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Surf’s up!

Surfs Up!

“A giant green cathedral, and I am there”: These were the words uttered by Bob McTavish back in the ’60s to describe the cosmic experience of riding waves.

Surf language. You hear it everywhere around these parts and to many it’s become so engrained in the psyche you go ‘dude, ripping, sick, tubed’.

Surfing has ripped through the psyche of Byron Bay and Australia as a whole. The language has crept into the vocabulary of so many in these parts and it’s not about to stop anytime soon.

Malcolm Knox, Taylor Miller and John Witzig began the Friday morning session at the Macquarie tent of the 2011 Byron Bay Writers Festival to a crowd of faithful surfers and literary lovers.

Dropping into the session, I – as a surfer, living on the outskirt of Byron Bay – had the revelation dawn on me that surfing is the one thing that drives me. I go surfing every single day. I wear clothes from surf brands. I am influenced by the archetypes of professional surfers. I adopt various types of speech when I’m talking about surfers or talking to surfers.

“Looks pretty crook,” one guy says.

“Meant to be comin’ up tomorrow,” I retort.

Language is something that surfers have taken liberty with and yet there isn’t much fiction writing about surfing.

In the early days there was the magazine, Tracks. Founder Paul Witzig explained the freedom they experienced, creating a counter culture to the conservative overtones of the day.

“[Tracks] was a reaction to everything…environmental, politics, the wars going on.” Witzig said.

However over the years it has changed and become ever increasingly saturated by advertising. Witzig doesn’t even recognize what Tracks is these days. So has surf writing changed much over the years?

Taylor Miller certainly thinks so. She’s started her own magazine called Kurungabaa, a journal of literature, history and ideas from the sea. It’s a not-for-profit volunteer publication. People write in with everything from poetry, prose and interviews.

Taylor talked about the need for diversity in surfing, as the many characters the proliferate in the culture these days are as from all walks of life – from Italian surfers, lawyers, students, artists, and hippies. So how does one represent surfers and write for them?

This was one of the questions raised and a timely one with Malcolm Knox’s book The Life about an aging surfer trying to work out how he’s got to where he is now. It borrows generously from the stories of Michael Peterson. The drugs, crime and mental illness are apparent in the book and synonymous to the rebellion born out of surfing.

Knox opened up about his fear of failing when writing to surfers, as “it’s hard to approach the subjective truth when writing about surfing”. I couldn’t agree more. Reading Knox’s book The Life, it struck me how he’d manage to find a voice that channels the inner rhetoric of a surfer. He explained he tried to “bottle speech and get it to the page”. The repetition of such rhetoric is not unlike the undulating waves of the ocean which D.K., the lead character, narrates with at will.

“[Surfing] disappears in the moment of its creation,” says Knox. This abrupt ephemeral relationship he says is just like writing.

Surfing has certainly changed. The lineups are tenser, competitive and the number of people surfing has increased dramatically. However despite the pecking order or industry dominance you can still escape it all, find a back beach and share a few waves with some characters.

Alex Workman, Media student, Southern Cross University 



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