Happy Punting

Jumping around Tasmania with Chippa Wilson.

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For over a decade, Chippa Wilson has beguiled the surf world with a wholly original take on riding waves. Hailing from Cabarita Beach, New South Wales, population around a hundred, the wiry goofyfooter helped usher in the kind of aerial surfing that requires a dictionary of skateboarding tricks to understand what’s truly going on. In the process, he’s become one of the most compelling freesurfers currently drawing a check.  

After all that time on the road launching cloud-tickling airs for the camera, however, Chippa felt it was time to find a retreat—somewhere he could indulge his more reclusive interests of surfing isolated setups and working on his motorbikes. He found such a place on 8 acres of bush-covered land on the northeast coast of Tasmania. 

While rehabbing a knee injury sustained during a lip jump gone wrong in France, Chippa hunkered down in his sanctuary at the bottom of the world to renovate the property. And with the go-ahead to get back in the water for the first time in months, he invited his longtime shaper, Matt Hurworth, and me down to check it out and surf mostly empty waves. An easy accept. 

Matt and I rendezvous at a bar inside Sydney Airport. He’s just returned from the Gold Coast, where he surfed Kirra for two days straight, and has spent the morning finishing up boards before the flight. He explains that he’s known Chippa, and has been shaping his boards, since Chip was 8 years old. He also recalls some early misgivings about Chippa’s approach. “He’d lose a heat in the juniors in the Cabarita Boardriders, and I’d say, ‘Why did you race past the sections? You could’ve done three turns.’ Luckily, he didn’t listen to me.”

After a two-hour hop over the Tasman Sea, Chippa is there to collect us at Launceston Airport and helps muscle our board bags into the back of his pickup. He mentions  he was up late last night working on the clutch of his ’64 Harley, which needs rubber tubing for the lid of one of its side casings. So, the first stop on our Tassie surfari is Bunnings hardware store. As he roams the aisles searching for the right material, it’s evident that Chippa applies the same precision to both his surfing and his garage projects.

Back on the highway, Chippa talks us through the island’s geography as the wide-sweeping plains of the “midlands” make way for the bushier “heartlands.” He then points to a rugged-looking, tree-topped tor and tells us the mountain’s name is Ben Lomond, after the peak in the Scottish Highlands. 

We stop for a James Boag’s on tap at a quaint bar in the town of St. Mary’s, where the air is spookily still. There’s a small crowd gathered for a post-work ale, and in the somnolent pub setting Matt and I reek of mainland interloper. While we sink into leather couches as we enjoy the local drink and our internal gears slow down, Chippa mentions that there’s a fun skatepark around the corner to which he and his girlfriend, Brinkley, often ride on the bike for an hour’s pushing around—standard Tassie afternoon entertainment. 

Post-pub and on the last stretch of our drive, swallowed by lush green on both sides, we take a sequence of sharp turns toward the coast. Twenty minutes later, we arrive at Chippa’s property in Scamander, where we are instantly mugged by his two dogs, Rain and Ohana. After we lap the front yard on his electric bike, we’re soon dozing off next to a blazing fire.

The next morning, we load up the car with an eclectic assortment of boards, eager to hunt down a wave on the stretch of coast between St. Helens and Bicheno. First stop is the local café overlooking the river mouth at Scamander. As we sip and wait for the kick, a tiny but perfect right spools into the threshold where river meets sea. Chippa insists the river mouth gets good when the swell is bigger, but today we’ll have to search farther afield.

We head north along the narrow two-lane highway that hugs the coast. The Tasman Sea sparkles a brilliant shade of blue and the alabaster beaches stretch for unchecked lengths, separated from the road by a few tussock-covered dunes. We pull over periodically to check different setups, and Chippa talks us through the variables for each. 

Heading back south, we stop at a long stretch known as Four Mile. Crisp white sand is interrupted by rocky outcrops that look like they’ve been dusted in bright cinnamon speckles, the effect of lichens that attach themselves to the rocks. The same phenomenon is responsible for the brilliant orange that coats rocks at the famous Bay of Fires farther up the coast.

Out in the water, a zippering little corner is enough to get Chippa excited. One of the benefits of surfing brilliance is the ability to make any wave workable. We’re soon unpacking boards and slipping on suits, though we slow up some when Chippa recalls meeting a killer whale in this very same lineup. He then grabs a few different sets of fins and a board under each arm, and charges down to the beach. 

