Friday, September 26, 2008

Row the boat.

"She'll be right," we all claimed, " Collaroy will be only about 6 foot at the most." What we didn't know was the boat events were to be held at South Narrabeen and when we arrived this is what was waiting to greet us. The beaches and the ocean pools may have been closed, but the carnival went ahead regardless. This was our first boat race......Bloody Hell!!

The Narrabeen Rock Pool.

Goddards Wharf, Pittwater. Where it all began.

Waiting, Waiting.

Boat area.

The Start.

The Finish.  "Our Father who art in Heaven....."

Row , Row, Row your boat, gently down the swell,
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, off we go to Hell.

Born in Camperdown, raised in Annandale, educated in Rozelle and well on the way to becoming a fully fledged juvenile delinquent by the time I reached 16. Started an apprenticeship as a Fitter and Turner with Nestles at Abbotsford during February 1959 and by September, Clem and George had conned me into attending their sporting club’s Annual General Meeting at some unknown place called Avalon. Later that year on Sunday September 6th, along with Clem, George and their families, I boarded what was to become the infamous 190 at the Wynyard bus ramp and began the one hour twenty minute trip to God only knows where. We arrived at a suburb called Avalon Beach approximately 24 miles north of Sydney by road and to my amazement, I discovered that the guys sporting club was the Avalon Beach SLSC.
The clubhouse and surrounding buildings resembled much of Melbourne during the 1950’s, having a much lived in look and desperately in dire need of a decent coat of paint. Little did I realise that this was going to be my home away from home for a total of 21 years. The following Sunday I returned and signed up as a junior probationary member and within two weeks started training for the Bronze Medallion. I became a fully fledged lifesaver during December ’59 and to celebrate, excessive quantities of Resch’s were consumed at the Newport Arms hotel, starting a tradition that carried on throughout the 60’s and 70’s. Owing to the club’s small active membership we were all required to do a four hour patrol at least three times a month. Back then the season began on the October long weekend and finished on the Easter Monday, but I’m sure we always had a patrol on the beach during Anzac Day.

Season 59-60 passed by way too quickly and at its end I lost a close friend nicknamed Fibbers. He had taken me under his wing, introduced me to many new acquaintances and under his guidance I had become extremely street wise. He left at season’s end and was sorely missed. He was a good companion and mate.
Season 60-61 got under way with me becoming very friendly with the Bronze squad and all along the Warringah peninsular we were out and about looking for wreck to wreak and became quite proficient at it.

By Xmas 1960 I had become quite proficient at riding my racing surf ski, that was purchased over the previous winter and restored to its former glory by myself. George Shuttleworth who sold it to me was highly impressed when he saw the restored product on the beach one weekend. My good mate at the time Tom had also bought a ski and the two of us would be sighted every Saturday and Sunday out the back having the time of our lives.
The ultimate feeling of exhilaration was always present when one would fall out of bed around 6:30am and go for an early morning paddle through a small, but well shaped surf.

Sitting out the back inhaling the smell of salt water and weed on the rocks whilst surveying the clubhouse, the beach, the seagulls flying overhead, the odd couple jogging along the reddish sand, the two or three folk swimming a few laps of the rock pool and every now and then noticing a Ray or a Wobbegong shark scudding across the sandy bottom 20 feet below in the crystal clear ocean, caused one to wonder why anyone would want to go overseas........It was all here.

Throughout the decades that have flown by, one's memory of what went down all those years ago can sometimes become a wee bit foggy, but during the early part of season '60-'61 a Sydney television personality Keith Walshe had moved into the area and was having a drink at the Avalon RSL when some of the club's senior members invited him to join them at the club's Sunday afternoon QY's drinks session. He had the odd beer and was conned into singing a comical song and around 6pm he was about to leave when someone came running in from the beach shouting that a girl was drowning. We all rushed outside and the senior blokes reacted in a positive manner. Two of them ran onto the rocks near the pool and dived in to support the lass who was on her way south in the Bilgola express rip. The others manned the council reel stationed on the beach with Jackie Watt donning the belt. The girl was rescued and given first aid treatment and hopefully went on to lead a long and productive life. Keith Walshe could not believe what he had just witnessed and just before he said his goodbyes, he wrote a sizable cheque and presented it to the club.

