PIPE DREAMS: Life on the road in pursuit of surfing glory
an extended feature on the state of Australian surfing
written and shot BY JONNY WEEKS for The Guardian
Sat in the trunk of her car in the sweltering midday sun, Freya Prumm is contentedly scraping dollops of bright orange flesh from a warm papaya before spooning them into her mouth.
Scattered around her lie several colourful surfboards, wetsuits flung over wooden stumps, a foldaway table topped with a fresh pineapple, towels, clothes, an acoustic guitar and other items befitting a typical coastal road-trip in Australia. Her car is stuffed awkwardly with a mattress offering just enough room for her to catch a decent nap before she next hits the road.
“I’m in my 20s, the prime of my life, and this is how I want to spend it,” she says. “Regardless of what I achieve, it’s the best lifestyle. I get to travel around and go to the beach.
“Like, seriously, honestly,” she says, pausing to contemplate the madness of any alternatives, “it’s the epitome of following my dream. Not many people get the opportunity to do that.”
Prumm is no backpacker or beach bum. She’s at Boomerang beach, a picturesque stretch of coastline in the Great Lakes region of New South Wales, for business. The 25-year-old is one of about 1,000 competitive surfers in Australia, and many more thousands globally, all vying for a place in the World Surf League’s Championship Tour, the elite tier of shortboard surfing, where only the world’s best 34 men and 17 women compete. During the coming season she must earn enough points at Qualifying Series events, like the one at Boomerang, to propel herself onto the women’s Tour.
Over the past six years, Prumm has slowly slipped backwards from 30th to 74th in the women’s international rankings. Typically only the top six female qualifiers get promoted. She’s savvy enough to know she may never fulfil her goal and has prepared for a back-up career as a pharmacist, but is spirited enough to keep pushing.
“I feel I can break through even if my results in the past don’t look like it on paper,” she says. “I feel like I have the ability and the capacity to get there and it’s just the ultimate challenge for me to figure out how I can do that.
“I think if there’s proper desire for something it will happen. You just need to extend yourself to make it happen.”
And that’s why Prumm finds herself voluntarily sleeping in a muggy VW Golf for four consecutive nights, surviving on raw food and tins of salmon, without a shower in sight.
“In the past I’d study and train and my dad would pay for everything around the world,” she explains. “But I thought maybe there wasn’t enough hunger because life was so easy. There was no ‘If I don’t win I cannot go to the next comp’. There was no real urgency. So that’s why I’m living in my car.
“I got the mechanics to take the back seats out to make space for a napping bed; got a seedy old outdoor table, cut the legs off and chucked it in; got a mattress. All my boards are stacked up alongside it as vertical as I can get them.
“At first it was just meant to be for napping because I’m on the road a lot, but I can move the driver’s seat forward and actually sleep there under the moon and the stars. It’s so sick! I don’t do as much stretching as I used to but I spend less time on the internet, and I’ve got my little gas thingy so I can cook. It’s made me eat differently. I eat lots more raw food that requires no refrigeration.
“I think being a bit uncomfortable is just part of life and how you learn to become a better person. If this doesn’t work I don’t know what else to try.”
The competition at Boomerang is much like any other other surf tournament, only it’s a low-key “grass roots” example worth just 1,000 points to the winners, says Will Hayden-Smith, WSL’s regional manager for Australia and Oceania.
The knock-out heats last 20 or 30 minutes and surfers can catch as many waves as they like, but only their best two rides are counted. A panel of four judges determines the scores – up to 10 points for a perfect ride – with marks awarded on five criteria: commitment and degree of difficulty; innovative and progressive manoeuvres; combination of major manoeuvres; variety of manoeuvres; speed, power and flow.
There were 160 entrants in the men’s field and 64 in the women’s. Prumm, having reached the quarter-finals, a good result by her own admission, was drawn against the precocious Macy Callaghan, a 16-year-old from Avoca Beach in New South Wales, who surfing aficionados reckon could emulate such Australian talents as defending world champion Tyler Wright.
Callaghan was the world junior champion in 2016 and finished 15th in the Qualifying Series. She continues to attend both the junior and senior competitions, even if it means hurtling from one town to the next for heats on the same day, and has begun 2017 in such sterling form that reaching the Tour now seems realistic.
