As fields of interest that focus upon the body, surfing and disability have much in common. When these fields overlap in the realm of Australian literature, they reveal rich insights, challenging the stereotype of the bronzed surfer and illuminating how the disabled body re-envisions responses to a watery world.
Surfing is often celebrated for its physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual benefits. Surfers talk about these with gusto, extolling how they find surfing a way of connecting to their bodies and their selves through riding waves and immersing themselves in sea water.
Surfers with disability also find connectivity through their boards, and some describe it as a therapeutic practice of recovery and strength and confidence-building after injury or through challenging mental and emotional periods. These ideas drive events like the Disabled Surfers Association, the Australian Adaptive Surf Titles and World Adaptive Surfing Championships, as well as grassroots organisations like One Wave Is All It Takes, which focus on surfing’s potential to help with mental health.
At the same time, surfing, and surfing culture, can be the cause of all kinds of injuries – broken backs, torn tendons and muscles, fin cuts, head injuries, near drownings, shark attacks, as well as violence from other surfers amongst and out of the waves. These injuries can be disabling, and they reshape narratives about surfing in important ways.
While surfers talk about such benefits and pitfalls often amongst themselves, we were interested to explore how these ideas have appeared in Australian literature.
This list offers a compelling snapshot of how disability is represented in relation to surfing: as an enabling practice of self-exploration and knowledge, and as a root cause of disability itself. These works are not offered as a definitive guide to these ideas; rather, they hint at how disability and surfing have an important relationship to Australian life and culture.
Darren 'Daz' Longbottom was born to surf. The son of surfing pioneer and board-maker Rossco, and brother to legendary big-wave specialist Dylan, Daz paddled out with world champions from a young age. After the Longbottom brothers' first surf experiences in Cronulla, it was obvious they belonged in the waves alongside the very best in surfing. Dylan went on the road as a 'free surfer', while Daz pursued a career in the surf industry, learning all aspects of the trade and setting up a successful business. When Daz said goodbye to his wife and baby daughter to go on a surf trip with friends to the remote Mentawai Islands off Indonesia, it was the fulfilment of a long-held ambition. But he could never have foreseen just how difficult the road home would be, or how his life would be changed so profoundly. (From the publisher)
Beyond the Break explores perspectives of Australian surf culture and life life with a physical disability with arresting emotion and inspiring humour.
David 'Barney' Miller was one of the best surfers on the New South Wales mid-north coast. But when a workmate lost control of their car, Barney was trapped in the wreckage. Told he would never breathe independently or use his legs again, Barney refused to give in and defied the doctors' expectations. But he still wasn't able to walk. Barney plunged into depression. Then he met Kada, a beautiful girl from a country town who dreamed of becoming a singer. She didn't see his wheelchair, she saw the man he was. Barney saw everything Kada was and everything she could be. They fell in love. With Barney's support, Kada released her first album, and she was there to cheer Barney on as he claimed a gold medal at the World Adaptive Surfing Championships. Together they prove that anything is possible. (From the publisher)
The Essence of You and Me challenges perceptions of physical disability and gives an insight into the way that surfing is helping those living with disabilities to achieve more than they ever dreamed possible.
Once known as the girl they called 'Gidget', Layne Beachley has overcome a king tide of obstacles, from chronic fatigue and depression to debilitating injury and family tragedy. Winner of seven women's world titles, she's grown to become an icon in the male-dominated world of competitive surfing. Layne chronicles how she and her birth mother, Maggie, found each other twenty-seven years after her birth, their quest for reconciliation, and the dark secret of Maggie's past. The novel also reveals the story of Layne's relationship with Hawaiian big-wave rider Ken Bradshaw before finding true happiness with INXS rock star Kirk Pengilly. Powerful, poignant, and unforgettable, Layne Beachley's story is a testimony to the power of self-belief. (From the publisher)
Layne Beachley : Beneath the Waves traverses the role of physical and mental disability in the life of one of Australia's greatest surfers.
Michael Peterson, or MP as he is commonly known, ruled the surfing scene throughout the early to mid-1970s until developing paranoid schizophrenia. Left undiagnosed for years, MP despised the fame his surfing powers attracted, and he retreated into a world of hard drugs, fast cars, and shadows. Sean Doherty tells his story, covering MP's early life, his celebrated victories in surfing, his descent into the drugs scene, imprisonment and subsequent institutionalisation. MP : The Life of Michael Peterson is an amazing tale, finally sorting fact from fiction in the story of this mythic surfing legend. (From the publisher)
MP : The Life of Michael Peterson reveals, for the first time, the world of surf legend Michael Peterson and the mental illness that changed his life.
