Ian Cairns Remains A Force Of Nature
Ian Cairns remains a force of nature, even today. Supremely comfortable in heavy water, having grown up surfing the wild coast around Margaret River, he took his act to Hawaii and became the dominant Aussie of his generation. The bigger it got the better he went. “Kanga” then charged into the Precambrian world of pro surfing, and much of what you see today on the pro tour still has his fingerprints all over it. Ambitious, idealistic and with no reverse gear, his vision for surfing became too big for Australia and he’s called California home for the past 35 years.
As a kid I read Man-eaters of Kumaon. It’s about Captain Jim Corbett who was an English army captain in the 1920s who was sent alone into the jungles of northern India to shoot man-eating tigers. The story was enthralling and it really resonated with me. I grew up as a kid thinking the days of Jim Corbett and tigers were gone, but then I discovered surfing and realised they weren’t. There were new horizons everywhere, new waves to be found, and paddling out at 18-foot Sunset alongside Eddie Aikau I realised there were still adventures out there. There were still tigers.
I worked for a day on a potato farm. I was too slow for the potato-picking machine so I loaded bags of spuds in the shed. I was travelling around the world winning money from surf contests at this stage, so there was this weird juxtaposition of living in a remote country town. I kind of didn’t fit in, but even around contests I didn’t feel I fitted in socially either.
I slept in the Uluwatu cave in 1973. I flew from the world titles in San Diego so I’d left the sphere of international competitive surfing behind and just went back to my surfing roots. I was kind of living these two lives. I was a competitive surfer but I was also a surfer out for adventure because that was the life you lived in Western Australia. There were only a handful of people surfing and George Simpson and I would go bushwhacking in my old Landcruiser and surfed all these breaks that didn’t even have names.
My first day on the North Shore I paddled out at Sunset, looked around and thought, this is just like Margaret River. Then I turned around and here’s this massive west set bearing down on me! But I loved it. I’d already tested myself to the limit in Western Australia so what was next? Hawaii. It was like Everest to us.
The things that get written about our agro attitudes in Hawaii are largely bullshit. I always went to Hawaii with immense respect for the history of surfing. My dream was to get in the Duke contest and I did and came second to Larry Bertelmann in ‘74 and I won it in ’75. You felt the mana just to be part of it, and then to go out at 25-foot closing out Waimea it couldn’t get any better for me. So here I was with this amazing respect for Hawaii and for the Hawaiian guys I was surfing with, and to have people who I didn’t respect, the ruffians on the North Shore barking at me for not showing respect, I just thought, why don’t you take a moment to ask me how I feel about this place rather than yelling at me and threatening me?
I had the rankings and PT had a typewriter. We were dangerous. We had information and the ability to disseminate it. There was some pretty wacky bullshit going on with pro surfing at the time and the genesis of the pro tour happened in Australia in 1975. We had an Australian professional champion that year that I believe I may have been me.
Three things needed for successful change: a big idea, someone with gravitas, and the money. We had all three. When I started the ASP in 1982, membership cost $100. I sat on Cronulla beach and fought with every mongrel Aussie who didn’t want to pay it. Again I was the Satan of pro surfing, as I’d already been cast with the Bronzed Aussies. But they paid up and the tour became phenomenally successful. I love the idea of benevolent dictatorship. Just ask Lee Kuan Yew about the Miracle of Singapore.
The reaction to the Bronzed Aussies in Australia pissed me off. The Bronzed Aussies was a brand and we used a surf team to promote it. It’s what all surf companies do. We got shitcanned for it in Australia, but when we got to America people embraced it. People ask me now why I live in America and there you have it right there. It was the catalyst for me to move to California. We thought that’s where the future was.
I remember this guy, Bill Oddie going, “Why are you going to America? You’ll never make it.” Well, you know what Bill? I did. Honestly, don’t listen to what people are saying about you. Grow your dreams and make them happen.
Robbie Bain didn’t compete until he was 18, I think. Dane Reynolds didn’t start till he was 15. My wife [Alisa Schwarzstein-Cairns] finished fourth in the world in the same year she graduated with a degree in sociology. When you contrast those values with the values prevalent today in surfing today with parents becoming teachers and marketing managers for their 11-year-old, I say it’s not healthy. I call bullshit on it. You won’t see the problems it’s going to cause until the kid has disappeared from the public eye.
I like being alone out the back on a bomb day, totally comfortable in my own space. Just me against the elements. Jim Corbett against his man-eating tigers. Then when I come in just give me a pile of books. I don’t need to go to the pub. I’m not gregarious I guess, which doesn’t jive real well with the Australian mateship ideal, but that’s just me.
My flight from Perth to San Diego cost $2000. That’s like 20 grand now. It was 1972 and I was a kid going to the world titles for the first time. So here’s the deal: in January this year I flew out of San Diego for the first time since ‘72 and as we took off I’m looking down at the same hotel we stayed in. That was 42 years ago, and in that moment it dawned on me how far I’d come since I was that kid.