Aidan Hartley

Wild life | 24 August 2017

Happiness is a big breaker going off like a stick of bombs

Wild life | 24 August 2017
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Indian Ocean coast

Like most men I wonder if I have been much good as a father, but one thing I got right was that I gave our children, Eve and Rider, the Indian Ocean. Before they could even walk my Claire taught her babies to feel happy splashing about in the sandy coral pools below my mother’s house, and this was where she taught them first to swim. They were still tiny, with curly blond locks, when they ran at the roaring breakers on the beach, getting completely lost in the white foam, then bobbing up to the surface with squeals of delight. They made up names for waves: small ones were ‘tippitisers’, a big one was an ‘abragabir’ and a huge one was called ‘Mickey Mouse Club’. They both grew up winning swimming races at school. Eve, an especially good competitive swimmer, said the sea felt like home.

‘Two things, mate,’ my son Rider, now 15, writes to me by text before I fly to the Kenya coast. ‘The waves are beautiful and I’ve peroxided my hair.’ As the aircraft banks sharply over the Indian Ocean on the final approach to landing, I see the swell, I see the energy in the water. Within an hour we are in Hassan’s sailing dhow heading out to the break with the usual crew. I look at my boy in his board shorts. Luckily, the peroxiding job failed because a clever mother heavily diluted the H2O2. His feet are huge, he’s growing a centimetre each month, the shoulders are expanded from surfing, and he’s getting a chiselled American jaw.

As a boy I surfed with my siblings on plywood bodyboards every Sunday morning in the bay near home, where the sand sparkled with flecks of mica. During my noisy years as a foreign correspondent, I squandered what could have been my best surfing years on dry land, partying and chasing women. I realised what a fool I had been when I started learning to surf properly in my thirties with my late friend Tonio Trzebinski. He had little patience with me, but the sight of him slicing across the glistening face of a wave, and his euphoria at the end of a day in the water, made me determined to learn. One day, out with Tonio on a deep ocean break, two humpback whales exploded out of the water a hundred metres from us, breaching so close that their huge corrugated gullets, eyes and barnacle-encrusted backs were visible in detail.

Ever so slowly over the seasons, my surfing improved — but I never seemed to be fit enough at the start of the year, what with all the high-blood-pressure stress of covering wars or running a farm inland. And now, as we leap from Hassan’s boat and start paddling towards the break, Rider surges ahead of me and I realise again that at 52 I am in a fight against time. Both children are already much better than I am. Rider has even inadvertently let drop that I am now known as ‘the worst surfer’.

Clean sets are rolling by. Rider catches his first wave, paddling with surprising strength and speed, and I can see him popping up fast. He disappears and I wonder if he’s made the drop. Then I see his head and torso accelerating along the water wall which shakes hoary brine from its back as it thunders away. Every wave in the world is unique, like a snowflake. When he paddles back out towards me, I can see it in his face: just 15 and in love with this for the rest of his life. Eve says she adores ‘feeling the water under my feet — knowing I am literally standing on the ocean’. They will now both always have a reason to be fit and to love the sea.

Wound tight from a year of troubles, I dig the water hard, fail my first few waves, then at last catch a medium one. I drop down the sheer water face and rise creakily to my feet. The board traverses the ridge and I feel true speed, and then briefly I am in a windy, translucent cathedral of water. At last — was it seconds or much longer? — it collapses solidly around me and I go under. I surface and fill my lungs with air just as the next big breaker is going off like a stick of bombs. After the moments of self-forgetting, this is true happiness.