SO BRETT WENT WEST
As a kid Brett Herring grew up between Dee Why Point and the Rat Castle, but when brother Shane took off for a brief fling with surfing fame, Brett just took off. First it was north, living with the fishos at Seal Rocks. Then it was west. Then it was G-Land with good mate, Camel. For 25 years now he’s surfed empty corners and quiet coasts, on his own terms… and on his own. “One step ahead of the masses.” Surfing World caught up with him over west, where he’s called home for a decade now.
SW: Brett, how you going mate?
BH: All right, mate. Yeah, pretty good. It’s always good in the west, as you know. Even when it’s not, it is.
Have you had a good year over there?
Yeah, we have. Last year was unbelievable, and this year was very close. We had a little bit of winter, whereas last year we didn’t. I spend most of my time down south.
Did you slip up north at all this year?
I did, near the start of September. I got up there for the first time in a long time. Caught up with Mick Klaunzer [Brett’s mate, former Dee Why tour surfer].
Where’s Mick these days?
Yeah, he’s up in Carnarvon. He’s a full skipper, now. He’s got his boat and does the prawns in Shark Bay, there. Mate, he’s done that and Mundaka forever and a day, now. I think this is the first time he’s been home in summer. He may still be up there, because of the whole you-know-what, so I think he’s doing summer up there for the first time ever. But yeah, it was good. I hadn’t seen him in seven years.
It’s funny where all the good old Dee Why boys end up, eh?
Yeah, mate. There’s not that many over here, but I think there’s a few from generations I don’t know of. A lot went north, huh? North Coast. That was happening when I was younger. It was like, “Where’d they all go?” They got out. Well, as you know, peak hour there is all weekend long. It’s hard to enjoy yourself on the Northern Beaches unless you’re staying on the beach and you stay where you are. Then it’s all right.
Is that why you bailed Dee Why in the first place? Is that why you left for the North Coast?
I guess you just need to go looking for the complete opposite to what you know. And my Dad was up at Tuncurry. Hang on a sec. [Dog barks in the background] Oi! Cut it out! Bloody animals. Yeah, so that got me up there in ‘96, and I had some friends there too. My mate, Chris Mac had lived in Dee Why and he was a Forster boy. That was a foot in the door and then next thing you know, I was living at the Bungwahl general store.
How was life up the coast?
Yeah, good. I was at Blueys, sort of camping around there. There was a house next door to a mate of mine. No one was really in it but eventually my mate’s girlfriend said, “Brett, you’ve kind of got to go… you better move on.” And so they dropped me at the Bungwahl store and I lived there for quite a while before I ended up out at Seal Rocks. That was just the complete opposite to what I knew. They actually used to call me “Brettles from the Bush”. That’s the name they give the city folk. But that was awesome up there. I got to see the end of that old world before it all changed… before the tracks got locked up and the crowds moved in.
It’s really different up there now.
When the National Parks moved in they just restricted a lot of things. There’s some old people who fished those beaches for a long time, and then they can’t get down there now. They’re like, “Well, I can’t walk in.” But everything’s changing.
I remember they locked up the back road down at the Gibber and then the road to South Celito.
Yeah, exactly. And Blueys changed as well. There were people who lived there and rented there, but then it just became empty in the middle of winter. There were no lights on. Everything was owned by people that didn’t live there. So you got to see that change. And then the traffic lights when they got into Tuncurry and Forster, that was like, “Whoa”. I’ve realised anywhere without traffic lights is a pretty good place.
How long have you been over west for now?
This time around, nearly 10 years. On and off. I come and go, but yeah. I got here in the end of 2010, maybe. I’ve got a son here, he’s nine. He was born 2011. So yeah, that’s why I live in WA. It’s for him, but it’s an awesome place. I didn’t know where I was going, what I was doing, and he decided for me.
Do you get back to Dee Why at all?
Not really. Last time I did a stint there, ‘15 to ‘16, I went back and cared for my granny before she checked out. That was the last time I spent a good amount of time there.
Do you miss Dee Why Point at all?
A couple of boys asked me that. “Do you miss the Point?” No, no, no. Not at all, mate. There’s a lot more out there. I mean, the Point is as good as it gets to surf, but I don’t need to hold any ground at any place. Dee Why’s like that. You’ve got to be pretty full-on to keep up with it. I only enjoy myself when there’s a minimal number of people and everything’s right. Otherwise, I just take a back seat to it all. If it’s crowded I just let it all happen, then I sneak a few waves here and there. But I’ve done all right. When I’ve gone back and visited, I’ve still got a few.
