A beachy upbringing is a wonderful gift, writes Elisabeth Easther.

I have admired a lot of lakes. I'm more than happy to raft down a raging river. In my time I've made use of all manner of creeks, streams and lagoons. And if someone wanted to give me a pool, I would say "yes please", although it'd have to be fairly small. I've even played in puddles, and rather recently too. But if I had to pick my ideal body of water — to play favourites with fluids — it's the ocean that floats my boat.

And I mean a proper bona fide beach where the sea pounds down and you're always slightly on guard. Not to say harbours aren't fun, but I'm not that keen on wading for days when the variations of the tides aren't on my side. For me it's the proper sea with its waves and its will. I like a boisterous character. Although I can also thoroughly enjoy a calm sea because, even when it's making out like it's a millpond, you still know that at its heart, the ocean refuses to be told what to do.

Te Arai beach. Photo / Getty Images
Te Arai beach. Photo / Getty Images

Beaches have been the backdrop to many of my life's happiest memories. Romance seems to gravitate towards the coast — although that said, you know when something's over by the sea.

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The sea is also helpful for reminding us of our place in the universe, how tiny we are and how big it is. Sometimes, when I'm swimming, I imagine the water that holds me might also have touched the coastlines of countries I've loved. Or countries I've yet to explore.

And no, I don't think about all the people who've peed in it. That said, I'd also be perfectly happy, for the rest of my life, if I explored only New Zealand beaches — after all, we do have 15,000km of coastline.

I love how kids can play at the beach for days with no actual toys. Sure you can take a ball or a bat, or a frisbee but you can also just take sunscreen, a snack and a towel and spend hours perusing rock pools and shallows, paddling, exploring the shore. If you ask me, the beach is like one big theme park. And it's free.

On Waitangi Day this year, it dawned on me how grateful I am to my parents for giving me such a beachy upbringing. I am so glad to know the ocean and feel confident in it — that is such a wonderful gift.

And I thought this most sincerely while surfing recently at Te Arai Point — I'm not very good at surfing, but I enjoy it — and this thought most probably occurred because that morning, at 4am, my father died.

As you can imagine I was not yet a mess. More like numb. Lost. Full of woe that over time will find its way to the surface. Having learnt of my loss, a very kind friend, my son's father, insisted I get out of the house — and into the surf. I'm not sure why, but I tried to insist I needed to stay home, by myself, and do the laundry. But he insisted more insistently that I put on my togs while he waxed my board.

Michael Easther with his grandsons at Whangamata. Photo / Elisabeth Easther
Michael Easther with his grandsons at Whangamata. Photo / Elisabeth Easther

Off we drove — my son, his father and me — and what a fine decision that was.

For starters, it was the most beautiful day. And tears and seawater are very similar, so that dealt with the old "dry your eyes" nonsense. The waves were just right for someone of my limited skill and, while my heart was full of unrealised sadness, to be in that ocean, looking out to the islands and the horizon beyond, to see my son catching epic waves and to catch a few myself, I couldn't imagine a better way to ease myself into the awfulness of being an orphan. And yes, I know, I'm a grown up, but it hurts all the same.

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So there I was, on my $120 secondhand board, in that glittering Pacific Ocean, focused not so much on what I'd lost, but what I'd gained. I could see my father in my mind's eye, his faded blue wetsuit, pulling in the kontiki he'd made, boogie boarding, proudly catching fish, snorkelling and trying to start the old outboard motor before the waves turned the dinghy around. So much of my childhood was spent at the sea.

Elisabeth Easther's son Theo enjoying the beaches of the Far North.
Elisabeth Easther's son Theo enjoying the beaches of the Far North.

And as I paddled out through those waves, I kept coming back to a feeling of gratitude at having been indoctrinated as a baby into loving the ocean. And how grateful I was to my son's father for having the good sense to take me to the deep blue sea on what otherwise would have been an unbearable day.