Selecting interview subjects for SW’s 60th anniversary mag was tough. It’s a long roll call of surfers who’ve been involved with Surfing World over the years, many of them involved over decades, most all of them holding a deep, fond place in their psyche for the mag and their time spent within its pages. But picking someone whose journey through the ‘90s also said something about surfing in that decade, we couldn’t go past Bob Bain. Surfing boomed in the ‘90s. It got faster, busier. The money flooded in and as it did, holding onto core surfing values became harder. For Bainy and for all of us. Only problem for Bainy, was that at the start of the ‘90s he was number one in the world, which made it a little trickier. The sealer though was that Bob Bain was born in September 1962… the same month the first issue of Surfing World was published. It felt like the mag made the call here. – Sean Doherty
SW The world in 1990… what did it look like for you?
RB Well, I was number one in the world for most of that year. It was the year that I did really well and actually challenged for the world title, which came as a bit of a shock… to me and others. There were highs and lows, to be honest. I lived on emotion and kind of went hard at it; trained hard, surfed hard, but then also tended to go off the rails a little bit from time to time. From a relationship point of view, I was with my girl, Kath, and we were trying to make our way in life. We’d moved into an apartment, and I remember for us it was a really topsy-turvy year. I remember trying to come to grips with what it meant to be number one in the world, and people suddenly having a different opinion of you. I had a bit of a hard time dealing with that.
SW In what way?
RB All of it. Because I fell into pro surfing. I didn’t really map it out from an early age or have any training or coaching. People like me just fell into a position where they were all of a sudden a pro surfer. I had no idea what that meant, really. I’d come from a working background, and so I just felt a like a square peg in a round hole. Early that year I won the Narrabeen event, which was beamed live on Wide World of Sports nationwide, and my whole world changed pretty quickly when I won it. I was number one in the world, and then that’s when everything just blew up. At the time, me and Kath were trying to navigate our way as young people in life. Doing it all on our own with no real support mechanism, and me having a tendency to run hard at certain times made for a pretty volatile year. I was in the lead for maybe two-thirds of the year, but it all came crumbling down pretty quickly at the back end. It was a bittersweet sort of year for me.
SW I found a great quote that someone said about you at the time, that you were the “surf star for the common man”. Is that what you were trying to reconcile?
RB Yeah, I think so. I came from a slightly different background to a lot of the other guys. I stumbled onto the tour, and my personality is that I like people to like me, which can be good and bad. Sometimes you need to be very selfish and self-focused to be successful. I always felt like I wanted to make sure that I did the right thing by people, that I had time for people, that I was approachable. I like that quality in people, but I think sometimes that comes at a cost as well, in a competitive sense. When you go into that number one position, all of a sudden it comes with the territory… people look at you differently. They have an opinion of you that may not necessarily be right. Then, that thing about being number one in the world is you want to stay there, and you want to try to win that world title, and it becomes a big mental focus. From where I’d come from, that pressure was just a bit too much for me to handle.
SW How did you feel when the world title eventually slipped away, and you realised you weren’t going to be that guy at the end of the year?
RB It was tough. It was tough in a sense, but at the same time, I was with Kath, and I felt like I always had the next year. I didn’t feel like I’d lost everything, but it was a tough pill to swallow. I felt like there were a couple of heats that got away from me that shouldn’t have, and then there were a couple of times where I fell off the wagon and did myself some damage.
RB Yeah, a little bit.
SW You weren’t alone. At that time a lot of the Aussie guys were at a bit of a reckoning with their animal ancestry and trying to work through it and curb some of their more excessive behaviours. Herro was world number one the year after that again, and we saw how that ended up.
RB I think if you look at it closely, everything was on offer at every single event that you went to, all around the world. Only the languages and the culture changed, but the actual environment was the same. If you were a young kid with no mentorship or support mechanism around you, it was dangerous. I think at least one thing I had was the street smarts to navigate danger and be wary of certain situations. And I was never really big on drugs. Yeah, I drank too much and that’s a drug itself and a horrible one at times. I choked on a few schooners, but I was never really into drugs. The thing on the tour in those days everything was on offer everywhere, from drugs to girls to parties to craziness, and if you didn’t have the skillset as a young man to navigate that or the help to get through it… we saw a lot of casualties, and it was quite sad, actually. You had Christian surfers on tour who used to do Bible studies, but on the other end there was just complete madness and there were predators all around that area as well. It was just a very dangerous little zone, travelling around the world.