“I can see myself there. I think every person who wants to be there should really see themselves there,” she says. “At 16 years of age I didn’t expect things to go so well. My aim was to make the top 24 last year so I bettered that by a lot. Winning the world junior title was the cherry on top.”
Callaghan is known for the strength of her rail-game and is the type of surfer who deftly carves her way back and forth along every wave in a graceful, slaloming motion. She’s fluid, she’s powerful, she’s aggressive and there are times when her balance seems wholly implausible. Not everyone looks so effortless.
Her wave selection is also impeccable. “It all depends on the day and the conditions,” she explains.
“You’re mainly looking for the waves with an open, clean face that will allow you to do multiple turns if you can. I only really need one good wave because most of the girls aren’t getting two good waves out there. I feel like if I surf like I usually do then everything will fall into place.”
Conditions at Boomerang have been solid all week thanks to a south-easterly swell and low wind speeds – a perfect mix.
But defining the wave height can be misleading and depends on the country you’re in. Waves are usually measured from the crest down to the ocean behind, meaning the face of the wave – down which the surfer initially drops – can be twice as deep. In other words a 3ft wave is taller than Callaghan, while a 10ft wave, as competitors might face on Tour, may appear two storeys tall.
Elsewhere, the face measurement is preferred. The largest “wave” ever ridden had a face measuring 78ft at Nazaré in Portugal and was caught by Garrett McNamara.
Unfortunately it’s high tide during the quarter-final between Prumm and Callaghan, and good waves are few and far between. Prumm hangs out towards the back of the line-up hoping for the bigger set waves, but Callaghan exposes her risky strategy by going to work early, landing a 6.83 and a 5.60 with smaller waves, enough to claim the win.
Prumm knows the gamble was a bad one and is pragmatic in defeat. “I had a plan. I was so excited to catch big waves and we’d both be on this shoot-out, set after set, just going for it, and none of that happened,” she says.
“Macy was probably just surfing and having fun whereas for me it was a really big deal because it was the first time I’d hit the quarters this year, so maybe I was over-thinking it.
“It just wasn’t my day,” she adds. “My alarm didn’t even go off this morning and then I lost my scourers so I couldn’t wash my dishes.”
Callaghan goes on to win the women’s final and Prumm is one of the first to offer her congratulations after Callaghan is hoisted victoriously up the beach.
The grind tour
Like many on the qualifying circuit, Callaghan comes from surfing stock and owes some of her knowledge of the ocean to her father, Gabe, who is also her coach.
“I love having my dad by my side. I can see the improvement between when he’s here and when he’s not here,” she says.
“He was a surfer in the men’s tour, he’s also in the hall of fame for catching the biggest wave at Bells beach in Victoria. But he never really cracked it full-time – he’s a builder now.
“My dad said he really, really wanted a surfer and he thought I had a lot of potential so he put all the focus on me. He’s so happy that he’s got a girl that can surf.”
Callaghan says she began surfing aged two or three, and her attraction to the sport has been compelling ever since. “For me surfing is a way of expressing myself. You can do whatever you want and however you want.”
She adds: “The ocean is such an amazing place – it’s somewhere I’m always happy. Mother nature can throw anything at you.”
Prumm echoes that sentiment: “The feeling of riding a wave and flowing across a green wall of water and going fast is just the funnest thing,” she says. “There’s so much uncertainty. You’re sooo not in control.”
Nevertheless, Callaghan is unequivocal when asked whether she now views surfing as an occupation.
“It’s definitely one of the sweetest jobs, and I love my job, but we also put a lot of hard work in behind the scenes. We put in just as much time on land and in the gym and in the board factories as in the water. But when you get out there it’s nice,” she says.
“When I’m at home I usually do two swimming sessions a week for two hours. I was a very competitive swimmer growing up – I was an Australian champion – so that was a big part of my life and I think it really benefits me and makes me very strong. And then I also do two gym sessions and a couple of stretching sessions and yoga and also try to fit in some school work.”
“That’s why they call it ‘the grind tour’,” quips John Shimooka, a former professional surfer turned commentator and coach.
