Back in 1970, Nat Young pulled into a tube at Broken Head in broad daylight, and was in there so long that when he emerged he found the sun had set. Walking up the beach alone in the dark he wasn’t sure whether he’d been in there hours, days, or even decades. Nat had earlier eaten a vegemite and gold top mushroom sandwich; the mushrooms from the bottom paddock, the vegemite masking the foul taste, the blue juice of the mushrooms staining his lips, the sandwich folding and stretching time itself. Today, 45 years (or one sandwich) later, up here on the North Coast of New South Wales time remains a fluid, swirling and far from linear concept.
It’s a Thursday afternoon in 2015 and I’ve just walked out of the white spring light and into the dark of the Young’s garage in Angourie. As my eyes adjust to the 75-watt light they find Bryce Young sanding away at a small, red, keeled surfboard. The garage is strewn with craft drawn from different eras. There’s a brace of longboards up in the roof, a rack of contemporary shortboards, five alaias stacked near the back door, a remake of Wayne Lynch’s Evolution board and a surfboard sitting on the ping pong table that appears to have been sent back from the future.
Bryce shaped and glassed the little red board himself, and it’s not a bad effort for a guy who has only been shaping a year and by his own admission is still a dilettante of the art. The outline looks good, the curves smooth, the board looks like a rocket… but like it’d matter for Bryce, anyway. I’m here to interview a guy who could surf a picnic table and make it look like high art. “But I think that’s the beauty of shaping,” Bryce offers as he wet-and-dries a rail using long swoops of a big wing, “someone who knows what they’re doing can come along and say that board looks like a piece of shit, but because you’ve done it yourself and invested hours into making it you’ve got a connection with it, and it’s going to go no matter what they say.”
Bryce, quietly spoken and affably country, does admit however to still possessing a certain amount of stage fright while shaping in company, which is why he shaped this board out on the family farm, an hour inland. When Bryce says “company” I’m pretty sure who he might be referring to. “I tend to find it hard having people around while I’m trying to lock in and shape. Someone sticks their head in asking what I’m doing just knocks me out of orbit.”
Ghosting unseen into the garage, maybe from 1970 or maybe just from the lounge room inside, is Nat. “Bryce, you know you’re going to have to fill that bubble you’ve just sanded out, don’t you?”
Nat Young has an incredibly rich speaking voice. It’s the kind of voice that could read the World News for the BBC; authoritative, statesmanly, signing off the bulletin with, “Nat’s Nat and that’s that.” It’s the kind of voice that has spoken on behalf of surferkind before and one of a handful with an imprimatur to do so. It’s also the kind of voice, however, that might be a little off-putting coming from over your shoulder, if you were a cub shaper and unsure of what the hell you were doing. Bryce laughs it off. “Dad’s always the exception to that rule. He’s always got something insightful. He’ll see something you won’t.”
Driving into Angourie I’d figured the father-son dynamic would be pivotal to Bryce’s story. If Nat wore shoes they’d be big shoes to fill. The Encyclopaedia of Surfing describes him as, “Epoch-defining,” then goes further to add, “Young was arguably the most influential surfer in the second half of the 20th century.” Nat wrote the book on Australian surfing history – figuratively and literally – and wasn’t just part of surfing’s biggest movements through the tumultuous ‘60 and ‘70s, in several cases he was the movement. The imprint of Nat on Bryce would, I imagined, be profound both in his surfing and his view of the world.
What I wasn’t quite ready for was Bryce’s imprint on Nat.
Bryce has feet like a surgeon’s hands, but has been out of the water for months after folding a toe while skateboarding in Bali. The injury has knocked him around as the toes are critical for the Young family trade, either wrapped over the nose of a longboard, loading up an inside rail, or feeling the ocean’s surface chattering underneath like Braille. The Youngs are a high-functioning boardriding family. The kids – Naomi, Beau, Nava and Bryce – grew up between the North Coast and Sun Valley, between the surf and the snow. They grew up surfing shortboards and longboards interchangeably. Bryce latched onto skateboarding as well, which he picked up from his Mum, Ti who still skates today at 58.
“I was on the front of my Dad’s longboard till I was about four,” recalls Bryce, “then I was on this fluro green, orange and yellow ‘80s thruster. I got off that and started riding a fish Dad shaped, then I started riding longboards in Cabo, while we were travelling around in a campervan. I’ve always been into riding a bit of everything. It had a lot to do with my Pop.” His freedom of thinking when it comes to surfboards is genetic. Nat won his 1966 world title on Sam, a 9’4” thin-railed longboard. Four years later he lost the world title on a 5’10” stub.
And you just gotta see what Nat’s riding today.
