A little while ago I was lucky enough (through a-friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend kind of connection) to be picked up by US-based online surf publication The Inertia as a contributor. I'm really pleased to be involved with them as they put out some great contemporary content with a real finger on the pulse, and their list of contributors shows great depth and puts me in amongst some names whom I hold a great deal of respect for, and I'm humbled to have my dodgy work featured alongside them.
In my eagerness, I sent them a piece that I'd been working on for a while that easily tripled their normal word count for articles. Understandably, the editors at The Inertia had to trim it down somewhat before putting it out there, but in doing so some contributions from some friends whom I interviewed were lost. As it's been out a for almost a week now and is about to drop off The Inertia homepage, I thought I'd put up the full and uncut version here with a few extra images.
Click HERE to read the published article on The Inertia, or if you've got the time, inclination, and haven't been scared off by my highly questionable writing style already, then please read on...
Reflecting on a decade spent trying to work out the best way to get the best waves possible.
Ideally, somebody could just pay me to be me. Personally, I think I’d provide pretty good value for money but as yet I haven’t been approached. So, like the ninety-nine percent of fellow surfers who aren’t either sponsored free-surfer’s able to dictate their own agenda, or the wave riding offspring of the filthy rich, I have had to accept that as well as surfing, I need to be working.
I hadn’t really planned it as such, but looking back it appears that I’ve used most of my twenties as one extended experiment. One that revolved almost exclusively around getting as many good waves as I possibly could. I had no intention of it working out this way when a few months before my twenty first birthday I walked out of my final University exam and into a world where I didn’t have to be back somewhere come September, but that seems to be how it’s played out.
Getting the best waves possible, or “Barrels before breakfast” as my friend Kelly coined it. I’ll expand on that a little bit, because if that had been my sole aim then I wouldn’t have moved after the end of the first six months and I’d have found a way to stay put in Indonesia. I guess, digging a little deeper, my intention over the past eight or so years has been to find and maintain a way to surf good waves regularly whilst still leading a life that fulfills me. Probably pretty standard amongst the vast majority of surfers. Deep down I always knew that my aspirational dirtbag lifestyle of living in a tent on the beach or out of the back of a car wouldn’t seem so crash hot in ten or twenty years time. Girls don’t dig it after a week, and it’s rubbish when the weather’s bad. The aim is not to end up being the middle aged guy propping up the bar telling everybody stories about how bitchin’ life used to be. How could I sustain a diet of waves that make me smile in balance with all the other things that make me smile, until I’m too old to care?
So far I’ve taken three different angles of attack. Don’t ask me which one works the best; I haven’t drawn my conclusions yet.
This is how so many of us get started. When I was sixteen years old I got a job in my local surf shop sweeping out sand and making cups of tea. I used to read out the surf report to the local radio station and shuffle the wetsuits on the rails, then ended up spending my summer holidays outside on the beach hiring out foam surfboards. It was great fun, but my friends over the stream at the surf school started later, finished earlier, earned more and sometimes even got to surf on the job. Through my late teens and early twenties I surf coached alongside my friends and housemates in the school holidays, which seemed really glamorous but we were solely concerned with saving for surf trips so worked long hours repeating ourselves parrot-fashion over and over, and peeing in our wetsuits over and over. It was worth it though as in the lag time between regular school holidays and University starting again we could make trips to Europe and then further afield to places like Indonesia. When we no longer had to return for University our trips to Indonesia extended across the winter months. So many people we knew did this seasonal work routine, working a summer on the beach then a winter in the mountains moving from one scene to the next with the only difference being a change in temperature and the type of board underfoot. Same faces, same long hours and same party scene. I wasn’t into snow as much as I was into waves so worked hard for the summer season then tried to see how long I could make it last. Inevitably, it wasn’t as long as I’d have liked it to have been and I’d be home before winter had faded, pulling pints in bars and carrying plates in restaurants before the surf school opened up again and I could start the saving process over again. So this is the bi-polar option of either half a year of hard work followed by perhaps the next half a year of nothing but blissful release to surf your brains out, or six months of working hard and playing hard in one environment before shifting location for another six months of the same. I didn’t see any longevity in this approach, so one year, at the end of the summer season, I bought myself a one-way ticket.
Work Where There’s Waves
Some people are lucky enough to be blessed with this one from the outset, but it doesn’t stop them from wanting to check out what’s over the next hill; if you aren’t blessed with the good fortune to already live somewhere where the waves are consistently really good, then move to such a place and take any form of employment that keeps you there. The first problem that I encountered with this was that there’s an awful lot of places to choose from where the waves are really good, and even narrowing it down to where the waves are really, really good still leaves a lot of choice. My approach was to spend several years moving from place to place, usually on one-way tickets, bedding in and living for extended periods of time surfing, working and leading a normal life. I wasn’t on a surf trip; I was living somewhere else. When an opportunity arose to move on I’d ask myself a question, “If I had to go home tomorrow or stay here forever, what would I do?” If the answer was to go home tomorrow then I’d move on.
