I knew it as “The Bower”, short for Fairy Bower, a right hand reef break off the headland just beyond the south end of Manly Beach in Sydney Australia. In days gone bye, as the story goes, the bush land trails there about was notorious as a meeting places for gays. But that is another story. The break was not often in good condition but when the swell was up and coming from the right direction it was a magnet for aspiring “hard men”. There were a number of ways to get to the break. You could walk the promenade from Manly beach to the Milk Bar mid-way between Manly and Shelley Beach and hop the sea wall to a convenient launching spot for the short paddle across the bay.. Alternatively one could drive to the side road that lead down to the Milk Bar and that adjacent launching spot. Because of the lack of parking that was not usually advised. The final route was to drive to the parking spot on the top of the Fairy Bower headland, unload your surf board and walk down through the bush or down by Shelley Beach to find a convenient launching spot at the base of the cliff. The surf was the stuff of legends. The take off spot was as close to the cliff as one dared to go. The idea was to jockey for the ideal take off spot, paddle in, drop down into a bottom turn, climb up the wave high enough to navigate around Surge Rock then settle in for The Race Track out into the channel. In days before leg leashes it was inevitable that at some time during the day you would take a tumble and have to swim out into the middle of channel to retrieve your surf board. It was always a little unsettling to look down as you swam over the reef and watched it drop away below you into the deep dark water of the channel. I often wondered who or what actually lived down there.
A lot depended on the tide and the direction of the swell to create a quality wave but when the quality arrived the spot had its legends and heroes. In the mid-1960s “Nipper” Williams, Glenn Ritchie and Robbie Lane were the acknowledged masters. There was one very famous photo of “Nipper” Williams taking off way “inside” and navigating around the top of Surge Rock. One day, in a monumental breach of surfing etiquette I made the mistake of “dropping in” on “Nipper” Williams as he came roaring out of the inside take off area. At the end of the ride he reminded me of my breach of etiquette. No harsh words, just a gentlemanly reminder to do the right thing in future. Those were kinder, gentler days and in modern times it might have lead to a punch up in the water or a later altercation on the beach. Over the years surfers started pushing the boundaries of what was possible by moving into more dangerous take off spots closer and closer to the cliff face. Warren Smith opened up one such spot that became known as Winky Pop. At the time we thought he was insane.
I did have one monumental day. I think it was an early morning session before heading off to work.The surf was up, way, way up. I drove to the Milk Bar and parked the car. There were lots of available parking spaces. That should have been my first clue. Even though it was very early in the day it was still unusual for so many parking spots to be available. I looked across the bay and it did look big. That should have been my second clue. I paddled across the bay and further and further out to what I assumed would be the take off spot. I was getting more nervous by the minute. The swell was absolutely massive. Probably fifteen foot plus and thick, thick, thick…….. and the roar of the breaking waves that filled the air was thunderous. Eventually, I realized I was the only surfer in the water and maybe there was reason for that. That was clue number three. In the past I had ridden beach breaks of over ten feet or so and I thought maybe I could handle this. But on reconsidering the situation I realized that this swell was way out of my league. If I got into trouble it would be big, big trouble and I was out here all alone. In the end I chickened out, counted my blessings and paddled back across the bay to the Milk Bar. I can’t remember if it was the same day, same weekend end or even the same storm swell but around that time there was a photo story in the local surf magazine of a big surf day at the Fairy Bower. It featured a photo of Billy Hannah racing across the bottom of a massive twenty foot face that hovered over him like the “hammer of doom”. He took a pounding and lost his board. It was last seen being swept out to sea. It was never recovered. For all we knew it could have ended up in New Zealand.
That was then and this is now. We are fifty years further on into April 2022 with big storm swells hitting the East Coast of Australia. There are many YouTube videos of a surf spot called Deadman’s at Manly Beach in Sydney Australia. I had never heard of this spot but after viewing the videos it became evident to my eyes this was the old surf spot I knew as The Fairy Bower. Somewhere along the way the prissy name had been replaced with the more threatening Deadman’s. Considering the size of the waves, “the do or die” take off spot right in front of the cliff it is a very apt name. Over the past fifty years big wave riding has evolved to the point where surfers are attacking giant swells in a manner that in former times would have been considered suicidal. This is a big wave surfing spot almost in the middle of big city suburbia that rivals some of the legendary big wave spots in Hawaii and California. Check out the following video of a big day at Deadman’s ………