In the 1970s, 'MP' became the best surfer in the world. His rockstar looks matched rockstar habits, but he had pathological aversion to his rockstar fame. That MP died on the night of 10 August 1983, when his schizophrenia caught up with him. Emerging from the other side was Michael Peterson, a quiet, complex soul who lived with his mother and sat under a mango tree every morning, communing with the voices in his head. In 2004, Sean Doherty's bestselling biography laid Michael Peterson's incredible story bare. Over the years that followed, and especially after Michael's death in 2012, hundreds of people – family, friends, surf stars and complete strangers – contacted Doherty with stories never before shared. Stories that spoke of the man, not the legend. Now, Doherty has compiled these stories, completing the picture of one of surfing's most talented but tragic figures. (From the publisher)
In MP Untold: The Lost Stories of an Australian Surfing Legend, Sean Doherty uncovers the man beyond mental illness and surfing, while, at the same time, recognising their complicated presence in Michael Peterson's life.
Child star at sixteen, ranked third in the world at seventeen, winner of the Pipeline Masters at nineteen — Mark Occhilupo looked set to sweep all before him with a radical, spontaneous, irresistible brand of surfing. Yet, a spiralling descent into drug abuse and depression snuffed his flame out prematurely when he quit the pro tour at just twenty-two. Faltered comebacks, spectacular bursts of free-surfing, and manic breakdowns followed, as the surfing world watched a freakish talent self-combust. After years spent immobile and overweight on the couch, Occy eventually emerged from his cocoon, reborn and ready to tackle a whole new generation of surf stars. His celebrated comeback to win the world title in 1999, sixteen years after his career began, is a sporting fairytale without equal. (From the publisher)
In Occy, Mark Occhilupo and Tim Baker recount the complete, remarkable tale of a spectacular surfing career, being diagnosed and living with mental illness, and making the most of second chances.
Mick Fanning is young, but he's had many experiences that most of us never will. How does it feel to lose a brother? Win a world title? Rip your hamstring muscle clean off the bone? Weave through a zippering Superbank barrel for 20 or 30 seconds or paddle over the ledge at places like Pipeline and Teahupo? Have scoliosis so bad you can't get off the floor? Address the New South Wales state of origin team before a match, bowl to Matty Hayden, and have Dave Warner belt you for consecutive sixes? Mick tells his life story candidly—in turns funny, sensitive, thoughtful, self-deprecating — while providing intimate insights into the personal lessons gained along the way — with practical tips on surfing technique, fitness, nutrition, board design, travel, competitive strategies, and mental clarity. (From the publisher)
Mick Fanning : Surf for your Life tackles concepts of physical disability and surfing in the life-story of Australia's favourite 'shark-puncher' Mick Fanning.
Twins, Ben and Grace Walker, love surfing — growing up in a sleepy coastal town it was inevitable. Ben is the golden boy and, next to him, Grace has always felt like second best. Still, they always had surfing. Out together until the sun melted into the sea, the curl of waves against the shore matching the gentle inhale and exhale of their breathing as they wait for the next swell. Now, in their final year of school, the world beckons brimming with new possibility. But, when the unthinkable happens, Grace's world is changed forever and she struggles to find a place where she can breathe again. (From the publisher)
Breathing Under Water explores the pressures of mental illness, surf culture and growing-up in the lives of a few Australian teenagers on the cusp of adulthood.
Bloated and paranoid, former Australian surfing legend Dennis Keith is holed up in his mother's retirement village, shuffling to the shop for a Pine-Lime Splice every day, barely existing behind his aviator sunnies and crazy OCD rules, and trying not to think about the waves he'd made his own and the breaks he once ruled like a god. Years before, he'd been robbed of the world title that had his name on it — and then drugs, his brother, and the disappearance and murder of his girlfriend had done the rest. Out of the blue, a young would-be biographer comes knocking and stirs up memories Dennis thought he'd buried. It takes Dennis a while to realise that she's not there to write his story at all. The Life tells the story of former-world-champion Australian surfer, Dennis Keith, from inside the very heart of the fame and madness that is "The Life". (From the publisher)
Malcolm Knox's The Life : A Novel allows the reader a window into the mind of fictional surfing champion, Dennis, and the struggles of living with mental illness.
Mitch Davies' life is simple. All he wants to do is surf. Mornings are spent sitting out the back, on his board with his grandpa, Paul, a longboard champion of the 60's, and afternoons, in the back shed watching Paul shape surfboards for the locals. The future seems so clear — Mitch wants to be a surfing champion like Paul. But in Mitch's 17th year, Paul is diagnosed with leukaemia. Now, what once seemed certain becomes unclear and one white lie is all that is needed for Mitch to remain focused and achieve his dream. (From the publisher)
In White Lies, J.C. Burke captures the relationship between a grandfather and his grandson, their love of surfing, and the way terminal illness changes their lives forever.
