We try to think about a lot of stuff that doesn’t come up in the regular magazines, such as the role of the media, the role of women in surfing, and the many histories of surfing. With you being around the industry for such a long time I was wondering about how you see the industry now?
The industry is surfing. The individual is not surfing in the broad sense of the word. That’s not putting the boot into the industry for being bigger than the individual, that’s just the way it is.
Do you still think the industry has a close relevance to most surfers?
It does for 95 percent of the people because almost everyone is influenced through the saturation, and accordingly people are influenced.
You seem to have this ability to step into and out of an industry that seems to swallow up a lot of people, it becomes everything to them and they cannot see surfing outside it.
Well, I can only point out that being so long in the lifestyle I’ve been able to look at trends and either embrace them or walk away from them. I know when it’s time just to attempt something different, from a personal space.
In the early ’70s when I was a kid there were so many design options and there were two lifestyle options. One was drugs and one was no drugs. Most people went the drugs route. Through attrition, the traditional aspect of drug culture started taking a backseat. That’s where the industry came in by promoting the positive aspects of a neon surfing life. New generations began to distance themselves from knucklehead mentalities of which drugs used to play such a huge part.
Moving now onto your finless passion. You’ve been popping up in films and online, for example in clips on YouTube and Vimeo, on your finless boards and spinning like a top. You have been into this gig for awhile, as far as I can tell. More recently, people have started coming out questioning the functionality of your finless boards. That is, asking what’s he trying to do here? Do you have an ideological reason behind embracing the finless ride or is it just purely getting back to a different sensation?
That doesn’t have a quick answer to it because there are perhaps several different avenues that came together within six months of just tossing the fins. The main thing was to feel free, feel free of constraint, the constraint of getting older and being unable to appreciate the exuberance of trying something and stuffing up, of trying to do something you have tried forty thousand times before and finally making it. It’s also been about relating more to sea life and bird life just through the loss of friction. It feels like a different sport and I’ve been very lucky that, in the well over four years now, this is my fifth year, that no one’s picked up what I’ve been doing and really giving it a good hard bash. Although, it’s great that people have taken to Tom Wegener’s strength in making Alaias and the like. Mind you, people have moved dramatically forward compared to his original breakthroughs. For myself, riding finless reminds me that surfing can still be like listening to a great independent record, say like Galaxy 500 from the late ’80s, and not getting bored with it. It’s not yet gone Kylie Minogue, and for that I am I’m really grateful. The longer it lasts the better.
Does the popularity of something simply sully the experience?
Well, take Damien Lovelock from the ex Celibate Rifles, the lead singer. That’s him there [Damien walks past]. Now he’s a body surfer, he’s always loved body surfing. No one has swamped body surfing. Since the ’50s those guys basically discovered everywhere from Little Avalon to Dee Why Point to Angourie. To be in that space of his is a beautiful little compartment because you’re very close to the water. He can see the barrel very intimately. He can enter and exit whenever he wants. He’s holding information that not everyone else is holding. That’s a special place to be.
In the early ’70s I was into single fin surfing, before the twin fins came out. At Jeffreys Bay they felt fantastic because the line of a big single gun is so different to a line that any twin fin or thruster can pull. That was exploratory for me. I didn’t necessarily give it up because other boards came along. After Litmus came out the Americans called it “retro” and took it by the skin of the collar and just started shaking it for all the pennies it was worth.
I think that’s interesting because you’ve reached this reflective point in your life and it seems to come across in what you ride and how you ride. You have probably been reflective your whole life but increasingly so as age you get older.
No, you’re wrong. I have always been grateful and reflective. For example, that I didn’t get locked up, and messed up in that whole drugs thing. I was younger than my gang, my peers at Newport. I saw the destruction. I saw the new gang they began hanging out with, and most of them were dead men walking for a lot of years. So I was always reflective of what could have been a different situation at Newport Beach, before Newport plus was formed. I was always reflective thereafter. I also saw people on Tour completely stuffing up through getting swayed by sycophants and fans, and all of a sudden they’re swamped by a drug culture and lose it. I’m more of a watcher than quite a lot of people, watching out for myself, watching out for sad things that tend to unfold with people who just walk blindly into dumb situations.
It does sound like a lot of sadness has been there as well, I guess.
Well, it’s kind of the school of hard knocks. Luckily, the hard knock didn’t happen to me and I’m mindful of taking the one step down a blind alley. Yeah, anyway I’ve always been reflective and I’ve always tried to just be mindful of future events unfolding that can have lessons from the past.
Are you cynical about the re-rise of the fish and the diversity of boards recreating past designs. For me, it still remains a pretty interesting turn in surfing for a lot of young guys for whom this is the first exposure to these designs. While the older generation might say, “we have been here,” the young guys haven’t been there and they might take it in a whole new tangent as a result.
Let’s think about the fish. It’s rapidly become a design that has little resemblance to the classic Sunset Cliffs San Diego fish. A straight royal marine ply fish with just a touch of curve. People started modifying the design and pretty soon all it became was a 1982 thruster. There’s little difference to what people call a fish now and what Simon originally cam up with. There aren’t that many people that I’ve ever seen outside of Sunset Cliffs who know what to do with a pure marine ply fish.
I was first inspired to try different equipment through the film Litmus. The film played a big role in my life in terms of the point I came to it. I paid close attention to what was said in it and the imagery. One of the interesting things that I’ve never forgotten is a moment in the film when you were talking about feminism and how it is an experiment for society. I know it could have been off the cuff comment, but I’m wondering what you think about a whole new generation of women are coming into surfing.