Bryce and I surf Angourie Point that afternoon. He’s got two boards under his arms; a 4’11” keeled fish he shaped himself, and the replica 8’0” Wayne Lynch Evolution board. Walking up the hill Bryce walks with no discernable walking motion, more a form of forward levitation, rubber limbed with a pure economy of movement. After months at home he tells me he’s been thinking a lot about Jeffrey’s Bay and Morocco. A sea eagle circles the white sun as we walk through the banksias down to the point, and I tell him I’ve been thinking a lot about Angourie.
I watch a lone figure jogging out the point to the jump rock. He looks familiar and he should. Dave “Baddy” Treloar ran the same track 45 years ago in Morning of the Earth and jumped off exactly where he’s jumping off now. The unofficial mayor of Angourie, he’s hardly aged and neither has the town. Bordered by Yuraygir national park, Lake Woolowayeh, and the blue Pacific, Angourie has been preserved in time, but exactly what time is hard to tell. It’s a convergence point where all surfing eras have somehow ended up simultaneously, living side-by-side in harmony… at least until the first day of a new cyclone swell. It makes sense that Bryce calls this place home.
Baddy jumps in, summons a set wave, rides it to the beach and promptly runs straight home, his surf lasting less than a minute. A fisherman who knows the local great whites on a first name basis, Baddy ain’t hanging around. Two days earlier a 12-foot great white was performing Sea World acrobatics just off the adjacent point, Spookies, and the whole north coast is in the grip of collective shark paranoia after a spate of attacks, the epicentre an hour north at Byron Bay. Bryce laughs. “Everyone comes down here thinking it’s safer. It’s actually sharkier, just that no one here has Facebook.”
Bryce jumps off the rocks with the Evolution board and just like that, he’s off. His silhouette as he surfs down the point is longboard-pure – the question-mark spine, the eagle wings, the easiness of the whole scene. Things get less steazy when Bryce tries to drive the Evolution board hard off the bottom. The board grabs, trains itself straight at the lip as per the instruction manual, but suddenly there’s too much surfboard and not even Bryce can wrestle it around. The board is soon pinballing through the inside boulders on the lowest tide of the year and it looks like Bryce will be doing some more sanding later today.
The Evolution board – which Nat picked up and described as “More Wayne then Wayne” – had in fact been shaped by Californian, Ryan Burch, who’d breezed through Angourie earlier in the year. Bryce met Burch at Desert Point, Lombok. Bryce had followed a swell from Bali on his motorbike, and had pulled up at Bangko Bangko just as Burch took off on a set wave. “I just parked and sat there mesmerised,” recalls Bryce. “I was just reeling, I’ve never had someone’s surfing have that effect on me.” It seemed the pair were being cosmically drawn together, as they share some rare talent and some freeform surfing philosophies. “He’s a big influence on my surfing but he’s also my best mate,” offers Bryce, “and it was all from that first day at Deserts.”
“We caught a couple of waves that day and hatched a plan of not returning home for quite some time,” recalls Burch. “He offered me to stay with him at Angourie and I thought it’d be nice to get some Western Culture after a long time in Indo so I ended up hanging out at his place. It was one of those experiences where you never realise how good it was until it was over, surfing, riding dirtbikes out at the farm, just making surfboards and figuring shit out.”
At the point when Ryan Burch showed up in Angourie, Bryce was already riding pretty much everything that qualifies as a surfboard – quads, pods and sporty shorties, mid-lengths, alaias and logs – but as open minded as he is with surfboards he wasn’t quite ready for what Burch was shaping out on the farm. If a manta-nosed, cluster-thrustered assymetrical sounds wack, trust me, it looks even crazier, but flipping it over and inspecting the deck it’s clear the board has become more than a novelty for Bryce. The board has been to war, Bryce’s back foot having crushed the deck through the collective force of several thousand turns. Big turns. One of the great things about Bryce is his ability to surf both light and heavy. He can float weightlessly and artistically across a wave, but then when a section presents itself, momentarily transform into Sunny Garcia.
The fact Bryce converted to the assymetrical was hardly a surprise… but converting Nat was. “They gave me one for Father’s Day. I looked at it and said to Ryan, ‘It looks pretty interesting… but what happens when I go left?’ And he laughed and said, ‘I have no idea!’ But I love it. I’ve surfed it going left, at Nihiwatu and in eight-foot lefts at back beach here. It’s been squeezed on airplanes and dinged up so I need them to make me another one. And for that big forehand turn on the point here, there’s nothing like it. The big appeal for me is to ride something that was made on a farm we’ve owned since 1973. What an incredible indulgence. That makes me happy.”