The Hawaiian grew up with surfing legends like Sunny Garcia and Kelly Slater, the 11-time world champion and icon of the sport, and describes his time as a pro surfer during the 1990s as “sex, drugs and rock and roll, with surfing in between”.
“Kids these days are so committed,” he says. “They know there’s a time and place to let your hair down, whereas back in the day our hair was always down. The first half of my career was a blur. We had some amazing experiences but I don’t regret one of them.”
Shimooka spent 13 years on the Tour, winning a top-tier event in Japan, and has since gone on to forge a career as “a colour guy” for online broadcasts as well as a brand partnerships manager for Surfing NSW and a mentor to upcoming surfers.
When asked how surfing has evolved, he is effusive in his praise of the next generation. “The type of surfing they’re doing just baffles me every time I watch: the above-the-lip surfing, the lines they draw, the way they approach tube riding, it’s just different.
“You stand there in awe of how these kids have really paid attention, watching videos of the best surfers in the world and trying to add their own little spices and touches. And you see the end results: kids aged 12, 13, 14 getting absolutely piped at Backdoor [in Hawaii] and you go ‘he’s what, 12?’, ‘he’s what, 14?’. They look like they’re in their 20s the way they approach it.”
One such protege is Kyuss King from Byron Bay, who is known for his maverick style in and out of the water.
“I grew up watching Archy [Matt Archbold], Christian Fletcher, Dane Reynolds, Mick Fanning, that’s what inspires me,” he says, before explaining that he’s on “a different path” to other kids his age, driven more by a desire to sharpen his craft than to enter contest after contest.
His father, Justin King, adds: “Kyuss is young, so is my other son, and you don’t want to fall into a trap of just getting four turns to the beach. This is their time to be progressive and experience a lot of different waves and fine-tune their style. You want to be able to feel free to fall off and try new manoeuvres which you can’t always do in comps.”
Rebellious, backyard sport
The formation of the World Surf League three years ago has offered much-needed unity, structure and commercial value to an increasingly professionalised sport. Surfing has even been accepted into the Olympics in 2020, much to Shimooka’s joy. Though he warns the organisers must “get it right” because “then and only then will surfing be legitimised as a top professional sport”.
Surfing has a rich history, of course. Having originated in Polynesia, it was brought to Australia in 1908 before Duke Kahanamoku’s exhibitions at Sydney’s Freshwater beach helped further broaden its reputation. Since then it has become a cornerstone of Aussie culture. The first surfing world championship was held at Manly in 1964, the International Professional Surfers world governing body was created in 1976 and by 1983 the Association of Surfing Professionals was formed.
Until recently the tour schedule was organised in piecemeal fashion by varying sponsors, each one owning the rights to a different event in the season’s calendar. However, following the financial crisis of 2007-08 sponsors had less money to invest, allowing the equity group ZoSea to take over and create the World Surf League. The WSL is now a slick operation with a digital-first approach to live broadcast, streaming more than 800 hours of surfing competition a year without any authentication barriers or paywalls.
“Three years in, I think everyone would say we did the right thing,” Hayden-Smith says. “We’ve become much more professional, we’ve figured out how to support ourselves without relying on the surf industry and it’s a much more refined product for the surf fans. I think they’re the ones who’ve benefited the most.”
Women’s surfing, junior surfing, big-wave surfing and longboard surfing are all given prominence alongside the main men’s shortboard tour, and the prize money for men and women is representative of the number of entrants in each competition. Thisethos has delivered growing interest in all facets of the sport and better prospects for up-and-coming surfers.
“The WSL makes money off the top end to support the lower end, and the lower end acts as a feeder system [to the Tour],” Hayden-Smith explains. “Ethan Ewing is a perfect example. This time last year he won the contest in Burleigh and won a couple of pro juniors, but before that no one had really heard of him.
“He then qualified for the Championship Tour at 18 years old. No Australian has done that since Taj Burrow 20 years ago.”
However the WSL was rocked at the start of this month by the withdrawal of Samsung, its principal sponsor. That news followed the resignation of Paul Speaker as the WSL’s CEO in January, albeit a move Speaker, also the league’s co-owner, had long envisaged.