SW Did you give up beer at one point?
RB I’ve had a love-hate relationship with beer and drinking my whole life. I mean, I come from a family heritage who were pretty solid drinkers. A Geordie and a Scots lady, and I grew up around it, and it’s part of Australian culture as well. I think for me, it was just the certain periods in my life I just had to reign it in and keep an eye on it, and I don’t think it’s too uncommon for most Aussie blokes who’ve had to go, “Fuck, I’ve given it too much of a nudge, I’ve got to pull back.” I think I had a year off, and then when I had my first beer the line was, “It was like a thousand angels crying on my tongue.”
SW It seemed like you were on a slow drift away from the tour during the nineties. Would that be a fair statement?
RB I think for me, it was really about trying to provide for myself and my girl. We got married the following year, and Billy came along in ’92. Those subsequent years the family started to build, and I think I just lost interest in being a competitive surfer. Never lost any love for surfing. I mean, that goes without saying. But the competition side of it… I never really got off on the scene of the tour. I enjoyed some of the camaraderie, but I didn’t enjoy the ego. I didn’t quite enjoy playing the game. If I had my way, I would’ve been wearing a pair of black boardies and surfing a board with no stickers on it. As Reggae once told me, “Bob, if you don’t get a brighter wetsuit and something going on your board, you’re never going to get a cover of Tracks.” I think it was pretty true.
SW When the kids arrived, did it feel you were starting to move out of one world and into another?
RB Absolutely. It just changes you. I think I was still pretty young and stupid at heart, and me and Kath seemed like very young parents when I look back on it. On tour, me, Tom Curren and maybe Fabio Gouveia were some of the first guys who travelled with a baby. I made a pretty firm decision that I wasn’t just going to leave Kath at home in the early days. She saved up and joined me, and when we had Billy, we figured you didn’t have to pay for an airfare, you just put him in one of those bassinets. So we just carried him around in a little bag. I think there was one night in France, we had dinner and actually left him at the restaurant. We’d forgot him under the table. I figure with kids, as long as they feel loved it doesn’t matter where they are. We travelled a lot together and with Billy, it really made things harder, but life’s a long journey and I think it was important for me and Kath to be able to do that together. We’re still together today, which is nice.
SW Tell me about walking away from the pro tour.
RB When I retired in ’95, I think I was 33. I seemed like the old guy on the tour. Maybe because of my life circumstances – I was having a second kid, I’d been around it for a while – but my time on tour was only really 10 years. It wasn’t a long time, but for some reason I just felt like I was now becoming the older guy on tour, and closer decisions weren’t going my way. I felt the writing was on the wall. It was definitely like I was being shown door from my sponsor at the same time. I walked away from it top 10 in the world, and it was time to open up that other chapter of my life.
SW I was going to ask you about the moment you retired. You called it on the spot at G-Land, right? When you got your perfect 10?
RB Yeah, well there was a lot of emotion around G-Land for me, just because of that tsunami experience and nearly dying there a couple of years earlier. In my mind I was kind of cooked, so then when I heard the event was on in G-Land for the first time, I decided that in my mind, that was going to be the last place I wanted to go and compete.
SW Put a few of the ghosts to rest from the tsunami as well.
RB Absolutely. Sometimes you don’t realise how deeply those traumatic events sit in your very being, and I think for all of us who were there in ’93, that’s the case. The ones of us who were close to dying, that lived really deep within us. For me to go back to G-Land and compete meant a lot. I was with Law (Simon Law). We stayed up pretty much all night one night we were there, and it meant a lot to us. We actually returned recently. I took Billy back with me and we went for the 25-year ceremony, and I wept a lot when I was there. But that event in ’95, for me that was a turning point of the tour. After that time, Rabbit’s vision came to life and the tour was taken to the best waves in the world. It became so much better.