Now there are definitely some places where it’s just not practical to turn up and expect to get a job, fit right in and settle down; visa issues, lack of employment in less developed nations and culture shocks can all provide a stick in your proverbial spokes. But there are still plenty of options available. The point with this option is that what you do in between surfing is inconsequential. It’s all about being in the right place and having the time when the surf comes up.
The beauty of living where the waves are good is that not only can you be on it on the best day of the year, you can be in the right place at the right time, every time: Secret spots and optimum conditions for each local nook and reef aren’t common knowledge and elude visiting surfers, but it’s just the sort of inside info that you get from work colleagues, housemates and the crew that you regularly surf with and that’s what makes bedding-in to a surf community worth while.
I got some incredible waves living in this way, lived in some beautiful places and made some lifelong friends. But I found that I had a bad case of itchy feet and didn’t feel ready to lock into a place for the next fifty odd years just yet.
I wanted to surf different waves and to keep looking just to check that there wasn’t some place better, and I never earned enough money in the jobs that I took (inevitably relatively unskilled with a paycheck that reflected this) to take a holiday, so in order to take a look over the next hill I often had to up sticks and move there. Alex Espir of Initiative Surf is one surfer who’s also given this “work where there’s waves” option a really good run in his career as a surf guide and coach and he’s spent significant amounts of time in some of the world’s best wave locales. His take on it is as follows:
“Making sure that you surf every day ultimately leads to some sort of sacrifice. After a while those sacrifices can weigh heavy but in the end surfing as much as you want to, when you want to and where you want to has to become the sacrifice.
Practically, it is not as easy as you might think it would be to live and work to your satisfaction where there are waves, certainly good waves. Unless you manage to build a career around surfing the list of jobs and careers that allow you to prioritise water time is rather limited. Partners, families and jobs are inevitability going to take priority over surfing as you mature. No one can live like they are in their early twenties forever but it is up to you how much you want to keep surfing and you are in complete control of this. You simply have to try to balance the few factors against each other. The scales will always have to tip one way, you just have to work out which way they will tip for you and accept that there will always be a degree of sacrifice...and not feel guilty if they continue to tip towards surfing everyday."
At some point, when living light and perennially out of a boardbag was starting to wear thin, when I was becoming weary of starting afresh every six months or so, I recalled the early morning crew at Main Break in Margaret River. I’d been living in the region for five or six months before moving into a spare room in the house that my friend Krede lived in. He was a pharmacist who worked in town, and I was working in a pub. Most mornings we’d get up in the dark and drive out of town to the coast. It was always the same crew pulling on their wetsuits in the parking lot above Main Break before the sun had come up to warm the air: The town’s Doctor, a Teacher from the high school, the National Park warden, my housemate the pharmacist and me, a bar tender with an accent in the local pub. I was definitely the odd one out.
Move Inland and Get a Real Job
My most recent tack, and certainly the one requiring the most commitment. After a lot of thought and a giant fourteen foot long “option appraisal” laid out across the floor of my kitchen, I came to the conclusion that the best way to get consistently good waves for the rest of my surfable life was to go back to the books and get a profession. Those guys surfing the early morning shift at Margaret River were all professionals in one field or another, who’d worked hard to get to where they were now which was a position where they could surf good waves every morning before heading in to work with wet hair and earn enough for a good standard of living, i.e. multiple surf trips every year. When I worked at a friend’s surf camp in Costa Rica, all of the guests and almost all of the other surfer’s passing through were all professionals on vacation from their careers in the States. Almost every time I’ve paddled out at a good wave, particularly in an idyllic and exotic location, I’ve shared the line-up with a doctor or a lawyer, or more often than not, a teacher. Maybe there was something to it then; that prescriptive western doctrine that says you have to work hard and pay your taxes, settle down and get a “real job” that I’d been avoiding all this time. Maybe this was the key to surfing regularly, earning enough to get a few new boards and going on a trip or two every year, and maybe even migrate one day to one of those joints with all-time waves to finally end up like the doctors and teachers of Margaret River.
There are a lot of options to choose from here. Friends of mine have got themselves a trade spending years on an apprentice wage with the aim of becoming their own boss, downing tools when the waves are good and having a valuable skill that makes them desirable to certain wave-rich southern hemisphere nations. Others have hit the books hard and worked long hours away from the ocean to become Doctors, Lawyers or high-flying suits, professions that are pretty easily transferrable internationally and have hefty enough paychecks to facilitate the sort of surf trips that make up for long hours in the office.
