Observations from a month on the Gold Coast

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In March, as the Northern Hemisphere makes the transition from winter to spring, the Gold Coast takes the opposite step. The subtropical heat and humidity that dominate the months of October through February give way to slightly less oppressive temperatures and brief monsoon-like downpours that creep through the lush, green valleys to surprise late-season beachgoers, drench them, and vanish out to sea. But the spring rains fool no one. March is warm, with both land and water temperatures seldom demanding more than T-shirts and trunks. And despite the universal teenage tragedy know as the end of summer vacation, the popular surf spots are almost always overwhelmingly crowded.

On top of the locals, tourists, and hoards of Japanese bodyboarders who clog the lineups throughout summertime, every March, Queensland, Australia’s Gold Coast is overrun by another group of surfers–the pro circus. They arrive by the planeload. They come carrying board bags big enough to fit a refrigerator. They’re followed by girlfriends, wives, team managers, magazine editors, event coordinators, and television film crews. The invasion usually begins a week or so before the prestigious Quiksilver Pro at Snapper Rocks and ends about a month later, when the masses of traveling pros repack their enormous luggage and fly west to Margaret River, taking with them the photographers, videographers, and hack writers who chase them like a flock of seagulls following a fishing trawler.

I’m one of the seagulls. I flap clumsily around the action, beak open, waiting for a handout, an acknowledgement, a scrap. I arrive on March first on the same plane as Taylor Knox, the Hobgoods, Julia Christian, and Timmy Curran. I stay in Burleigh Towers, on the tenth floor. So many amazing waves break outside my window, I eventually stop acknowledging them. I attend the contest. I eat lots of free contest-style lunches. I surf in crowds so dense all I can do is laugh. I go out at night and gamble. I drink at strip bars with friends and strangers. I sing the Australian national anthem with an old drunk in the bathroom of a bar where I’m playing pool with Russell Winter. I eat unabashedly. I determine which bakery is my favorite, and the decision feels important. I wonder if this could this be heaven?

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* * *

“You did it! You f–kin’ did it!”

Dean Morrison is sitting on the shoulders of his friends who have lifted him up like a conquering hero. He looks like Joe Nameth in some circa-1960s NFL film, laughing, holding his index finger up to indicate his result on the day. He’s victorious. He’s Caesar. They pass by where I’m standing halfway between the water’s edge and the stage at Snapper Rocks, and I overhear his entourage, which includes several of the people he beat on his way to victory. They’re wild. They’re grabbing him, just to have their hands on him. The gist I get from what they’re yelling is that Dean has completed the Coolangatta trifecta many have been waiting for.

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Dean, Joel Parkinson, and Mick Fanning all live within a few miles of each other, they’re all regular-footers, and in June of this year, they’ll all be 22. The three also happen to be on the World Tour, and now with Dean’s win, they’ve each won at least one WCT event. They are what is new and solid. They’re young and unspoiled, like photos of your dad when he was a kid. They have almost become one single word in the surf press: “Deanmickjoel.” They are what the American surf industry has feared–the embodiment of the idea that Australia is the world’s most powerful surfing nation. They have all the tools–power, style, speed, an eye toward the future and a foot in the past. They’ve been mentored by the likes of Tom Carroll, Margo, Lukegan, Occy, Bruce Lee, Rabbit, Kelly, and a culture that values them publicly. They appear on the front pages of newspapers saying things that sports idols say, like, “It was a great day for surfing.”

On nine-month journeys around the world, they are travel companions, they are friends, they bring a slice of home to a jungle near a swamp, or a desert near a metropolis. In March, on the Goldy, when they paddle out, mobile phones start ringing. Photographers drop what they’re doing and run toward Snapper or D-bah. A photo of the Cooly kids means money. They represent car payments, new flat-screen TVs, and better retirement communities for parents.

And we haven’t even discussed the other hundred or so who will follow in their footsteps. Who watch their every move. Who move their hands like Mick, or lower their shoulders like Parko, or arc their turns like Dingo. We haven’t even discussed the future of the future yet.

* * *

Nathan Webster is sitting ten feet from me in the lineup at Duranbah wearing a white T-shirt on which in permanent ink he’s written, “I’m a cunt.” He’s sandwiched between a helmet-and-Web-glove-wearing 45 year old riding a longboard and a teenager trying to rock the Ozzie Wright-esque self-haircut new-bohemian look that’s swept the Australian surf scene. They, in turn, are sandwiched between 30 or so others ranging from girls with twelve sponsors’ logos on their boards to C.J. Hobgood and Bruce Irons, all of whom are competing for the same peak. Multiply this crowd by the five and you have a typical day at D-bah. Suddenly I realize Noodles’ point: we’re all cunts.

