[This article originally appeared in Volume 255. Subscibe to Wavelength now to never miss an issue.]
“He was implying I was a coward if I didn’t paddle out,” recalls Ric Friar with crystal clarity of a morning back in 1963, when a monster storm swell battered his local stretch of reef. Despite a barrage of pleading from his friend, that subtle implication was the one that did it. Ric was paddling out.
What exact forces determine the decisions people make has been the subject of much debate among scientists and philosophers for millennia. Some have argued everything is predetermined; by a higher power, or by our accumulated thoughts and experiences, leaving room for only one outcome. Others say the route we carve through life is the result of totally free choices taken among the millions of different pathways offered in any given second of decision making.
I suspect, for Ric Friar though, the answer is far less complex. As he recounts his life from his hospital room, with a fervour rarely found outside the realms of fiction, it appears to me almost all of his most pivotal moments were spurred on by one thing; the desire to prove to himself, when it came to the crunch, that he was not a coward.
I’d called to interview him about a day back in 1966 when he and a group of fellow Aussies became the first documented people to surf The Cribbar. However, after just five minutes of conversing it becomes clear that pioneering Cornwall’s premier big wave spot is just the tip of the illustrious iceberg that was his 74 years of life.
As such, I invite him to start the story from wherever he likes. He quickly settles on Christmas morning, 1963.
From the moment the first glimmer of the light appeared in the sky that day, Ric had sat, gazing out from his balcony in Newport, New South Wales. He’d watched intently as 30ft waves marched towards the coast, breaking in a straight line all the way from Manly to Palm Beach. “It had been pounding through constantly, with not one lull at all. The vista was so formidable. No one in Newport had seen anything like it.”
As the sun climbed above the horizon, Ric got a call from an excited mate, Steve Reynolds, who was desperate to try out a new surfboard he’d got for Christmas. Ric already knew the waves that day posed an impossible task, but he agreed to meet Steve at the south end of the beach for a closer look. There were a few other surfers of note who had tried but failed to get out, remembers Ric, including Bob McTavish.
As soon as Ric arrived on the sand, the hounding began. “Reynolds was a gung-ho goon and that’s the best I could say for him. He just kept saying ‘come on, let’s go, let’s get in,’” he recounts with 55 years of undiluted vitriol dripping from his words. “He wasn’t even looking at the fucking wave! He was trying to block me from even thinking.” Initially, Ric was unmoved by his badgering. “I just said ‘shut your fucking face!’ as I walked back and forth weighing it all up.”
However, the implication of cowardice from Steve proved to be the last straw. “After that, I had to go in,” says Ric pointedly. “Because I couldn’t stand having this prick in my ear who, at this stage, couldn’t surf to save himself.”
Ric clung to the idea it was unlikely they’d even make it out the back. But as they began their paddle a miraculous calm spread through the lineup, offering safe passage out past the perilous inside. As soon as they reached the outer reef, a monstrous set reared up on the horizon.
“Suddenly, I had to gear up, in no seconds flat.” Ric recounts urgently. “I’d never faced waves that big before. My brain was whirling around at a million miles an hour. Either we paddled out to the safety of the open sea or get caught inside and pounded to death. There wasn’t a safe harbour anywhere along that whole coastline.”
In one of the milliseconds of pure flight that have come to define Ric’s journey through life, he shot an encouraging glance at Steve, and spun to catch the first wave of the set, hoping it would carry him back the beach, one way or another. As he took off, he could see instantly the wave was one of the giant closeouts he had been observing all morning. The lip fell hard and fast, detonating on him as he straightened out towards the beach. The impact drove him into the sandbar, dislocating his shoulder and pinning him to the ocean floor.
With the weight of all that water, Ric was sure he was going to die.
“Recalling the story makes me cry, because now it’s all coming back, unadulterated.” Ric reflects with disarming sincerity. “It would have been nice to die by pure natural power,” he adds softly, his words almost getting lost down the phone line as they echo off the walls of his hospital room. “That would have been sort of redeeming.”
Fate had other plans and Ric was eventually freed from the wave’s grip, breaking through the surface. The first thing he noticed was the searing pain in his shoulder. “I couldn’t raise my arm for help and stay afloat at the same time.” He remembers. “There was no point anyway because I didn’t think there was anyone around to see.”
Clearing the water from his eyes he spotted Steve’s head in the distance, bobbing around closer to the reef, without a board in sight. As he fixed his gaze on the surf club, Ric quickly realised he was getting further from the shore.
“The talons of a rip were dragging me northwards towards Bilgola but also taking me further out to sea,” Ric’s voice slows, departing from the freneticism that had characterised his telling of the story up to this point.
“I thought, at a stretch, I could have managed to swim back into where the waves were breaking but instinct told me I couldn’t go through the pain of being pummelled by those waves until I was dead. I had to make a decision before the rip took me out past the headland to die a lonely death at sea.”