Eleven-year-old Floaty-boy inhabits the murky, watery world of wagging school and illicit night surfing. He hovers on the edge; he is in between — not boy or man — and inhabits liminal spaces: the edge of the ocean when he body-surfs and the edges of a family that seems to be spinning out of control. Vulnerable, Floaty-boy is as prey to his altered dream-like perceptions of the world as he is to the sharks that cruise in the other world of down below. At the centre of Floaty-boy's universe is Adelaide — mother, wife, surfer, and breadwinner who holds not only her own family together but the knockabout cronies of her larrikin husband, the Old Man. Yet when her eldest son, Eddie, disappears, her family's world threatens to fall apart; her centre may not hold and Floaty-boy must find a way to cope. (From the publisher)
The Mindless Ferocity of Sharks subtly portrays life living with disability in the world of an 11-year-old body-surfing ocean-loving boy.
Nick is a talented surfer, eager for success and in need of money, but two obstacles stand in his way — his father, wheelchair bound after a surfing accident, and Nick's own fear of big wave surfing. Liquid Bridge is an epic tale of a young man's quest to master the ocean and face his ultimate challenge to ride the 70-foot big wave. (From the publisher)
Brian A. Williams tells a story of the physical and mental barriers of living with someone with a disability, fear of taking on the big waves, and a love of surfing that won't be quenched.
Bree ‘Breeze’ Delany never imagined her life could sink so deep. And all it had taken was one little word to drag Bree to the depths of this despair: cancer. For eight long months, she had battled through chemotherapy, radiation therapy and test after test after test. Her body had been pushed to its limit, suffering terrible side effects from the rigorous treatment. Too skinny, too pale, and without a stitch of hair on her body, she was left in a depression so deep and dark she feared she might never escape. Her best friend and the man she loved, Harper Somerville, was all it took to lift her from her depression. Taking a break from the ASP world tour, Harper strapped his surfboards to the roof of his jeep, dragged Bree from her bedroom and out into the crisp clean air of the Australian eastern coastline. Determined to show Breeze the beauty in life no matter how short or long it was, Harper takes Bree on the trip of a life time. (From the publisher)
Showing true passion for surf culture, Kirsty Dallas' Breeze of Life portrays a journey of living with physical and mental illness, finding true friendship, and falling deeply in love.
Bart Fletcher and Jack Chandra have always been best mates, surfing buddies, inseparable. So what's gone wrong? Why has Jack turned against Bart, attacked him and put the skids under his own life? Fifteen-year-old Bart has a lot on his plate — a blooming relationship with Kylie and an awareness that the mother who raised him single-handedly is falling in love. But despite his own problems, he's unwilling to let his best mate go. (From the publisher)
In his usual deft style, Peter Corris' Blood Brothers explores the complexities of mental health, surfing, and growing up as we follow the complicated friendship of Bart and Jack.
Baker Luke Henderson loves his job, and owning a bakery at Coogee Beach makes it even better. When he opens the shop before dawn, he hears the waves. When he walks along the beach after sunrise, he admires the surfers — one in particular: Cameron Brown. A chef and café owner, Cameron secretly watches Luke right back. When Luke proposes a business deal, Cameron seizes the chance to get close. But Cameron’s ideal man is physically perfect, and Luke’s awkward limp could be the flaw that fractures their romance. (From the publisher)
Whitewater negotiates the relationship between physical disability, surfing, and learning what is truly important in finding love.
If Michael Sweet thought his early teens were difficult he's in for a shock now he's eighteen and ready to start uni. The pressures of study, making new friends and moving into a co-ed college are only the beginning. When Michael sets out to woo the girl of his dreams he gets more than he bargained for. It makes dealing with his drop-kick father and the antics of his madcap surfer mate Angus seem a breeze. But life is about to dish up some surprises that help Michael meet the challenges head on. (From the publisher)
Sweet Guy features the world of surfing and learning to live with mental illness in this coming-of-age tale by Jared Thomas.
When his family first move to Margaret River in Western Australia, Matt is not happy. Sure, Margaret might have some of the best breaks in the country, but with his leg, what good was that to him? Alone at a new school with no friends and everyone staring at his leg, Matt feels like an outsider. Then he meets Brad. Brad is good at everything Matt wishes he could be good at — football, surfing, in fact all sports. He even has a secret hobby caring for and treating injured animals in an animal hospital he built himself. Matt thinks Brad is amazing, but Brad his own problems. The two boys quickly become friends and together they learn to overcome their weaknesses in this story of surfing, mateship, and rising up against the odds. (From the publisher)
Surf's Up moves beyond the world of surfing, portraying alienation and physical disability in the lives of children and illuminating how friendships can make all the difference.
