Friday, 1 March 2013

Moffat Beach: summer, sharks & cyclones

It started with an early morning swim at Moffat Beach in October, turned into a visit to the local surf store and ended with a writer finding his feet and re-discovering a lost passion at the base of Ma and Pa Bendall Park at Moffat Headland. Over the course of my summer at Moffat Beach, I not only found the inspiration for my next book, but survived a brush with a shark, a cyclone and being smashed on the rocks. It was everything a writer could hope for.

Moffat Beach has an aggressive onshore break in the middle of the beach not suited for surfers, but the rock points to the left and right offer some great waves when the conditions are right. My brush with a six foot shark took place just in front of the row of Norfolk Island Pines.

Summer in Australia is all about the beach. From a searing Christmas Day down under to a barbie in the park to celebrate Australia Day, it is one long summer celebration of sun and surf. For me, my first summer in the beach house at Moffat Beach on the Sunshine Coast in Australia was a chance to gain some inspiration for my new book and one that I will look back on for a lifetime. When it came to a laid back beach lifestyle with that touch of daring I had been looking for, Moffat Beach didn't fail to deliver, in the form of surf, sharks and cyclones.

Moffat Beach is considered a beach-side suburb of Caloundra, although you could be mistaken for thinking you are a world away from everything. With a mixture of low-rise development and older-style beach houses that date back to the WWII period, it has avoided the over-commercialised feel of other parts of the Sunshine Coast. In fact it has largely remained a local secret. There is only one resort that overlooks the large park in front of Moffat Beach and just a scattering of small shops and cafes that immediately gives you the feel of being away from all the hustle and bustle. Unless of course the surf is breaking off the point, in which case the car park is usually full by seven in the morning. Moff's offers a right hand break off the point that acts as a magnet to long boarders. Time you wave right, and you can surf from way out past the headland almost all the way to shore.

Moffat Beach Headland on a quiet morning in 2012.

With the summer of 2012-13 quickly approaching, the thought of living so close to the beach suddenly wet my appetite to get back into surfing after 23 years. Despite years of being content to race my kids on body-boards, my daughter was now ready to leave home for University and my son more interested in the X-Box than body-boarding with his Dad. So I finally had a chance to get some time back just for me, at the age of 40. Starting the month of November armed with a new 7'4" short long board, I was in the water each morning around 5.30am beginning the process of standing and falling, minus the crowds of people to laugh at me. By Christmas I could once more do all the basics like stand and turn and by the new year I was out in the line-up taking my turn with everyone else whenever the swell kicked up some big waves off the point.

At the end of a day surfing, this was the perfect place to order a wooodfired pizza from one of restaurants overlooking the beach and sit to watch the sun set. Moffat Beach, Sunshine Coast, Australia.

What was supposed to be giving me inspiration for my next book (a sequel to Last Wish of Summer) soon became a daily way of life. I was up early and in the water at sunrise, back in time for breakfast followed by a day of writing and more often than not back in the surf again at three in the afternoon. The early mornings had a spiritual feel about them. In fact one morning while sitting on my surfboard and watching the sunrise out of the ocean, I found myself saying a prayer that went something like this; "Dear God, thank you for this moment, for being immersed in your creation, please watch over me safely on my board, protect me from your creatures of the sea and give me the sense to know when I'm in a situation to big for me to handle alone."

At that exact moment, a black shark fin broke the surface of the water no more than 3 metres away from me, followed by the sight of a sleek brown body and unmistakable shape of a shark's tail fin. My surfboard is 7 foot 4 inches long, and that shark was at least 6 foot long if not more and turned out to be a bronze whaler. After setting a new world record for paddling to shore, I realized that I didn't even get to say Amen. That's okay, I'm sure the big guy upstairs understood. I know it's one of those God moments that will stay with me forever.

There is this place at the base of the headland that I've heard referred to as the cauldron. It is right against the 60' foot cliff face and the wave drains all the water out from in front of it. As you get to your feet and drop down the wave, it looks as though you are falling into a gladiator pit. There is just enough room however to surf it to the right and exit the cauldron before the white-water slams into the rocks. Time it right and you can link up with another wave that is forming off the point and continue surfing out into open water. I spent three and a half hours doing this one morning when the conditions were just right. One and a half to two metre waves, no breeze, clear water and perfect skies. I never felt so alive.

The day the ocean literally came to the park. Cyclone Oswald in 2013 turned Australia Day into what looked like a winter wonderland as sea foam blew in from the ocean.

