Digging St Kilda Beach Volleyball

I did not expect to take up beach volleyball at the age of fifty-one. A friend, Barbara, was doing a secondment in New Zealand, living on Papamoa Beach where Frank and I visited her. One day while she was at work we walked the sixteen kilometre length of the beach to hike up Mount Maunganui. Descending the Mount, there at its foot on the beach was Barbara, as arranged. We watched her play what she described as “social beach volleyball”.

I didn’t play that day, not that I wanted to. I was impressed, though, by the casual, unpretentious nature of the sport. A referee kept score in rather haphazard fashion, but it wasn’t as if anybody cared. Players sipped beer between points and laughed at their own foibles. It reminded of the American company softball game, something I have missed since moving to Australia.

Some months later, Barbara had moved back to Melbourne. She invited us – well, ordered us, really – to play on her team, the Misfits, in a weekly fixture on St Kilda Beach. Now, we Misfits are finishing up our third season with Republica Beach Volleyball (http://www.vicbeach.com.au/centres/republica-st-kilda-beach.php).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt is “Ubersocial beach volleyball”, with four-to-a-side – not the serious game you may have seen involving actual athletes, two-to-a-side. Many of the teams bring along some beer or wine to enjoy during play. Certainly the Misfits do. The City of Port Phillip Council recently considered a new rule banning alcohol on the beach, and the local opposition that arose in response was such that they voted it down 6 to 1 for fear they’d get lynched. There is something quintessentially Australian about downing a two-litre cask of wine whilst playing beach volleyball in the setting sun.

Afterwards, the sponsor (Republica restaurant) provides each team a pizza and each player a drink. This is an ingenious strategy, as it draws the dozens of us into their establishment. The Misfits regularly drop many more dollars in there, and I imagine other teams do likewise.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Misfits are pretty terrible, but since we hold our alcohol better than most teams, we tend to do better as the evening wears on. Even so, we lose about two games for each win. With most sports, I would find this intolerable, as I am a bad winner, but a worse loser. Indeed, I generally avoid competitive sports altogether, preferring to run or cycle on my own. But for some reason, as long as we win one game a night, I’m OK with beach volleyball. Maybe it’s the wine. Maybe I just don’t take it seriously. Maybe it’s the sincerely accepting, laid-back, hugs-and-high-fives subculture.

At first blush one could be forgiven for viewing beach volleyball’s subculture as the landlubber equivalent of surfer-dude culture. Admittedly, what I know about surfer-dude subculture would fit on a postage stamp, but I think it is safe to say that proposing such an equivalence raises the hackles of both parties. While they share a certain sandy demeanour, beach volleyball culture is, I think, more competitive, team-oriented, and courteous, in an earthy-crunchy sort of way.

Those who are good at beach volleyball really want to win. At that level, there are only two to a team, but they are teams nonetheless. That the teams are pairs of same-sex athletes in minimal attire that refer to each other as “partners”, well, that’s kind of attractive if you asked me. And there are rules. The rules for our league are posted at http://www.republica.net.au/volleyball, and when they are ignored, which is always, nobody gets too upset.

Oddly, there is no slang name for beach volleyballers. Suggestions, please. They grimace when called “volleyballers”, which elicits visions of geeks in gym shorts on parquet floors. I have yet to test “ballers”, but it is surely worth a try.

I call those who are good at beach volleyball “referees”. For what must be token compensation they sacrifice their weekday twilight time to judge the ins-and-outs and keep score of our drunken escapades. Undoubtedly it is their love of the game that motivates them, as out of the three dozen or so referees we’ve had, only one has been a complete dickhead, which is well below the one-in-five average amongst the general population.

Near as I can count, over our three years there have been about twenty Misfits, aged 16 to 54, with the average age hovering around forty. This goes some way to explain why we are pretty terrible, as most of our competition is considerably younger and certainly spryer.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI am far from a natural beach volleyballer. Beach volleyball favours the lanky, lithe and limber. I am none of these things. I possess the flexibility of a two-by-four, and the legs of a corgi. As a young man I described myself as five-foot-ten-and-a-half, but these days life has ground me down to about five-nine, and even that is in man inches, which are considerably smaller than woman inches.

As the senior Misfit I take perverse pride in asserting that I am the oldest person in the entire competition. I cannot verify whether this is true, despite having tried, so until proven wrong I will stick to my guns. Early on I realised I might be the eldest of the entire tribe, so I mentioned this to my teammates, who started to keep an eye out for anybody who might be older.

In our third week, at the beer-and-pizza gathering that follows play, I noticed a gentleman behind us that I thought might pre-date me. I said quietly to our table of six “Hey, do you think the bearded guy is older than me?” The entire table turned as one to gawk at the man, not a meter from us, who suddenly felt very self-conscious. “Oh, great, that was subtle, guys – now I HAVE to go say something to the poor fellow…”

I turned to him, explaining “We’re just trying to figure out whether I’m the oldest player out there – and I thought there was a chance you might be older.”

He was none too pleased. “How old are you?” he asked.

“Fifty-one.” I replied, as I was at the time.

“You win, mate. I’m forty-two.” He guzzled half a pint of beer, rose from the table and left. Haven’t seen him since. I’ve decided to stop telling people that I think they look older than I do.

2015-01-08 20.57.03The seldom charming Prince Charles described St Kilda Beach in 1970 as “diluted sewage. They have long since removed the loo that enabled one to quite literally shit in the bay at the end of St Kilda Pier, yet the image endures. A boss of mine once described the beach as “crappy”, a view common to those who expect a beach to offer idyllic solitude in undulating dunes of white sand with crashing surf. St Kilda Beach is often crowded, has no dunes, more cigarette butts than shells, and surf only when there’s a howling storm, which, being in Melbourne, is unreasonably often. Yet, if like me your view is that a beach is a place to run, walk, cycle, skateboard, roller skate, swim, sun bake, eat, drink, be merry, see friends, see penguins, fly kites, kite board, or play beach volleyball, it is quite possibly the world’s best beach.

2014-08-23 14.02.20Last winter the City of Port Phillip exceeded all my expectations of municipal government (that is, rubbish collection) by offering free beach volleyball lessons as part of a “Winter Leisure & Lifestyle Program”. Several of us Misfits partook, honing our limited skills through the drizzly damp of six Melbourne winter Saturdays. In my experience, such training exercises suck the fun out any activity to arm one with game theory instantly forgotten in the heat of actual competition. At the least, in this case I was certain that the lack of alcohol would convert enjoyment into endurance. But to my surprise, I enjoyed myself, something of a testimony to the “referees” who taught us. Importantly, I learned that cotton socks disintegrate when worn on cold sand.

The lessons were such a success that the city offered a summer series, the last of which I completed yesterday. I can’t say I am getting any better. At least I now know what I am doing wrong, or more accurately, what I am incapable of doing. Generally, what I lack in physical ability I compensate for with a willingness to cheat, but I have been unable to find an effective way to cheat at beach volleyball, what with the rules being largely optional.

The Misfits third season is coming to a close next week, just another melancholy reminder of summer’s end. We’re looking for an alternative winter activity – Dragon Boat Racing and Frisbee Golf have been proposed. I don’t see myself taking up Dragon Boat Racing and Frisbee Golf at the age of fifty-four.

Then again…


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