“So I decided to drown myself, 300 metres from shore,” he says matter of factly.
“As a kid, I used to blow all the air out of my lungs while having a bath to feel myself sink. So, I decided now to blow the air out of my lungs and, through my mouth, I took in the water, as much as I could. I said my goodbyes to my mum and dad, sisters, brother and friends. And as I sank more deeply below the waves, the pain in my shoulder began disappearing. The peace and relief was overwhelming.”
Somehow, Ric woke to find himself on the sand.
“The next thing I remember, I was spewing up saltwater,” he says, a tangible disbelief ringing through in his voice. “The retching forced my eyes open. I was laying on the sand, water breaking around my toes. I had no idea where I was, who I was, or how I got there from under the waves. I thought I’d woken up dead.”
As Ric began to come to, his bruised ego was the first thing to regain the power of cognition.
“Looking south down the beach, the first thought I managed to bring together was ‘Thank god there’s no one here to see me. What would I say to them?’ I felt embarrassed and grateful that I didn’t have to explain to anyone why I was just laying there, spewing.”
Fortunately, it turned out Steve too had been washed back to the beach, but Ric couldn’t see him, and after dusting himself off, he limped off the sand alone. The pair wouldn’t discuss the events of that day again for almost 50 years.
“My life was never the same after that,” Ric says. “I’d had this whole run of bad luck leading up to that wave at Newport, topped off when my mother disowned me for getting a girl pregnant. I was contemplating my next move, when my best mate Dave ‘The Mexican’ Sumpter invited me up to the mountains to go skiing.” And that was it. Desperate to get out of Sydney he went off in search of a new adventure.
While skiing in Falls Creek that winter, Ric was befriended by some Austrian ski instructors, who had been so impressed with a bravado fuelled jump he’d undertaken after just two days on skis, they’d invited him to join them for the following season in Austria.
“Just as I needed the money to hop a ship to Europe to meet the Austrians, I had a 16 thousand dollar insurance payout come through for the injuries I’d sustained in a car accident.” Ric took the money and ran.
He pauses for a minute to draw breath, as though readying himself to read the next chapter in a book, before launching excitedly into a series of wild stories from his winter in the Alps.
In the mid-sixties, moving from an Australian beach community to a hub of European high society served up quite a culture shock and Ric relished every moment of it. “It was wonderous,” he remembers. “Just the way everyone was all dressed up, and they’d go and hang their coat up and have a coffee.”
Occasionally, his ex-spouse but still best mate Wendy, who has been with him for the duration of the interview stops him to fill in the details. “What you’ve got to understand,” she explains, as Ric finished a story about a night out regaling beautiful and bewildered Austrian girls with Aussie surf slang, “is that that period in Australia for the majority was pretty uncouth.”
“It was ‘Do you want to fuck or you want to fight?’” chimes in Ric. “And I didn’t mind either’
Next, he recounts the tale of his passionate love affair with world-famous model Twiggy, who happened to be in one of his very first ski lessons after he qualified as an instructor. “We had an affair that was an eye-opener,” he explains jubilantly. “She taught me more about sex than you can imagine!”
His whirlwind winter seasons were interspersed with summers in England, taking up various jobs around the country, including serving as head ski instructor at the newly opened Crystal Palace dry slope and the Rank Ski Field in Scotland. Being “the only guy in England with a suntan” he was also sought after for acting and modelling gigs.
In the summer of 1966, he answered an ad for a waiting job in the Scilly Isles, but after only a few weeks, was recalled to the mainland by his agent to play King Arthur in a TV ad campaign.
Fresh off the ferry and contemplating the long drive back up country, he decided to stop off at the newly burgeoning Fistral beach to check the waves. Upon arriving on the headland, he was greeted by a blanket of fog hanging over the sea, the sound of a solid swell detonating on craggy rock booming through the mist.
As a brief aperture opened up in the haze, Ric could make out perfectly clean 15-20 footers unloading on the reef at the end of the headland.
“I’d surf that,” he said out loud. A boy standing nearby on the headland overheard and insisted on driving off to fetch him a board from the Bilbo surf shop in town. “After that, I had no option,” Ric says. “I had to go in.”
As Ric made his way down towards the lifeboat slipway on the east side of the headland, he was joined by Aussie lifeguards Pete Russell, Johnny McElroy and American Jack Lydgate. The group paddled out solemnly past the town sewage pipe, not saying a word, as the growing crowd on the cliffs whirred with excitement.
“Surfing the Cribbar in ‘66 was a highlight that I vividly remember to this very day,” recalled Pete Russell in an interview with British surf historian Roger Mansfield many years later. “Although I’ve surfed a lot of big days since [in Australia], I’ve never experienced the adrenaline rush like that day. In the glassy, misty conditions, with the cliff face in the background, it was surreal.”