The decades of wild surfboard evolution that happened underneath Nat’s feet now happens in a single afternoon for Bryce. “Apart from that assymetrical board I rarely see him surf the same board twice these days,” says Nat, “and he’s always surfing two boards at a time, leaving one under a pandanus tree and coming in and swapping them over. That’s one of the delights of surfing; that it isn’t standardised. Surfboards are really special things. They’re all different even when they’re not, and that’s so unique to surfing, that inherent freedom in your equipment and the freedom with what you do with it, and we should be embracing that because there’s not a lot of that left in the world.”
We’re soon sitting at the lookout at Angourie, Bryce having ridden up the hill on an old scooter. He won the motorbike a few years ago in a longboard contest in France, the last contest he surfed in, having soon after followed in Nat’s footsteps and walked away from colored jerseys. The irony of course is that Bryce now rides his first prize motorbike to check out his next freesurf. When I ask him whether being Nat’s son has come with a suffocating expectation, he replies, “I’ve honestly never thought about it. I’m just drawing inspiration from what he’s done and what he’s still doing. He’s 68 and he’s still ripping the shit out of it.” As we sit there a tall figure rockets through the horseshoe section on the inside of the point, drives off the bottom, and hooks one of the most recognisable and defining turns in Australian surfing. Bryce, without looking away, simply says, “Pops.”
The following morning the swell has kicked and Bryce has disappeared. After months out of the water he’s not wasting a drop.
I eventually find him at a secret reef an hour south, surfing with childhood friend, Laurie Towner. I watch the first set roll in and it’s solid. There are serious, six-foot sets disappearing below sea level, warping, and getting plain nasty before cornering the reef into deep water. Looking into the morning sun I see the unmistakable silhouette of Bryce, surfing the even more unmistakable assymetrical surfboard. I did a double-take. Was he trying to get himself killed riding that thing out there? It made no sense until he came flying out of the tube, threw a huge, searing turn, and casually flicked out, at which point it suddenly made perfect sense. He described the experience as, “Like snow skiing below sea level.”
“I think his belief in those boards even surpasses mine,” chuckles Ryan Burch when told Bryce had surfed thatboard on that reef. “I’m always apprehensive, trying to figure it out, but he always takes my word for shit, and if I tell him the board is good for a below sea level slab he’s like, ‘Sweet, let’s go! It’s awesome for me to have someone who surfs at Bryce’s level and believes in my wacky ass ideas no matter what!”
After surfing the slab Bryce grabs an alaia and paddles out at Angourie point – “Go surf some timber,” he says – and doesn’t just windscreen wipe or play-drift, he actually tears metal on that wooden board, drawing cutbacks longer than his driveway. Then on the inside he breaks the tail free from the lip, corks the board around fully like he would a snowboard, spins casually and keeps on surfing down the line. His surfing is so cross pollinated with so many influences, you never know what’s going to appear at any moment, and it’s not just restricted to his surfing. Bryce will skate a bowl and, maybe for just a tenth of a second in the middle of a critical grind, you’ll see a nose ride in there, subtlely and seamlessly referenced.
Maybe the most refreshing thing about Bryce is that he surfs without an agenda. He’s not out there conducting an aquatic homage to his Dad’s generation. He’s not surfing an assymetrical or an alaia as an act of protest against monoculture surfing. He’s not proselytizing about what surfing should or shouldn’t be. He’s not on a countercultural crusade. He’s just out there, surfing. “I just want to challenge my surfing and push it. I don’t ride all these different boards just to be seen as different.” As living proof of this philosophy, Bryce regularly rides a stock white bread thruster, his air game slick, his forehand wrap deadly, his shortboard hero, John John.
“Whether it’s a surfboard or skateboard or a motorbike or whatever he grabs, he goes 100 per cent… but with a technical mindset,” offers Burch. “I don’t know if you’ve seen him skateboard but he’s out of hand on a skateboard too, so he’s got that mindset where he can look at it, work out the technique and figure shit out. From there everything is connected too. Once you’re good on a skateboard you’ve got skills that transplant across to a surfboard. He’s got this wild talent that’s beyond surfing or beyond one kind of surfing.”
“Who’s to say there’s one kind of surfing?” Asks Bryce. “I just want to surf the boards I want to surf. I just want to surf new lines and get stoked on a bunch of different stuff.” For most people, as their surfing develops over time, it coalesces and calcifies around one type of board and one form of surfing. You get locked into your thing. It’s human nature to crave that familiarity. Well Bryce Young is an avatar for a blended surfing generation where that might no longer be the case, and if you wanted to see what all of surfing looked like on one wave, the whole glorious sweep from the ancients till today, watching Bryce Young surf the length of Angourie Point might be as close as you’ll ever get.