Surfing Eastbourne's Rec in the early 90's
Eastbourne Stalwart Terence Wood walks us through the rise and demise of a regional classic.
It ended with an Earthquake, long before it began.
During the giant shake of 1855, gravel tumbled off mountains into the Orongorongo River, and was carried to the sea. From there it began its relentless march along the coast and into Wellington harbour.
We, of course, were oblivious to all this when we started surfing in Eastbourne in the 1980s. Back then, there was no sign of gravel. Indeed, the problem, as far as residents were concerned, was erosion. A seawall was built, then groins, all for the sake of stopping waves from consuming houses.
One of the best things about being a learner is you’re oblivious in general. Growing up as surfers in Eastbourne, miles inside Wellington harbour, we could have been bitter. Our lot in life was a short thumping wave that closed-out a lot: the Rec. But we knew no better. As far as we were aware, it was a proper surf spot. It was a little inconsistent, needing freezing cold southerly storms to force enough swell into the harbour to make it break. But there were older guys who surfed it – a sure sign it was legit.
I caught my first real wave there, on a 3ft long polystyrene board. I can still remember the elevator drop, me skipping over the shallows, the white water to the beach. I ran up the sand, and round and round in circles hooting. I caught most of my first waves at the Rec, learned to get to my feet quick, and got my first barrel.
I don’t know how many generations surfed it before us. Eastbourne’s first surfers started in the 1960s, but limited themselves to soft longboard points. I guess surfing at the Rec began in the 1970s with shorter boards. By the time me and my friends arrived, there was a fully fledged crew of older surfers. In those days, you could tell how good it was from the bend in Karamu Street, simply by seeing how many cars were in the carpark.
You also knew how good the waves were from who was out. On the truly pitiful days, we grommets would have it to ourselves. A bit better, and more competent teenagers – Millsy, the Marshalls, Von Minden – would be out there. Bigger still, and some of my mates’ older brothers would hit it. If it was a real storm, almost-adults – already legends in our minds – would arrive: Bellams, Hales, Phil, Bede.
As we got older and a bit better, our obliviousness waned. It was a short wave, often simply a closeout. It usually needed a shrieking storm to break. In winter, this meant hail stones and sweeping squalls. We froze in our old wetsuits. Many of my friends found other interests. And yet, if you got a good day, it was a wave: there was a pretty clear take off spot, an optimal tide (mid-outgoing), a knack to it (up fast then race down the line for one move on the inside section). Sets were signalled in advance by swells cresting on outside sandbars. The waves would then thump though, peaking up, twisted by sand. If you got really lucky, a storm would abate, the swell would hang in enough, and there would be an evening glass-off. Still not Hossegor. But glassy, and with the chance of a barrel.
A new gang of grommets entered the line-up in our wake: Michael, Quentin, Murph, Wilkie.
Then something strange happened. The Rec stopped breaking in longer period swells. And it totally choked on lower tides.
That was the Earthquake’s shingle. Swept all the way from the river, around the coast, and up the harbour, looking for somewhere to rest. When I was away in my early 20s travelling the world a giant gravel point emerged between the Rec and Lions Rock.
Residents were no longer worrying about houses being consumed by the sea: some started talking of building on the extra land. As a surf spot, the Rec got fussier still. Then it ended.
I can remember my last real wave there, a respectable right peak. I dropped in on someone, raced the wall for a moment, then pulled off to let them have the ride. After that, the surf choked on the tide; I must have caught a weak closeout in.
I haven’t surfed the Rec since. The gravel found its final resting place. It won’t go any further into the harbour because there’s not enough swell to carry it beyond the Rec. Because of the gravel, the beach is too steep to for swells to break. Also, the outer sandbars have gone, and so swell doesn’t refract in anymore. There’s a hint of a wave in a huge swell, but it never really breaks. Surf spot gone. Forever.
Forever – I guess. I have to admit, I keep hoping, and keep checking when I’m in town, in giant swells. Maybe the gravel will whittle away. Maybe something else will come. Maybe.
Editor's note. RE the shingle from the Orongorongo river theory: I once met a guy who had done a Phd on the subject in the 1960s. He said they dumped a truck-load of red pebbles into the Orongorongo mouth then charted it's course in to the harbour. I'm not sure if the study has been ongoing. If anyone knows please let us know. DL