Nat Young is in a really good place. When we caught up on the phone about his new book, Church of the Open Sky, he was at his daughter’s place in Oceanside, California. He’d just gotten out of the water (only slightly disappointed the surf was small). A tiny voice echoed in the background. “Pa, pa.” It was his one-year-old granddaughter, cooing at him. She had grandpa firmly in the palm of her tiny hand.
“I’m right here,” he replied, in a slightly toned-down grandpa voice.
This is Nat Young, four-time world champ turned free-surfer, come author. The 72-year-old is just about to set out on an 11-stop West Coast book tour to promote his seventh long read, Church of the Open Sky, based (almost wholly) off the Tom Blake philosophy that surfing as something we do and enjoy in nature, encompasses all religions and faiths. It is, as many of us know, a pursuit that acts as a guiding principle of our lives. Heady stuff.
Nat’s competitive years may be long past but he’s still got the fire – and a few fiery opinions. He’s satisfied with his accomplishments, but maybe not so much with surfing’s modern direction. Everything he preaches on page, he lives with authenticity in life, chasing the glide by spending half his year in his beloved Angourie, in New South Wales, the other half in Sun Valley, Idaho, pursuing his winter passion, skiing. I spoke with Nat about the new book, the utter lack of style in competitive surfing, and one of the pursuit’s most infamous characters he knew as well as anyone: Miki Dora.
You didn’t think you’d write another book. What changed that? Church of the Open Sky kind of seems like your spiritual opus?
I don’t know, not really. As far as I’m concerned, this all happened hanging around doing nothing for eight weeks in bed after knee replacement surgery. I got to thinking about Tom and his whole Church of the Open Sky phrase and I just found myself trying to find stories from my past that kept that alive. In bed, I’d get my wife to get diaries from whatever years I was thinking about to dig out storylines and make a good comprehensive understanding of where I was at.
The book sort of turns its back on competitive surfing. But you’re a four-time world champ. How do you reconcile that? Didn’t you really help competition surfing get started?
Well, first, Tom’s philosophy just really spoke to what I was about. Nature = God. As far as I’m concerned that was the first real guiding light of where surfing was at, he like me, went through competition. The first surfing competitions, he was responsible for. The first in America. But he went through a similar thing. After I stopped competing, I surmised that surfing didn’t qualify as a very good sport. It could have been a good quality sport if it had all the guidelines: a line to cross, a goal, hitting a ball over a net. Surfing as competition is always going to be totally subjective. You’re being judged, trying to stuff surfing into a box. For me, that’s what happened and a lot of modern surfers feel the same, like Dave Rastovich, they didn’t want to compete anymore either, both my sons, a lot of people.
The sort of soul movement in surfing.
I guess movement is not such a bad word. So many people go through competition, then really become numb to it, they don’t want surfing spoiled by competition. Competition is not wrong. My book is just a reminder that there’s another way. It’s something a lot of people I know have gone through and don’t want to do anymore. My two sons don’t compete, my daughters don’t compete. Everyone has an evolution. Do I feel I was responsible for the competition boom? There was already competition way before I came along. There was a really good competition in Makaha, in the early 1960s, put on by people that weren’t surfers (restaurant owners). The real problem for me was that surfing competition was always linked to selling a product. That’s never something surfing was about for me.
So you tell a lot of stories about a lot of characters in the book and they all sort of build towards that ultimate pursuit of surfing – mainly that they would have been riding waves had they gotten paid or not.
Each one of those characters, they’re people doing it for very pure reasons. They’re not even consciously being part of a religious order but certainly having faith in nature and faith in surfing. It was something that gave them some sort of answers as a human being. I think that’s why we all surf. Everyone in the tribe has certain different values, of course, but we also have similarities based on that pursuit: has there ever been a surfer that’s polluted the ocean, really? Some of our principles are really good and they can show the world a lot of understanding by where we’re at. Surfers respect the environment with regards to global warming, things like that. Just by doing it, we learn very quickly the values of nature. When you’re trying to get to the surface and the ocean has its foot planted firmly in the middle of your back holding you down. We’re humbled by it, absolutely.
One reason I know you’re not a fan of modern competitive surfing has to do with style. You feel like it’s become too, robotic, maybe?
I think style should be everything and you’re not seeing individual style coming through in competitive surfing. There’s subtle moves in surfing that make it beautiful and I just don’t see it. It’s all the same. Gabriel Medina, I think his style is shit-house and I don’t mind saying. The fact that style is everything is what we laid down as a truth in our activity – doing it with incredible style first. I don’t see a lot of changes in surfing, it’ all been a big wash, same with snowboarding. They get in the air and I can’t identify their style. Surfing in the old days, you identified everybody’s style. That, to me, is the truth of our activity.
You spent a lot of time with Miki Dora and some of your traveling stories in the new book, not even surfing-related, are really interesting. Miki has been in the news lately, posthumously of course, after the piece on surf Nazis and his connection to it came out. Was Miki racist and anti-Semitic?
Miki Dora, is he a racist (pauses)? I know that he was racist, I’m not going to try and shield it, he’s long gone anyhow. Miki had a good hand, he could write really good letters. I used one in the book, but in one of his letters (when he was in South Africa) he told me, “the black bastards were trying to rip me apart.” But I think he knew there were times he had to temper it. With me he had to temper it, that sort of thing wouldn’t be expanded or talked about around me. Was he anti-Semitic, I’m not sure enough about that but I guess they tend go hand in hand.
What were your thoughts on that article?
I don’t think that was a fair portrayal. He certainly wasn’t a great supporter of Hitler and what was happening but he did have racial views that came bubbling through, different talks on different issues. But he was a fully committed surfer. He’d taken the pill a long time ago. He really wasn’t going to respect other surfers unless they proved themselves as people. I traveled through Nepal and Afghanistan with him, and we dealt with local guides and religious people and we never had any issue come up. I guess I wish he was around to be able to spell out this stuff.
But we don’t need another Miki Dora around. He figured out how to live within the boundaries of his time, a time when security was lax, there were no credit cards, you had handwritten airline tickets. As I write in the book he was an incredible scammer. I went to probably 20 or 30 different Hollywood parties and he loved it, that was his world. He would find out where the best Hollywood party was. But he also hated it, what they did to Malibu when all of sudden he didn’t have the freedom to sleep in his car on the beach all summer at perfect Malibu with no people around. It was hard for him to adjust to a world that didn’t care about that.
The way you live, it seems as though you’re going to do be playing in nature, whether it’s surf or snow, forever.
I intend to, you can never say never. But as long as my body holds out, and I’m functioning reasonably well in mind. I think keeping meditation going as long as I can possibly keep it going is key, too. It does the mind a really good rest and I’ve been doing it since mid-1974. I got into it as a young hippy (laughs). It really helps with mental health. There are situations as humans we just really need it, it’s such a busy bloody world. But I guess, sometimes you just have to go surf. That’s because, in a lot of ways, that’s a mediation too. Just sitting out the back and watching the horizon go up and down, it’s been written that it’s a zen metaphor, and that’s absolutely true, right?
Nat Young’s Church of the Open Sky book tour begins Monday, November 11, at the Vissla shop in Huntington Beach, California. Find the full tour schedule, here.