There was to be no Australia Day barbeques in the park at Moffat Beach in 2013 as the remnants of Tropical Cyclone Oswald bore down on the Sunshine Coast. In the 20 years I have lived in Queensland, I never remember a cyclone having come this far down the coast. Overnight winds of 125 km h and heavy rain brought down trees, power lines and cut power to thousands of homes in Moffat Beach and Caloundra. We even had some minor flooding down stairs in the beach house to clean up by flashlight. Beaches were closed as all sorts of things washed up on shore. At Moffat Beach, the extreme high tide and storm surge pushed the beach into the park and left one house close to slipping into the ocean. It took days to clean up from the storm, and when the beaches were finally opened a week later, I paddled out off the headland and caught some of the biggest waves of my life.

Compare this photo of Cyclone Oswald bearing down on Moffat Beach in January 2013 to the one with me standing at the same location at the top of this post.

A kilometre from shore there were three metre plus waves breaking on the reef off the headland. That's more than 9' foot in old school measurements. Exhausted from the long paddle out against strong currents, I half expected at least one trip over the falls on a wave that was breaking in water that was only shoulder-deep above a rock floor. Instead I went 2-from-2 on 9' foot plus waves at the same location that Joel Parkinson, Wayne "Rabbit" Bartholomew and Hawaiian Gary Lopez had surfed over the years in the Ma and Pa Bendall Memorial surfing contest. I had just graduated from a novice to a Moffat Beach regular, and in doing so, some local history had rubbed off on me. It was Ben and Marjory Bendall who settled in Caloundra and formed the "Moffateers" club back in 1966 to encourage the surfing youth of the time "to maintain their good character." They affectionately became known as the Ma and Pa of the surfing community and a surfing contest is held each year in their honour, organised by the WindanSea Boardriders Club of Caloundra at the base of Ma and Pa Bendall Park at Moffat Beach. Being a local, you can't help but feel proud of the legacy they left behind.

One of Australia's longest running surfing contests, the Pa & Ma Bendall Memorial Surfing Contest  has been held at Moffat Beach since 1974.

The next day I tried again to venture out in the post-cyclonic conditions. This time however I opted to paddle out from the rocks at the base of the cliff rather than face a kilometre paddle from the beach. I had launched myself off the flat shelf of rock many times over the course of summer, mainly in much smaller conditions and always at low tide when the water was only ankle deep and I could see what I was doing. Following the lead of some other surfers, I strapped my leg rope on and carefully made my way through knee deep water to where the rock shelf dropped away. I dropped to my board and began the paddle out, only the force of the white-water kept pushing me back towards the rocks. I guess I panicked, I went to stand up thinking I was on the same flat shelf of rock, only I wasn't. My leg went down a crevice between two jagged rocks just as a wall of white-water hit me and sent me over. When I got to my feet, I'd opened up a nasty wound on my shin bone. Blood was everywhere. Even more painful was the fact that the water quality was terrible following Cyclone Oswald, brown, dirty and probably containing traces of sewage. My leg got infected. Staphylococcus aureus, otherwise known as golden staph. Two days later it was red all the way to my ankle and burning up to the point of nearly blistering. I came within a breath of being hospitalized, but thankfully the anti-biotics kicked in just in time.

Moffat Beach may have been a mess the morning after Cyclone Oswald passed through the Sunshine Coast in 2013, but as always the sun still rises on a new day.

So my summer of surfing at Moffat Beach came to an inglorious end. It is now March, summer is officially over. It is no longer light at 5.30 in the morning and I have only just got back into the water. It was a summer that nearly killed me, and it was a summer where I never felt more alive. There are a lot of memories that will stay with me forever, walks along the beach with my wife, fish n'chips in the park whenever visitors came up for the day, wood-fired pizzas at night from the local takeaway and the smell of coffee drifting over from the cafes. And of course there is the morning I surfed the cauldron in front of the cliffs at the headland, watching the rocks rush past under my board as glided down crystal clear metre and a half waves. I now have enough material to sit down and write another two books.

What I liked: One of the Sunshine Coast's best kept secrets, Moffs has a large family friendly playground overlooking the beach, a small scattering of restaurants, cafes and gift shops and some of the best surfing in the country when the conditions are right.

What I didn't like: The beach is unpatrolled and nearby Tooway Creek which flows into Moffat Beach sometimes becomes blocked and smelly, although it is popular with young families and dog lovers.

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