A WSL spokesperson said: “We certainly enjoyed our partnership with Samsung, but the sport enjoys a number of commercial partners so we very much look forward to having a great year and keep building the sports revenue model in future years. I think we’re fairly convinced that this season will go without a 2017 title sponsor for the Championship Tour. We’re on the eve of the start of the season but we’ve had a number of really, really exciting conversations with potential partners for future years.
“Paul Speaker is part of the ownership group and acquisitional team. He began the 2013 transitional year [when the Association of Surfing Professionals became the WSL] as the company CEO with the intent to transition out of that role. There was a lot happening in the sport for those first years. He stuck around, stewarded the sport to its current position and he’s stepped out of that role to spend more time with his family but remains part of the ownership team.”
Fans and journalists have been critical of the WSL. Tracks magazine wrote that in the WSL’s infancy competitive surfing had lost some of its “spontaneity, fun and humour”, while supporters and elite surfers continue to rail against the scoring system amid suggestions of favouritism and inconsistency.
For those who wish surfing would remain a “rebellious, backyard kinda sport” – to borrow a line from the podcast Ain’t That Swell – accusations persist that the sport is losing its soul. Hayden-Smith counters: “When you look at who we are and what we do, we are the rebellious, different kinda people when you compare us to the golf players and the tennis players.
“We’re going out in the ocean where there’s sharks, there’s giant ocean waves, there’s sharp reefs – it’s a battlefield. Owen Wright got concussed [last year] and nearly drowned. No matter how polished we get we’re still going to be edgy.”
More positively, the WSL has displayed a bold commitment to protecting the marine environment through its philanthropic arm, Pure, which last year provided $1.5m to scientific research into ocean health and ecosystems, ocean acidification, sea-level rise and climate change.
“Surfing is unique in that its playing field is a living ecosystem,” says Jessi Miley-Dyer, women’s commissioner of the WSL. “As surfers, it is incumbent upon us to do what we can to protect the oceans.”
Chess and chequers
This year’s WSL Tour features 11 venues for the men, 10 for the women. Three of them are in Australia. The season begins this week at Snapper Rocks on the Gold Coast (14–25 March), followed by Margaret River in Western Australia , then Bells Beach in Victoria, before moving overseas. The tour rolls on to Rio, Fiji, South Africa, Tahiti, California, the south of France and Portugal, with the final event at Pipeline in Hawaii in December.
With 10,000 points and US$100,000 on offer to the winner of each Tour event, surfers know that one victory in a season should guarantee them a spot on the Tour the following year.
Or at least that was the case until last year when Keanu Asing became the first surfer to win an event (at Hossegor in France, where he defeated the likes of John John Florence, Kelly Slater and Gabriel Medina) and be relegated in the same season. His mistake was inconsistency.
“Being on the Tour was a dream come true,” says Asing, with conflicting pride and regret. “You’re competing at the highest level, surfing against your heroes. You have to be on point, no flaws, because the other competitors there will capitalise on your mistakes.
“It hurt me a lot [to be relegated]. Ask anyone who’s around me: my mom, my dad, my fiancée, my coach. I worked so hard to get to that point, so much sacrifice and money and energy getting there. To have it slip through my fingers is really tough. But now it’s like ‘How do I come back?’
“My love for competing and getting good scores and making heats and winning contests is still there, that’s why I do this. It’s addictive.”
Most surfers in the Qualifying Series are committed to reaching the Tour, but one of the quirks of the QS is that anyone can enter and, if there are sufficient spots, even an unseeded novice could find themselves paddling out in a heat against someone of Asing’s quality.
“About 30% of the entrants are really trying to make a career out of it and another 30% like the excuse to take time off work because they know if they have a dream run they could probably win a contest. The rest are juniors,” says Hayden-Smith.
“I remember a few years ago we had a spare spot at an event in Burleigh and this kid who was the ultimate surf fan paid the $50 membership and the $100 entry fee just so he could have a photograph of himself in the jersey, paddle out and surf Burleigh with only three other people. He got smashed in the heat but he’ll probably remember that forever.”
But the Qualifying Series is never easy, Asing stresses. “You have guys on the QS who are more hungry. They’re trying to pull you down, so you’ve got to be on your game or they’re going to pass you. I feel more pressure at these events. On Tour I’m the underdog, the odds are stacked against me, and that’s where I compete best.
