Paul Morgan interview by Brett Burcher
A decade or more ago, Paul Morgan was at the forefront of big-wave performances in Australia and knocking on the door of an international breakthrough. Charging, falling from the sky, then, in the very next breath he was gone. Today, Morgs is a family man, husband, carpenter… but still surfing. As a lifelong friend and travel companion during his surfing career, the thing I noted that set him apart from others was his limitless approach to waves of consequence and the skill in which he attacked them. Never once did I see him not up for the challenge, nor rise to meet it. That’s all still there, and on January 21 we saw it. “Catching that wave has reminded me to take life’s opportunities with two hands and take it,” is how he described it. Morgs took his opportunity with two hands. The ride was as theatrical, technical, consequential and well deserved as any to come before it on Australian shores. It was a wave that revealed his true character. The following interview took place in my living room 10 days after the wave was ridden.
Burch: What’s life look like right now for you?
Morgs: I’m a carpenter and a father of two kids, nine and six. I’m a husband. Trying to still surf consistently and keep healthy. I’m renovating our house at the moment so trying to finish that and get a roof over our heads. That’s about my life.
How many houses have you attended to in the last five years?
I built a new house, sold it. Sorry, I bought a house – reno’ed it – sold it. Bought a new house, sold it. And now, I’ve bought another one, and I’m renoing, but really, that shit doesn’t matter in the scheme of things, does it?
No, but it’s interesting to know what you’ve been up to.
It’s funny how when you work really hard and get in work mode, like I am currently, how over that shit you get. I just can’t stand talking about real estate or money.
Yeah, but rewind a year ago, in our circle of friends, that’s all anyone was talking about, right?
Yeah, life’s so weird like that. It just goes around in circles. Full phasing, everything’s a phase. Like I was saying earlier, I want a campervan now. I never would have said that two months ago.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t reckon you would have said that if you hadn’t caught the wave you did last week.
One hundred per cent not, and I also wouldn’t have said that about real estate either [laughs].
Would it be fair to say that during all your Block-style renovating and other life priorities, you didn’t exactly walk away from surfing, but it went solidly on the back burner?
Yeah, it did. I’ve always been into maintaining health and fitness but then again, I’ve dropped the ball a few times as well, like everyone does I suppose. I guess, when you’re determined to do something, you just do whatever it takes to get there. Especially in work goals, or any goals.
Do you reckon you have a tendency toward OCD on whatever you’re working on?
Yeah, I’m like that with anything. I get pretty obsessed and like giving it my all. I just like to put in full effort, and sometimes that works against me. I might burn myself into the ground, which I nearly did building a house from scratch and trying to do it solo. But sometimes it works positively because you can get a lot done. I’m gradually learning that it’s all in the balance. In saying that, fuck, when are you going to find that balance your seeking? Who’s ever found it perfectly? [Laughs]
Let’s go back to the year in your mid-20s, when you lost Rusty as a major sponsor and soon after, your first-born Murphy came into the world. How were those years as a transition?
Yeah, so 2009 was the best year I had as a pro surfer… or whatever it can be referred to as. That was the only time I ever earned decent money out of it. It wasn’t exceptional money, but it was a living at the time. That same year I had already started my building apprenticeship but I canned it because I was getting paid to surf. I was like, “All right, I’m just going to have a solid year, hit it hard and see what I can achieve. It turned out to be a really productive year. I traveled everywhere, scored five covers and 80 pages of editorial. Towards the end of that year, Rusty was promising me a good wicket for the following year but then the Global Financial Crisis hit, and I just got basically… axed.
Chopped. Completely. And then, with that, Arnette dropped me too because Rusty dropped me (laughs). And then… it was just a fucking snowball. All of a sudden I had nothing basically. I had a few family things going on also at that exact time. My dad got diagnosed with dementia, which at the time I didn’t even know what that was. I got dropped by Rusty, and there was just this period of time where I had to grow up, fucking stand up, and yeah, I didn’t deal with it well straight away. It took a little while to find my feet, get on with life, start my apprenticeship again and be there for my family. Pretty crazy times those couple of years but looking back I wouldn’t change it for the world.
At the time, did those turn of events impact your desire and love for what surfing meant and felt like to you?
I maybe even fell in love with surfing again. The sponsorship misfortune stopped bothering me after a little while. That’s not why I surf big waves anyway. Big-wave surfing became more of an outlet to deal with my old man’s dementia, and all the shit that was going on in the background. And it felt good to do that, in that manner. That’s when we went to Hawaii together. I had a really good season over there, and was surfing lots around here, just paddling some good waves and feeling really good. I still had dreams to go and surf big Mavericks, and some of those other Northern Hemi spots. I arrived home from that season in Hawaii to the news that my partner was pregnant with Murphy. It was pretty rattling to begin with, I was only 25, but once it sunk in I started seeing it as a sign. Dad getting sick, I’ve got a son coming… it was all a sign to reshape my path forward. In my head, I was thinking, I’ll get my carpentry thing happening. That’s what my dad really wanted me to do and I’ll get my surfing happening for myself.