Well, the whole fabric of that interview was two and a half hours. That was a two and a half hour interview in my house that became one sentence. I was reflecting on the destruction of the family unit compared to the way many Australians grew up. If you lose such a structural integrity then future generations aren’t going to unfold as they have in the past. They might be detached, whereas they would have been attached in the past. There was no relevance to women and surfing.
Fair enough. But I guess what I’m thinking about is your opinion on the growth in the number of women surfing, the many younger girls getting into the water.
May I say that, no, I don’t see it. I don’t see any explosion in long term women surfers in the line up the way I don’t see any long term explosion in their talent compared to what it used to be. I also don’t see any long term explosion in male talent compared to what it used to be. I don’t think there are enough women who are like a lady called Julia Farmer from Newport. Julia is from my generation, but she’s one of the few committed women surfers that I’ve ever met. Although, there continues to be a lack of respect to this day from male surfers in the lineup. She just doesn’t receive it. Now, she can take any wave she wants, she knows how to do it. But she still feels the alienation from being a stranger in the line up.
A lot of girls are committed for a certain amount of years and then pull away once they have a family or whatnot. A few are really lucky to live in places like Noosa where it’s just a matter of cause to descend into the line-up, unlike the Super Bank where everybody is concerned where their next wave is going to come from. Location has a lot to do with it.
Women in the early ’70s had extremely distinctive styles. Rell Sunn was like a hoola dancer, Linda Davoli was like Terry Fitzgerald. Unbelievable. At Burleigh, Cove Linda Davoli is the high point of female style power surfing. Lisa Anderson did a fair approximation, but she was notoriously scattered in that she couldn’t reproduce the form all the time. Layne Beachley is a beautiful formula surfer, but it’s a formula. Most of the flamboyance kind of took a back seat when Simon pushed the thruster through, which wasn’t his intent.
For the life of me, I cannot see lots of younger or older women in places other than people friendly point breaks. They’re just not happy out there it seems because they’re not being dealt a happy hand where they should be dealt that happy hand.
Do you avoid certain places yourself?
It’s not worth surfing any break if you’re dealing with a stinking vibe. A guy can be silent in the water, but you know full well he’s got a stinking vibe. I’ve been guilty of the stinking vibe because it’s just one of those things in close quarters, if you open up to someone you know in a Darwinistic lineup your flow’s gone because you’re not going to get the same concentration factor when the waves come in. So, hey, I’ve been guilty of the stinking vibe but usually I feel pretty bummed about it too.
How about telling us about a place that you would like to go back to or be again, a moment in time?
Yeah easy, dead easy, dead, dead set easy. 1981 South Coast Durban. I can mention the South Coast of Durban because there are that many sharks down there. Even the Durban guys don’t particularly surf new points down there, and there are a lot of them, because of the shark factor. It’s comforting to know every inch of the wave you’re surfing when the sharks are around. There are better waves down there than Jeffreys Bay, however, there’s the eating factor as well.
There was a bloke who came to Jeffreys about 12 years ago. His name was Mark Panches from Wheeler Heights, near Dee Why. He hadn’t surfed for about 18 months. He wasn’t a particularly good surfer. Yet, despite it being the heyday of notoriously hard to catch waves because of the locals he was Johnny on the spot through two weeks. Even the hardened locals saw it and nothing they could attempt to do to intervene could stop this guy from paddling away and becoming Tom Curren, with a wave popping up in just for him.
I had time enough to say to a few people that this guy is at the peak of his life. It is never going to get any better. I said I don’t know what’s going on with his life, but something’s around the corner. When he told me that he was going up to a place called the Haven on the Wild Coast, which is an extension of that whole South Coast Durban trip, I said, how do you know about that? He said, ‘The Surf Report’ which was Surfer Magazine’s paper guide book going way back, very detailed.
After he got eaten at the Haven I went back and had a look at what The Surf Report said about the Haven. ‘The Jeffreys Bay of the Wild Coast’. Basically, the report said that every surfer should visit it. I’ve always regretted not saying to that guy when he was on a total roll to pull back because no one’s luck like that is going to hold forever.
Mark had his leg bitten off within the first three or four minutes of hitting the line up. Sharks when you’re at the peak of good fortune, Jesus Christ, look out. Anyway, I visited his parents. I tracked them down and visited them when I got home and just explained how I’d never seen anything quite like someone with so much luck on their side. It wasn’t what they expected to hear so it gave them a different view of their son just being in complete ecstasy and basically hitting that peak.
That was a very kind thing for you to do.
Well, there are strange things that people do. You carry people throughout your life, and I’ll always carry him, you never forget certain things. There’s that whole, I guess, lesson from growing up in the early ’70s and seeing hard lessons being dealt out.
When you’re talking about these lessons I guess I get to thinking about the younger guys coming through now and the issues they face. What sort of advice do you have for the younger surfers in terms of your experience and reflection?
Manual dexterity. If you can walk on the beach and read a book instead of sit in a room then do the former before life is totally consumed. These are the best years of your life. You need to learn physical discipline or appreciate physical dimensions. The world is saturated with stuff that demands your headspace, it’s exponentially climbing. Young generations could slow right down and take time out to breathe. Breathe a little bit to take a walk down a different route, just take time out or you’ll lose any warranted connection to the past.