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Life+ with Fiona Della-Sale: From snow capped mountains to the Red Sea, Larry Silvia lives life to the fullest

Fiona Della-Sale Geraldton Guardian
Larry Silvia in his workshop.
Camera IconLarry Silvia in his workshop. Credit: Fiona Della-Sale

In our second Life+, Fiona Della-Sale profiles Larry Silvia an engineer of life

The patio of Larry’s Tarcoola Beach is a veritable sea garden: of shell chandeliers, seagrass balls suspended from beams and long, salvaged ship ropes ornately arranged around the walls.

In juxtaposition to this, sits a large, black, human engineered object looking part robotic, part prosthetic. “And this,” remarks Larry with a large grin, “is my greatest invention”.

Rhode Island in northeast of the United States was the perfect playground for young Larry who grew up swimming, boating, water skiing, surfing and motorbiking.

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“A little paradise,” Larry describes it, albeit a lot colder than here in winter. He laughs at the memory of wearing his sneakers inside surf booties to walk across snow to the beach for a surf.

As a child, when not outdoors, Larry would be always tinkering and building, with people regularly commenting that he may grow up to be an engineer.

At the end of schooling, that was the pathway he pursued but he quickly became distracted. He joined the athletics team as a pole vaulter, which he really loved.

The university was located close to a small snow skiing area, where Larry also started working in a ski shop and after hours, he’d hit the slopes. Consequently, study was neglected.

He failed many of his courses after two years into the degree, “I completely flunked out,” Larry recollects, “but gee, I had fun skiing.”

At this time, larger world issues were emerging. With the US government deploying more troops in the Vietnam War, local men were being drafted, and those not studying were most favourable candidates.

Although having been ejected from college, Larry thought his spina bifida diagnosis would pardon his recruitment. Despite the condition having little functional impact on him physically, he was shocked to pass a military physical test and then received the dreaded draft letter telling him that he was eligible for the military draft.

The terrifying news of war fatalities and returning, injured friends and schoolmates was impetus for Larry to enrol back in college.

In 1971, Larry eventually graduated with an engineering degree from New England College in New Hampshire. During that time Larry joined the university ski team.

Never having had ski lessons, he had to learn new tricks by trial and error. He soon discovered that to ski race, you had to ski properly; he was grateful for having good coaching.

The US recession at the time, made finding work very difficult and he learned quickly that you could not be selective in job applications.

Eventually, Larry found himself working as a hotel laundry boy and “even with a fancy degree in my back pocket, I was unbelievably grateful, walking around whistling at the thought of my first pay cheques”.

After two months as the happy laundry guy, Larry found an entry-level engineering position, but when the snow fell, he succumbed. He quit his new engineering position to become a full-time ski instructor, professional freestyle competitor and coach. This lasted three years.

Being in ski boots for up to six hours a day caused some pain and injuries, which he could largely ignore in his youthly prime. Little did he know it would set the scene for a future project.

During that time, with a local river producing grade five rapids, he ventured into white water kayaking, buying and building a kayak from a kit.

It was nearby, he found a block of land, upon which he built a house, up on the banks overlooking this section of his favourite river. It became his first home.

One of Larry’s first projects as a site manager for the construction of a new weather observation station on top of Mount Washington.

This became a baptism of fire, or more of ice, in entering the working world. Temperatures below zero and gale force winds were common.

In total contrast to the wintery, mountainous snow life, Larry was thrilled to find an overseas job in Israel, working as an engineer in building a new airforce base in the Negev Desert, earning double the salary of home. Highlights of that two years was learning to dive in, and windsurf on, the Red Sea.

Working and living later in Egypt, at a diving centre in Eilat, he met a young Australian woman, Judy, that took his fancy. In fact, their favourite turquoise, clear water dive location was at Sharm el Sheik, and later inspired the name of their first of two daughters, Sharma.

