Strap your boards on to the roof racks of intrigue, people, because you’re in for a ride. This is a story about surfing and how waves can break or take you forward. It is also a story of resilience, reinvention and connection with the Earth.
I meet Jeff Yann on my way back from Queensland. He has just returned from Noosa and saying goodbye to a couple of old buddies who are dying (opposite page, bottom). Original pioneer surfers from Santa Barbara who came to Australia to surf in the late ‘60s to avoid the Vietnam War draft. Bob Cooper — prostate cancer; Richie West — a tumor in the brain.
Final goodbyes are never easy. Old friends and partners. Parents who leave behind memories brimming with love, laughter and in some cases almost unbearable pain. Jeff has had more than his fair share of heartbreak, although growing up in Frankston with his two sisters and parents wasn’t much different from any regular Peninsula boy. He explains.
“Life was good in Frankston back then. I was part of a group of surfers as I got older who followed the waves. Big wave surfers like Mike Davis from Santa Cruz. Legendary surfboard shaper Michael Cundith. We just kept travelling. I’ll never forget seeing (Great Train Robber) Ronnie Biggs (opposite page, top) on a beach in Ipanema in Rio in his budgie smugglers checking us out, or getting chased out of town by 10 Brazilian surfers. I went to a place in Nigeria where the women thought I was a ghost because they’d never seen a white person before. I started surfing at Gunnamatta with the Reef Board Riders and haven’t stopped.” That’s what he was doing in Israel while looking at ways to propagate soil. “The surfing tribe is universal. Once you’ve connected, you’ve made a friend for life.” And Jeff’s needed them.
In September 2003, 70-year-old Marea Yann was found dead in an armchair by her gardener. Her son-in-law was charged with the murder but was later acquitted. Jeff continues. “It changed our lives for ever. Trauma like this pulls a family apart. One day Mum was here and then she wasn’t. We are still fighting it.” Jeff split from his first wife after 20 years of marriage and having two beautiful girls, and he lost his second partner in a car crash. He was also the victim of a home invasion where he was “beaten to a pulp”. He continues. “You know, the guy who did it died in a motorbike accident later. That’s karma for you.”
I ask how this landscape gardener now living in Mount Martha has coped with the hand he’s been dealt. “Life is like one big wave. You can go with it or drown. It’s that simple.” He laughs. “Surfing has been the one thing that has kept me going.”
Ebb and flow, folks, ebb and flow.