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I Wanna Be Your Dog

An interview with Richard Marsh.

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“A dog by nickname, a dog by nature,” wrote Derek Hynd in his 1991 Surfer magazine ASP Top 44 appraisal of Richard “Dog” Marsh. “Nice. Warm. Happy. Honest. Faithful. Compact. Tough. Dangerous.” 

Today, unlike a dog comparatively advanced in years, but with a touch of gray in the whisker, Dog Marsh is as full of vigor as ever and still with a naughty glint about him. Trim, strong, and bright eyed, he’s more active than some decades his junior: up at five o’clock in the morning to make the first chairlift in the mountains a couple hours inland from his home in the southwest of France on powder days, ready to bolt south to Portugal’s reefs and points when conditions align, ever stalking France’s notoriously fickle sandbars. And that’s just during his downtime. 

Based in his wife Sabine’s hometown of Anglet since the early 2000s, Dog has found the Old Continent’s deep culture and vertical history suitable foil for the treadmill of months away on the Championship Tour, where he coaches seasoned professionals Frederico Morais, Ryan Callinan, Leo Fioravanti, and Nikki van Dijk, a jaunt he’s been making laps on since he joined the tour as a competitor in the 1980s. That wealth of experience, channeled into candid, street-smart performance appraisals, has made him one of the most respected and sought-after coaches in surfing. Rather than pick up talent mid-career, he’s preferred to develop long-term relationships, working with his current crop since their junior days. It’s a holistic approach that pays dividends beyond ratings points and win bonuses. 

Shortly after we wrapped our conversation, Dog got spat out of a thick backside tube at La Piste in Capbreton, his emergent cackle piercing the Atlantic winter gloom. Compared to many of his generation, he’s in great nick, particularly surprising considering some of the scrapes he’s gotten into. He’s also perhaps one of the relatively few of his contemporaries who doesn’t feel somehow short-changed by professional surfing, nor does he sport rose-tinted Wayfarers that can tend to blight surfing nostalgists. 

“We were half the problem surfing wasn’t progressing,” he says with typical Aussie straight talk. “Who would want to sponsor a group of marauding pirates, anyway?”

PE Where did it all start?

RM My dad was a fisherman based out of Kurnell, a little beach community in south Sydney, a few miles from Cronulla. My dad had a trawler, and we had a fish market at our house, selling fish and prawns out of the garage. Occy lived down the street. One day someone pulled up with a Coolite surfboard, and everyone was fighting over it, taking turns. There are no waves in Kurnell, really, as it’s in a bay. So we’d hitch to Cronulla and surf there. Occy, myself, and a group of lads, we’d all wag school and surf. Later on, Dad had a fishing license up on the Gold Coast for a while. I’d work with him at night, then jump off the back of the boat with my board on the way into D-Bah and surf for an hour, then my mum would pick me up and take me to school. Imagine the sharks following a fishing boat in. It’s like the stupidest thing you could ever do. 

PE Growing up in Australia in those days was quite a blue-collar, rough-and-ready experience.

RM Back then, the word was “staunch.” You had to be staunch. Me and my brother and our pack, we all grew up staunch. We had to look after each other. Someone throws a rock, we throw a bigger rock back. My old man didn’t see me surf until I was the Australian champion, when I was 19 or 20. He was more of a pub person.

PE What did getting on tour look like? 

RM Not many from my generation finished high school. Occy and I left a year early. Maybe Barton Lynch and a couple of others finished school. Then either you’re a wonder kid like Occy and got sponsors to hit it straight away, or you went out and did odd jobs to save up for a ticket. I did a plumber’s apprenticeship. In the early 1980s there wasn’t a whole lot of opportunity, so the goal was to get an airline ticket to do the tour, like a Willy Wonka golden ticket. I was really thankful that I caught the OG’s while they were still there: MR, Shaun, Cheyne, Rabbit, Terry Richo. These guys were the first genuine touring professionals, paving the way. They did it pretty hard. 

PE Did they expect deference from the young upstarts? 

RM They might have expected it, but we didn’t give them any. I was a punk looking out for myself. I wasn’t good enough to be worrying about their feelings. I was trying to crush them. By the time I got my opportunity, I was gnarly, all in. Making the main event to go up against the Top 16 was what it was all about. They had something I wanted—or, rather, I needed—and I was there to take it. 

PE How would you sum up the surfing?

RM Shithouse. Twenty-minute heats, best four waves. The contests used to run every day for five days, regardless. One year there were 28 events. Florida, Japan—wave quality didn’t matter. If you had the prize money, you had an event. It was generally 2-foot, no priority, heaps of tussles, pulled leggies, fights on the beach. I felt like I was fairly well blooded, coming from Australian boardriders culture, but that first year, far out, it was just brutal. 

PE Was there much in the way of coaching?

RM Derek Hynd was my coach, and he was the worst coach in the world. He had a reasonably analytical eye and he was brutally honest, but outside of that, just awful. Hopefully he’s helped me become a good coach today, by showing me what not to do. There were five guys on the team, and he would look at us and go, “Right, Occy, you’re definitely in. The other four, only one of you’s getting on the plane. There’s four events, good luck. Whoever does best is coming.” And walk off. As a 17- or 18-year-old kid, your knees just sort of give way and you’re looking at each other in fear and panic. [Laughs.]  