My friend Mick Jardine made the choice to hit a ‘proper’ career hard at age 20 having had a pretty successful run at Australian State Teams and National Junior Titles, until he reached the stage on the Pro-Junior tour where he kept coming up against the Coolie kids and quit whilst he was ahead. But as well as being one of the most talented surfers that I know, Mick is also one of the most intelligent humans that I know. He works where there’re waves but he also has a very ‘real” and high-flying job so I asked him for the low-down on the hows and whys:
“The disclosures: I have a job that is largely desk bound, requires me to wear a suit, is insatiable in devouring time and involves a long vertical commute each morning and afternoon. I’m 31, married, and kid number one has just arrived. Water time? I clock probably 5 days a week locally, with a road trip thrown in every month or so, conditions dependent.
Um, balanced you said? Yes, and here’s my 101 as to the why and how:
· Take a long-term view. I did the student/gypsy thing for the best part of 10 years after high school, so I’m fine with working hard now. Over those 20 big years from late teens to late 30’s, it will level out.
· But be disciplined in the short term; I will find a way to surf tomorrow if work interferes today. Don’t be lazy and plan, it’s actually pretty easy these days with surf forecasting being so damn accurate.
· Mental stimulation, learning and enjoying your work, really matters. You’re going to spend a lot of time doing it so find something you enjoy, plus there’s nothing like time scarcity to keep the surf froth up. Trust me.
· Geography is critical. I live in Perth (I know, *yawn*) but it means I can surf every day, have a 25 minute door to door commute to a ‘real’ job and have world class waves a short drive away. On balance, it hits the brief.
· Finally, making the best of your time, today, is a great skill. It’s amazing how much energy you can waste looking back at the good ol’ days; they’re done, move on. If being busy is the price of a surf now, fine by me.
Of course this is just my template and while it works for me, there are an array of ‘right’ answers so approach with caution. And of course I have many, many days when the life of a surf ascetic drifts dreamily into my mind and I want to bail on the suit as much as the next guy.
But until I can convince the missus to sell up and raise alpacas on a farm down south, I will keep squeezing my early hour in and then racing off to work with wet hair and a grommet’s stoke. And it would take a bigger paycheque than I’ve ever been offered to unbalance that part of my equation."
I chose to take a line through the middle ground and went back to school in more ways than one, training to become a teacher. I figured that there are always kids to teach, all over the world, that the work can be engaging and fun and the holidays are good. I hadn’t figured the massive workload that teachers have, the permanent feeling of having forgotten to do something important, the long hours and the “phantom” holidays that I would have to spend marking and writing reports through my rookie years. But in the past few years I’ve probably had just as many memorable waves as I did when I was working less and surfing more, it’s just that recently those good waves have been crammed into intense, short surf trips. I’ve been able to go to places during prime time and surf all day long (career induced lack of paddle fitness allowing) rather than having to miss surfs for work, and I’ve been able to go exploring to the places on the map that I couldn’t get to before because of time or money.
Work hard, play hard, in it’s most extreme form.
I still live on the beach but I have to travel to work and I rarely get in the sea on school days until the long days of summer roll around due to our high latitude, however I get a staggering six weeks paid vacation in the summer with the world as my oyster which makes up for all of the other holidays spent working from home or going in to do paperwork in an empty classroom. Choosing this route has it’s plus and minus points in extremes. Every trip I’ve done recently I’ve run into at least one happy teacher who’s got it dialed - they’ve lucked into a good school and have achieved that elusive work/life balance. But teaching (particularly in the UK) has a high drop out rate because striking gold can take a long time to come around – I was once told by an official at Western Australia’s Department of Education that the queue to teach at one of the two high schools in the wave-rich Leeuwin-Naturaliste region stretched right back to Perth. Was I interested in teaching in a mining town in the outback though?
There really isn’t a conclusion to be drawn from this; It’s simply a reflection on just a few of the routes that I’ve taken in trying to find a way to surf better waves more often. There are clearly other ways to tackle the challenge of surfing good waves all the time whilst satisfying all of the other needs in your life, there’re bigger gambles that could be taken or more extremes that you could commit to.
I still don’t think that I’ve figured it out though so I’ll gladly accept any suggestions and give them my full consideration. If you’re lucky enough to have got it dialed, let me know how you did so please - but perhaps don’t tell everybody incase they end up doing it too.
Massive thanks go out to the crew at The Inertia for publishing this piece. If you want to know what's up in the wide world of surfing right now you ought to take a look and keep checking back.