The Big Red of Bondi: the veteran surfer who shocked Bondi Beach surfers and beachgoers | Photo: Shutterstock

The sand, snow-like and silky, was ouch-hot to tenderfoots but just-right warm to the souls of seasoned surfers that owned this strip of heaven known as Bondi.

There were the 10-year-old towheaded grommets and the rail-thin teens that had to run around in the shower to get wet.

There were the 20-somethings that couch-surfed by night, so they might be gods by day.

Then came the 30 and 40-year-old, 9'2" log-riding, wave-robbing sloths. They usually arrived in geriatric BMWs in need of tires and brakes.

Last, a smattering of 50- and 60-year-olds simply refused to go gently into the light.

These were all the Bondi locals, and they all had two things in common. They were only truly happy when:

  1. They had positioned themselves in the pocket to capture the big wave of a set;
  2. In that split-second when they felt their board accelerate as if the wall of water had accepted them as family, although, as with some families, sometimes, the relationship could turn downright abusive;

And, on the subject of abuse, the kooks and wannabes deserved all they got and then some, from the locals, being that waves of this shape, quality, and power should not and would not be wasted on the clumsy and futile efforts of beginners.

Back on terra firma, approximately 70 percent of the beach bunnies, pop tarts, and coming-of-age cherry trees sunbathed topless.

This was mostly a thing of beauty but for the occasional victims of time and gravity.

Dodging this way and that between the prone population of femme fatales was a three-man team of post-pubescent Bedouin-looking boys, expertly manipulating the physics of a soccer ball between them until the opportunity to inconspicuously land the said ball on the towel of the opposite sex was achieved.

It was a clever foot in the door and succeeded more often than not.

Out in the ocean, it was a big day, and locals jockeyed for position as the four-to-five-foot sets kept rolling in.

Bondi Beach, Sydney: one of the most crowded surf spots in Australia | Photo: Hardy/Creative Commons

A Poser and His Fire Engine Red Surfboard

Then, something quite awkward happened.

Everything and everyone seemed to stop, like a frozen moment in time, with everyone looking in one direction.

On the beach, at the water's edge, stood a man.

A man as amazing in his uniqueness as he was in his stature. A fossil of a man in his mid-70s if a day.

A man out of time and certainly out of place.

His dark brown, weathered, leathered skin hung loosely in places, yet tight against his barrel chest and belly keg.

His jaw could make granite jealous, and his white, flat-top crew cut was military high and tight.

The typography of his eyes and mouth appeared as thin slits, dominated by a ripe red bulbous nose, cultivated over a lifetime of copious amounts of alcohol and more than a few bar brawls.

But all of this was not what froze that moment in time.

Perhaps it was the fire engine red, outrageously oversized board that he held vertically next to him. If the board fell, it would surely shake the very ground on which he stood.

Or maybe it was his matching fire red swim trunks that were wrong as wrong could be, for they were Speedos, a size too small.

Now, there arguably may be a time and place for Speedos, but surfing Bondi is not one of them.

Let's look at the science.

Visuals aside, men's legs are hairy, surf wax is sticky, the sun is hot, and the board must be straddled.

Or maybe it was all of that, coupled with the oddity that he was just standing there, posing, looking out beyond the inland waves to the horizon.

It was as if he were in a trance. Perhaps he'd suffered one too many concussions or done one too many tabs of acid.

He stood like a statue, not moving a muscle, like a silver-painted street performer that doesn't move or blink until you tip him.

Ten minutes went by, then 20, 30, and 40.

Still, he held his pose.

Tourists approached with trepidation, gradually becoming bold enough to take selfies. Still, he held his pose.

A small toddler who had yet to find his land legs in this life waddled up and stopped a few feet in front of him.

Eyeing the statue's cracked and weathered feet, he panned up until the weight of his own oversized head toppled him backward.

Still, Big Red held his pose.

Then, as with any anomaly we experience in our daily lives, we eventually grow bored and get back to the business at hand.

Just as that started to happen, he moved.

Lineup: the tense take-off zone where all surfers jockey for position | Photo: Davies/Creative Commons

The Superman of Surfing

He carefully manhandled his giant red land barge into a horizontal position and began walking forth with purpose into the sea.

At knee-high water, in one fluid movement, he launched his board and definitively landed on his knees, paddling straight into an oncoming sizable wave.

His timing was off, and there was no way in hell this wave was not going to crush him and topple him back, at least as far as his starting point.

Everyone on shore and sea was transfixed, watching the inevitable about to happen.

Only it didn't.

With no visible effort, he crested that threat, and the next, and the next, until he reached the takeoff point where only the best of the best surfers lined up.

Oddly, he didn't stop.

He continued paddling until he was 200-plus meters beyond the takeoff zone.

The locals and even the kooks looked at each other, shaking their heads in puzzlement and laughter. This guy had to be the biggest kook of all time.