It’s still a magic wave.
Oh, it’s epic, but it’s out to get you, that place. It’s evil.
So you’ve spent most of your life just chasing empty surf. Mate, what a life.
I know. It’s amazing that I’ve been able to do it. That’s 25 years, right there since I took off. I don’t like competitions and I’ve never had a real job and never been tied to anywhere. This is the most I’ve been tied, because of my young bloke, and it’s awesome. I’m stoked that… it’s like, “Right, I’m going to put the time in here.” I’ll probably be here another 10 years.
Where do you reckon that surfing free spirit comes from?
Oh, my Uncle Gary, mate [Gary Balnave]. I remember looking out of my Granny’s window, and he’d been gone forever, and he’d just walk in the backyard with his surfboards. He’d been all around the world, mate. He was absolutely amazing, like a super-hero. Getting tingles talking about him. And, yeah, he threw me in the deep-end. He took me to Indo. He got hurt and left me there. That kind of started it, mate, when I was 16. I guess I never really came back from that trip. I thought of that the other day. I was like, “That did something to me, there.”
Where was that first trip to?
Nias. I come in and these local boys were going, “Your uncle broke his foot.” I’m just like, “What the hell?” It was a cut, it wasn’t broken, but he ended up getting full of blood poisoning, which we didn’t know. They got the witch doctor in, and then he realised it wasn’t healing. I dare say the witch doctor saved his life. He started having this fit. The first thing I said to him when he told me he was going to leave, I was like, “Do I have to come home, too?” And he just went, “No. You’re in Nias.” Went back to Bali for a little while, stacked some motorbikes and ended up on Lembongan.
All on your own?
Yeah, mate, just stumbled around. But there was guys in Bali that I’d met in Nias. Same thing, all around Australia, there’s guys from that trip I’d run into. I did a Surfing World trip down to Vicco when I was young, not long after Indo. We were surfing these places we really weren’t supposed to be surfing but turns out I knew the local guys out there.
You’d met them in Indo?
Yeah, yeah. This was only a year later, I suppose when we were down there with Bruce and Hugh. I forget the guy’s name that showed us around, but he was like, “Oh, be careful of these guys,” and I paddle over to this guy who’s got steam coming out his ears and I’m like, “Hey, mate,” and the guy recognises me from Indo and goes, “Oh, it’s you, Brett. How ya going?”
It’s a small world, huh.
Yeah. And then the same when I landed in Indo in ’98. I stayed with Peter Crawford – he was living at Kim Bradley’s at the time – and that’s when I met Camel.
I was wondering how you two met.
Yeah, that was it. It was just like a, “G’day.” But then I got here in West Oz and there he was. I went up, “Hey, mate. I met you in Indo.” Next thing you know we went to G-Land together the following year.
How was that first G-Land trip? You guys were camped in the jungle for months, weren’t you?
A couple of months, yeah. I think Cam had worked at all the camps by this stage, and then he started camping in the jungle. He told me that camping at G-Land was just like camping at home. And, yeah, I got to go along for the ride and it was pretty amazing. I got to learn everything he knew, I suppose, real quick. The main reason I think he took me was so I could take all his spare boards over. It was like an eight-footer and a nine-footer he got me to take. Single-fins. I had his wetties and one of his old helmets. People thought I was him going switchfoot. We’ve been mates for 20 years now, or longer, 22 years.
He’s still going good. I see him from time to time down in South Oz. It’s classic how you two have done your own thing for so long.
Bloody oath, yeah. I was calling in there quite a bit to see him, because I was going back east a lot. I always call in and see him. He’s done well to get down there when he did. Just one step ahead of the masses. It’s always awesome to go down there and step into that world. He’s such an amazing surfer. I mean, some of the things he did over there at G-Land were incredible. Like, people finally got to see with that wave he caught at Centres, at Tombies, but he’s been doing that forever.
You surfed a lot of big stuff at G-Land with him in those early days?
Oh, it took me a long time to get up to speed. I’ve had bigger boards now for 20 years, so I’ve learned how to ride them. And then it’s the last 10 years that I’ve ridden all my biggest and best waves. Finally pulled my finger out. I guess being sober helped there. That’s been nearly eight years.
I remember seeing a photo of you – this would have been when you first went to WA, probably 20 years ago – surfing massive Boat Ramps. Like, fucking huge.