SW And you’d just left.
RB My timing has never been impeccable.
SW You mentioned Hot Tuna was fairly important for you around that time. The surf brands generally in the ’90s were losing a lot of that backyard industry vibe and it changed into a different game.
RB Yeah, I think it was just money. The surfwear market went ballistic, and anyone who was in the right place at the right time could become quite wealthy fumbling their way through. There was so much cachet in and around surf and brightness and pro surfing. A lot of those people came from pretty grassroots upbringings as surfers and just found themselves in this position of just incredible chaos and hunger and ego, and the thing just went ballistic. I think we were all trying to make sense of that, and in a way, we were small pawns in a bigger game. We were sort of dancing bears, and in some cases, we didn’t reap the rewards so much… but we got to experience some great times. In a way that was incredible fun, just to be part of the madness of the time, but I think a lot of people were trying to make sense of their role, be it the brand owners or even the dancing bears.
SW After you called it at G-Land and you went home and you suddenly weren’t a pro surfer anymore, how did you adjust back to civilian life?
RB Yeah, really tricky. I went straight into a day job. I went to work for Hot Tuna, and the first sort of agreement was, “Hey, we’ll still use you in shoots and filming, and if there’s something on, we’ll grab you, but your role is a sales guy.” You go from one extreme to another pretty quickly. One moment you’re in Indo and you’re living the life and you’re surfing perfect waves, and then the next minute you’re sitting in traffic, on your way to the city. I remember sitting there one day just looking up and watching a Qantas flight go overhead and thinking, “Fuck, what have I done here?” I also had to wear shoes every day to work, and I was so used to not wearing shoes that my feet reacted, and I had this crazy tinea thing on my toes. I was working in Oxford Street, in the guts of the city. I just couldn’t quite wrap my head around it. It was a world kind of foreign to me, but I knew my reality was that to pay the bills, to provide for my family, I had to start grinding again.
SW You’ve done quite a few Hugh and Bruce roadtrips over the years. They had an almost magic quality in print, but what was it like to be in the car?
RB Yeah, I mean, they were amazing guys. They were so committed to what they did, and you had this Felix and Oscar, odd couple scenario. They were completely different dudes. Bruce was really outgoing, great surfer obviously, had the gift of the gab. He could do the ad sales and all that sort of stuff, and then Hugh was super eccentric, really quiet, quite cynical but brilliantly artistic. This odd couple came together and just made magic, really. They both had Saabs, which kind of was a really weird deal back in that time period. But they had a method to their madness. The experience of jumping into the car with those guys and doing a trip down the coast… I remember being squashed in the back seat with big Simon Anderson next to me on one trip down to South Coast Pipe. Simon opens up his little container and he says, “Here you go, Bob, here’s a bit of last night’s dinner,” and he had the steak that he’d cooked on the barbie last night that Sharon had chopped up into little strips. I was sitting there eating steak with Simon Anderson, my hero. For me, when I was young, I didn’t have a car. I couldn’t travel, so Narrabeen was a world away. I used to idolise those guys like Simon, so to be sitting with him in the backseat of a car with the guys from Surfing World was a big deal. I just loved their company. I just loved them as humans. I thought they were really great people, and they really cared about the product they made. There was so much time and effort involved. I mean, they changed the Australian landscape for surfing, through their magazine, through that time period. It was just brilliant. The words they used to create a story, the iconic Australian artwork they built in and around those pieces. It broke the magazine up beautifully as well, so you were transported into this thing that we all love so much, doing road trips, what every surfer does. In Australia you can drive a couple of hours each way from the city, and you’re transported into another world, and they just had this really iconic Australian way of capturing that. It was almost like a dream, you know, the way they did it. Iconic mags like ‘Road Song’ with Crammy and Barton down the coast; Barton in that black and white wetsuit, Crammy ripping. All these iconic trips that meant so much to us as Australian surfers. There’s so much beauty in those memories.