Duranbah, the quarter-mile stretch of wedging left and right peaks beachbreaks just around the corner from Snapper Rocks on the southern end of the Gold Coast, is one of the funnest beachbreaks on Earth. When the rest of the Goldy is two foot, D-bah is four, and while the crowd can be intense, there’re usually enough peaks to go around. Swell bounces off a quarter-mile-long jetty separating the beach from the Tweed River, crisscrossing swell headed directly toward the beach, creating at least three different takeoff zones. And while wrestling a wave away from the frothing masses can be tricky, it’s a beachbreak, so every now and then, if you put in your time, fortune smiles on you and throws a perfect five-foot A-frame at you, and for a brief period you forget about being a cunt.

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* * *

“I fall in love every time I surf Snapper.”

That’s what Jesse Faen tells me out of the blue one day. Jesse’s referring to the growing numbers of bikini-clad young ladies who scrap for waves at D-bah, Greenmount, and the Alley during the day, skull VBs with the boys in the pub later that night, and may just ask you if you want to go have a “root” after the bars have locked their doors. Gender equality seems to be alive and well on the Goldy, and I don’t hear anyone complaining.

When you watch Lisa Anderson throw a fins-out slash and then tuck into a perfect little shoulder-high barrel, Veronica Kay bottom-turn and call three guys off the shoulder simultaneously, Rochelle Ballard float a big closeout section, or some beautiful local eighteen year old try her hardest to do a Matt Hoy frontside power turn, you’re lying your ass off if you deny any feelings of attraction. Despite being a laddish culture, young women are empowered, and they seem to have earned their spots in the lineups on the Goldy.

* * *

I feel myself being sized up every time I paddle out. On the Superbank, my first wave is monitored, and if I handle it sloppily or miss an opportunity to float a section or tuck into a little barrel, I’m immediately labeled “snakeable,” and I wear it in the lineup like a scarlet letter. When this happens (and it does a little more than I’d like it to), staying with that particular pack becomes misery. I can yell all I want, but I’m open game to be dropped in on by bodyboarders, young girls, old guys … you name it. I get snaked by a bodysurfer at one point. It’s Darwinian. I feel like a lame caribou, singled out and descended on by wolves. Devoured.

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* * *

In the parking lot of the Kirra Pizza Hut, I stand next to Joel Parkinson, who is next to his brand-new forest-green Holden R8 HSV. The car is one of those coupe-truck hybrids based on the 1970s Chevy El Camino, only Joel’s is rounder and has all the race-inspired finishing touches of a BMW M3 or an Audi S4. It’s lowered, it has wide tires, it has Indy-car body effects, and you can clearly see huge ventilated disc brakes peaking out from behind the expensive-looking rims. It’s a car-enthusiast’s car–which is fitting as Joel is a car enthusiast. Every guy who walks past us stares at it.

Joel’s brought his new baby to this parking lot to be photographed for an Australian car magazine. Famous athlete, fancy car, sounds like a good article. (Note that in Australia, top surfers are considered “famous athletes.”) Parko rolled in just as Kelly Slater and Doug Silva got out of the water from what Kelly describes as a “guilt surf,” and the three spend ten minutes inspecting the Holden. Kelly suggests adding a skylight in the huge lid that covers the bed “so you can sleep in it.” Joel laughs shyly.

“It came with a big spoiler,” Joel tells Kelly, his hands trace a huge wing that once protruded from just above the tailgate, “but it made it look like a giant shopping cart, so I had it removed.” Everyone nods their approval-slash-understanding. Nothing looks worse than a bad spoiler. Someone drives by and guns their engine in challenge. Without hesitation, Kelly raises his hands above his head, and yells, “What? You want some?”

* * *

“ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR … ” The crowd I’m surrounded by on the beach at the Quiksilver Pro is counting in unison each time Mark Occhilupo smashes the lip backside. Legs bent, shoulders low, he looks more like a machine built to do exactly what he’s doing at this precise moment than a human with feelings and memories and a baby on the way. “FIVE, SIX, SEVEN … ” I’m counting, too, now. Occy’s a caricature of himself. In person, he looks far more exaggerated than you thought he would–his hair longer, his nose fuller, his demeanor more serene. “EIGHT, NINE, TEN, ELEVEN … ” We count on. He leads into his turns with his head. Some surfers foreshadow their movements with their hands, others with their shoulders, but Occy does it from the neck. “TWELVE!” A section closes out and ends his streak. The crowd goes wild. They love him. He’s the eighteen year old in the 36 year old’s body. He’s Tom Curren’s rival, who starred in The North Shore as none other than … himself. His pro-surfing career has spanned three decades, and if he keeps up the pace, he’ll be winning WCT and Masters events congruently. A forty-something-year-old man in boardshorts stands up and yells, “GO, THE OCC!”