At the club's next committee meeting it was decided to have the club's first open surf carnival and to help cover the extra costs, a Rock 'n' Roll dance was to be held. Keith Walshe happened to be attending this meeting and informed the committee he would have his main sponsor Coca Cola supply all the soft drinks free of charge at the carnival. He offered to have the regular band on his TV show Teen Time, namely Dig Richards R'Jays, perform at the dance free of charge and would invite several guest artists to perform gratis as well. He himself would be MC for the night. All the club could do was thank him and told him to go for it, which he did. The carnival and dance were a great success because of his kind offers and the fact he plugged both events outrageously during Teen Time on the eve of same said events.
As for  my ski riding, sometime early in 1961 it got even better when the ravishing blonde headed surfer girl Paula began keeping company with us all and became a regular surfing companion. None of my Annandale mates could even begin to comprehend how this new way of life had affected me to the extent that it had. For me, this was Nirvana and I could not get enough of it.  

In either January or February 1961 some of us were approached to join the surf boat crew and had to undergo and survive the highly complicated selection process. Boat crew members were expected to be completely fearless, but not necessarily highly intelligent. Would be rowers were lined up against a wall and large rocks were thrown at them. Anyone who ducked was considered to be completely unsuitable and usually ended up in the March Past team. Needless to say I passed with flying colours. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine I would end up a boatie and none of my Annandale mates would or could have believed it as well.

Boat training took place near Goddard’s Wharf on the Pittwater side of Palm Beach every Friday evening at 6pm. After much rowing and callisthenics designed to develop supreme fitness, we would then all adjourn to the Newport Arms, which saw to it that boat training became a complete and utter waste of time. As our first surf carnival race was only two weeks away, Boat Captain Splasher decided we were in dire need of surf experience, so the next training session took place at North Avalon. The surf was one to two feet high and held no fear for any of us. Little did we know what was in store for us all the following weekend. Our first race was to be either the Branch or possibly the State Championships that were being held at Collaroy beach and most of the morning was spent watching Avalon closing out from the Whale beach headland to Bilgola in the south.

Were we concerned? Not really? We were pretty certain that Collaroy would only be breaking at approximately 5 to 6 feet and when we arrived, this appeared to be the case. What we didn’t know was the boat events were going to take place at South Narrabeen and when informed of this disturbing news, the unanimous reaction was, Faaaaaark!!!!!
The waves were over 10 feet high and breaking on a shallow sandbank no more than 6 foot deep. Every now and then even larger sets, so high that one would suffer nose bleed looking over the waves’ front, kept on crashing down on the bank causing the beach to vibrate. Surely, we all thought, that nobody in his right mind would send water craft into that maelstrom, but things were not looking too promising. “Hurry up you lot, move your boats to the water’s edge,” shouted Mick Byrnes the Starter, after the previous heat had set out to sea, not knowing if any of their crews would ever see their families and loved ones again. 

What was it with us boaties, were we stark raving mad?
Peruse the following and make up your own mind and remember  they're still doing it today. 

Six boats started, none finished. The beach resembled Darwin after Cyclone Tracey, when what was left of the six boats eventually washed ashore.


One boat’s bow dug into the shallow sandbank, causing it to do a 180 degree stem to stern rollover. Whilst vertical, one of the crew members fell from the boat’s stern and was knocked senseless. 

When rescued by the duty patrol, he was in extreme pain having been impaled on a 5 foot length of shattered and jagged sweep oar. After he was taken away to hospital by ambulance, it was time for our race to get underway. The start of our race was delayed for what seemed like an eternity, owing to the previous devastation. This only added to our rapidly increasing nervousness. A technical point then arose that may have caused us to be disqualified, but guile and cunning saved the day. Our rowing shorts were actually dark blue footy shorts with the hip pads removed. The regulations stated that all rowers should be uniformly attired and we believed that we complied. Mick the Starter did not agree as our hairy sweep’s shorts were torn along the rear seam from top to bottom. 

The problem was solved quite easily. If it was uniform attire they required then it would be uniform attire they would get. We all ripped the backside out of our shorts thereby complying with the rule book and took up our starting positions without any further ado.

Many years ago, the American General George Armstrong Custer said, “Trust me, I know the Little Big Horn backwards.” Almost a century later on Collaroy beach, sweep Brian Daniel Sheehan said, “Trust me, I’ll get you out and back bone dry.” 

Did we believe him? Whaddya reckon? 

Our starter Mick fired his pistol and six boats took off like the back of a Bondi bus. The two on our immediate right disappeared under a mountain of water and eventually resurfaced minus half their rowers and without an unbroken oar between them.