Given a total absence of other surfers, we have the luxury of each claiming our own peak. Cotton-like clouds slow-dance across a blue sky as I look back on the rolling green slopes on land. As I swing into a little A-frame, I marvel at how much more fun surfing is when you undoubtedly know the next wave is yours.

Even in the small surf, Chippa summons speed at will. From a distance I watch his fins chuck, and plumes of spray thud against the flat ocean he leaves behind. His confidence grows with every ride, and before long he is aiming at the sky. Above the lip he is like a ribbon tossed into the wind—slack-limbed and slinky, never rigid or forced.

With no cameras around, he’s obviously compelled to race toward air sections by an internal drive. Perhaps it’s the satisfaction that comes from having mastered something difficult, having gone beyond the functional to a realm more abstract. Maybe it’s just that it will always be fun for wingless humans to find ways to fly. After every few waves, he dashes up the beach to change boards or switch fins, perennially seeking a particular kind of sensation to facilitate his trajectory. 

We each get enough waves to feel full. Peeling off the rubber on the dusted rocks, we glance back at the empty lineup. Way down the beach, a lone surfer shuffles to the water with a board under his wing. 

“He probably has this to himself every day,” Matt says with a hint of envy. 

Driving back along the coast-hugging vein of bitumen, I’m curious about the future plans a freesurfer makes. Punting to pay the bills beyond 40 seems like a tough, improbable prospect given the stress it places on the body. Chippa, now 34, doesn’t seem too concerned. 

“I’m not daunted by the idea of work. Maybe I’ll become a postie, or buy a Jim’s Mowing franchise,” he says half seriously. 

However, he’s made wise investments over the past few years that just might keep him off the mail route. He owns land back in Cabarita and has just acquired a plot in Exmouth, situated on Western Australia’s North West Cape. The goal is to escape there during the depths of Tassie’s winter, to explore its offshore setups and freedive its reefs. It’s clear Chippa relishes the idea of building his own version of Camelot, a world totally in his own vision. Despite the job requirements of posturing as often as possible in front of the camera, he admits to craving the freedom of hiding away from the surfing limelight.

It’s evening when we get back to the house after our coastal sojourn, and, it being a Friday, we decide to roll over to the Surfside Bar at Beaumaris, a few miles up the road. The front deck overlooks an ocean that is beginning to wrinkle with a building swell. It would be an ideal place to sit and enjoy a drink, but the cold snap is in and it’s too frigid outside for us mainlanders. We settle indoors and are introduced to the locals. 

Andy, a pharmacist, explains his very Tasmanian daily routine: work bookended by uncrowded surfs in rippable peaks. He and Chippa discuss a recent morning when a north swell sent thick coils spiraling across a nearby beach. The talk has us excited for the growing swell outside.

Darvis, a builder who’s done work for Chippa and Dion Agius, tells me about the nearby inland town of Derby, which is popular with mountain bikers due to a trail that winds its way through old-growth forest. Darvis explains, however, that both the mountain bikers and the general public have been hoodwinked: Just 20 meters deep on either side of the track, the trees have been felled and the forest flattened by logging. He’s just attended his first protest at Derby, and insists that for someone to experience the majesty and wonder of the forest firsthand would leave them with no reasonable justification—other than greed, of course—in cutting it down. 

The conversation emphasizes the fact that Tassie is blessed with the kind of unparalleled natural wonders that seem to be worth so much more if they’re left alone. In a way, the island serves as a microcosm for the environmental battles being fought around the world, only down here it’s typically regular folk like Darvis who are taking up the fight on the ground.

We’re up early the following day and heading farther south, chasing a swell showing as 7 meters at 20 seconds at Shipstern Bluff, the island’s most famous wave. Thankfully the winds are wrong for the slab, and Chippa has somewhere far more user-friendly in mind.

 We drive past a series of “amended” campaign posters that line the road. Johnny Tucker, the Liberal candidate who, Darvis told us the night before, has a not so environmentally friendly record, is pictured as a pair of puffy red cheeks below a 10-gallon hat. However, with one deft stroke of a white Sharpie, someone has transformed all the Johnny Tucker placards into Johnny “Fucker” signs. It’s the bush, not the Algonquin Round Table.

