It’s funny how the ocean calls out to you. It’s not about checking wave cams on the Internet, or reading the surf forecast. It’s a feeling in your bones and blood, something like the way dogs sense earthquakes.

It was the summer of 2002. The sun was of a certain heat and density, the cloudless sky was of a pinprickingly rich cerulean, the air had a vague effervescence, carrying whiffs of whatever it was to his shitty little flat in Labrador, a redneck neighbourhood above Surfers Paradise, the only place he could afford on his meagre cabbie’s pay.

He’d worked a long shift the night before, he’d been at the books all morning right through lunch, his sixth sense that wind, tide and swell were delivering arias in the form of waves – he felt no guilt in bailing on his plans to hit Woolworths and ducking out for a surf instead.

He loaded his six-foot-one Mad Dog thruster into his white Holden and drove south along the Gold Coast Highway in the pre-rush-hour traffic, past Jupiter’s Casino and its monorail, past Rubber Jungle Wetsuits, past Miami High with its name spelled out on the side of the hill like some C-grade version of the Hollywood sign.

At the surf club he got his first glimpse of the point. Whitewash exploded up around the cove; a bottle-green wall shimmered past the pool. He passed Montezuma’s where many a Top 16 surfer got toasted on margaritas, passed the Burleigh Beach Towers with its tennis court and steaming Jacuzzi, passed the patch of grass that was Ground Zero for the man-on-man format that they’d stolen off him. His eyes were half on the brake lights in front of him, half on the set of waves screaming down the point. You could always tell the surfers from the non-surfers based on whether they slowed down, how neurotically they craned their necks at the sea. A wave doubled up and heaved, the spinning tube ejaculating a ghostly spit. It enraptured Peter, washed him with adrenalin. He was so glued to the surf that he nearly rear-ended the old Kingswood in front of him.

He parked in his usual spot under the pines, hopped out, shimmied into his wetsuit top. He ran around to the passenger side, opened the door and extracted his board. Another set caught his eye, this one slightly bigger. On the first wave a goofy foot pumped heartily but the curl dashed past him, leaving an empty blue wall that seemed to almost wink at Peter. A second wave roped, a third wave twirled.

From the trunk, Peter grabbed a bar of wax and rubbed it in circles across the deck, paying close attention to the tail, to the dents that marked his front foot, to the nose where after all these years he still loved to hang five. He tossed the wax back into the boot, locked the doors and stashed his key under the rear bumper.

He trotted up the grassy footpath, down the trail lined with pandanus, and across the black boulders already scorching in the 10 a.m. sun.

Burleigh boulders are the size of kegs and potentially leg-snapping when wet, but Peter knew them like he knew the furniture in his Wharf Road home; his feet had practically shaped themselves to this familiar dance, toes clasping ridges and puckers with koala grip. A wave heaved and shot foam up to his knees. Peter hardly noticed. His eyes were fixed on a head-high barrel corkscrewing down the point.

At the jump rock he paused, watched the water suck away, revealing shiny black rocks, darting crabs, wafts of brine, a primordial hiss. An exhalation later the ocean surged up to his knees. He lurched forward, mounted his board and stroked for the line-up.

It wasn’t epic Burleigh but it was pretty damn good, especially considering there were only twenty or so guys out. Peter slipped into his rhythm the way he always did. He waited for sets, read the angle and the taper and what he liked to think of as the wave’s visage, and picked the ones that seemed to call out to him. He drew his trademark lines, off the bottom and off the top, vertical bashes in the soft sections, lateral swooping arcs in the zippy bits, power surfing, albeit at a middle-age tempo.

Surfing at age fifty-two was something he was still trying to work out. Yes, it was humbling: the weaker paddling arms, the slower reflexes, the stuttering cutbacks, the gap between how he dreamed riding waves and how he actually rode them widening by the year. A single hour in the surf exhausted him, demanded afternoon naps – when did that start? Then there were the young blokes who literally paddled circles around him, flew above the lip. Clearly they had no sense of history.