That wave caught me! I was sort of just looking at it and it picked me up. Like, “What the hell?” It was going to be an air-drop in and I’d never have made the drop. I kicked out and surfed down the back of it… the back of that wave is one of the biggest waves I’ve ever ridden! I didn’t want to go out but Camel was there with his girlfriend, and I was like, “God damn it… I’ve got to go out here.” Camel got a wave in the first minute and just left me out there. It took me a while, but I finally got one so I could get in. That was huge. I don’t think I’ve seen it that big again here. I didn’t have the experience. I’m glad I didn’t go it. But that was an introduction, way back. You’d have some big waves in Indo, but in reality the last 10 years here, and the last five again, I’ve finally gotten out there in a bit in size. Three to four metres, sort of thing. I haven’t done Cows [Cowaramup Bombie] or anything though.
Yeah. That’s another jump again, huh?
It almost happened a few years back, and oh, mate, I was just a mess thinking about it. I was relieved when it didn’t happen.
Have you done time on other parts of the Australian coast? You’ve moved around quite a bit. Anywhere else that’s kind of special to you?
Well… yeah, South Oz, obviously. That’s where I want to be, but my young bloke’s got priority here, and I’ve got to wait until he grows up. And then that’s the plan. Go down there, and that’ll be it.
The last move.
That’s the idea. It’s changing here. I mean, it’s going to be busy here in 10 years’ time. Compared to the rest of the country it’s still pretty good though. There’s no traffic lights yet.
Is that your measure: as soon as they put traffic lights in, you’re out of there?
Yeah, I’ll run with that. It seems to be a good idea.
I don’t see you out in North Point. Is it just the crowds?
Yeah. I’ve sat there and watched it a few times. I like it, don’t get me wrong. A barrelling righthander but it’s just a young man’s sport. I’ve done it at Main Break on a few days, but North Point, I just… I just haven’t got into it. I’d still like to get one. I had one 20 years ago.
Are you just trying to surf in between the crowds?
Yeah, pretty much. I mean, that’s why the bombies are good. They rarely get crowded out there. Main Break, Southside Bombie and Boatie. You don’t need anything more, really.
I mean, it’s good to go and get some tubes at small little Box, you know? I’ll do little days like that when there’s no one out. It’s like Suck Up back home in Dee Why. There’s some waves like that around here that I used to chase a bit more, but
I rarely ride small boards. The 7’4” is my shortboard now.
I was going to ask you what your shortest board was.
I do have a 6’8” but I don’t ride it. I ride a 7’4” at the slabs, and then it’s straight up to the 8’11”. I’ve got a thin 8’11” and then a 9’6” and a 10’4”. All Nick Popes.
How did you hook up with him?
That’s 20 years in the making, that one. When I got here in 2000 he made me a nine-footer. I had that for 14 years. In 2015 I tracked him down again and got all these new boards made, and hopefully they’re halfway into their lifespan. I was hoping to get a decade out of them.
Have you snapped any?
One, but I didn’t do it. A little girl from Dee Why, Annie Dos Santos snapped it. I was back home and my mate Scotty Romain came and got me and said, “Let’s go surfing. Can I borrow a board for Annie?” And yeah, she got caught out German Banks and broke it. She must have only been 14 and it was an awesome effort. She broke the board but didn’t want to take on the shorey, so she paddled half the board all the way back down to Dee Why to get in, and then she ran the half a board all the way back to leave it on the beach for me. I don’t know if her mum got the full story that day. Things like that though, they’ll stay with you forever. I saw waves when I was a kid that were massive, and it might have taken me 20 years to ride them, but it was always there in the back of my mind.
What was growing up in Dee Why like?
Amazing, mate. Dee Why was single-parent paradise. I only knew a couple of kids that had both mums and dads but we owned the streets. All the kids brought up each other down at Crud Hill. And next to Crud Hill was the Rat’s Castle. That’s where we hung out. I guess I started down there at ‘83, ‘84. Like, eight, nine years old. Crud Hill was still there. By the end of the ‘80s it was kind of gone. By the start of the ‘90s the cafés started coming. But prior to that it was pinball parlours, milk bars and hundreds of kids. It was epic. Like, learning to surf in the Basin. Tommy Carroll was out there surfing the Point, and we’re in the Basin trying to catch the same wave he caught.
I remember me and my mate AJ, like, “Try and get it,” and we missed it. We were spewing. Guys like that were surfing the Point, and there were the local guys but the kneeboarders were the best. They were unbelievable. But nothing came easy out the Point… but by the ‘90s like I said a lot of those guys moved away, so they let us sort of have it.
When did you work out contests weren’t your deal?