We reach Hobart, Tasmania’s capital and biggest city, at dusk. Located in the southwestern part of the island, temperatures plummet when the sun drops. We roar into the Hobart night like country folk who have come to the big smoke for a night of fun. The highlight is an interlude at In the Hanging Garden, where live plants droop from steel-framed pergolas in a big-scale bar setting that cleverly fuses contemporary architectural lines with a sense of urban decay. The dance floor is heaving. If nothing else, it’s a weapon against the cold, so we join in. 

A couple of local surfers clock Chippa, and he’s quickly flanked. Most are wearing T-shirts, embracing the frigid night with ruddy faced splendor. Chip plays the crowd well, gelling with the lads. Having traveled the world, he’s well versed in the subtleties of surfing diplomacy.

At some point on the journey home, Chippa decides that the best way to test the strength of his knee is to give me a piggyback ride. The execution goes horribly wrong, and I spill backward and thump my head on a wall before slumping to the street unconscious. I wake in a pool of blood, stagger upright, then walk two blocks to the casualty ward of the Hobart hospital, where I spend six cold hours waiting for my turn with the doctor. 

Sometime around sunup, I’m shuffled into a room where I’m offered three options: glue, staples or stitches. My bald head already boasts a tapestry of ugly scars, so I opt for the staples. Four jolting two-pronged stabs later, I wander into a freezing Hobart dawn. Chippa and Matt are waiting, and we speed off to catch the Bruny Island Ferry.   

Once on the boat, we huddle inside the car with the heat on high. Rain drizzles down as we make our way across the channel. Resident Tassie photog Nick Green is there to meet us on the other side and suggests we check out a left-hander likely catching the swell at an optimal angle.

Half an hour later, we arrive at a kelp-strewn point. Pulses surge out of deep water and fold evenly over a weedy ledge into a stretched wall that tumbles across before shutting down on the inside. Ten or so surfers huddle around the takeoff zone, sprint-paddling in their thick rubber when waves swing wide. It’s cold, the sky grim and heavy with rain, but Chippa spies an enticing ramp section on the end bowl and decides to hit it with Matt. With four fresh staples in my head, I resign myself to playing rubberneck. 

The break is framed by a cluster of soaring gum trees, some with trunks as thick as Kombis, which guard the rocky cove like ancient sentinels. A sign explains that in the late 1800s the nearby cliffs were home to a group of hardy coal miners who would ply their dusty trade in tunnels barely 3 feet wide and 120 feet deep. The suffocating parameters meant most of the work was done while lying on their backs. 

As Chip and Matt paddle out, a brutal front swings over, pelting the onlookers with violent sideways rain. The locals take the weather in stride, and those who have already surfed stay in their wetties and wrap towels around their shoulders while contemplating a second session. 

He scoops low off the bottom and hurls himself beyond the lip like a big cat leaping at its prey…

The chatter flows easily amongst the gallery, and the harshness of the setting seems to make them more willing to divulge crucial information about optimal conditions. I listen as one Bruny regular spends a full ten minutes detailing the various merits of spots nearby, wiggling his toes in his thongs to keep them warm.

A small crowd assembles as Chip makes it out the back. One of the world’s most gifted surfers has just shown up at an obscure left on an island off another island at the bottom of the world. It kicks off on his first wave. He scoops low off the bottom and hurls himself beyond the lip like a big cat leaping at its prey in a split-second coalescence of power, grace, and purpose. The kid next to me screams in delight, happily shoeless on an icy day. 

The show lasts for a couple of hours before fatigue increases the risk of a misplaced landing and an injury. Chip shuffles up the rocks and suggests the wave was a little chubby—the lip offering no definitive point from which to launch. From the beach, however, no such trouble could be discerned. 

Back in Hobart, he shrugs off the exhaustion and points his truck toward home, which is three hours away. Everyone from Frank Ocean to Frenzal Rhomb gets a turn on the speakers as we glide through the Tasmanian heartlands. Outside the car, the landscape dresses up in shades of pastels—the sweeping flats turn mint green and bend over hills splashed with soft pink before they’re swallowed by a seam of smoky clouds, above which the blue sky makes its final stand in protest against the sinking sun.

Ahead of him is the luxury of making up his life as he goes. Empty lineups close to home. Plotting surf missions. Tinkering with his bikes. Mowing the properties. From the backseat, it’s very apparent that freesurfers have more fun even—maybe especially—when no one’s watching.