From the ashes of catastrophe: how ‘aqua therapy’ is helping a town through 2020

Battered by bushfires, Covid-19 and storms, one small town on the NSW south coast finds surfing has provided locals with an escape and a sense of community

With the sun rising over glittering waves, Malua Bay beach is a picture of serenity on a clear Saturday morning in mid-September. Suddenly, as the clock hits 7am, a loud air-horn disrupts the ambience. Five wetsuit-clad children charge into the nearby waves for the first heat of the Malua Boardriders’ competition day. Watching on from the shore, a group of about 50 parents and friends nurse their takeaway coffees.

The mood is jovial; community spirit is high. Given what this small coastal town has endured over the past nine months, their positivity is remarkable.

“We were all here on the sand,” recalls Henry Barrington, treasurer of the Boardriders, as he gestures past the dunes. Mid-morning on New Year’s Eve, Malua Bay residents evacuated to the beach as a wall of fire enveloped the area. “There were flames just behind us, we could hear gas bottles exploding,” he says. They remained on the beach for the whole day, watching on in horror as the fire front wreaked havoc.

Yet from the ashes of catastrophe, a new sense of community has emerged – with the Boardriders at the forefront. “Being out on the beach that day galvanised a lot of friendships,” 47-year-old Barrington says. “People knew each other, but they never had the time to sit and chat. Suddenly we were talking.”Malua Bay has a proud surfing history. The first edition of the Boardriders was established in 1984, and several professional surfers grew up in the area in the 1990s. After a short hiatus, a new crop of talented young surfers is now emerging. Sitting on the beach that fateful December day, the community realised the club needed to rise again.

“We had talked about it previously, among parents, but everyone was too busy – life goes on,” says Andy Tyler, a local police officer and club president. “The fires really gave us the impetus. This was a way to rebuild the community.”

Then the pandemic began. The club’s first meeting took place via Zoom; it was six months before the Boardriders could hold their first competition day, in mid-August. Unfortunately, the waves did not cooperate and the swell was almost flat. After that false start, there is an air of optimism on this sunny September day as the juniors – “grommets”, in surfing parlance – compete in two- to three-foot beach-break conditions.

“This is fantastic,” exclaims Melissa Love, a local businesswoman and club board member. “There are so many people here, such great community spirit. I am really happy it started. The competition itself doesn’t even matter.” Fateful words – as she says this, a competition judge beckons Love over and insists she enter a heat. “I’ll come last,” she laughs.

Watching on with pride is 73-year-old Barry “Baz” Whiteman, who co-founded the original Boardriders in the 1980s. “For three or four years we helped develop a generation of good surfers,” he remembers. “But it all seemed to implode when they turned 17 and bought cars and we lost the core group.” The club was re-established in the 1990s, but again fell into disuse. Now, almost four decades since its inception, the Boardriders are back.

“One good thing about getting old is that you don’t have to be pulling on a cold wetsuit at half past six in the morning,” quips Whiteman, who finally stopped surfing at 69 due to rheumatoid arthritis. “I can stand back and laugh at all this,” he says. “But I still wish I was in the water.”

In mid-July, Covid-19 hit the NSW south coast with an outbreak in Batemans Bay, 15 minutes from Malua Bay. Two weeks later, a major storm left the region briefly without power and caused extensive damage to homes with falling trees and flooding. Waiting for waves at McKenzies, one beach over from Malua, evidence of the bushfire is inescapable. Both headlands were badly scorched; damaged homes and burnt trees are still conspicuous from the water.

But as the remnants of the weather system send a powerful swell towards the coast, the hardship of fires, Covid and storms is – at least temporarily – forgotten. Fifteen locals sit in the line-up awaiting the next set, and the only thing up for discussion is the epic surf. “To be able to get out in the water, disengage from everything happening around you and not have to think too much,” says Tyler, “that has been essential.”

Even at the height of the first Covid wave in April and May, the south coast’s beaches were never closed. With Canberrans and Sydneysiders unable to visit, locals have enjoyed uncrowded beaches and unusually excellent waves. For many, this has been a godsend. “Bushfires in January, Covid in March – surfing has been an escape,” Tyler says.