- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
A mongrel sprints insanely across the sand. A man wearing a small skullcap sticks out his hairy leg and trips the dog. His teammates giggle nervously as they windmill their arms to loosen their muscles. Then they reach back to roll up their swim trunks into G-strings, exposing their buttocks to the crowd. All is silent now, except for the 30-knot wind blowing from the sea.
A whistle is blown. Four wooden boats, each attended by a crew of five, are pushed across the sand and into shallow water. A man in white shorts, his face smeared with protective cream, stands a few yards offshore and raises a rifle to the sky. The world's most spectacular spectator sport is about to begin.
Bang! Each team leaps into a boat. Four men strain mightily at the oars, rowing blindly into the heaving sea at their backs, while the fifth, the sweep, screams, "I want guts now, meboys! Pull!" The first wave pitches one boat's bow to two o'clock high, then smacks it down into the trough. The next wave spins the boat sideways and fills it with water. The third wave, smelling rout, sends this boat crashing into another one. Spray flies, oars fly, bodies fly. The crowd yells, "Whooooah!"
The fourth wave chucks one of the 26-foot, 400-pound boats like a spear. A crewman staggers to his feet in the foaming chaos, and his sweep hollers, "You all right?" The boatie's head rolls sideways, and he crumples into the water.
The proceedings are taking on the look of a bungled beach invasion. The injured man's teammates pick him up and rush him to the sand. He's semiconscious; his eyes and tongue flutter wildly. An ambulance rolls onto the beach, a stretcher is unfolded, a doctor presses an oxygen' mask to the boatie's face. A fat red ball has risen on his forehead, and blood seeps from the back of his skull. "Fractured skull," says someone. A teammate kneels next to him and sobs. Beyond this alarming scene, the two boats left in the race clear the breakers and tear their oars into the royal blue of the Pacific Ocean.
One more competitor will be carted off to the hospital during this day's surf carnival at Kawana Waters, on the eastern coast of Australia, 60 miles north of Brisbane. At the end of one race, a gasping boatie says to a visitor, "We come to row on the surf—not on a river, mate. You blokes don't do this in America?"
No, mate, we don't. Somehow, in our quest for new Saturday afternoon landfill for television, we've missed the boat.
But the Australians sure haven't. From October through Easter each year, on the beaches that necklace their continent, thousands of lifesavers lash on funny club caps and go to war. They compete in events that are rough, tough—and wonderfully imaginative. In one, a guy swims out to sea and pretends to drown, and his five teammates are graded on how skillfully they save him. In another, competitors lie flat on their stomachs on the sand and, at the blast of a whistle, jump to their feet, spin 180 degrees, race 20 meters and dive for plastic batons protruding from the beach. There is always one fewer baton than there are participants, and so the field is whittled down until, in the final skirmish, two sand-covered creatures battle for the last baton.
The surf-ski competitors paddle long, narrow, colorful craft, using foot pedals attached to a rudder to steer. Swimmers bolt from a starting line on the beach, high-step through the breakers and then swim freestyle toward the open sea. Surfboard paddlers kneel on a board and scoop both hands in unison to propel themselves through the water. The Iron-men, the glamour boys of the sport, combine variations of those three events—surf-ski, swimming and surfboard paddling—with a dash along the shore. The beach sprinters, the sport's pretty boys, race barefoot across the sand, and the boaties, its madmen, plow 400 to 500 meters out to sea and back. The belt racers reenact the old style of rescue: Four men play out line from a reel on the beach that is attached by a thick belt to a swimming lifesaver.
This is no sport for dabblers. No one may compete unless he or she belongs to a surf club, is a certified lifesaver and patrols the beaches for a required number of hours each year—without pay. The best competitors train as many as 6� hours a day to prepare for the weekend surf carnivals that culminate in the national championships, this year from Feb. 28 to March 3, in which about 4,500 take part. They compete on seas that might be lullabies one day, man-eaters the next. While in some events they may finish without their equipment intact, if they finish without their caps tied beneath their chins, they are disqualified.