“I refer to it as playing chequers and playing chess,” he says. “The CT guys plays chess – it’s a real strategic game – but sometimes when you come back down to chequers it kinda simplifies things a lot more.”
The 23-year-old is coached by Shimooka, who wanders over to give his pupil a pep-talk before his semi-final. Asing has charged through the competition, scoring 19.30 in his first heat, and goes on to win the men’s title.
Shimooka is philosophical about his plight. “He belongs on the Tour, he knows that, but you’ve got to have resilience about you, we’ve spoken about that,” he says.
“Just because there’s a minor setback doesn’t mean your career is over. He’s young, he’s driven and he’s got more heart than some world champions have got.” Indeed, Asing’s motto is “heart over height”, because he is just under 5ft 5in.
“I see myself winning more events like France, I’m so capable of doing that,” he adds. “To have the kind of experience I have and that kind of win [in France] already gives me confidence. It’s like: yeah I got one under my belt, I know what it takes to win and how to beat the best guys. For me I just think that’s another bullet in my gun.”
There is, however, a darker side to falling from the top tier of competitive surfing. The restructured WSL has attracted sponsorship deals from brands traditionally outside the world of surfing and so have the elite surfers who make the cut. But in losing his spot on the Tour, Asing lost his main sponsor, too. Luckily he didn’t squander his winnings from France.
“When you’re on the Tour you’re making good coin. But now that win last year is keeping me afloat this year,” he says. “I’ve still got really good sponsors in Rockstar and Loco Motion but it definitely does hurt. Financially it’s tough because what we do is expensive – flights, accommodations, events, surfboards – the whole cost is super expensive.
“But I didn’t spend my money stupidly. I kinda saw this coming, so I saved my money and it’s all going to be invested into myself and that’s probably the best investment I can make.”
At the opposite end of the scale, the marketability of youth makes surfers like Caleb Tancred a big draw. Tancred, just turned 16, comes from the same Avoca beach neighbourhood as Callaghan and, like Callaghan, he was scouted years ago by the surf brand Billabong. It provides his boards, helps fund his travel costs and is generating hype around his undoubted talents.
“I’m so lucky I get to travel and live the life I do at the age I am,” Tancred says. “My mum and dad kinda figured they wanted to give me the best crack at what I’m doing so they said ‘you’re kinda doing two things [school and surfing] half-heartedly, so you may as well have a good crack at surfing while you’ve got the best opportunity of your life.
“I’ve got no financial fears at all at this stage. The people around me are so supportive, I’ve got nothing to worry about.”
Prumm, on the other hand, has never had a sponsor. “I sometimes question whether my whole demeanour is suitable for professional sports: what I wear, what I say, how I sleep,” she admits. And while she is by no means downbeat or truly on the breadline, she is short for cash.
“I’ve cleaned high-rises and been a dish-pig and worked in fish ‘n’ chip shops, whoever will take me. I worked for less than 10 bucks an hour in one place,” she says, before dusting a slice of pineapple with cinnamon as part of her frugal surfer’s lunch. “It’s hard when you’re just scrapping around for whatever job you can get but it’s probably the happiest I’ve ever been.
“I’ve got 30 bucks to last me until Monday, so what’s that, 10 bucks a day? But it’s a challenge, you know. What’s the worst that can happen? I’ve got friends, I’m sure they’ll give me a tin of beans one day if I need it.
“If you just relax and trust that it’ll be cool, you’ll find a way,” she adds. “And I’ve got a guitar so I can always go busking.”
Prumm is mellow as she prepares to leave Boomerang and though she is knocked out of her next event, the Australian Open, in the first round, there are plenty more qualifiers on the horizon.
Her life as a professional surfer may appear quixotic and her prospects may be modest, but Shimooka reckons the allure is easy to understand.
“There’s no secret to it. There’s no special ingredient as to why they want to do this over something else,” he says. “It’s just simply, wouldn’t you want to go out there and ride waves in some of the best locations in the world and test your ability against the best surfers?
“If you know how to surf, yes. If you haven’t experienced surfing, go try it. You’ll see what we mean.”