Real Life

Kiwi great-grandmother Nancy Meherne is still catching waves at 92

After buying her boy a board, there was no way the mum was going to be left on the beach

By Fleur Guthrie
One of the first things Nancy Meherne did after moving to Christchurch as a bright-eyed 17-year-old in the 1940s was catch a tram to Sumner Beach.
She fell in love the minute she got over the Heathcote Bridge and quickly made plans to one day live there.
"I thought it was so beautiful!" recalls the spry 92-year-old. "I saw all this wonderful water and all those waves – and I saw surfboards for the first time!"
The seaside suburb has since provided the backdrop to many of Nancy's greatest moments in life – getting engaged to her late husband Doug, taking the schoolchildren she taught for their first swims and discovering an enduring passion for riding the waves.
Up until recently, Nancy was still donning a short-sleeved wetsuit and heading out into the surf – quite possibly earning her the title of the oldest surfer in New Zealand.
'I'm still trying to do all the things I used to do as a busy woman'
She has never learnt to stand up, but loves catching waves on her '70s foam board, which once belonged to her late son Patrick.
"It's been used so much, the blue and red pattern has worn off," she laughs. "When I started in my forties, not many other women my age were doing it. We bought our sons' surfboards when they were nine and 10 because we only lived a block away from the beach.
"Patrick got better and better at it and entered surfing competitions. One day, he said to me, 'Mum, you shouldn't be in the kitchen. You should be down surfing and learning to stand up. You can't lie down all the time.' But I love lying down and coming in on the tide.
"I wade out until I'm about waist-deep and wait for the perfect wave – the seventh wave is often a very good one – and jump on. I love it when you get up to speed and float into shore on the wave.
At Akaroa Harbour, aged 27
"My husband Doug enjoyed it too, but he stopped surfing in his eighties. I've slowed down a bit lately though – I'll be 93 in August – and I'm still trying to do all the things I used to do as
a busy woman."
Born in Wellington in 1929, at the beginning of the Great Depression, Nancy moved with her parents and two older brothers to Ohakune when she was a baby.
It wasn't until her dad, a railways worker, got transferred to Whanganui in 1935 that Nancy, aged six, saw the ocean for the first time. She can still remember how shocked she was by its vastness. "It was so big! I just thought water came in small quantities," chuckles Nancy. "Every suburb in Whanganui also had a good swimming pool, so we all learnt to swim and you never heard of drownings back then.
"My brothers and I used to bike five miles to Castlecliff Beach, and once we helped pull a woman in who was yelling, 'Help! Save me!', because we were getting very good at swimming."
Nancy with (from left) brothers Colin and Doug, and parents Bill and Nell Beck
In her early twenties, after training and working as a schoolteacher, Nancy left New Zealand by ship to study and work in England and Europe. Her travels also took her to India, Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon and Pakistan, where she taught at a school for three months.
Coincidentally, the very day she sailed away from Aotearoa was the exact day UK-born Doug, her husband-to-be, arrived in New Zealand to work as a gardener in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. The pair finally met in 1956 after Nancy arrived back on home soil. He'd begun going to Quaker meetings in Christchurch, which her mother attended.
One day, after they'd been courting for a while, "He took me down to Sumner Beach, where we sat on the edge of a little gate," recalls Nancy. "Then he knelt down and said he wanted to marry me. I was in love."
Lunch on the beach with her Sumner School students in the '80s
The couple were married for 60 years before Doug passed away in 2016, aged 94. They had two children, Francie and Terry, before adopting Patrick.
She is now a grandmother of seven and a great-grandmother of four. Both her own children, and those she's taught for 40 years at primary and music schools, have brought immeasurable joy to the retiree. Her teaching philosophy has always been similar to her life philosophy – you have to make it fun.
"I often took some of my school children, who had never been to a beach before, to Sumner," she remembers.
"One little girl aged about eight, whose father was in prison, got straight in the water with her clothes on and she wouldn't come out! Then we went up the hill to have lunch at my place. We did all sorts of things like that and then I'd get them to write about it. "I just love being outside, amongst nature," she enthuses. "I feel grateful for each day."
  • undefined: Fleur Guthrie

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