It runs in his veins, this wild, wide blue ocean – and particularly the little stretch of the coast off Alexandra Headland.
Damian Coulter, 54, is synonymous with surfing off the Bluff, his distinct, elegant style on a longboard as poetic as it is textbook. Surfing, the ocean and the coastal stretch are his love, his joy and at the centre of his life.
Unusual in a community filled with people who have come to paradise from other places, Damian is a second-generation native of the Sunshine Coast.
Barry and Noela Coulter brought their firstborn child home from hospital in 1969 to their unit above Hayden Kenny’s shaping factory at Alexandra Headland, a space that now houses the iconic surf shop Beach Beat. Hayden and Faye Kenny lived next door and the ocean was the soundtrack of Damian’s childhood.
Damian was enrolled at Mooloolaba primary school just like his father had been and went to secondary school at Maroochydore State High. He has lived within walking distance of the salty fringe all his life, except for a brief period where he ventured to the Buderim hills. He considers his lifetime of living surfside as a matter of good luck as well as his clear choice.
A national longboard champion nine times over, Damian also has a loyal Instagram following, treating his followers to breathtaking imagery of the surf and landscape. He regularly gives followers a view from his board as he rides a particularly good wave or from his drone as it hovers off the rocky edge of the world.
Damian speaks of the Alex and Maroochy bite of coastline with something approaching reverence, taking seriously the responsibility of custodianship and urging caution and care in approaches to development.
“I feel really passionate about this part of the coast because it was where my mother and father surfed, and I was exposed to that from a tender age,” he says. “They started surfing at Alex in the 1960s when the biggest crowd might have been four people and people could leave their big balsa surfboards under the Alex trees for a whole week between surfs and no one would touch them.”
The pace of growth and development concern this ocean-loving local, who is an avid supporter of grassroots groups such as Beach Matters.
“I just feel that there is too much interference with Mother Nature and too much focus put on short-term fixes for erosion and the distribution of sand,” he says.
“I have seen photos of this place in the 1960s and ‘70s and there is all exposed rock here. But we know it comes back – it just doesn’t come back in a way that pleases the tourists, the sunbakers or in a timely way that draws the dollar. We need to work with what we have, not fight it and not put people first all the time. It makes me frustrated and at times a bit sad.”
Surfing is a whole family affair (every member of the Coulter family surfs), and Damian’s earliest memories include travelling the coast roads and watching his parents compete in longboard contests. Barry, now 79, was the holder of three Australian longboard titles in the early 1980s. Noela, now 74, also stood on the national podium. They still surf, something that Damian is particularly proud of.
After initially being more interested in swimming and athletics, Damian says surfing was probably always his destiny and appealed to his competitiveness and pursuit of the perfect ride.
“I started young and I was thrown into the fire – straight into Opens and competing against men,” he says. “I entered quite a few contests where I didn’t do that well, but that is how you learn. My father taught me a lot – he was a competitive animal at that time.”
Damian was soon in the world of legends, including Kingscliff’s Ray Gleave, who had been crowned world amateur champ and legendary Kirra surfer and shaper Wayne Deane. He held his own and then some, competing on the fierce pro longboard circuit for two years about 20 years ago, fully sponsored by Beach Beat.
“I always say a person can be like a world champion when they are free surfing because they surf so well but put a contest rashie on and you have 20 minutes to compete and it is a whole different story,” he says. “So many amazing surfers crumble under pressure. It is a game of patience, waiting for the right wave and then being able to make the most of it.”
Damian has nine national age division longboard titles to his name and is hungry to round that haul up to 10 when the time is right. Competition and surfing itself were rudely interrupted two years ago when he snapped his ACL with a simple slip of his foot.
“The torturous thing for me was that I was 52 at the time, and I was told they do not usually do ACL surgeries on people over 50. A surgeon instructed me to do four intense months of physio to try to build up the muscles around the ligament to see if I could get away without surgery. But it was still not quite right.”
Given Damian’s dedication and physicality, the surgeon agreed to operate, warning it may not be successful and that rehabilitation might take up to a year.
Damian could not work (he is a plumber) for four months, and even worse, there was no surfing in the rehab period. Approaching it like a training challenge, Damian impressed his doctor and was allowed to get back into the water an impressive eight and a half months after the knee reconstruction.
He is back surfing and since his forced benching, does not take a single day he is able to get out on the ocean for granted. He says he feels fitter than ever and has never felt more passionate about looking after his beloved beach.
“This place is magical, it really is – especially when the surf is pumping. It is special. It is my local break – where I learnt to surf, where my parents surfed.
“I call the ocean the best medicine in the world. Just being there is therapeutic. It is meditation. It is healing. You don’t have to surf in it to get that. You can just look at it and get a bit of that.
“It is spiritual; it is good for you. Especially here at Alexandra Headland and especially at sunrise and sunset in winter, it is just magical.”