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Surfers farewell a gentle giant of the waves

Surfers gather for a paddle out at Wategos in memory of surfer ‘Big John’. Photo supplied.

Steve Hansen

A member of our surfing community has died. It came as a shock. No-one in my circle had known he was sick, but none of us had been very close to him.

Big John, John Keevers, was a larger-than-life character. Literally and figuratively. He was a huge bloke, a big fella. He had been in our area longer than anyone else, born and raised here, and had lived in a shack in bushland where now massive mansions look down on everyone.

Memorial at Wategos in memory of surfer ‘Big John’. Photo supplied.

He paddled out every morning like clockwork. You would see him clamber out of his old car, put his board on his head, and stroll calmly out to the furthest point, where he’d put out into the frontline of the ocean, paddle casually with one arm, and, taking his time, get to his feet and ride away into the twilight. Not such bad going at the age of 71. You can only hope.

So we got word he passed away, and six of us resolved to do a dawn paddle-out in his honour and memory. There was no swell predicted at all, so we prepared to float out into flat water, watch the sunrise and commiserate over the passing of a kind man.

Surfers gather in memory of surfer ‘Big John’. Photo supplied.

At the first glimmer of daylight we got suited up and headed out. We walked over the long sandy beach towards that streak of orange signalling the day was going to happen for us, if not for the old fella. In honour of the big man some of us put our boards on our heads and carried them like he used to, old style.

A couple of others tried and twisted their necks, sprained their shoulders and put their backs out. A small downpayment of minor inconvenience, poured into the vast ocean of human suffering.

When we reached the furthest point of the headland where the land meets the sea, where the great swells come roaring in out of the big void, and where the currents suck in and out of the bay, we waded out into the water.

To our surprise there actually was some swell, and, as we paddled onwards, we saw several peaks rise up out of the blue, breaking cleanly here and there. It would be an unexpected bonus.

The eastern sky in front of us was a hard, burning orange, topped with a vault of dark sky with a few stars here and there.

All of a sudden, as we had almost reached the bank we were aiming for, right in front of us, a dolphin leaped high out of the water, cut through the air in a graceful arc, and landed smoothly in a perfect motion. Its black silhouette was outlined crystal clear against the flaming orange background, and it looked for all the world as if it welcomed us and was inviting us to leap and surf and play along with it, celebrating life while mourning death.

Moments later a pod of three others turned up, one of them a baby. Life continues in spite of all obstacles laid in its path.

A bubbling rushing noise to our side and there were another two dolphins. A splash, and a tell-tale rising and falling of curved, shiny grey backs right in front of us, not two metres away, and there were another three.

We called out cautiously to each other, not wanting to scare them away. They weren’t put off, and kept on circling around us and diving along underneath us.

Surfers paddle out at Wategos in memory of surfer ‘Big John’. Photo supplied.

Where do surfers go when they die?

When a surfer dies, a dolphin will appear out of nowhere, and take him away to a place where the waves are always breaking cleanly, the sun always shines, and the water is always warm.

We got some huge drops there and then, massive eye-watering rides. We dedicated every single one of them to the memory of Big John.

A week later the surfing community came out in force to pay their respects. Out there, on the rolling waters of the open sea, we made a huge circle around John’s  widow, seated on a jetski.

As she poured the old man’s ashes out into the ocean, more than a hundred people threw salt water to the sky, clapped their hands, cheered and threw flowers in the water.


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5 responses to “Surfers farewell a gentle giant of the waves”

  1. Aren K says:

    Now that’s the Byron Bay we know – thanks guys – bye Big John xx

  2. nikki poulos says:

    I read this story and although I’m happy that you’ve taken the time and effort to honor John Keevers, it would’ve been nice if you had somebody who actually knew him and knew him well to write his story. And there were many who knew him well because John always made you feel welcome, he always took the time to make you feel special and he always engaged and connected from the heart, he made you laugh, and most of all John made sure that he knew who you were and that you knew who he was in return. That was the guy he was. John was a larger than life character but those who truly had the pleasure and blessing to know him, would describe him as tall and big, a tank of a guy, but more so a guy with a big warm hearted, cheeky and frisky personality, that stood out a mile before his actual physique did. John had massive shoulders that could hold you and the world up, and that’s where he held his wife and soulmate Possum… I was hurt to read that your author thought that a big belly was John’s defining characteristic. Sadly your author missed out on, obviously, the true essence of John. John was a true local; his ancestors were from country and he was born in a little wooden shack on the grass right in front of Rae’s. John was the undisputed King of the “Table of Knowledge” and after his daily sunrise surf would hold court all morning from his perch at the table, having fresh hot breakfast cooked by Possum, and entertaining all who emerged from their surf sessions or who just dropped by for a chat yet ended up hanging out for hours.
    I was there for John’s paddle out. I wasn’t going to miss my opportunity to say farewell to John as I never got to say goodbye in person. Not many of us did. The sea was rough, the swell big and wild, yet the 180 or so of us, ventured out to the open bay. Some took longer than others due to the conditions but we all finally made it. Serendipitously the seas calmed and a lull ensued. We were able to form a circle around Possum holding tight to Millsy riding on the back of the jet ski, where we all held hands; no mean feat for that many people… grinning at each other, feeling connected to the moment and to each other, and to big John. We threw our flowers as Possum gave his ashes back to the sea, we cheered and hollered to send his spirit on. Two whales joined us as well as our Brahminy kite flying overhead. We were all there to celebrate the man that was Big Johnny Keevers. Afterwards we all caught a wave for John, to honor the man that had made us all feel welcomed to the place that he was born. John’s spirit lives on through us our connection to him and our community. Bless you John…

  3. Brian Cronshaw says:

    I would like to see some photos of big john.
    I have been going to byron since 1962..
    I m about same age.. i would like to see if I reconise
    Him ..Brian

  4. Julie says:

    What a beautiful send off he was the funniest man ive met possum and john were so closei worked with possum for many years look after her she has a great family take one day at a time

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