But there was a chop wood/carry water simplicity to surfing that put things in perspective. He did some of his best thinking in the water. Something about the vastness, the exultant blue, the impregnable horizon. And the afterglow, those little cells and fibres and nerve endings so grateful for their daily fix. His life was a towering, teetering house of cards and at the bottom, wedged just so, was surfing.

Peter caught a slightly overhead wave from way out the back. It went fat as it rounded the cove. He kickstalled at the top, skittered and zagged, dropped to the bottom and swooped. He climbed the gentle crumble of lip, floated over it, then darted off the bottom and across the steepening face. But the wave sectioned fast, too fast. He kicked out over the back.

His face slapped the water. His left ear seemed to tear open, a deafening hum. The power was preternatural; it belonged to Pipeline, Mavericks.

Behind it he saw a second wave. It was a tad smaller but it bent into a sort of saddle, that wonderful half-pipe effect that occurs during short interval swells.

He dropped to prone, sprint-paddled for the shoulder, stroked up the face sideways. As the crest redirected him he popped to his feet. He plunged down the face in a low crouch and sprung into a hard bottom turn. His lip bash was nearly vertical, punctuated with a faint arch of the back. His board stayed right under him as, mid-face, he dashed for the shoulder. The wall was velvety, delicious. For a suspended moment he just stood there, rapt, the nose of his board streaking past a thousand diamonds, the blinding white crest feathering. The wave mowed fast. He was nearing the inside section, where the sandbar sucks nearly dry and the swell bends off towards Surfers Paradise, the pocket like a slingshot. Subtly, with a thrust of his leading shoulder and a torque of the ball of his front foot, he pumped. The whoosh was mesmerizing. The curtain dumped over his back. The wall seemed to almost grow, sand clouds in its trough.

And then it was zippering away from him. He did what he always did on this inside section. He waited for the lip to nearly clock him, and with a matador’s flourish, straightened out. Only this time it did clock him, square on the right side of his head, with brutal force. His face slapped the water. His left ear seemed to tear open, a deafening hum. The power was preternatural; it belonged to Pipeline, Mavericks. The turbulence rag-dolled him, pushed him deeper and deeper. Where was the bottom? Where was the surface? He tumbled and grasped and needed desperately to breathe. He felt himself losing consciousness, saw powdery white light, let go.

Then he broke the surface, gasped for air.

He coughed. Spume blinded and burned. His ear rang. His head swayed. He waved his arms, looked for fellow surfers, but there was no one. He turned around and there was another wave, about to collapse on his head. He lunged for his board, death gripped the rails, bounced shoreward. Whitewater deposited him on the sand. For a long while he just lay there lifeless.

He nearly stepped on a pair of women’s shorts someone had left behind. They were pink with white stripes. He tried them on. They fit.

‘This feeling is never to be forgotten,’ says Westerly. ‘Peter felt terribly disoriented, his equilibrium was shot, blood was pouring out of his ears, he thought he was dead.’

This accident, which left Peter with a concussion and perforated eardrum, ‘pretty much fried his brain’. Westerly says that there had been many instances when Peter felt like he was in the wrong body, but this loosened something, something irreversible. Peter started staying up into the wee hours, listening to classical music, feeling things shift inside him. One night he watched a documentary about albatrosses. He was transfixed, particularly by the part about the lone albatross out at sea for days, away from its family.

The documentary finished right around midnight. Peter got into his car and drove down to the beach he’d been frequenting, a secluded, wooded area near Sea World in Southport. He parked along the side of the road, crossed the dunes and walked along the shoreline, feet sloshing in the wet sand, surges of water licking his toes.

He felt light and bubbly. He stripped off everything but his underpants, which he hoisted up his hips because he wanted to feel like a woman. He felt a rhythm swelling in his body and he followed it, an adagio here, an arabesque there, a graceful flapping of the arms into a series of twirls. He danced and danced and danced.

‘It was like Moses parting the sea. He started dancing like a ballerina, like the Bolshoi Ballet.’ Westerly glows as she tells me this. I can almost see him twirling across the jewel of her eye. She sniffles. ‘That’s when it happened.’