The ridiculous show continued as the man, having turned his red floating island away from the water, still on his knees, proceeded to bow with his head all the way down to his board.

His back was flat, arms stretched all the way forward, palms down. He held this pose for 30 seconds.

It appeared to be a prayer but may have actually been yoga or a combination thereof - no one knows.

Everyone on the beach and in the water was enjoying this spectacle when an eerie calm came over the ocean.

The water receded and then receded more. It started to register that something was not quite right.

A smooth-shaven male lifeguard with an industrial bullhorn and a booming (yet oddly high-pitched) voice ordered everyone out of the water, and the surfers closest to shore responded.

Looking out at the edge of forever, one could almost make out what appeared to be the hump of a sizable wave, a very sizable wave.

The surfers that were furthest out were caught in the dead zone, that precarious place where if you paddle out, you may not make it over the crest, and if you don't, you're going over the falls to get slammed and pummeled.

If you start paddling in and the wave slow-rolls, you could be in for a worse beating, as well as getting hit by other boards.

The Mike Tyson-sounding lifeguard continued his high-pitched assault as the now visible wall of water grew.

A degree of panic ensued on land and sea, yet one person remained completely relaxed.

Freak waves: unusually large, unpredictable and suddenly appearing surface waves | Photo: Anshor/Creative Commons

The Freak Wave

Old man Speedo came out of his trance, raised up on his knees, casually looked over his shoulder, leaned forward, and began double paddling towards the group of surfers frantically paddling out.

He couldn't seriously be trying to catch this monster wave, could he?

That was the jaw-dropping question that everyone within eyesight was thinking.

As the wall kept growing, panic kept ensuing, and the lifeguard kept bull-horning, Big Red of Bondi kept paddling.

At that moment, if you slowed your breathing and listened carefully, I swear you could hear the rhythm of distant drums playing "Wipeout."

Picking up speed like a wave-riding outrigger, Big Red's board surged early at the upper part of the monster, no towing jet skis in sight (thank you very much, Laird).

Red effortlessly popped to his feet, landing goofy-footed, his back to the wall, and though he was quickly picking up speed, it wasn't enough to keep the wall from pulling him back, giving the illusion he was moving in slow motion.

Between Big Red and the shore, moving directly into his trajectory, a motley crew of obstacles was paddling as if their lives depended on it because, well, their lives depended on it.

Widening his stance, Big Red executed a sweeping turn (no snappy bottom cuts with land barges), barely missing a duck diver who had little chance of avoiding the washing machine.

Big Red was now flying down the face of a freak wave that continued to grow.

He was in the zone, working the wall while barely dodging the helpless surfers, the same surfers that had been laughing at him just moments before.

The bipeds on the beach were mesmerized, and instead of running for higher ground, they risked life and limb just to watch.

It was as if a single monster wave from Nazaré had been teleported to Bondi, but there were no high-powered jet skis to zip in and save the day.

Now, to be fair, in memory, perhaps this anomaly of a wall of danger may seem a little bigger than it actually was, but that's not to say it wasn't incredible.

Big Red of Bondi: the senior surfer who defied all odds | Photo: Folkertsma/Creative Commons

All Hail the Surf God

Were the humans on land safe? In a word, yes.

Were the surfers in the water safe? Some yes, and some most definitely not.

There were a dozen rescues caused by that wave, but there was one man among men that needed no help.

Big Red of Bondi, as the crowd now called him, rode the beast and appeared to have tamed it until it closed out, and he disappeared in the angry mayhem of the beast's last throws.

What an amazing way for an old man at the end of his days to exit.

Everyone who had witnessed Big Red's opus was now and forever his disciples.

They lowered their heads in a moment of silence, only to be brought back to reality by intense screaming and yelling.

Out of the fog of furious white churning water, Big Red's board emerged, with Big Red on it, prone on his stomach but apparently still alive!

He had a crooked and contented smile stretching from ear to ear.

Three lifeguards and hundreds of fans raced to his aid as his board reached land and abruptly stopped.

Big Red tried to shoo them away, but the crowd whooped and cheered as they picked up his board over their heads with him on it.

He sat cross-legged with his chest out and back straight, looking like the conquering surf god he was, and as his newly minted fans carried him to the nearest bar, he looked back over his shoulder towards the mayhem of injured people and flashing emergency vehicles and bent his head in silent prayer.

Then he turned and looked forward, giving in to the joy of the moment, pumping his fist in the air, and the crowd went wild.


Words by Dane Scarborough | Author

Top Stories

The most successful competitive surfer of all time, Kelly Slater, rode what may have been the last heat of his 24-year professional career.

We can't choose our height, and 80 percent of it is genetic. But if you're into surfing, taller and shorter surfers feel noticeable differences in getting acquainted with boards, paddling for, and riding a wave.

Ryan Crosby is the new chief executive officer (CEO) of the World Surf League (WSL).

Big wave surfing is an industry with an industry.