Through the eyes of gentle giant Derrick, we join the crew of the Argo as they bump through the rugged waters of surfboat rowing, encountering wild boozers, yobbo pranksters, shipwrecks, giant waves, and sea monsters — all in their quest for the fabled gold medal. Alternatively taunted and ignored by his peers, Derrick is taken under the wing of the erratic ex-ironman, Jason. But their friendship undergoes irreversible changes as adversity and waves pound the crew; the Argo begins to crack at the seams, and our heroes find themselves sinking into a squabbling sea of physical pain, drugs, and sexual obsession. (From the publisher)
Tony McGowan delves into the world of Sydney's beaches in the late 1980s, surf culture, and mental illness in his debut novel Crew.
Seventeen-year-old Matt "Owl" Owen is living in the heyday between school and the rest of his life. He has his friends, the beach, and the surf — and the big event on his calendar is a date with Hayley Churchill, an absolute goddess. When she asked him to take her to Stink's eighteenth birthday, Owl thought he'd die. Is it possible his best friend's sister has finally come to her senses, or is Owl just putting himself on?
It's supposed to be the best summer of his life, a final hurrah before Owl and his buddies are forced to grow up and start the next phase of life, but he and his surfing crew are about to get dragged kicking and screaming into the adult world — and nothing will ever be the same again. (From the publisher)
Last Wave follows surf-loving Owl as he grows to live with his disability, the fast-approaching world of adulthood, and the consequences of a joyride that changed his life.
'My dead friend is sending me postcards. It's like a voice from hell.'
Goog's best mate, Castro, dies tragically and unexpectedly; a week later, the postcards start. One a month — Indonesian Breaks, steep peaks over sharp coral. All signed: Castro. Castro vanished into the Southern Ocean, but his body was never found. So, Goog flies north, chasing the ghost of his dead friend. He teams up with Niagara — a young American hunting his own illusions — and together they set off on a wild, gritty, surf odyssey. But are they actually at the mercy of an unseen puppet master? And what will they find in the surreal shadow-lands of Indonesia? (From the publisher)
Giving careful glimpses into mental illness, surfing, and Indonesian culture, Indo Dreaming documents a young man's journey through Indonesia as he tries to explain the tragic death of his fellow surfing friend in Neil Grant's fascinating story.
Mark is a big wave surfer. He dreams of being the best. Richie, Mark's best mate, shares his love of big wave surfing but has his own ambitions. A carpet layer by day, Richie dreams of becoming a MMA Cage-Fighting Champion. Both are fearless, living life on the edge, daring each other to surf bigger waves, party harder, take greater risks. But when their adrenalin-seeking antics & hardened partying turns sour, it sets in motion a dramatic and life-changing series of events that threatens to derail everything they have worked so hard for. In an instant, Mark's Big Wave surfing career is in tatters & Richie is facing a jail term. But for these two friends, giving up is not an option. And their unwavering friendship gives them the courage to battle their demons, rise up from their troubled past & conquer their fears. (From the producers)
Fighting Fear follows the friendship of Mark and Richie as they come to terms with physical disability, have the courage to take second chances and prove that, sometimes, one good friendship can change your life.
17-year-old Jess Laing has grown up surfing with, and competing against, her two friends Nikki van Dijk and India Payne. They’re all sponsored, surf the same breaks and live within 10 minutes of each other. The girls are all different in their own ways, but one thing’s for sure, they all love the same thing. Tragedy strikes when Jess is badly injured and everything has to change. Her long-dreamed-of-trip to Oahu's famous North Shore is replaced with surgery, recovery, and rehab. Will her love of surfing pull her through or is her first love destined to break her heart? (From the producers)
First Love is a film about dealing with physical illness and injury, friendship, and believing in yourself enough to following your dreams.
When surf-crazy Brandon throws a surf mental he is sentenced to 'helping' in a home for the mentally disabled. Enter two of the home's people, Trevor and Adrian. The two men soon realise that Brandon is their fresh ticket to a fun getaway. On a day trip to the beach, they meet a mysterious waitress turned hitch-hiker called Jo. Things turn south when the unlikely crew encounter gangsters at the beach and an accidental murder results. Danger becomes a sharp reality and, if they want to live, they'll have to stay under the radar. (From the producers)
Under the Radar is dark comedy film documenting the antics of four very different people and exploring elements of physical illness and disability in the climate of surfing and gang culture.
