Shane’s golden ageing with surfing
WORDS: John McJannett PHOTOGRAPHY John McJannett
At 71 years of age, Shane ‘The Doc’ Dorney is one of a rapidly growing band of Baby Boomers enjoying the pleasures of surfing well into their twilight years.
SHANE ‘The Doc’ Dorney is one of many of his generation who has balanced the joy of nearly 60 years of riding a board with life’s challenges of growing up, studying, maintaining a professional career and raising a family.
Now easing into life’s golden years after travelling to a wide variety of surf spots in several countries, Shane, 71, can still enjoy what the ocean has to offer ‘back home’ thanks to a healthy lifestyle combined with ease of travelling and improved surfboard technology.
The story of his surfing journey is a fascinating reflection of the era in which he was raised and of a generation that has worked hard and taken advantage of opportunities that have presented along the way.
The 1960s in Australia was a boom era for surfing. Surfboards became more accessible, surf shops sprang up around the country, the first surf movies were released, surf music was played on the airwaves and people began to realise the health and fitness benefits of balancing the pressures of work and family life with an outdoor activity that fitted the Australian culture right down to the ground.
Shane’s lifetime of surfing began at a very early age in the chilly waters of south-east Tasmania at a location where his father, the renowned Architect Esmond Dorney, had designed and built a ‘family shack’. It was located high on the hilltop, overlooking the surf locations of Park Beach and Carlton River, a 30-minute drive from the city of Hobart. The ‘family shack’ remains in the family to this day, albeit refurbished.
“I had been watching some of the older guys out on their boards and I just tried to copy what they were doing. It was a time before the coming of wetsuits, so it was board shorts in summer and we added footy jumpers in the colder months. There were no leg ropes back then so if you lost your board you swam.”
It was the summer of 1964 when Shane had managed to save enough money to be able to buy his first board. In doing so, he graduated from his 1957 model Coolite to a 9-foot 6-inch McDonagh single fin for the equivalent of $64 today.
“I was really excited finally getting my first board. Everything was so much faster than the coolite,” Shane says. “I had been watching some of the older guys out on their boards and I just tried to copy what they were doing. It was a time before the coming of wetsuits, so it was board shorts in summer and we added footy jumpers in the colder months. There were no leg ropes back then so if you lost your board you swam.”
All this in ocean waters that reach a maximum temperature of around 18 degrees Celsius in summer. Shane was fortunate to link with one of the real early pioneers of surfing in Tasmania, Bill Thwaites. Bill took the young Shane under his wing and ferried him to some of the many surf locations that dot the coastline of the island. Tasmania benefits from the fact that it is a small island and swells that generate from a number of directions culminate in waves on one of the coasts either as beach breaks or point surfs.
All through Shane’s high school years, it was customary for the family to head to the beach on Friday night and return to the city on Sunday night. On many occasions, Shane would jump into the back of one of his mates’ trusty Holden panel vans and head off to one of the many ‘secret spots’ further up Tasmania’s east coast.
“That era was such a great time to surf in Tassie. When the east coast was working we would head off for the weekend and we would often have to ask permission from the local farmer to drive across his property to reach the breaks. The one compulsory was that we shut the gates behind us so that the cows or the sheep didn’t get out.”
After graduating from the University of Tasmania’s Medical School in 1975, Shane spent time at the Royal Hobart Hospital before venturing north to work at Brisbane’s Princess Alexandra Hospital.
“I had a mate from Tassie who had moved to the Gold Coast in the early ‘70s so it was an easy fit to come down to the Coast in my free time. He had all the local knowledge necessary for us to be able to get to the right breaks at the right time and we didn’t waste a swell. We also enjoyed a few trips to Noosa during that time.”
Shane returned to Tasmania in early 1977 and for two years worked at an After Hours Medical Clinic in Hobart.
“I took the opportunity to work weekends at the clinic from Friday night until Sunday night. This was the highest paying hours to work. It gave me the opportunity to save a bit of money and five days a week to surf.”
The ‘70s were also an exciting and innovative time for surfers to travel overseas as more and more surf breaks were highlighted in surfing magazines and movies. So it was only natural for Shane to want to travel further afield and experience some of the surf breaks outside Australia. In early 1979, he and his wife headed off overseas. As was then customary for surfers from Down Under, the first stop was Bali. From there it was a boat trip to Singapore and then overland to London. The mandatory VW Kombi was purchased and then followed several months travelling and surfing in France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and down to Morocco.
“Once the children had grown up and left home we were able to structure the practice so that we had three holidays a year. The Kombi was continually upgraded and we would jump the ferry to the mainland and travel up the east coast, stopping at various surf breaks between Torquay and 1770.”
“For a young bloke and his lady from Tasmania, this was almost a surreal experience. We had an incredible time travelling down the beautiful coastlines of so many countries. I had some amazingly uncrowded great surfs at great locations and we made so many friends along the way. We had the wonderful opportunity of engaging with so many varied cultures along the way and as young adults who had spent most of their lives in Tasmania, we grew up pretty quickly.”
Shane and his wife then returned to London, sold the Kombi and flew to San Francisco. One of his mates had a car dealership in this city and hooked them up with a Dodge van. Then followed a sojourn south through Mexico down to Central America as far as Guatemala, again enjoying some of the world’s best surf breaks in some incredibly pristine locations.
“We eventually returned to San Francisco and one night we were watching TV when I just happened to see an advertisement for volunteer medical people to go to Cambodia. It was through the Bay Area Medical Team, which was a San Francisco Non-Government Organisation,” Shane says.
