By GRAEME SINGLETON
RAY Rodgers will find it incredibly difficult to celebrate his birthday today.
This week the Bonville builder lost his work-mate, good friend and much-loved son Ben.
The 18-year-old apprentice carpenter disappeared on Monday afternoon while bodyboarding at Sawtell Beach.
Ben's body was found by a fisherman in a runabout at 10am on Thursday morning about 2.5 nautical miles east of Sawtell.
The discovery was in its own way the only birthday present Ray Rodgers was hoping for.
"On Thursday morning when I was up on the headland I came to accept we wouldn't be getting Ben back," Ray said yesterday.
"It was then that I asked for his body to be found."
Only hours later his wish was granted.
It capped four agonising days that Ray says have been the hardest in his life.
"I would never wish it on anyone," he said.
While nothing can even begin to ease the pain Ray, his wife Debbie, and Ben's younger brother Tom are now feeling, the events of the past four days have offered considerable comfort to the family.
"The support we've had from friends, the Sawtell community and even strangers has just been overwhelming," Ray said.
"I cannot begin to say how much it has meant to us."
Ray said the sight of people walking along beaches, over rocks and on headlands during the search for Ben had been heart-wrenching and unforgettable.
"People I had never met were offerring support ? it was amazing."
Ray said his family would like to particularly acknowledge some of those people who went above and beyond what was expected during the search.
He singled out lifeguards Sonny Tisdell and Greg Hackfath, the members of the Sawtell Surf Club, the police and water police, the Salvation Army and the staff and students of Toormina High School, where Ben completed his education and Debbie was a teacher.
"And people like Janice from the cafe at the surf club who gave us coffee for three days without asking for money and the people from Sawtell Cake Shop who turned up with food to keep us going," he said.
"So many people did so much ? we can never thank them enough."
"When we have a funeral we would like people to give a donation to the surf club in lieu of flowers."
The coroner has yet to ascertain how Ben died.
"We think he must have been knocked out because he was so strong and confident in the water," Ray said.
"Ben was so healthy and happy. He loved all water sports and has been bodyboarding since he learnt to swim. He particularly loved Sawtell Beach and the gang of bodyboarders and surfers he shared it with."
"He used to call it 'my beach'," Ray said.
Fittingly Ben's many friends and surfing mates will celebrate his life with a special ceremony at Sawtell at 11am today.
Ray said Ben's girlfriend Jane would ride his bodyboard during the memorial.
"I have never experienced loss like this before but it is a little easier knowing that Ben was lost doing what he loved to do," Ray said.
"I now see him riding an endless wave."