PE Was it daunting growing up on tour, being on the other side of a big, wide world? 

RM Not really. I moved out of home at 15. I’d been looking after myself for a while. I spent a year couch surfing and working at a surf shop, getting paid in speed. Growing up like that, you learn things pretty quick. Like, “Okay, it’s bright yellow, you don’t sleep for two days. That one’s a no.” I lived in a house with a lot of that going on. It was huge back then in Australia. So, for me, traveling on my own was actually quite easy. I was already pretty hardened by then, and I knew what I was there for. My peer group was guys like Rod Kerr, John Shimooka, Simon Law—a really good pack of guys. We were partying, but we felt fortunate to have the opportunity to be on tour, so we kind of had an off switch. The real party animals were probably the next group that came after us, who had bigger contracts and who felt a bit more long-term. We were honestly week to week. There wasn’t much job security. 

Well, I say “fun” and people only see this crazyside that gets kind of glorified, but there really was a cost to that.

PE Europe must have made a big impression on you.

RM It was—and still is—a really beautiful place. As a young Australian, it was a real eye-opener. I can remember staying in a tent in a nice old lady’s backyard in Lacanau with Tony Ray, and just thinking how cool the place was. The thing with Europe was it was a leg, which we loved. You had all this time. It wasn’t a fly in and fly out, so you could slow right down. There were almost no surfers—maybe a couple dozen in each place. The crowds were pumped on us being there, trying to buy our boards. You felt like they genuinely appreciated you being in town, which I think is really important. There’s nothing worse than going to a location for a surfing event and feeling unwelcome. 

PE Hawaii’s always been a crucial place to get right. It’s not somewhere you can go and be an alpha, but, at the same time, it’s not a place for the fainthearted. How did you find that balance?

RM I didn’t find the balance. Which was a real bummer, as I used to go all right at Pipeline. I made a final once, a couple of semis. I had an issue there which made it really problematic for me for a few years. It was a really heavy place back then. It was serious. These days, it’s mellowed. Nowadays, most of the time when there’s a problem, it’s for people doing stupid shit, stepping out of line, being drunk late at night. But back in the day you could just find yourself on the wrong side of a story, and it was no joke.

PE Can you share your story?

RM Well, I had an issue: I got into a scrap with Occy at the ASP banquet. I actually held the record for the biggest fine ever. We were best friends, then we had a fall-out. He was over there on a bit of a bender, and he was really good friends with all those Hawaiian guys. They all love him. It’s not a fake friendship. They’re really good mates. In hindsight, I could’ve handled things differently, but I was being staunch. Things escalated and I put a couple on him. And those guys, his friends, were really offended that I’d attacked him. I was kind of like, “Mind your own. I’ve known this guy since preschool. We’re from the same gutter.” Thank God Maurice Cole was there or I don’t know if I’d have got out of that place alive. It wasn’t that fun for me for a few seasons. They had to change my heat times. They’d pretend I was Heat Eight and make me Heat One, swap me with someone, just so I could surf and get away. 

PE The G-Land tsunami in 1994 is something you’ve been reluctant to say much about…

RM Everyone’s said a lot about it, all my tsunami brothers. Monty Webber made a film about it. There’s been podcasts. I’ll just say this: It was a near-death experience, one of the most frightening things that ever happened to me, and I’m thankful to this day that I’m alive. What people don’t realize is that over a thousand people died that night. We talk about us spending a couple nights in a hospital on IVs because our earrings got ripped out and we had infected cuts. I think we have to be respectful of what happened. We survived, but a lot of people didn’t. But I’ll have a bond for life with the people I was there with that night. How we ever got off that beach, after seeing the destruction the next morning—we look at each other in disbelief still to this day.

PE Tour life ended abruptly for you when you retired at age 28. Did you ever regret quitting early?

RM Not at all. With the change to the Top 44 came the Momentum generation, the New School era. It was kind of the death of traditional surfing, too. I retired pretty soon after. Ross, Shane, Kelly, Kalani, they kind of created space for themselves, and no one else was allowed to do it. [Laughs.] Sunny Garcia and all these guys that were insane surfers, could not get a score. The new guys, their surfing was sick—the speed, going rail to rail. But some aspects of it, the tailslides, were super lame. I went from eighth to 38th in one year. We wanted to start a family, I wanted to settle down, so I quit and bought the surf shop—the one that used to pay me in speed.

PE Being so close to the tour today, how would you compare it with your era?

RM I wouldn’t want the surfing to be how it was back then, but we certainly had a lot more fun. Well, I say “fun” and people only see this crazy side that gets kind of glorified, but there really was a cost to that. Guys had mental-health issues that would probably get picked up today. They’d get help. They were thrown to the wolves back then, which was us. We were partying and they were self-medicating, and we certainly weren’t trained to know the difference. The casualty rate of my generation—not just Sunny and Schmoo, but plenty of others—you could just go off the ratings and name people who’ve really struggled in various ways. We actually left a lot of really damaged people in our wake. These days, with the Olympics, WADA—all the benefits that come from surfing cleaning up its act and being more professional are all there. It’s almost two completely different sports today. There’s the jock side of the pro tour, which isn’t for everyone, but you have to have the pointy end. Then there’s the other side, big waves and freesurfing and that whole side, which is epic. And that’s absolutely how it should be.

[Art by Joe Greenaway for The Surfer’s Journal]