WHILE most of NSW ran inside to the air conditioners or waited with fear for the expected onslaught of bushfires, the surfing tribe looked at yesterday’s surreal weather as potential manna from heaven.
As much as surfing exists in popular culture as a summer pursuit, the best waves around the world are in winter. In the Hunter, winter is the time when stiff cold westerlies, often, like yesterday’s, with a touch of north in them, funnel down from the Barrington Tops to smooth solid southerly swells into regular lines of made-to-measure barrels.
Summer, by contrast, is a time of surfing scraps. The water might be great, as long as the bluebottles stay away. The water temperature is 21 degrees or more and the glare of the summer sun gives even concreted urban beaches a hyper-real sparkling glow.
But the waves themselves are usually crap. A couple of days of sou-easter whitecaps followed by a couple of days of nor-easter whitecaps. Sure, there are exceptions. Queensland cyclones can sometimes generate big nor-east swells that can turn otherwise unremarkable northern headlands into mysto left-hand points. And a couple of spots in our area – no names but you just need to look at a map – face so far south that the nor-easter blows from the land, rather than the water, giving them great waves when the rest of the coast is a write-off.
Generally, though, summer is not prime surfing time, unless we get conditions like yesterday, when the cold westerlies of winter are replaced by hot, hot, hot westerlies of summer.
Add a bit of swell to these conditions, and have a recipe for surfing Nirvana: Indonesian-style warm water perfection without leaving home. As it happened, there were waves yesterday, but the swell was too small to make it a classic summer westerly day. As I sat typing this, those ever-handy Coastalwatch surfcams revealed crystal clear half-metre left handers at Dixon Park with only a handful out. Ditto for Nobbys, and there were a few people picking off occasional waves at an almost flat South Newcastle.
The swell looked noticeably bigger farther north. The Pass at Byron Bay was picture perfect, with wave after wave running for hundreds of metres in mechanical repetition.
And Byron, like the Newcastle beaches I surveyed from the laptop, looked strangely uncrowded, as if everyone had decided that sand and salt water was no way to pass a 40-degree day in holiday season.
Such unusual weather is increasingly associated with climate change, which may be the case, but I clearly remember similar conditions popping up when I was a kid.
One early January week in the late 1970s gave us three or four days in a row of hot westerlies, together with a swell, and the otherwise sanguine conditions of the island-protected Hawks Nest beach took on Hawaiian proportions in this young grommet’s mind.
At least one of those days I rode a pushbike 18kilometres from the bush town of Bundabah into Hawks Nest, where my board was stashed under a friend’s house. It was all right with the westerly at my back on the way in, and I had expected the wind to turn nor-east after lunch to help push me back home. But it wasn’t to be. The wind stayed hard and hot from the west all day, making it a slow and enervating ride home. I was very happy when my father, showing rare concern for a wayward surfing son, met me halfway home in our old Ford Transit van. No gears on that old steel-framed 28-inch junker.
Melanoma risk aside, days like yesterday remind us how lucky we are to be on the coast.
Country folk will tell you that diving into a muddy inland river is a perfectly adequate way to shake off the summer heat.
Maybe, but it’s a poor second, if you ask me, to the radiant jewel that is the Pacific.