Surfing the little breaks, with Sarah Walker

Jan 6, 2023 •

Today, on the Weekend Read, writer and artist Sarah Walker with her piece, “Little Breaks”, from The Monthly. It’s a story of joy and sadness in the ocean.

She writes of her time in the water as a beginner surfer, finding glee in shallow breaks. But beyond the break, in the deeper water, there’s also loneliness, isolation and vulnerability.



Surfing the little breaks, with Sarah Walker

861 • Jan 6, 2023

Surfing the little breaks, with Sarah Walker


Hi, I’m Scott Mitchell, the editor of 7am. Welcome to 7am’s summer series: an exploration of big ideas with some of our favourite contributors and thinkers.

For this episode, we’re featuring The Weekend Read – a series where we present some of the best long form journalism in Australia, read to you by the people who wrote it.

Today on the show, writer and artist Sarah Walker, with her piece ‘Little Breaks’ from The Monthly.

It’s a story of joy and sadness in the ocean.

She writes of her time in the water as a beginner surfer, finding glee in the shallow breaks.

But beyond the break, in the deeper water, there’s also loneliness, isolation and vulnerability.

After a short conversation, Sarah will read her piece.

To hear more episodes like this – you can subscribe to 'The Weekend Read' in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.


So, Sarah, thank you so much for joining us today.


No worries.


So I want to begin by just asking you what inspired you to write the piece? Where did this idea begin?


I've been spending a lot of time over the last couple of years thinking about dismantling my idea of myself as a fundamentally capable person and coming to terms with the fact that there are, in many ways, particularly physically, in which I am deeply incapable. I'm extremely clumsy and I'm really terrible at sport. And a lot of the ways that I've identified throughout my life have been as a smart person who doesn't do that ridiculous sport jock nonsense. And then in my twenties came to realise that actually you have to exercise, otherwise your mental health falls apart, which no one had told me, no one told me that you have to exercise for your brain as well as for your body. And in the last few years, since I've moved down to Geelong, my partner and I have been surfing a lot. My partner surfs like an angel. He was a skateboarder as a teenager. The second he got up on a surfboard, he was up and going. And I surf like a dumpling trying to get out of the water. And I was interested in noticing the kind of joy in that failure. I'm not a person who typically has taken joy in failure throughout my life. So that was one element of the work. And the other was noticing this thing that was happening far out beyond where I was, out beyond the break, where there were all these men experiencing this extraordinary thing together, but also totally solo, these kind of atomised individuals who my partner would kind of try to talk to them and smile at them and was just getting these kind of walls in response. And I was interested in just unpacking what was happening there and reflecting on this kind of idea of the solo man against the element as something that we kind of revere in our culture, but also that hides this real loneliness.


And you talk in the piece a little bit about, I guess, the transformative experience of being out in the surf, even for somebody who, as you just said, is maybe a bit clumsy and not the most skilful surfer. Can you tell me whether it's for yourself or for them, those people, way beyond the break. Can you tell me a bit about that transformative experience and what sort of is so fascinating, both as a writer and as somebody who is clumsily wading your way through it?


Yeah, absolutely. I think in some ways, lockdown has really made all of us more aware of the ways in which our lives are very ordered and organised and indoors and corporatised and commercialised. And there's something about being out in nature, something as vast and uncontrollable as the ocean, being a tiny speck, trying to stand on top of the ocean. Like there's something kind of comic about that idea. And the pull of the surf is about learning to kind of attend to that chaotic nature of the ocean and learn to read it to some small extent. And I'm quite bad at it. But yeah, there is something kind of gloriously simple about the activity. You paddle out, you get on a wave, you stand up. You fall off. You paddle out. You get on a wave. There's that kind of meditative quality to it, but also this transformative, childlike joy where this little part of your brain is kind of vibrating, going, “what's happening? I'm standing on water. That shouldn't be possible. It's so thrilling. It's so wonderful. There's something so empowering and so simplistically, it's like it wipes your brain clean. And I'm a person who has a very busy brain, so it's nice to have that moment of just nothing happening except for a kind of ‘wee’ going on in my brain.


Well, Sarah, I can't wait to hear you read the piece for us.


Little breaks.

Once we’ve peeled off the wetsuits and packed up the boards, we are quiet. The car ride home is scored with the sound of sniffing, as though in grief, though it is really the ocean emptying out of our sinuses. There is no need for speech. It is a soft quiet, a golden quiet. In the driver’s seat, my partner is thinking about his turns, the way he twisted his body to pull the board against the wave, flitting up the fist of the sea. Next to him, I am thinking about how, one day, I might be able to stand up without screaming. I am what surfers refer to as a kook, which is to say: I am terrible at surfing. In every possible way, I am an embarrassment to the art of standing on the ocean. I was terrible at it when I started, and I am terrible at it now, and I love it.