A month or so later he was coming out of the surf at this very same beach, ambling across the squeaky sand, when he nearly stepped on a pair of women’s shorts someone had left behind. They were pink with white stripes. He tried them on. They fit.

Daily visits to thrift stores followed. She found herself searching solely the women’s racks. She became what Westerly calls a ‘phantom of the night’, staying up till dawn, blaring Tchaikovsky, trying on her new outfits in the full-length mirror, striking poses, dancing, making friends with the new sensations that coursed through her.

‘The creation of Westerly was totally unplanned and evolved under extreme sensitivities and vulnerabilities derived from sheer exhaustion,’ says Westerly. ‘Raw is a word that minimizes the feeling. Rebirth is the accurate way to put it. Restoration was/ is the creation from rebirth.’

There have been cases of a similar ilk. After a head injury as a toddler, Alonzo Clemons of Colorado discovered an ability to sculpt animals to a remarkably lifelike degree using solely his hands and fingernails. Orlando Serrell of Virginia could tell the day of the week of any given date after being hit in the head by a baseball at age ten. Anthony Cicoria, a 62-year-old orthopaedic surgeon from New York, got struck by lightning. Suddenly he could play the piano to concert standard. But these ‘acquired savants’ discovered hidden talents, not new identities.

For a long time it stayed in the closet, or, more precisely, in Westerly’s home or on the beach in the middle of the night. In the mirror she saw what looked like a narrowing of the hips. Her legs, cleanly shaven, were beautiful woman’s legs.

One day she was at an old bookshop near her home looking for a particular doorstop of a law treatise. After searching the shelves for a long while she finally found it. Next to it was a biography on Marilyn Monroe.

‘I started reading and went, “Oh my God, we’re exactly the same!” I forgot the law book, bought the Marilyn biography, and within a couple of days I’d read dozens of them and realized how much she and Peter had in common. They both suffered panic attacks, both hated to be alone, both had terrible low self-esteem, both studied method acting, both loved Brando and Gable, both spent two weeks in a mental institution, both tried LSD at exactly the same time. I realized Marilyn was deep inside me, almost guiding the creation of Westerly. I realized I was developing quite unintentionally into the image of Marilyn.’

Marilyn took up residence in Westerly’s head. Not only did she consume her thoughts, but she kept popping up, as if trying to communicate with Westerly. Turn on the TV and there she is, in The Misfits, a movie Peter never much cared for when he saw it as a boy. Go into the thrift store, flip through old records and there she is, in classic Marilyn giggle, hot breath almost palpable, on the cover of 24 Great Songs. Take Zac to get his haircut and taped to the tatted, nose-ringed hairstylist’s mirror
is the iconic Seven Year Itch image. There were sly winks as well. Marilyn died at age thirty-six. As far as Westerly saw it, that was the age that Peter died as well (by then his surfing career had declared bankruptcy). When Westerly so happened to look at the odometer on her car it read 100,036. On the Pacific Highway, headed up to Brisbane for a doctor’s appointment, she got stuck behind a sea-foam-and-white ’62 EK Holden driving absurdly slow in the fast lane. 1962 was the year Marilyn died. And guess the last two digits of the number plate: 36.

Marilyn was elsewhere when Westerly started thinking about a name for this girl emerging inside her. She saw phoenixes rising from ashes, caterpillars morphing into butterflies, space shuttles jettisoning their boosters. But it was the wind that burnished the waves velvety smooth, the wind that had summoned Peter to attention his entire surfing life, that won out. It rolled off the tongue. It had the ring of a Hollywood starlet. Only later, long after the name ‘Westerly Windina’ had stuck, did she realize that WW was MM turned upside down.

For years Peter Drouyn and his long-time friend Mark Bennett, a doctor, would meet up at 5 a.m. for a coffee then a surf. It was one of those rituals that cut the sting out of this getting-old business. Mark was a good man, broader-minded than the rest of these Gold Coast philistines.

She didn’t over-think it. She did it in the same fanciful way that she danced down the beach in the middle of the night, or recited lines from Bus Stop in the mirror.

It had the ring of a Hollywood Starlet. Only later, long after the name ‘Westerly Windina’ had stuck, did she realize that WW was MM turned upside down.

