A HUGE crowd of family and friends gathered on Tathra Beach Monday morning to pay tribute to Christine Armstrong.
Chris was taken by a shark in a tragic incident on April 3 that left her Tathra Surf Life Saving Club colleagues, locals and indeed the entire country shocked.
Her husband Rob was one of the first to urge those grieving not to abandon the water because of the tragedy and after Monday’s memorial service on the sand, again led a group into the waves to pay tribute to his loving and loved wife.
While the memorial service was understandably filled with grief and tears, there were also moments of humour and light – as those close to Chris would attest as more than fitting.
There were also countless smiling faces emerging from the water after the early morning tribute swim – where a circle of swimmers threw flowers into the water in memory of Chris.
Earlier, Rob spoke to the crowd after arriving at the beach to the refrains of Percy Sledge’s When a Man Loves a Woman.
“If you love unconditionally, the strength it gives you conquers everything,” he said of lessons learned from Chris.
“Chris is up there and so happy to see you all here, but she is also upset because she sees your pain and she can’t come down and hug you all – so we’ll have to do it for her!”
Instead of a minute’s silence, Rob urged everyone to give the people next to them “orang-utan” hugs “from Chris”.
Nina and Amber Levido performed an a-capella song they wrote specifically for the day – When a Storm Comes – that brought many to tears with its raw emotion.
Nina also later joined with Renia Korvin – and the entire crowd - for a rendition of Amazing Grace.
Rob’s sister read a prayer for Chris, saying her death “had come so quickly and caught us all unprepared”, but was also thankful for the blessing all who knew Chris felt.
“Comfort and strengthen us in the memories we have today – and help us keep these memories alive,” she said.
Judy and Tony Rettke – presidents of the Tathra Surf Life Saving Club and Life Saving NSW Far South Coast branch respectively – also paid tribute to their long-time friend and mentor.
They highlighted Chris and Rob’s extensive involvement in the training of lifesavers, but also of their love of the water and the regular morning swim to the Tathra Wharf.
“There’s not a better start to the day than the 8am swim to the wharf then coffee on canvas chairs listening to the waves underneath the wharf,” Tony said.
Tony also shared a Winston Churchill quote he thought fitting for Chris.
“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
Tathra SLSC vice-president Jennifer O’Leary urged people not to think “poor Chris, what a terrible way to die”, but to realise she died quickly in a place in which she felt a lot of love and peace.
To follow on from the earlier mass hug, those at the memorial service were also asked to grab their loved ones for a “squashed nose kiss” evident in many of Rob and Chris’s treasured family photos, where “you can’t get close enough”, which drew plenty of giggles and smiles.
As family members and fellow early morning swimmers from “The Pod” shared stories and memories of Chris, the sun began to beat down on Tathra Beach and a couple of surfers took to the waves.
Chris was remembered as a “fearless, kind, passionate person full of love – and humour”.
Pod member Gillian recalled “not only my friend, but my ocean mother”.
“Wherever she is I hope they have great coffee – preferably in a mug”.
Patrick said he always felt physically and mentally energised after his morning swims, but also welcomed with their shared connection with the ocean.
Another of the swimmers, Mary, said every time she goes out for a swim, “Chris will be with me”.
After the service, Rob led all who were willing into the water for a swim in tribute to Chris while Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here played over the PA.
Once past the breakers, they formed a circle and threw flowers from the beach memorial that had been handed to the swimmers by Tathra SLSC board riders and IRB crews.
The waves made for an invigorating end to the service, with many of the people emerging from the water still in grief, but with smiles on their faces and they remembered their friend and fellow lover of the ocean.