Originally published in Great Ocean Quarterly
Brighton Jetty – situated some 15 kilometres south-west of Adelaide – was first built in 1886 in a T shape. Storms over the years, however, threatened its alphabetical stability. Sporadic batterings gradually fashioned it into an “L” until May 1994 when the Gulf St Vincent was throttled by what Bodhi would’ve described as the 50-year storm. I still remember mum driving my sisters and me home from school that afternoon (I was seven and three-quarters) and her telling us how it had been obliterated. She drove slowly along the Esplanade (like countless other cars in front of and behind us) where, for the first time, I saw waves not only smashing into the jetty but completely washing over the top of it. Decaying timber splayed out at right angles. Supporting beams stood with nothing atop them, confused about what to do next. I remember it being strangely and intensely sunny – the tail end of the storm – and it feeling as if Armageddon had arrived. If the Brighton Jetty could be destroyed nothing was safe.
But the most startling thing about the jetty’s collapse came days later. My mum came to pick me up from a mate’s house after school and began talking with his mum. Naturally the jetty came into conversation and my mate’s mum mentioned that the dreadlocked teenage son of a family friend had been out alongside the jetty with a bunch of mates the same day it collapsed, surfing the menacing lumps of ocean the tempest had produced. I couldn’t fathom it. These guys had tamed the same storm that reduced the most iconic structure in my town to splinters. They were gods. My mate and I took up surfing not long after.
The new jetty was opened on June 1, 1996 and it’s 1.8 metres higher than the old one. Even as a nine-year-old I was swept up in the community unrest about the jetty’s appearance – 200 metres of concrete with a giant Telstra tower plonked on the end. But now I can’t imagine it without the “nautically themed” eyesore. The new lights were also a major boon. Combined with the streetlights along the foreshore and a full moon you can push surf sessions into the 9.30pm zone before you inevitably lose your nerve in the inky soup and catch a wave in. Even the useless “wind chimes” and colourful, yet dated sail installations have grown on me over the years and made the Brighton Jetty a point of difference to the bountiful others along Adelaide’s metro coast.
It’s a funny thing being a “Brighton local”. For one, the beach is basically flat 360 days a year courtesy of Kangaroo Island blocking the path of powerful and angry southern swells from making it into the Gulf. There’s a running joke between Adelaide surfers about how much better off we’d all be if someone would just blow up KI. The joke is told with varying degrees of seriousness, depending on how keen the surfer. When huge low-pressure systems huff 30-knot-plus south-westerlies into the gulf for a few days straight, however, the Brighton Stormy roars to life. It rarely gets above head-high and the waves are nothing like the blue, ruler-straight hollow waves we used to draw on our schoolbooks (in fact they’re the opposite – sewer brown, erratic and mushy), but on its day the Stormy can throw up some reeling sectiony peaks out the back that wind their way in to a board-snapping shorebreak.
I’ve surfed many distant shores since learning to ride waves alongside the jetty, but the Brighton Stormy still gives me the most kicks. The novelty of surfing two minutes from my front door – the norm in many parts of Australia’s East Coast – can be stormy, ice-cream-headachey bliss for the lowly surf-starved Adelaide waverider, where an hour’s drive south to Victor Harbor is a weekly necessity to get our fill. Memorable sessions include an after-school paddle the night our family headed to the hospital to say goodbye to my dying grandfather when I was 14 – still the best Brighton shorey I’ve ever seen – and Christmas Day a few years earlier, where I was chuffed to find a find a strangely sucky lefthander out the back on the jetty’s northern side. Ditching my bike in the rocks I got the wave to myself for an hour before the crowds, and some good mates, rocked up. It was the best Christmas ever.
While the jetty’s waters are one of the few places in SA I rarely think about sharks, I’m still never completely at ease. On March 18, 1926 a swimming teacher named Primrose “Kitty” Whyte was killed by a great white shark next to the jetty, while her horrified students and two young daughters watched on from above. Some folks’ll tell you she jumped from the jetty straight into the waiting jaws of the beast, but that sounds a bit rich if you ask me. Ironically Kitty had saved the life of a drowning swimmer at the same beach seven years earlier, earning her a Grand Diploma from the local Royal Lifesaving Association. She was buried in St Judes Cemetery, a kilometre away at the other end of Jetty Road, where my grandfather and the great Arctic Explorer Douglas Mawson also lie. A fountain erected in memory of Kitty by the women of Brighton in 1926 still sits at the foot of the jetty.
A guy once pulled a knife on a friend and me, not far from the fountain. He was a jaded old primary school chum of my friend and he waved the blade menacingly over the railings – with mock or sincere zeal we didn’t stay to find out. I’ve seen fights and blood spilled on sweaty summer nights when boozed up fellas from all over arrive en masse in their Commodores to lap up the serenity. And beer. Another friend of mine was once shoved off his skateboard by a snarling, bearded bikie, who then launched the board off the jetty, yelling, “Watch where you’re f#@ing going!” My mate had skated past about a metre away from the surly guy’s young son, which apparently is the threshold for sweet bikie justice. Another time I rocked up to the jetty on a scorching summer’s day to find a huge pack crowded around the Telstra tower, looking out to the glassy horizon. I gleaned from the growing crowd that a drunk had jumped off the jetty and started swimming for the horizon when at some point (around the time he disappeared) someone called the cops. Whispers revealed the guy had been both dumped by his girlfriend and lost his job that day, so had decided to get blind drunk and swim off into the sunset to die (so the story went). When the cops eventually grabbed him and dragged him back to shore on a rubber ducky, handcuffed and belligerent, I was mortified to discover it was a guy who lived across the road from me. I didn’t make eye contact with him for about six months after. We get all sorts down there in summer. Though it’s not unexpected with million-dollar sunsets that’d rival even the most hyped of Indo beaches.
The jetty has been the scene for many a horrific pre-season football run – the beauty of the orange sun dipping below the Norfolk Island Pines and horizon completely at odds with the gut-busting long-distance slog and achy shins. It was also the scene of my first ANZAC Day Dawn Service. Hungover and bleary-eyed, it was where I first realised the gravity of those soldiers’ sacrifice, despite my throbbing headache. The arch of remembrance that sits afoot the jetty contains the names of the 114 folks from the area who served our country in World War I.
The first girl I ever loved dumped me at the foot of the jetty. Thankfully the sun had almost completely set when she told me she didn’t see it working, so no one had to see me blinking back the tears on the walk home. We eventually rekindled the romance only for her to dump me again a year later (this time not at the jetty). I’ve also found love – well, not of the enduring kind – at the jetty’s base. I was 19 and my dog, Freckles, took a liking to a black Labrador owned by an olive-skinned older woman, who subsequently took a liking to me (and I her). She asked me for coffee on Jetty Road and, well, I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. The jetty is a magical place all right.
While it mightn’t have the rustic charm of your classic small-town hardwood timber number, the Brighton Jetty is a pretty special place. If you’re ever down in its neck of the woods, make sure to take a stroll along its mystical length. Just remember to always give the bikies a wide berth.