“At the time there was major conflict in Cambodia. The rather brutal Khymer Rouge had been in power in Cambodia for four years and at the time Vietnamese troops had invaded the country. So there were all these refugees streaming over the border in a rather shocking state of repair. I flew over there and ended up heading up the Paediatric hospital on the Thai border at a place called Aranyaprathet for six months. It was a bamboo and plastic hospital and we treated patients on stretchers on the ground.
“We were not in immediate danger but bullets did come through the hospital on a couple of occasions. Luckily no patients or medical staff were struck. We were looking after seriously sick patients and it was a horrifying, sad, fascinating and scary but very rewarding experience and gave me a totally new perspective on life.”
The Khmer Rouge government was overthrown in 1979 after a series of brutal and violent confrontations with the invading Vietnamese troops. It is reputed that hundreds of thousands were executed and millions of Cambodians were displaced during their reign.
Shane then returned to Tasmania via the Gold Coast. He undertook locum work for local doctors and was on the verge of setting up his own practice when he received a call from the Bay Area Medical Team. They sent out an SOS for him to help set up a hospital in Somalia, on the border with Ethiopia. At the time there was a famine in Somalia.
“We set up a hospital nearby the local river and our main role was educating the locals on basic health issues,” Shane says. “The people were very nomadic and used to hitch their tents onto the side of their camels. Fair to say that there were some issues as a consequence of them using the same river for washing as well as for a toilet.
The main sponsor of the Bay Area Medical Team was an oil-rich Texan and he flew in an enormous amount of medical supplies and the equipment necessary to set up a water purification plant.
“Having cured his son of a very severe case of viral gastroenteritis, we also received the utmost in co-operation of the local Governor. He assisted us with the supply of some earthmoving equipment and labour and we ended up building a dam. It was much less acute care than in Cambodia but equally satisfying to be able to make a positive difference to the health of the locals, particularly the children of the region. I was the only Aussie in both of the above medical teams and I was very proud to have done my little bit in those third world countries.”
After several months, Shane returned to Hobart and he and his brother set up a general medical practice in the Hobart suburb of Sandy Bay. They set up the practice on a share basis and agreed to each work part-time, sharing the workload and expenses. They were able to structure the working hours so that Shane would work Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoon and all day Friday.
“This gave me all day Saturday, Sunday and Monday as well as Tuesday and Wednesday morning to be able to surf when the swell was up. These hours provided me with a very good balance between the pressures of the medical practice and raising a family in what was a very normal suburban environment,” Shane says.
It was also during this time that Shane and his wife had two children and settled into family life and all of the responsibilities that go with it. They later divorced but each party fully played their respective part in ensuring their two children had a stable upbringing and opportunities to make their own way in life. Shane’s brother left the practice in 2002 and he continued to run the business with the support of his new partner, Mandy. Therein lies a very strong surfing connection as she is the mother of well-known Tasmanian big-wave charger Shaun Wallbank, who has made quite a name for himself taming Shipstern Bluff on some of its bigger days.
“Once the children had grown up and left home we were able to structure the practice so that we had three holidays a year. The Kombi was continually upgraded and we would jump the ferry to the mainland and travel up the east coast, stopping at various surf breaks between Torquay and 1770,” Shane says. “As I got a bit older the Tasmanian winters always seemed to get colder, so it was great to be able to head to the warmer waters of NSW and Queensland.”
Shane finally closed his practice in 2009 and transitioned into retirement by doing locums for local doctors. During his time in his medical practice, Shane always preached that prevention was better than cure. He always encouraged his patients to seek a balance in life. That balance included engaging in sensible levels of exercise in the outdoors combined with moderation in eating habits and the consumption of alcohol. Needless to say, he always attempted to lead by example. In 2010, he also seconded himself via an agency to complete short-term periods of medical work in the Immigration Detention Centres in Darwin and on Christmas Island.
“At the time I closed the practice, I wasn’t ready to finish work completely. I still felt that I had something to offer and the work for the Department of Immigration was both very challenging, full of variety and very rewarding. There were several occasions when I was required to be a medical escort for some people who were returned to their country of origin. During this time I travelled to such places as the Middle East, Sri Lanka, India and China and I managed to get a little bit of sightseeing in each country.”
As has been the case for most of his life, Shane also was afforded plenty of time to engage in his passion for surfing during this time in between periods of work. The arrival of Covid effectively put a stop to his work with the Department of Immigration and he has also withdrawn from completing locums for other doctors. Now fully retired and with the Kombi replaced by a modern home-on-wheels Mercedes model, Shane and his partner are looking forward to many more surf trips on his home island and on ‘the mainland’.
“There is always a challenge and a sense of accomplishment in getting good waves and a good workout in the surf is both a test of patience and very relaxing. Surfing is a great stress relief.”
So what does a man who has surfed for the better part of 60 years have to say about his life in the surf?
“Surfing has always been and always will be a huge part of my life. As those who surf know, surfing and spending time in the ocean waiting for that perfect wave offers a real variety of experiences,” Shane says. “There is always a challenge and a sense of accomplishment in getting good waves and a good workout in the surf is both a test of patience and very relaxing. Surfing is a great stress relief.
“I have formed some great friendships during my time surfing and I still have a small band of mates that paddle out with me from time to time. I have been extremely fortunate to have enjoyed surfing during a great era. These days there’s a surfboard to suit most shapes and sizes and the different surf breaks around the world have become so much more accessible. Travelling to surf breaks and experiencing them always comes with an enrichment of one’s life that is hard to rival. We are exposed to different lifestyles and cultures and along the way develop friendships with some amazing people.
“These days the surf is much more crowded than it was when I first hit the waves. But it is still a sport that both men and women of a variety of ages can enjoy equally In accordance with their own levels of commitment, interest and enjoyment. I am working on the theory that age does not have to be a defining factor as long as I keep myself fit and healthy.”