She got up at four, dressed in her Westerly girly stuff, drove to the little café in Mermaid Beach where Mark and she would meet. She waited in her car, anxious. When Mark pulled into the parking lot she got out, opened his passenger door and plopped herself right next to him.

Soft peach-coloured light hit their faces. Mark wore board shorts, a striped T-shirt and a totally baffled expression on his face. Before he could say anything Westerly spoke up.

‘It’s me, Mark. I’m a female. I’m a female.’

‘Is that you, Peter?’ He meant it sincerely, he was that shocked.

‘No, it’s not Peter. It’s sort of – I’m me, I’m a new person who’s come from Peter. You can still see me as Peter for a little while if you want. But, Mark, I’ve completely changed. I am not the person that you knew. I’m really happy in my new form.’

Westerly told Mark that she herself had had a hard time believing it at first, but that she was here, and there was no going back. Mark just stared at her, speechless.

‘It’s all good, Mark. Don’t worry. Peter hasn’t gone crazy. I’m more female than any female that you will meet in your life. And I’ll keep changing. I’ll keep transforming. I’m like a chameleon.’

Westerly tells me that it took a while, but Mark got used to Westerly, embraced her even. They kept up their weekly surfing ritual, but at off-the-beaten-path spots. Mark was married. He didn’t want it getting around that he was having an affair with this platinum-blonde surfer chick.

Over time Westerly observed a shift in the way Mark related to his new female friend. He opened doors for her, allowed himself to be more vulnerable. ‘It was this subtle shift, Westerly pulling out the more honest man in Mark,’ says WW.

In 2007 Westerly received an invitation in the mail for the Stubbies Pro thirty-year reunion. A tremor of her old self leaped from somewhere deep in her stomach, but before it could take root, it was replaced by a much grander thought: Could there be a more perfect stage to unleash the miracle of Westerly Windina?

Sleepless at 3 a.m., triumphant movie soundtracks on the CD player, she pondered outfits. Many nights she got up, slipped into a gown, dress, skirt, pair of shoes, and posed in the mirror. This went on for weeks leading up to the big night.

She settled on an outfit that was elegant but formal. She wore her favourite black-and-white Chanel ballet flats, a black slit skirt, a white frilly blouse and a cherry-red bolero jacket, with matching lipstick, her freshly blonded hair in loose curls, like those Burleigh barrels that rifle down the point.

On the evening of the Stubbies Pro reunion she started getting ready about two hours before Mark Bennett, her date for the evening (he didn’t know that’s what he was), was scheduled to pick her up. When the knock came at 7 p.m. she felt a squeal of butterflies. She opened the door. Mark stood there in jeans and a striped collar T-shirt, salt-and-pepper hair brushed back. He looked less surprised than scared.

‘No,’ he said, wagging his head from side to side. ‘No. Definitely not.’

It was far from the response that Westerly had in mind, but over a beer in her kitchenette Mark made a convincing argument as to why this was a bad idea.

She didn’t lose all of her girly things, but she toned it way, way down. Hoop earrings, silver sandals, pencil-line eyebrows – that was as much as she gave them that night. It was still enough to shake ’em up. Most of the guys were too uncomfortable to ask, they just shook her hand, treated her like a bloke, perhaps even more so, to overcompensate. The only one to outright confront Westerly was Randy Rarick, and there was no use trying to explain. She took the slithery approach, she told him what Peter would have told him: that it was an act, a way to get attention.

She came out on the Today Tonight show. 14 January 2008. She wore an orange high-cut swimsuit in one interview, and a red fifties-style sweater with lots of gold chunky jewellery in another.

‘What’s become of Peter Drouyn?’ asked the host.

‘Well, he’s somewhere in there,’ said Westerly. ‘He’s not dead. But he’s not a he or he’s not there any more. He’s gone.’

She was poised and dignified. The reporter continually referred to her as ‘he’. She said just enough to get her point across, but also to keep them guessing, to plant a little seed in their heads. The papers rang the next day. Neighbours stared. People at Australia Fair, the local shopping centre, did double takes.