Lungi Slabb doesn’t just ride the barrel. He lives in it.
When a wave face bends or a lip chucks or a foamball bites—or all three at once—the 17-year-old uses his pliable frame to shapeshift his way along and through, responding to every subtle bend and twist with a complementary action of his own.
“He’s just navigating out there,” explains photographer Ryan Heywood. “Full wheelies and frontside laybacks in the barrel.”
While Slabb grew up in Fingal Head, he’s spent the past five years a few miles up the coast, turning Snapper Rocks into a stage for his rapturous approach. His connection with the spot began when he was about 11, his older brothers having decided it was time to start driving their talented youngest north of the New South Wales border to give him a challenge.
Slabb took to the point and its offerings immediately, and his rubber-limbed plasticity meant he could fit himself into almost any tube. It wasn’t long before people started paying attention.
“I remember being out at Snapper on a small day and every wave was pretty repetitive,” he says. “And I thought to myself, ‘What if I do something different in the barrel?’ I started doing all these different types of things, and people started liking it.”
“I think him looking back at classic styles from the past and then trying to throw his own twist on them is what makes him a standout,” says Currumbin’s Stace Galbraith, former professional surfer, current WCT coach, and mentor figure to Slabb. “Not many kids his age show that kind of maturity, but he leans heavily on the likes of Jay Phillips and Asher Pacey, and even some older guys like Will Lewis. He’s very impressed with how they approach and read the ocean.”
Recently, Slabb’s begun taking his act to the section behind the rock at Snapper, jostling for position amongst one of the most intense packs in surfing, made up of whom he refers to as the “Big Dogs.” And the crowd isn’t the only degree of difficulty. When the sand is filled in, the takeoff and first section become a writhing coil of muscle that bends and flexes while ribs of backwash ricochet off the sharp rocks. It’s fierce.
Slabb’s commitment hasn’t gone unnoticed by Snapper’s titans. Mick Fanning regularly calls him into waves, and will often pull him aside to offer a few words of advice. “I’m pretty open to, you know, having Mick in my corner and supporting me,” Slabb says with a grin.
While Snapper might be his proving ground, home will always be across the border in Fingal, where his roots run deep. Slabb is well connected with the culture of the Bundjalung people to whom he belongs.
Slabb’s parents are both Indigenous Australians, and his father, Kyle, is an educator who travels around the country helping First Nations communities preserve and celebrate their culture and language. As a result, Slabb fostered a deep appreciation for his history and traditions at an early age.
“There’s always been a pretty strong connection to the land,” he says. “My dad’s grandparents and great-grandparents lived here. My dad has a lot of knowledge about our culture, and he makes sure that our culture plays a big part in our lives.”
His father speaks the Bundjalung language fluently, and Slabb can understand it and is comfortable using a range of phrases. Asked to recall his favorite word from his local dialect, he ponders for a moment before confidently uttering, “Garrima.”
“It means respect,” he says, “and you always keep that word in mind because, in our culture, respect is one of the most important things.”
If Slabb’s father was responsible for imbuing in him a love for his traditions, it was his uncle Joel who helped put him under surfing’s spell as the CEO of the Juraki surfing organization, which focuses on creating opportunities for Indigenous kids to enjoy and appreciate riding waves.
Slabb is acutely aware that his surfing talents coupled with his proudly Indigenous upbringing give him a platform to influence people on both sides of the divide. Like his father, he sees a role for himself as an educator.
“I definitely want to teach people about my culture, and how to connect with their culture as well,” Slabb says. “I think it would be super cool to teach the language in schools—to have the dialect from where the school is—and teach a little bit about the culture and history of where they’re from.”
It’s a lot to shoulder for a young surfer, but Slabb is aptly positioned to encourage other young Indigenous Australians to take up surfing.
“I’ve always wanted to inspire other Indigenous kids,” he says. “Getting in the water is one of the best things ever. You can always find so much joy out of it.”
While Slabb no doubt has a dynamic future ahead, he’s still a teenager, and his path in surfing is only just getting started. He’s yet to travel overseas, but has a couple of major trips in his sights, namely milestone treks to Indonesia and Hawaii.
It’ll be interesting to see how Slabb interprets the hollow treasures of the former and the raw power of the latter. But in the immediate term, he’ll be cruising at home in Fingal, waiting for the next swell to hit Snapper. When it’s on, that’s where you’ll find him: sitting with the major players behind the rock, waiting for ribbons of swell to rear up and bend violently over the hard-packed sand. Then he’ll slide down the vertical face before pulling up under the lip with a kind of hypnotic elegance.
“Everything just sort of comes to me,” Slabb says. “Just working with the wave and relaxing, that’s the way I like to surf.”