As the four surfers reached the lineup on their leashless single fins, a collective realisation of the severity of the situation spread over them. Lydgate was the first to succumb, his board torn from his grasp by a cleanup set, forcing him to embark on an hour-long swim back to the boat ramp that has gone down in history.
Without looking back, Ric paddled to the break on the left he’d spotted from the headland. As he reached the peak, the fog closed back in and, in the blinding mist, all he could hear was the terrifying roar of huge waves crashing into the cliff face.
Unable to see what was coming at him, or from where, he vowed to catch the first wave out of there. As soon as the mist cleared just a little, he went for the first wave that came his way.
“I paddled like superman to catch that wave. I was late getting on it, but once I was up, it was the most perfect and exhilarating wave I’d ever been on. All my fear and dread disappeared in a state of pure perfection as I lined up for a tube ride, when, out of the corner of my eye, I realised that I was perfectly positioned to surf straight into the cliff!”
With all his might, Ric turned his board back up the wave, but the lip caught him, sending him tumbling back over the falls as the wave closed out just metres from the cliff.
As the water flooded off the rocks, he was whipped alongside the base of the cliff in the strong current, the lip of the next wave hitting the backwash and pitching high and wide over his head.
“I went from being totally frozen by fear in the mist,” he recounts, “to pure ecstasy on the wave, to the incomprehensible experience of impending doom, suspended underneath the wave now tubing over my head.”
The current spat Ric out into the safety of the deeper water just split seconds before the next wave slammed into the rocks. Eventually, he made his way back to the safety of the boat ramp.
On the headland, Ric found Pete basking in the adoration of the assembled crowd. After catching a few giant lefts, he’d got caught inside and, like the others, been forced to complete a heroic swim back to dry land. A man observing the morning’s events from an ice cream truck parked on the point offered him a scoop on the house for his efforts, and the exhausted Aussie obliged. In a bizarre twist, the man in the truck just so happened to be Pip Staffieri, one of Britain’s first ever surfers. Ric, however, felt too embarrassed by his ungainly performance to stop for anything, let alone collect a free cone from a British surfing luminary.
“I felt so uncool, the way I came off my board, not knowing the cliff was there in the first place. People wanted to talk, but I just got in my car and drove off,” he explains.
We’re almost an hour into our conversation and Ric’s passionate oratory shows little sign of wavering. Indeed, the assortment of newspaper clippings Wendy sent through to accompany the conversation makes it clear that Ric has always loved to tell his stories. A scan of the articles, however, reveals the air of self-critical reflection that has permeated our conversation is far less long in the tooth. When I asked if he could pinpoint when he developed the power to identify his shortcomings so candidly, the answer was not at all what I was expecting.
“Well. It was the doorknob,” he growls. “And this is mad as anything…” adds Wendy. And she is right.
Ric proceeds to tell me how several years ago Wendy went away to be with her dad who was dying, leaving him alone for two weeks. “Suddenly I had no-one to talk to,” he explains. “I panicked at that realisation and glanced nervously around the room. The only thing looking back at me was the doorknob on the lounge room door. So I sidled over and began talking to it.”
“It was a desperate act,” adds Wendy. “But Ric needed external stimulus in order to live. That two weeks was the first experience he’d ever really had of talking to himself in an openly conscious way.” Before that, she explains, he couldn’t afford to discuss his emotions, or meditate on the consequences of his actions, because that would have got in the way of living his life the way he’d committed to.
“I had my mission,” he elaborates. “But it didn’t include being a good dad to my kids or being too thoughtful about others. None of that would even enter my head as a thing to think about. To live this life filled with phenomena, I had to be the most selfish prick on the planet.”
Aside from his deep discourse with a chrome finished furnishing, the more universal experience of ageing has also affected the way Ric reflects on his life.
“I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would ever get old,” he said, when quizzed on the subject. “I just imagined one day I’d take things to an edge too far and ‘poof’ I’d be gone. So death in that sense never worried me. But experiencing the process of dying through ageing has been a real eye-popper for me. It’s my last big tube ride. I’m on it regardless of whether I’m happy or sad about it,” he says, with his excitable growl giving way to a more melancholic timbre.
“Parenting was a break I never worked out how to surf. I’m hoping before I die that my kids might understand how much love I have for them from that distant place where I sit with all my shortfalls.”
“My life is a testament to my script; ‘to go surfing through life, doing extreme things every day, to live my life like it was a movie and have this amazing story to tell’. Here I am now, sharing my story with you, at the end of it all. I’m almost at the lift door. And the best is yet to come with more and more people tapping into the core. Wherever I am, I’ll feel that for sure. You’ll be hearing me roar!” Silence falls on the phone line.
“Do you think you’ve got enough to go on there Luke?” chirps Wendy’s voice from the stillness.
“I think so,” I reply.
[‘The Epilogue To Immortality’ – appeared in Vol 255.] Subscribe to Wavelength now for more long-form stories featuring characters with more tales to tell than stickers on their boards.