So, you saw your Dad’s illness and Murphy’s arrival as a sign.
Yeah, I was on the right page, but I had to set myself up basically. I had no money. I was 25 and I just had to get my shit sorted. Try to get a house and get ahead a little bit. In that short amount of time, I felt like I grew up, and became a man or whatever.
You finished your carpentry apprenticeship so obviously you were set up as a tradesman, but you were not financially set up. So from there you went to work in the mines?
Yeah, I had to catch up financially, or even just make a solid start. I knew I just had to rip in for a few years and do what I had to do basically. Surfing definitely took a back seat, a major one.
And that was during Murphy’s initial two years on the planet, right? Big sacrifices.
Yeah, it was huge. I absolutely hated leaving but I was just so determined. I knew, later on, it would all be okay and worth the sacrifice. I did four weeks on, one week off. One stint went for 14 months, the other about a year.
During those times, was the burning desire to surf still existent or was it, out of sight, out of mind?
Yeah, it was definitely there. When I was still in my 20s I felt as though I didn’t quite finish what I had started, I suppose. But now I don’t care, I’m happy just to be surfing, because I missed so many waves, and I’m just happy to be healthy and living.
Love it. Let’s go to the days leading into this recent swell where you rode the wave of your life. Tell us about how everything came to be.
Okay so, I never kind of commit to a swell these days until I’ve seen the ocean. I don’t know, everyone gets so caught up in the hype of surf forecasting, but I don’t get caught up in it at all. I just go on what I see with my eyes, and what I think when I look at it. Everyone was going down for the day before – the day that I initially thought was going to be good – which was the Wednesday. Tuesday arvo I surfed, and it was howling onshore, so I knew it wasn’t going to be good the following day. Elliot Marshall and I were now looking at the Thursday because it looked like favourable light winds, but we were skeptical about the swell size. Wednesday turned out to be shit and I just surfed near home and had a fun day. It was still picking up that afternoon and the swell lines were getting bigger and better. On dark, it was even bigger than the morning, so I was thinking to myself, “If you don’t go down tomorrow, don’t ever fucking talk about going down there ever again!” [laughs]. I’m living at my Mum’s place while we renovate and her place is on the beach, so I’m watching this swell like a hawk, just going, “Come on, get your shit together.” It got to about 8:30 at night and I still hadn’t fully committed or got a single thing ready. I was pretty much in bed actually and Elliot rings me. He’s like, “We’re going, hey?” And I was like, “Yeah, yeah, we’ll go, we’ll go.” So, I decided at 8:30 that night. I had my board and wettie up in the shed so I knew all I had to do was just throw it in. Once I had committed, I was telling myself, “In the morning, just get your board, get your wettie, go down there, put your fucking legrope on and just paddle out.” That helps me simplify it in my head.
Being the middle of summer, it had obviously been a while since you’d seen waves of any kind of consequence, let alone what you were greeted with that morning. Did it turn out to be the simple drill like you had assured yourself or was it a rude wakeup?
Yeah, fucking slapped me in the face, that’s for sure! A big hard one. Yeah, because last season was shitty, we didn’t even get a single good day out there. There was a couple of junky days but I don’t think I even went down once. When we got out there on the Thursday, it was big. It was big and it was thick, and everyone was paddling. We got out and headed straight into the pack, and these sets were just coming in like… it’s hard to explain, but not many people were catching anything in the morning. I was watching a lot, positioning myself where I like to sit, and these big sets are coming in and I’m swinging, trying to look at them and perhaps get into them, and it’s just not happening… it was just so thick, and a bit high tide still. You just could not get down these waves, they were moving too quick and were too steep.
Tell us about the doubt that creeps in during those early moments, when there’s a hungry crowd, the anticipation is there, the moments fully arrived, there’s eyes watching you, wanting you or someone other than themselves to pull the trigger.
I can feel it when people expect me to go sets. That morning, people were looking at me like, “Fucking go” and expecting me to take off on these mutant things. I was feeling a bit of anxiety, thinking, “Fuck, I don’t know if I can do this.” The pressure was just hectic, and no-one was catching any. I ended up pulling back on three sets, and I was like, “This is just too nuts.” Then I was like, “Okay, I’m going to go on the next one no matter what.” I was in the spot and just committed hard but I just couldn’t get down it and became part of the lip, went over on a solid 12-footer at the peak and got obliterated. I couldn’t believe I didn’t hurt myself or snap my board. I came up unscathed with nothing wrong with me. My legrope came off and the board was right there, only 10 metres away.
