beach at the '82 nationals. One Ironman was in his tent with a Walkman, listening to the Rocky theme to get psyched up. Another was getting a massage. Another was drinking his high-protein drink. None of them could come out into the sun; they had to conserve their energy. I wanted to have a beer with them after we competed—but the bastards don't drink!"
The boaties, God bless 'em, are doing their damnedest to keep the old torch ablaze. The Currumbin surf club's boat crews—one of them won the aforementioned madcap whitecap war at Kawana Waters, while another had the injured boatie—are a splendid example.
A few nights before the race, five club boaties—Senile, Schizo, Shark, Butterfly and Donuts—decided to polish off a two-hour workout with a visit to their local pub. The Currumbin boys stomped in single file, a hand on the shoulder of the man in front, chanting "Boom-chug-a-lug-a-lug-a, boom-chug-a-lug-a-lug-a"—and chug-a-lug-a'd for two hours. Returning to their club to find they had missed the 6 p.m. dinner, they looted the kitchen, then went up to the bunk room and heaved junior club members out of their beds.
"Anyone thirsty?" someone asked.
"Man is not a camel," replied Schizo, a 24-year-old Brisbane magistrate's clerk in his other life.
So it was back to the pub, where the Currumbin boaties broke into their club drinking song:
And now that we're gathered around the bar,
And the captain's declared a quorum,
And we're drinking our way through the night,
And we're having the time of our lives,
Throw the empties away, start again,
And may the sessions of Currumbin last forever.
Half an hour before the pub closed, the boaties responded to that imminent peril by slamming down eight beers each. At six the next morning they were rolling across the sea, their heads and muscles clogged, but their heritage affirmed.
Well, almost. "If it was 20 years ago," Schizo admitted, "we would have probably beat up a few bloody surfers."
Eight years ago, when Schizo was just plain Paul Auer, he witnessed a boat race in which a wave pitched a boat so sharply that the metal clip at the end of its torpedo rescue tube—an item all lifesaving boats carry—embedded itself in the nose of one of the boaties and jerked him into the sea. His teammates, their priorities intact, left the man overboard behind and qualified for the final. They then returned to fetch him, only to discover a new problem: The clip was so deeply entrenched in his nose that it would not come out. So the boaties simply snipped the buoy off, leaving the man in incredible pain, but with no excuse not to participate in the final. "Bloody hell," Schizo remembers telling himself that day, "I'll never be a boatie."
But his thickening frame soon left him with little other choice if he wanted to compete for his club, and he found that the camaraderie of five men fighting the sea surpassed that of any other team sport in which he'd ever participated. Now Schizo is one of hundreds of boaties who will gather later this month for the four-day national championship. Some boaties drive 2,500 miles, snap an oar in their first heat and spend the next few days in the beer tent. There's something about the sheer capriciousness of their sport—the way a wave will let them ride in like homecoming queens one day, then shipwreck them at the starting line the next—that inspires capriciousness in them.
They conduct races to see who can climb the beer-tent pole fastest and then run outside, climb to the tent's top and do somersaults and backflips onto the sand. Funny how the tent collapsed in Tasmania in '83.
They gather the Monday after the nationals for the annual boaties' convention and stage contests to see who can drink two liters of beer the quickest or butt heads the hardest.
"You think we could have half as much fun if we were paid for this?" asked a boatie named Bonzo in the beer tent after the surf carnival at Kawana Waters.
"Our reward? Our reward is this." He gulped some beer.
"And this." He wrapped an arm around a teammate.
"And this." He pounded his hairy chest, near his heart.
Bonzo took another long pull and shook his damp head. "You know, I'll never understand why you blokes don't have this in America," he said.