* * *

On my way from a roulette table to the nook that houses twelve ATMs near the entrance to Jupiter’s Casino, I come across a 25-dollar-minimum-bet blackjack table where Kelly Slater sits behind stack of green-and-yellow chips. Though his winnings would indiuck into a little barrel, I’m immediately labeled “snakeable,” and I wear it in the lineup like a scarlet letter. When this happens (and it does a little more than I’d like it to), staying with that particular pack becomes misery. I can yell all I want, but I’m open game to be dropped in on by bodyboarders, young girls, old guys … you name it. I get snaked by a bodysurfer at one point. It’s Darwinian. I feel like a lame caribou, singled out and descended on by wolves. Devoured.

[IMAGE 5]

* * *

In the parking lot of the Kirra Pizza Hut, I stand next to Joel Parkinson, who is next to his brand-new forest-green Holden R8 HSV. The car is one of those coupe-truck hybrids based on the 1970s Chevy El Camino, only Joel’s is rounder and has all the race-inspired finishing touches of a BMW M3 or an Audi S4. It’s lowered, it has wide tires, it has Indy-car body effects, and you can clearly see huge ventilated disc brakes peaking out from behind the expensive-looking rims. It’s a car-enthusiast’s car–which is fitting as Joel is a car enthusiast. Every guy who walks past us stares at it.

Joel’s brought his new baby to this parking lot to be photographed for an Australian car magazine. Famous athlete, fancy car, sounds like a good article. (Note that in Australia, top surfers are considered “famous athletes.”) Parko rolled in just as Kelly Slater and Doug Silva got out of the water from what Kelly describes as a “guilt surf,” and the three spend ten minutes inspecting the Holden. Kelly suggests adding a skylight in the huge lid that covers the bed “so you can sleep in it.” Joel laughs shyly.

“It came with a big spoiler,” Joel tells Kelly, his hands trace a huge wing that once protruded from just above the tailgate, “but it made it look like a giant shopping cart, so I had it removed.” Everyone nods their approval-slash-understanding. Nothing looks worse than a bad spoiler. Someone drives by and guns their engine in challenge. Without hesitation, Kelly raises his hands above his head, and yells, “What? You want some?”

* * *

“ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR … ” The crowd I’m surrounded by on the beach at the Quiksilver Pro is counting in unison each time Mark Occhilupo smashes the lip backside. Legs bent, shoulders low, he looks more like a machine built to do exactly what he’s doing at this precise moment than a human with feelings and memories and a baby on the way. “FIVE, SIX, SEVEN … ” I’m counting, too, now. Occy’s a caricature of himself. In person, he looks far more exaggerated than you thought he would–his hair longer, his nose fuller, his demeanor more serene. “EIGHT, NINE, TEN, ELEVEN … ” We count on. He leads into his turns with his head. Some surfers foreshadow their movements with their hands, others with their shoulders, but Occy does it from the neck. “TWELVE!” A section closes out and ends his streak. The crowd goes wild. They love him. He’s the eighteen year old in the 36 year old’s body. He’s Tom Curren’s rival, who starred in The North Shore as none other than … himself. His pro-surfing career has spanned three decades, and if he keeps up the pace, he’ll be winning WCT and Masters events congruently. A forty-something-year-old man in boardshorts stands up and yells, “GO, THE OCC!”

* * *

On my way from a roulette table to the nook that houses twelve ATMs near the entrance to Jupiter’s Casino, I come across a 25-dollar-minimum-bet blackjack table where Kelly Slater sits behind stack of green-and-yellow chips. Though his winnings would indicate that he’s doing well, he stares expressionless at the dealer, who stares expressionless back. I imagine this is how he looks when he’s waiting for a set during the finals of the Pipe Masters–cold, calculating. Eye of the tiger. He’s dealt a king … then an ace. Blackjack! A few of his friends celebrate his good fortune, but he stays locked in a Rocky IV-esque moment with the dealer.