Was there another wave after?
Russ Bierke took the next one behind mine, and that’s when he cut his arm open [Russ required several stitches]. It was ugly in the morning. I survived that wipeout, but I was still sort of doubting myself. I went back out to the lineup and I was like, “just be patient and wait for a good one, mate.” It’s the type of spot you can’t catch many waves anyway. You’re generally only going to catch, I don’t know, I reckon I catch a wave an hour usually. I sat out the back, was patient and ended up finding one. It wasn’t a huge one, just a good size one, got a barrel, came out. And then I was like, “Fuck yeah. I’m back.” My next one ended up being a big set and I got blown out of a sick barrel. I headed back out and that’s when conditions started getting really good. The wind dropped right off, the tide bottomed out and it just… it turned on and I had confidence again.
Had it been ages since you felt that confidence?
Yeah, a good year… a good year and a bit. Then this big set came and I was out the back. I was committed. Fully committed to this thing and going down it I was thinking, “Yeah, I’m good, I’m good,” and then it just bottomed out on me, that’s when I was free falling and – in my mind – I was like, “Oh no, I’m gone.”
Besides the drop being close to unmakeable, what in particular made that wave so intense?
The position I put myself in. I was deep and at the time feeling like it was not a good position to be in. I just felt this gut ache, basically like a heartache sort of thing where you’re like, “Well, you’ve sort of done it now.” And then… everything just connected, and it all just flowed from there. I landed the drop, and squeaked under the lip, which is the best feeling out there. A lot of the time, you just manage to squeak under the lip because the freefall’s so fucking gnarly. From there it was all pretty good sailing. Pretty deep, and a nice tube.
What took place after the ride that really stood out?
It was like a huge internal release, that’s what it was. Riding that wave just allowed me to get that taste again and feel alive. That’s why I love doing it. Pushing your own mind, yourself, your body, pushing all those extremes, and then coming out on top. It’s the best feeling in the world, isn’t it? Also, the mind games involved, It’s so unbelievably hectic at the time but it’s kind of addictive.
The wave gave you the opportunity, but the real shift came from within.
It’s beating the self-doubt in your mind. Because you haven’t done it in a while, you might think, “Oh, I’m done”, but it’s up to you to challenge that. Having the extremes of that surf, riding that wave, opened my eyes up to life again basically. The goal is just to keep surfing, keep healthy, not work too much and not give up on it. Yeah, that’s my aspirations.
Which is quite hard, right? The way life is commonly lived as you get older.
Yeah, it can be for sure. Society tries to stop you in ways that we often don’t realise. That’s where I’ve learnt that’s it’s all good. The sun’s still going to rise tomorrow morning. Staying true to yourself is the main thing. It’s reinforced the theory of doing what you want to do. You know when you’re a kid, not that I want to be a kid again [laughs], but you’re acting on instinct alone, you’re not weighing up money and all that other stuff that comes with decision making.
The ride received widespread recognition but one of the things that stood out to me was the genuine respect and feelgood stoke everyone had for it, especially those that know you beyond the water.
It was really cool. People reached out to me that I value as my friends, but I haven’t spoken to in 10 years. Growing up, traveling around the world, living and breathing surfing, I met so many cool people, and they’ve got me to where and who I am today. I owe everything to them really… and surfing. They were really good friends, but everyone gets in their own little life bubble and you lose touch. In the weeks since, I’ve rang a few people that I needed to reconnect with. It’s been special in that sense.
Safe to say we are all stoked for ya, doggy. Did witnessing Pete Mel and Twig have the standout seasons of their careers at their respective ages have anything to do with your little psychotic episode?
It definitely did. I remember looking at those rides around Christmas time and I got so psyched to see those guys still sending it. I swear I said it to myself the Christmas before last, “I’m going to have a good season, I’m going to have a bit of a go this year,” or something like that. But I didn’t [laughs]. Then this Christmas I said it to myself again. I was talking to Everly, my daughter, and we were looking at an old picture of me on a wave and she said something delusional but cool nonetheless, like, “You’re the man daddy.” It got me psyched [laughing] and I thought, I want to have a dabble at it again this year if the opportunity arises.
Since your Dad’s passing, do you feel like during certain life experiences – or waves in this instance – you turn to him or feel his presence to help you go to another level?
Yeah, I feel like every big wave I ride is for him. Before every trip I used to go on, he used to say, “Catch a big one for me,” so that’s what I used to do. When I’m in a hard situation, surfing or any life situation, I think back to him lying in bed, completely helpless, and it’s an instant wakeup call that where I am right now is not even remotely bad compared to his circumstances. It gives me a clear vision of what I want to achieve and forces me to grit my teeth, stop using excuses and push forward. I draw on that a lot.