Three boats made it out the back and even though we were more than half full of Pacific Ocean, we unbelievably happened to be one of them. We rounded the can in third place and headed towards the shore. God only knew how we were going to arrive home alive. The two crews in front of us had checked their boats and were obviously waiting for the opportunity to sneak in on something small. We assumed that we would be doing the same, but Brian Daniel saw this as an opportunity to win the race and achieve immortality. “Here comes ours,” came the shout from the boat’s stern. We broke with protocol and stopped rowing to observe what was in store for us and were relieved to see the swell bearing down on us was roughly 8 to 10 feet, not bad considering what was still rolling in and doing its best to change the shape of the NSW coastline.
“Row you dickless sons of motherless whores,” came the request from our illustrious sweep. “Pull harder and bend those backs you miserable motherfucking retards.” We were all impressed with his vocabulary. He then added, “You miserable yellow bellied pricks, row onto this one otherwise there’ll be no nookie tonight....we'll all be dead." As nervous as we were at the time, we perceived the last statement to be a little farfetched. We started to pull down the face of the swell and Mr Sheehan called out loudly, “Come aft.” Despite my inexperience I was convinced this order was a little premature, Tom agreed with me. One third of the boat was poking out the front of the about to break swell and for a nasty moment it appeared we were going to nose dive into the shallow sandbank below. Somehow the wave passed by and broke underneath us and we found ourselves coming off the back and into the trough behind. In anticipation of the next order, we began to return to our rowing positions, but were told, “Stay where you are,” then after a short silence, “Sorry fellas, I’ve got you in the shit.”
We all looked beyond the boat’s stern and recalled Brian’s previous reference to our possible demise and realised it may not have been as farfetched as originally thought. Krakatoa must have erupted again, for a liquid version of Uluru was approaching from the rear, increasing in height the closer it came.

"Oh Shit!"

We were then given some meaningful advice from our obviously concerned sweep, “Lie on the floor, keep your head below the gunwhales and take a firm hold of your balls, because they’re about to be blown out your fucking arsehole.” We did as we were told and waited for our short lives to be terminated. Our stroke reached up and took hold of the sweep oar to assist Brian as the clearly 15 foot plus monster started the boat sliding down its front.

" Look out here we come."
For what seemed like an eternity the bow of the boat hovered in mid air before dropping quicker than the old Big Dipper at Luna Park. We hung on tight expecting a 180 degree flip after the bow dug into the bar. But when the bow buried itself, the boat swung sharply to the right and we found ourselves parallel to the wave’s face, with tons of water about to crush us all to death.
Everything went wet and white as the whole of the Pacific Ocean landed smack in the middle of the boat and I discovered what a cockroach must experience as it is crushed under a boot. The boat was kangarooing it’s way north completely underwater and finally when the blue sky appeared, we were all surprised to find that we were still south of North Narrabeen. We had ended up around 150 metres north of our racing alley and the boat had managed to hold together rather well, considering the pounding it had taken. We lost two rowing oars, one sweep oar along with Brian Daniel our sweep, all of our rowlocks were gone and the rescue reel in the boat’s bow wasn’t looking too healthy. There were two of the crew who managed to stay with the ship and I hasten to add that I was one of them. We were praised for our courage and determination, but in my case at least, I had no choice, as my leg was somehow trapped underneath one of the seats. I failed to mention this at the time.
When one viewed all the action that had been filmed on 8mm, it was difficult to imagine that we all survived injury free and the boat wasn’t smashed to matchwood. Throughout the 60’s there were many, many more wipeouts, some almost as fearfully dangerous and exciting, yet the most severe injury I can recall was when Sam Burgess broke his nose at Wedding Cake island off Coogee sometime during the mid 60’s.    Refer...... It Beats Work. Wedding Cake Blues.

It's hard to believe that around our large island nation today there are now hundreds of attractive and super fit young ladies who are rowing these rotten boats and are participating in training, to ensure they are physically capable of doing so. Many of us old timer rowing masochists simply are not in the same class as any of them.

It's not just the kids either.
There was nothing like this back in my days of self destruction. Why it took so long for the girls and ladies to be recognised, I'll never know......Good onya girls.

The Avalon girls at the Aussie Titles.
A few short years ago Avalon Beach Girls A crew member Belinda Subashinghe whilst training was flung like a rag doll into the air and landed on the surfboat's bow, before sliding into the surf. The L2, L3 and L4 Vertebrae in her lumber region were broken and doctors were convinced she may not walk again, let alone row a surfboat. If she had landed 2 to 3 centimetres further to the left or right, it would have meant being confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life.

Through sheer guts and determination Belinda defied the odds and 15 months later she was back rowing in the thick of it, ignoring warnings not to. Avalon sweep Rick Millar and all the surf club members commented that it was great to see her back. Going on the photos below, one would have to be blind not to agree.

Boofhead Rick, Sophia, Belinda, Jaimielle, Kristen.
They all said, "It's good to see her back."  They weren't wrong.


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