Bombora brave paddles into sunset

Morningside. The old man died. Ah, but this time, many cried. For you see when Dave Jackman passed away last Saturday, aged 74, he did so as a tribal elder of Sydney's surfing community, a cherished icon, at the base of which lay something that happened over 50 years ago. Ah, but already we're ahead of ourselves …

You see, right from the beginning, Jacko's surfing pedigree was impeccable. It was in his bones, and he took it with his mother's milk. For he was raised around Freshwater Beach, which is where surfing truly began in Australia. Back in 1915, a very charismatic man from Hawaii by the name of Duke Kahanamoku came to Sydney, and gave a demonstration of a great Hawaiian passion called "surf-shooting" to several hundred Sydneysiders, who gathered on the beach on a wet and windy Sunday afternoon of late January. He shimmied, he shook, he surfed, he entranced the locals with what he could do on that board, before calling for a volunteer.

He picked the 16 year-old local lass, Isabel Letham. He took her out on the board, they turned, he lifted her up, and as the board plunged down the wave, she was hooked forever more. And so, in many ways, was the country, as its soul loosened, its Englishness fell away, and its spirit soared. Within days of the Duke's demonstration, others were starting to make their own boards out of big planks of wood, and it spread from there, with the Freshwater/Queenscliff/Manly axis always remaining at its very heart.

By the time Jacko came along in 1940, surfing was so well established that pretty much all the local lads and lasses did it all along the Peninsula, with one notable exception - the Queenscliff "Bombora."

No-one did that. See, in those parts, when the tide is low, and the swell is high, and coming from just north of east - conditions that only come together rarely - the magic of the Queenscliff Bombora is created, as huge waves, waves for the ages, are created. Not only did no-one surf the Bombora, no-one even contemplated it.

Until this day, see. It was a cold winter's day, in 1961 - June 6 to be precise - and the 21 year-old local likely lad is down at North Steyne, when he looks over Queenscliff way.

The "Bommie" is raging, as never before! Each wave bigger than the last, the spray of the white-capped waves blowing back for hundreds of yards behind, as it pounds the shore.

What the hell?

Why not him?

Why not now?

Grabbing his board, Jacko starts the long paddle out - three-quarters of a mile in the old money - and keeps going through the heavy sea, as on the shore people begin to watch this madman. And so do the many in the houses all around the heavily clustered cliff-tops of South Manly, Queenscliff and Freshie, all the way to North Curl Curl.

What's he doing . . ?

He's not really going to . . ?

He's not, is he?

As they watch, to their amazement, this bloke breaks through the heavy sea, up and over one wave, down into the trough, up the other side and there he is! In position!

The Bombora approaches, sneering at the ant on a paddlepop stick in front. But suddenly as Bommie starts to peak, the ant is paddling, the stick is moving, and Dave Jackman is riding the bastard, as those watching on the shore cheer themselves hoarse!

The exhilaration, the grace, the sheer brass balls of the man. Once, twice, three times he does it, getting better each time.

The fourth time, though, as he told The Australian Surfrider, a few years ago, "a total 'wipe-out,' burying me in so much water that I wondered if I would ever see the top again. When I did emerge the grey murky clouds overhead looked as pretty as a picture."

Ah, but he hadn't yet seen the picture, the one taken by an onlooker and subsequently published in the local press, one on the front page of an afternoon daily.

It created a sensation.

Who knew it was even possible to ride such a wave? (Well, perhaps a few. In subsequent interviews, Jackman was always careful to point to others who may have ridden it before him, though they didn't have the photo to prove it, let alone one published in the newspapers.)

That photo changed the whole mindset of Australian surfers. It was possible to go after whopper waves like that, and survive!

As to Jackman, he went on to make the semi-finals of the 1962 World Championships at Makaha in Hawaii, and just like Isobel Letham kept surfing for most of the rest of his days. He never lost his love of it, and the editor of the iconic magazine Surfing World, Vaughan Blakey, was recently quoted, recalled how Jackman had told the story of that ride on the occasion of the magazine's 50th anniversary in 2012.

"You could have heard a pin drop two blocks away. The electricity of this fabled session still carried as if it had happened that morning and the quiet reverence from all at the table was palpable. The body may grow older, but feats of brilliance and bravado in the line-up really do last forever.''

I don't know how the surfers will mark his death, but I have long loved what they did when Isabel Letham died in 1995. With great reverence, 200 local surfers took her ashes out beyond the breakers, formed a circle and released her ashes into the waters she had grace for so long. That, surely, would do Dave Jackman?

Vale, Jacko. You made your mark on the Bommie that day, and they talk about you still.

The story Bombora brave paddles into sunset first appeared on Brisbane Times.

Smartphone
Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide
Desktop