The Sinai Peninsula was back then a site of ongoing conflict between Egypt and Israel. It had Larry fast learning the world of politics and dispute.

With the controversial east-west divide between Israel and Jordan, running down through the Red Sea, the centre was of high security sensitivity. It was also the site of some great windsurfing! He and Judy learned to windsurf in Eilat, across from the city of Aqaba in Jordan.

The international border split the Red Sea, so they always sailed tentatively in this area as encroaching on the border would result in “instantly being suspected a terrorist and then,” laughs Larry, “getting arrested in your Speedos, with days of international diplomatic wrangling for release.”

Following the contract in Israel and a trip to Judy’s home in Victoria and the east coast, they quickly got married and flew back to America.

Between the Israel and Egypt contracts Larry and Judy spent time in Hawaii, having been bitten by the windsurfing bug. Windsurfing was booming and it was here, “we met and sailed with many of the guys in magazines, like Robbie Naish and the like”.

After a few months there, he travelled home and turned his engineering skills to his passion, starting a basement business making custom windsurfers.

The orders rolled in and he was even able to purchase the hip vehicle of the time, a brand new VW Kombi van. Loaded with windsurfers, he’d follow the competitions, racing and selling his gear.

Meanwhile on Rhode Island, an eventual connection to his future home in Western Australia began to form. The Island, and city of Newport, was home of the America’s Cup yachting race and hitherto, a little-known competition to Aussies until in 1983, when we won the revered race and broke the long 132-year history of any other country claiming that record.

Larry was there among the excitement. They planned to go to Fremantle when their Egypt contract was complete to see the next America’s Cup Race. Larry and Judy arrived in the Fremantle, with a few clothes and lots of windsurfing gear, to watch the race amid fanfare, big blue skies and wind.

After some camping and exploring, they found work in northern WA and stayed in Karratha for a while before settling in windy Geraldton, which they were thrilled to discover.

Larry continued to turn his hand to improvisation. Now with a baby, he noted in glossy magazines, new three-wheeled prams, which he decided to make so he could follow the runners around the Harriers Club course behind the runners.

Larry set about designing and making his own version, complete with suspension, even better than those in the flashy advertisements.

Although, with any bespoke invention, he found the need for design improvement. For one particularly competitive race, Larry found himself making a dash for the finish line.

To his and other onlookers’ horror, a small design flaw in the baby capsule attachment resulted in poor little Sharma being catapulted out to hit the gravel, face first. Perhaps sharing an inherited gene for outdoor, adventurous thrill, Sharma merely spat out a few stones, rather undeterred by the whole incident and ended with only a scratch, to Larry’s relief.

These days, Larry has retired from working as an engineer, in Geraldton which he’s happily called home for more than 30 years.

He’s recently taken up indoor skydiving at a centre in Perth and loves the thrill of gravity free flying. With world-class wind and waves at his backdoor, he’s a regular out on his stand-up paddle board and now a newly acquired wind foil.

Not all water time has been smooth sailing though. A surfing accident a few years ago, a bad wipeout while surfing at Back Beach, fractured his ankle and it needed surgery had him back to his design board. After long rehabilitation, Larry was devastated to find he could not snow ski anymore, at least not in normal boots.

So, in 2015 he began internet searching for a solution and found boots have had little changed in 70 years. That necessity reminded him of an idea he had at the peak of his skiing career. He found his notes and sketches from long ago and this created the drive for new another invention.

“I went out to my shed once again and started tinkering and building,” says Larry. His innovation is an ‘exo skeleton’ for a boot, where the hinged knee of the structure becomes the driver rather than a moving ankle. Hard painful ski boots would become history.

It was the perfect COVID travel restrictive project but once borders opened, Larry hit the Victorian snowfields with vengeance and was thrilled to find the boots worked, alleviating the ankle issue and in fact, all the pain he recalls from extended skiing sessions of his youth.

With a grin, he quips “now I can ski as well as when I was 20, well nearly.”

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