Growing up, surfing had, for me, always been a symbol of iconic Australianness. It spoke to an outsider aesthetic, bushrangers flanked by kangaroos. Surfing ran through the stories I read as a child: between the fantasy and The Baby-Sitters Club, there was the water. There was the surf.

Tim Winton is a touchy subject with the contemporary literati. Last year, a tweet from a writer who also teaches read: “Just cut the last of the Tim Winton from my inherited unit reading lists. Sorry class of 2021: SURF’S DOWN.” Outside the academy, his influence is not so easy to erase. Winton’s stories of lone men carving through the ocean run deep in our cultural memory. It was Winton’s Lockie Leonard who first described surfing to me; the glorious dance between tiny body and enormous ocean. I read those pages with awe. Lockie’s boyish fearlessness, his gung-ho worldliness, was not mine. I felt much closer to Lisa, the protagonist of Margaret Clark’s teen novel Fat Chance, a tubby young woman working in a beachside hotdog van. She serves junk food to the sweating, breathless boys who roam the waves at Jan Juc, until she loses weight and lands both an eating disorder and a modelling contract. This was how I understood the Australian relationship with the sea: men surfed it and women stayed onshore, watching. The women observed, and the men were magic.

I am not a man. Most of the time, my gender does not occur to me. There are times, however, when I am acutely aware of occupying a female body: when I am travelling (I could festoon a map of Europe with pushpins, each one a street or park where a man masturbated while watching me); when I am upset or enraged (hysterical woman, probably on her period). I feel it, too, when I am in the surf. In 2017, Holly Isemonger wrote in The Lifted Brow about the misogyny of surf culture, of the absence of women in surfing narratives other than as bikini-wearing babes. She describes the frustration of the ocean, where her skill is less important than her fuckability. To my great relief, this has not been my surfing experience. Nobody is trying to fuck me out there. I am protected by my ineptitude, by my chest-deep wading and my 8 feet of nervous longboard. I am useless, lumpy, unthreatening. The men who paddle out past me, hooking their hands into the water and pulling themselves forward, smile at me indulgently. We have an understanding: I am bad at this and they are not. The water rears up and lifts them, and I watch them disappear.

I am sure that surfers, good surfers, might scoff at my fear of moving out beyond my own depth, out past the break, out where the waves are big and hard. They might sneer at my desire for joy, for ease. You couldn’t comprehend the satisfaction, they might say, the quality of attending to the swell. To which I might reply: my whole life, I have tried so hard. I am so tired. But in the water, I can stop trying to succeed and just be. There, I can fail wonderfully, and laugh at the failure. There is one place I do not feel the need to cringe.

There is an Instagram account called “Kook of the day” that features videos of people like me. These people are paddling frantically against water that pushes them back onto exposed rocks, almost tenderly, as if to say: You don’t belong here, mate. These people are oblivious to the smooth carve of a wave, and paddle instead into exactly the wrong place, where the wave collapses on top of them, tossing their surfboard into the air. These are the people who emerge from the spray only to have their board land directly onto their heads with a dull thunk. These are the land people. I am a land person, as much as I can be. White Australians have a weird relationship with the landscape. There is a sullen quality to it, a fighting quality. I have inherited that feeling, that colonialist stance. The settler experience of never quite feeling comfortable in this place. Always feeling like I am on the land, standing awkwardly, surrounded by but not immersed within it. There is the strangest sense of the world as a hologram, a curious kind of dissociation, surrounded by things I cannot name. In the ocean, though, I am in the water. It encompasses me, envelops me. I am under the water, and I am standing on the water, but I am not apart from it. It pours into my eyes and down my throat and stops up my ears. It is an excess of feeling. True immersion.

The spiritual qualities of surfing are undeniable. Aussie surfers call the god of the ocean “Hughie”, half in jest, half in desperation. Come on, Hughie, give us a set. When a wave boils up from the flat sea, it is awesome, every time. The cold salt water, the rush of spray, the dawns and dusks and moving light: it is staggering, beautiful, wondrous. All writing about surfing touches on this quality: the holy quality. The encounter with the numinous, the impossibility of truly knowing a break. The unreachable nature of perfection. There is grace, and surrender. When the wave breaks overhead, tossing you in dizzying foam, there is a strange sense of quiet.

It seems to me, sometimes, that there are two oceans, separated by the threshold of one’s toes leaving the floor, of going out deep. I inhabit the closer sea, and it is the province of delight. Close to the shore, there is laughter. When I was last out, a woman in her sixties waded over to me, cheeks slapped red by the water, framed by the black oval of her hood. “Isn’t this just the best?” she called, grinning madly. When she caught her next wave, I watched her fumble to her feet and applauded.