The Nias trips changed me – ‘91 and ‘92. But yeah, I went through two years competing in the juniors, but I cracked the shits. “What am I doing?” And that was that. That was the turning point. I didn’t go in anymore and just moved to the country. Got out. But yeah, it wasn’t planned. It just happened. I turned up at my old man’s with nothing. He just sort of pointed me in the direction of Seal Rocks, I guess, because you could camp out there for nothing.
Where were you camping, out at Yagen?
Yeah. I hitched out there. I called into the Treachery Caravan Park and I was like, “Can I get a site?” The guy took one look at me and said, “You’d be better off down at Yagen,” so off I went.
I didn’t know how to camp, bloody hopeless, but they just took me in. I lived in the shacks at Seals with the fishermen. They were like, “Yeah, mate. You can stay here.” I got right into the way they all lived, too. Fully took it on. I drank with the best of them. I was good at it. There was no marine park at the time and those guys were still fishing for a living. They hadn’t sold any of their licenses. And yeah, they were all still there.
I got to see it. They were old surfers from the ‘70s but they were still getting out there and having a go.
So you would have moved up there much about the same time Shano dropped off tour?
I guess he’d just come to the end of that. I think he spent a bit of time in Sydney for a while there afterward, but then he went north and I went west. It was all over so I’d just move on.
Do you and Shane keep in touch?
Yeah, we do. He gets a phone and they last a while, and then he gets another phone, but we do. We keep in touch with text messages and phone calls. I haven’t seen him in ages. It’s probably three or four years.
I spoke to him the other day. He’s been doing some shaping, actually…
Been doing what?
Oh, yeah. He sent me some photos of his signature on some boards he’d done. The Coke board and the 6’2” he had at that time. I was like, “Those two, mate. That’s what you need to do.”
You had to be as good as Shano to surf them though.
I got given an old mag, a Surfing World trip he did to Angourie and that board, the 6’2”, some of the surfing he did on that was out of this world. It was awesome the level he took it to. Short and sweet, but it’s stood the test of time. No one’s doing it today. It was like the pinnacle of vee-bottom-type surfing.
Mate, he was untouchable for a while there.
So, so smooth. We were all about no wiggling, and no two-stage bottom turn. It was all one line.
Looking at photos of you surf, the way you crouch and the way you hold your front arm, you and Shano surf almost identically. It’s uncanny how similar your styles are.
Yeah, I’ve noticed that over the years. I definitely surf like a Herring. I guess I used to just ride the tail a bit more than him. But yeah, never quite got to the level he did with the pure manoeuvres. His cutback was just second to none.
Do you kind of keep tabs on surfing elsewhere? Do you watch contests, clips…?
I don’t have much Internet, but when I go places that does
I have a little stickybeak and it’s absolutely amazing. I mean, the big-wave guys in the last 10 years… you watch some clips from 10 years ago to now, and it’s the same guys, and they’ve just kept building. I’ve sat at North Point and watched the boys doing their aerials and that. The things Jack [Robinson] was doing was just like, “You’ve got to be kidding, mate.”
Do you surf much with Jack, at home?
Nah, nah. I got to see him a lot when he was younger, but
I don’t go out on those real good days. I pick the little windows no one else wants.
Have you got any waves you haven’t surfed yet, you want to tick off?
Oh, well, maybe – maybe – Cows. I don’t know, mate. It’s not something I aspire to. Like, even before what happened this year with nobody travelling, I was more like, “Well, the waves come to where you are,” and there’s so many of those days here. I’ve got the waves I surf, and that’s about as far forward as I think. Like this year, The Bluff called me and said, “Come on.” But you wait around long enough, you get the waves that you like, and they just keep coming. They’re there to be had.
What’s good surfing to you?
I guess… someone who makes it look easy. It’s taken a long time to learn how to just be relaxed, you know? Like, we were conditioned to just do manoeuvres. That’s not your free form coming out, your creative side. That’s something you’ve been taught and it took a long time to break that conditioning, but the nine-foot board sorted that out. I’ll ride them in all waves. It doesn’t have to be big. And some of the old boys down at Margies, they’re awesome. Like, some of the 60-year-olds charging the big days, that’s good surfing, mate. Some of the guys here are really good, because they’ve put in 20 years at certain waves. The waves, the actual wave that’s in front of you, ride it the way it wants to be ridden. Like, take it easy.
It’s very stressful, taking it easy! [Laughing]
Mate, it seems like you’re pretty happy over there.
Yeah, mate. I’m living in a sea container at the moment, but it’s awesome here. It’s epic, mate and there’s so much of it here. Like, you don’t have to go and surf the crowded places. Still plenty of room to go and do your own thing.