Writing the Waves was compiled in response to works in both the Writing Disability in Australia and Waves of Fiction research exhibitions. We gratefully acknowledge all authors, their works, publishers, and producers. We would also like to thank all those who contributed to this project, particularly:
Dr Jessica White | Writing Disability in Australia Project Lead:
Dr Jessica White is an ARC DECRA Postdoctoral Research Fellow at The University of Queensland, where she is writing an ecobiography of 19th century botanist Georgiana Molloy. She is the author of A Curious Intimacy (Penguin/Viking 2007) and Entitlement (Penguin/Viking 2012), and her short fiction, essays, and poetry have won awards and shortlistings and appeared in a wide range of literary journals. Jessica is also the recipient of funding and residencies from Arts Queensland and the Australia Council for the Arts. She has been severely-to-profoundly deaf since age four.
Dr Rebecca Olive | Waves of Fiction Project Lead:
Rebecca Olive is a Lecturer in the School of Human Movement & Nutrition Sciences at The University of Queensland. She has been researching surfing for over 10 years, with a focus on surfing in everyday life and culture. Her scholarship is published across cultural studies, gender studies, sport sociology, media studies, and education, and she has been a consistent contributor to surf media, including as a contributing editor to Kurungabaa: A Journal of Literature, History and Ideas from the Sea.
Acacia Pohlner | Writing New Waves Research Assistant:
Acacia Pohlner is an undergraduate student at The University of Queensland completing her final year of a dual degree in Communication and Arts. She is majoring in Public Relations, Writing and Literature. Through her internship with AustLit, she is working as a research assistant across several projects. In her role as research assistant, Acacia is working to build and refine the database, index new works, and source and compile further information.
Header Image: The Manneporte (Etretat), Claude Monet, 1883, source.
Introduction Image: Nine Mile Beach Looking North from Totara, William Francis Herring, 1928, source.
Image 1: Northeaster, Winslow Homer, 1895; reworked 1901, source.
Image 2: Moonlight, Wood Island Light, Winslow Homer, 1894, source.
Image 3: Kynance, John Brett, 1888, source.
Image 4: Sunset on the Sea, John Frederick Kensett, 1872, source.
Image 5: View of the Sea, Normandy, Alexandre Desgoffe, 1805-1882, source.
Image 6: Cannon Rock, Winslow Homer, 1895, source.
Image 7: The Much Resounding Sea, Thomas Moran, 1884, source.
Image 8: Newport Rocks, John Frederick Kensett , 1872, source.
Image 9: Lair of the Sea Serpent, Elihu Vedder, 1899, source.
Image 10: In Strange Seas, George Willoughby Maynard, 1889, source.
Image 11: Maine Coast, Winslow Homer, 1896, source.
Image 12: Marine, The Waterspout, Gustave Courbet, 1870, source.
Image 13: Coast Scene, Isle of Shoals, Childe Hassam, 1901, source.
Image Credits Image: Surf, Isle of Shoals, Childe Hassam, 1913, source.
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Caddick, N., Smith, B., & Phoenix, C. (2015). The effects of surfing and the natural environment on the well-being of combat veterans. Qualitative Health Research, 25(1), 76-86.
Clapham, E. D., Armitano, C. N., Lamont, L. S., & Audette, J. G. (2014). The ocean as a unique therapeutic environment: Developing a surfing program. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, 85(4), 8-14.
Freeman, J. P., Bird, S. P., & Sheppard, J. (2013). Surfing performance, injuries and the use of the y balance test. Journal of Australian Strength & Conditioning, 21(2), 32-39.
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Lopes, J. T. (2015). Adapted Surfing as a tool to promote inclusion and rising disability awareness in Portugal. Journal of Sport for Development, 3(5), 4-10.
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Moore, A. M., Clapham, E. D., & Deeney, T. A. (2018). Parents’ perspectives on surf therapy for children with disabilities. International Journal of Disability, Development and Education, 65(3), 304-317.
Pikora, T. J., Braham, R., & Mills, C. (2012). The epidemiology of injury among surfers, kite surfers and personal watercraft riders: wind and waves. Epidemiology of injury in adventure and extreme sports 58, 80-97.
Stuhl, A., & Porter, H. (2015). Riding the waves: Therapeutic surfing to improve social skills for children with autism. Therapeutic Recreation Journal, 49(3), 253-256.
Taylor, D. M., Bennett, D., Carter, M., Garewal, D., & Finch, C. F. (2004). Acute injury and chronic disability resulting from surfboard riding. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 7(4), 429-437.
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