SW 395: The Predictions Issue Is Coming
A Whole New SW Magazine Out This Thursday!Read more
What will tomorrow look like when so much of what we’ve known about surfing is coming to an end? Find out Thursday, February 8 in SW 395: The Predictions Issue. Join SW Senior Writer and surfing mega-mind Nick Carroll for a first glimpse, as he delves into this unprecedented period of cultural transition…
It’s 2018, gang. Unbelievable really. Nearly a fifth of the way through the new century and change is almost upon us. It quivers in the middle distance, like a shitty seabreeze. Wave pools are under construction. The Surfing Olympics are just two years away; two surfers are gonna win gold medals, and be famous in strange new ways. People are learning to surf in China. Things are about to begin.
I know all that stuff, yet I can’t see it. What I see instead are endings. Endings are everywhere.
I dunno. I might be over-sensitised to endings. I haven’t quite been able to shake the feelings engendered in me 18 months ago by the death of Midget Farrelly. Midget’s death felt to me both simple, human and touching, and also powerfully, almost overly symbolic. Here was the surfer who first characterised Australian surfing to the world. His triumph at that world contest in Manly, at 19 years of age, set something rolling in our surfing psyche, a thing that grew and grew until it overshadowed almost every other aspect of the sport – the overpowering need to win.
The will to dominate. It was not Midget’s will, but it became our will. First dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of Australian surfers were swept up in it, frothingly determined to win shit: club contests, State and National titles, then the pro scene, here, there, and everywhere. Bells, Pipe, Europe, Japan, the US, whatever. Titles were the currency of the Australian surfing realm and if you didn’t like it, you were somewhat banished to the sidelines… or maybe you just left, went to Indo or Cactus, or got a job on the Kalbarri cray boats.
People in other countries thought surfing was our national sport, they were wrong. Our national sport was winning. Surfing was something else.
But what? I’m beginning to wonder: for all the time Australians have spent surfing and all the energy we’ve put into it, are we really sure of what we want surfing to be?
If Midget’s passing seemed to crystallise my own thoughts, other things have also since crystallised. Long-term trends, in the ether for years, are suddenly solid and real or clearly on the way to it, and they all seem to be about dissolution. US private equity finally won its long play for two of the world’s biggest surf companies, and if the response of most of us seemed a bit “ah, whatever” – a stream of “QuikBong” jokes and some sarcasm about expensive boardshorts – to me it was a poignant moment. These companies may now be shadows of their former selves but there was a time when Quiksilver and Billabong were The Shit. They were us. They rose at a time when surfing was its own gig, owned by nobody, suffused with youthful energy, in the midst of that whole post-Midget roll – and they were as tangled up in it as anyone.
Between them they sponsored nearly everyone you’ve ever heard of, probably one of your mates, sometimes twice over. I could make a list, but it’d run into the thousands. The money they plowed into it ran way into the millions. All the little seedlings planted! And look, let’s face it, nearly anyone who was super actively surfing in the period between, say, 1975 and 2005, was somehow touched by one or both of these companies – by something they did or made or conveyed. Even the movies: The Performers, KS in B/W, The Green Iguana, Filthy Habits! Or the ads: Occy at Rocky, Ronnie at Pipe, If You Can’t Rock’n’roll Don’t Fucken Come. They were a part of our self-definition as surfers. They were a part of surfing.
Yeah they got too big and dominant, yeah, they blew out and made mistakes, but I tell ya what, they weren’t the only ones.
Almost in sync, Australian surfing, the male kind anyway, seems to be losing its winning edge. OK, not just “seems to” – is. At the pre-pro level, Australian teams haven’t won an international event for years. Australia invented pro junior competition, yet in January this year, at the WSL world juniors in Bombo Beach of all places, none of us even made the quarters. At QS level, there are five Australian men in the top 50.
This is long term trend stuff, and there’re more and more people talking about it, but nobody seems to have any answers.
The fact is, in the recent past, we wouldn’t have put up with it for a second. The last time Australia’s competitive surfing supremacy was challenged, by Kelly and the US/Hawaiian New School crew in the early 1990s, there was a very short period of anger or mourning or whatever, then it felt as if the entire Australian surf culture got stuck in. There was an eruption of planning, coaching and raw scrabbling: out of it came a double-up generation every bit as good as the ‘70s and ‘80s crew, from Hoyo to Fanning and then some. The last of ‘em are Julian, Wilko and Owen, the last spawn of the old Junior Series thing, grommets when Mick and Joel started winning the big events.
That was then. Now what? Have we got the energy to do all that again?
I’ve got no idea, even though I surf every freaking day. I paddle out and look around and see old people, everywhere. I just never expected to see this. Surfing feels young to me. In its essence, it feels like something best done by kids. The vast demographic shifts of the great Australian surfing era, which saw the 18-year-olds of 1976 turn into the 60-year-olds of today are no mystery, but their effects feel mysterious and odd, sorta regressive, even if they’re still somewhat unknown. They lie behind all the endings of recent times, even Midget’s – after all, Midget was at the sharp end of the Baby Boom.
Can Australian surfing survive the ageing process? One thing we don’t really know is how long a surfing life can be lived, but I’m pretty sure it ends the way it started, with you not being able to stand up. As an old mate of mine recently blurted out, in a moment of revelation: “You start out a kook, then for a long time you’re good! Then you end up a kook.”
It’s human, that line. The acceptance of yourself. Not something anyone in Australian surfing would have said 20 years ago.
Many things have broadened, and many of those things look and feel pretty cool. It’s cool that you can get hold of and ride any kind of board you can imagine, and not feel like you’re somehow out of place in the lineup. The retro-inspired increase has helped boardmakers through trying times and allowed a sense of play to carry into surf zones that once seemed a lot more like work. It’s cool that you can go on a surf trip with your family to somewhere in Sumatra, probably hosted by one of those guys who bailed on the great Aussie winning culture for a life of the Search, and found a living as well. It’s cool that you can write and talk and film about all this stuff; the breaking down of surf media into new shapes and forms has given many people a voice they might once have battled to make heard. We see a lot more surf movies these days, even if most of ‘em are short.
It all feels cool, as if we’re managing somehow to evolve beyond the thing Midget inadvertently set in motion, the wild killer days of our surfing past, when all we could do was win.
But none of it feels generated by youth. None of it feels like the Future. The Future is something else, something we haven’t quite imagined yet.
Endings come before beginnings, and some of those beginnings will turn out to be red herrings. Wave pools? Olympics? OK. Maybe, maybe not. The Future isn’t things, it’s people.
Some are gonna test us. The massive coastal housing developments coming to the western Vicco and northern NSW hinterlands will mean surf crowding in places where it’s rarely, if ever been known. At the renowned spots, well you’ve gotta suspect that Snapper won’t long be the only Australian surf spot where crowds of over 200 are the norm.
But others? The surge in young girls surfing, suddenly so apparent through the grommety reaches of the competitive ranks – that feels powerful and new. I watched super stoked the other day, as a friend sent me pics of a bunch of under-16 Gromsearchers tearing apart six foot Sandon Point, a spot where 20 years ago they’d have been forcibly barred from paddling out. These girls are the future. They can carry us into new places as a surf culture. They’ll balance out the ageing process.
Midget, with his daughters and his constant encouragement of women into the water, he’d have loved it.
That’s something. There’ll be more. I can’t wait to see it. – Nick Carroll