In the shallows, I am in a different world to that of the line-up. This is not merely a matter of skill. When my partner paddles out deep, he is crossing a threshold into the world of men. This is a place of closed lips. Of the occasional nod. This is the place where men go to be alone. At Victoria’s popular surf beaches, when the wind is onshore and the sets are breaking, they are a company of the isolated. Out deep is a place of bodily reaction.

Every now and then, someone will strike out on their board, paddling parallel to shore. When this happens, half the line-up follows them, presuming them to be intuiting a better take-off spot. My partner has, now and then, swum away from the grunting masses, attempting to leave the good waves for better surfers, and turned around to find himself a Pied Piper of stony-faced men. The frustration of the multitude, the dream of unoccupied waves, creates tension between locals and tourist surfers. At Ocean Grove, there is a teenager – 15, maybe – who rockets across the water, shrieking invectives at anyone who dares to share his wave. His rage is pure, high-pitched and complete. “You fucking prick,” he’ll yell. “Fuck off!”

In 2016, William Finnegan’s book Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography. It is a thrilling book, charting decades spent in the water, toying with the ecstatic and the awesome potential of the sea. It is full, too, of irritation in the face of a busy beach. Finnegan dreams of time travel, of visiting California’s best breaks hundreds of years ago. “Malibu had been breaking exactly like this, unridden, for centuries, eons,” he writes, longing for a time before the crowds. Every surfer, he says, dreams of the lonely beach, the waves peeling off glassy walls of water, waiting to be ridden. This is not my dream. I dream of two-foot swells on a sand break with lifesavers close by.

When my partner read Barbarian Days, he was entranced by the descriptions of barrels and double-overheads and two-wave hold-downs. When I read it, underneath the daring and the risk in the writing, I felt the throbbing of a great loneliness. A deep fear of expression, of vulnerability. Often, Finnegan describes the way masculinity limits itself in the ocean. He writes about bringing his hands together in a small act of thanks to the universe after a truly transcendent wave, and his friend sneering at him for “over-celebrating”. In another passage, he and another man are trapped out in churning water, in the dark, tossed in the gaping mouth of the ocean, sure of their death. When they finally make it back to land, hours later, they sit near each other, each quivering in their wetsuits. His friend later says, “I was going to put my arm around your shoulder, but, you know.”

“I did know,” writes Finnegan.

Once I began seeing it in the water, I began seeing it everywhere. The men I know, the men I love, hold such a quantity of sadness in them. It is a complex sadness. It contains a thread of quiet betrayal. It’s the sadness of children told to smile through pain, to man up, to stop sooking, to get on with it. It’s the decades of repression of fear and vulnerability, the cultivation of cynicism in the place of romance.

Some years ago, a friend was upset. I asked what he was feeling: confusion? Shame? Disappointment? He didn’t know. Years of denying the existence of negative emotions had created a single, black, impacted feeling that he thought of only as The Bad Feeling. He could not tease out its specifics. There was feeling good and there was feeling bad, and there was nothing in between. Because there was no differentiation, there was no nuance to his self-care.

I treat myself differently when I am sad to when I am nostalgic, or longing, or afraid. Without the awareness of the differences, though, it is almost impossible to treat the sensation. There are many men I know who are desperately lonely, desperate for touch, desperate to be known and understood. They have few skills for communication, for empathy. They can read a wave, but not another person.

In summer, when the air is hot and the water is cold, I go down hard and come up laughing. I catch the eye of a gangly young man, maybe 18, and he grins along with me. He is teaching his sister to surf. When she wobbles past, riding the white water, we hoot together, cheering her on. He edges closer to me, then drifts further away, nervous to come too close. His pale chest is puckered with goosebumps. He gives a shy laugh. “It’s so good to just be out in the water,” he says. “These little breaks are a relief sometimes. I never usually let myself surf them.” Out to sea, the sets thunder in. By the time they reach us, they are crumbly and sweet. He pulls the board under his torso and zigzags across them, standing slow and easy. He falls into the shallow water flat on his back, looking up at the sun. The water holds him in its hands. It requires nothing of him at all.


Today, on the Weekend Read, writer and artist Sarah Walker with her piece, “Little Breaks”, from The Monthly.

It’s a story of joy and sadness in the ocean.

She writes of her time in the water as a beginner surfer, finding glee in shallow breaks.

But beyond the break, in the deeper water, there’s also loneliness, isolation and vulnerability.

Socials: Stay in touch with us on Twitter and Instagram

Guest: Writer and artist Sarah Walker

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The Weekend Read is a show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper.
It’s produced and mixed by Atticus Bastow.

Our editor is Scott Mitchell. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.

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