Rae’s Wild Ride
To many from the east, he was known affectionately as ‘Fins First Rae’, a radical surfer who would take off with his board facing the wrong way and then whip through a daring 180-degree spin as he slid down the face and resumed his regular stance. Each time Rae pulled off his nifty reverse take-off he would light up with excitement, his zany grin a telling reminder that surfing was really about making your own fun.
Good friend Billy Kriketos recalls vividly the time in the late ‘80s when he shouted Rae a trip to Bali.
“When we got there, all he wanted to do was a spinner at Uluwatu. We were out at Inside Corner and it was solid. Sure enough, I looked over and there was Ray spinning down the face and then bottom turning into the tube.”
It was a bold move for a surfer to pull over the notoriously sharp and shallow reef at Ulu’s, and when the duo returned from Bali the story became part of Bondi surfing folklore.
Rae’s older brother, Harry, can also remember Rae pulling his dizzying, signature move in barrelling waves at Lennox Head, and on a heavy left reef called Big Pass when they travelled to Mauritius together in the ‘90s.
“He was one of those people who did things his own way, but whatever he did, he did well,” explains Harry, who is familiar to many as a celebrated Bondi Rescue lifeguard and local surfing legend.
While Harry channelled his energy into surfing, travelling and jazz music, Rae’s lust for life led him in other directions.
“He was a surfer and a biker,” explains Harry. “A bit of a rebel and a bit of a tear away.”
Many remember Rae roaring around the bends of Tamarama and Bronte on his treasured Honda Goldwing 750. The bullhorns mounted on the front of his sidecar always turned heads as Rae cut through an afternoon southerly with his head held high.
“We used to strap the boards to the bike and I’d jump in the sidecar, and we’d go hunting for waves on the northern beaches,” reflects Billy. “He was like my best mate, I learned a lot off him. Another time he grabbed a spear gun and said, ‘This is how you live off the land’. He swam straight out at South Bondi and caught us two fish.”
Asked to ponder the origins of Rae’s fierce spirit of individualism, Harry was quick to point out the influence of his parents.
“Mum was a ballroom dancer, dance teacher, and socialite while Dad (Harry senior) started the Surf Life Saving movement in Sri Lanka and travelled to the 1936 Berlin Olympics as part of the coaching staff for the Australian swim team.”
Representing Bondi Surf Club, Harry senior also won Australian championships in both teams and individual events. As a surfer he was dubbed ‘Relaxation’ because he had a knack for making it look easy when he rode the finless, fifteen-foot redwood boards that marked the origins of Bondi surfing.
However, while Harry senior may have been a kind of beachside superman, his second son Rae Nightingale was crippled by asthma in his early years. After learning to swim with his dad, Rae made it his mission to transform his body and became a fitness fanatic. He was an early embracer of the martial arts craze and was known to be lethal with the nunchakus.
“We had to stop him from using them inside because he took out too many light bulbs,” chuckles Harry.
Rae taught karate and also applied his fitness philosophy to his work as a gardener in Bronte Park.
“He always said don’t look at work as work because you’ll hate it,” remembers Billy. “He said if you look at it like exercise then you’ll enjoy keeping fit.”
It was an attitude that helped keep Rae in a job with Waverley Council for over two decades.
Many locals can remember walking past Rae as he ripped into his work in Bronte Park, always ready to greet you enthusiastically, flashing that broad grin and the wild eyes that never failed to lift your spirits.
When Rae recently passed, the world lost one of its most unique characters. He belonged to a time when people in the East celebrated eccentricities and quirks because it made it a more interesting place to live. Vale Rae Nightingale; here’s to a life ridden fins first and full-throttle.