At a table nearby, Taylor Knox, Kalani Robb, Taylor Steele, and Doug Silva are having a bit less luck. Someone mentions that Occy won big a few nights earlier, but before anyone can comment, the next round of drinks arrives and the conversation switches to who ordered what. Welcome to Jupiter’s Casino. Only about ten minutes north of the quaint hilly streets of Burleigh, Jupiter’s is as close to Vegas as you’re ever gonna get. If big sandy barrels aren’t enough for you, cards, dice, roulette, slots, and some confusing Southeast Asian tile games are a few more ways to test your luck on the Goldy.

As we’re leaving to head toward whatever’s next, I see Kelly again, still sitting calmly. He hasn’t even shifted from the position I saw him in a couple hours earlier.

* * *

It’s 5:00 a.m., and I’m trying to hail a cab from Surfers Paradise back to Burleigh. The sun’s coming up and the clubs are closing, so the street is suddenly alive in the morning light. Last night’s rain evaporates from the asphalt as the sun peeks between high-rise office buildings and apartment blocks. Girls who looked beautiful an hour ago on the dance floor or at the bar now look plain, defeated. Desperate guys try one final time to talk them into taking a cab back to their place. Business is booming for the small cafés selling pizza by the slice, and the discarded paper plates mix with handbills for everything from mobile phones to sex shows to form a carpet on the sidewalks. A cab pulls up, and I’m gone.

By six I’m sitting on the grass that overlooks the point at Burleigh. It’s light now, and Surfers Paradise, blurry and gray in the distance, looks quiet. The waves at Burleigh are small but enticing, and I consider passing on sleep, using the ocean as a remedy to the universe of tiredness I feel coming on. Surfers wearing boardshorts, their faces smeared with sunblock, jog past me, make their way down the dirt path, carefully across the rocks, and to various paddle-out points. I decide to surf. “There’ll be plenty of time to sleep this afternoon,” I tell myself. As I’m getting up, I notice the back of my hand was stamped, probably by some humorless, thick-necked bouncer a few hours earlier. I don’t remember being stamped, and in the haze of the morning I can’t decide if the smudged word is simply an indication of payment or the answer to the unanswerable question. It says: HEAVEN.

indicate that he’s doing well, he stares expressionless at the dealer, who stares expressionless back. I imagine this is how he looks when he’s waiting for a set during the finals of the Pipe Masters–cold, calculating. Eye of the tiger. He’s dealt a king … then an ace. Blackjack! A few of his friends celebrate his good fortune, but he stays locked in a Rocky IV-esque moment with the dealer.

At a table nearby, Taylor Knox, Kalani Robb, Taylor Steele, and Doug Silva are having a bit less luck. Someone mentions that Occy won big a few nights earlier, but before anyone can comment, the next round of drinks arrives and the conversation switches to who ordered what. Welcome to Jupiter’s Casino. Only about ten minutes north of the quaint hilly streets of Burleigh, Jupiter’s is as close to Vegas as you’re ever gonna get. If big sandy barrels aren’t enough for you, cards, dice, roulette, slots, and some confusing Southeast Asian tile games are a few more ways to test your luck on the Goldy.

As we’re leaving to head toward whatever’s next, I see Kelly again, still sitting calmly. He hasn’t even shifted from the position I saw him in a couple hours earlier.

* * *

It’s 5:00 a.m., and I’m trying to hail a cab from Surfers Paradise back to Burleigh. The sun’s coming up and the clubs are closing, so the street is suddenly alive in the morning light. Last night’s rain evaporates from the asphalt as the sun peeks between high-rise office buildings and apartment blocks. Girls who looked beautiful an hour ago on the dance floor or at the bar now look plain, defeated. Desperate guys try one final time to talk them into taking a cab back to their place. Business is booming for the small cafés selling pizza by the slice, and the discarded paper plates mix with handbills for everything from mobile phones to sex shows to form a carpet on the ssidewalks. A cab pulls up, and I’m gone.

By six I’m sitting on the grass that overlooks the point at Burleigh. It’s light now, and Surfers Paradise, blurry and gray in the distance, looks quiet. The waves at Burleigh are small but enticing, and I consider passing on sleep, using the ocean as a remedy to the universe of tiredness I feel coming on. Surfers wearing boardshorts, their faces smeared with sunblock, jog past me, make their way down the dirt path, carefully across the rocks, and to various paddle-out points. I decide to surf. “There’ll be plenty of time to sleep this afternoon,” I tell myself. As I’m getting up, I notice the back of my hand was stamped, probably by some humorless, thick-necked bouncer a few hours earlier. I don’t remember being stamped, and in the haze of the morning I can’t decide if the smudged word is simply an indication of payment or the answer to the unanswerable question. It says: HEAVEN.