The first time I met Wayne Lynch, we’d each been driving around all morning looking for waves in northern New South Wales. An hour after sunrise, we both pulled up at a spot called Seagulls at the same moment, nursing the improbable hope that there’d be something better than the 2-foot slop we’d witnessed everywhere else.
I recognized him as he got out of his car and walked toward me from the other side of the empty car park. After a few moments of staring out at a grim, wind-lacerated sea, I said, “It looks almost—”, then paused. “Everywhere looks almost,” he said. “I need to find a decent wave or I’m gonna go insane.”
For months, there’d been murmurs that Wayne was living in the area—somewhere out in the hills near the Koonyum Range—so crossing paths with him didn’t come as a total surprise. Still, it was strangely surreal to have Wayne Lynch appear at 6:30 in the morning in a desolate car park and remark on the explicit link between not surfing and insanity.
I told him I knew the feeling, and I did. I had just moved up from a harrowing stint in Sydney during which I had both surfed and slept very little. Only now was I getting toward the end of an extended comedown so severe it bordered on total neurosis. But I didn’t say that. I just nodded and went to put my wetsuit on.
When I returned, Wayne was exactly where I’d left him, standing there staring out to sea. As I strolled past, he said he might see me out there. For the next half an hour, I kept looking to shore, hoping he would emerge from the track. But he never did. I surfed on my own all morning, wondering how I could get back in contact with him to continue our conversation.
I resorted to telling Glenn Casey, who was running the Patagonia shop in Byron Bay at the time, that I wanted to order a board from Wayne. It wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t entirely true, either. He sent me Wayne’s number, and I texted him that afternoon. A few hours later, he replied: “I’m away at the moment. Can do [it] when I’m back in about two weeks.
Just make contact again and we can catch up… Take care.” Two weeks later, after I sent him another message, Wayne passed along his address.
I’d been unwittingly accumulating a backlog of questions for Wayne since I was 16. My then-recent discovery of his story provided me with something more inspiring than the mid 2000s East Coast competitive scene, which was utterly stripped of the misanthropic allure surfing had when Wayne was a teenager. By the time I was doing junior competitions, surfing was all sirens and sticker placement, having become what the parents in camping chairs on the sand wanted their kids to pursue as an illustrious career. Where I grew up in coastal NSW, surfing felt like the most predictable thing you could do. It had gone from being a fringe existence to a sanitized centerpiece of coastal living. The eccentric kids, who in Wayne’s day would’ve been the surfers, were in mine the kids surfers hassled at school.
More recently, I’d become obsessed with something Wayne says in Craig Griffin’s 2013 documentary Uncharted Waters: The Personal History of Wayne Lynch. In the film’s opening scene, Wayne reveals, “I used to get dreams. I’d be lying in bed and I’d just see surfing.” He then makes a gesture, bringing his hand back and forth across his face and his eyes, moving his fingers as though to illustrate the flickering of distant moving images. “It would go on for half an hour. And that’s how I started surfing differently—because I was dreaming it.” Coming from Wayne, it didn’t feel like pseudo-spiritual surf talk. The apparent pragmatism with which he spoke seemed to rationalize the esoteric nature of the statement.
When I punched Wayne’s address into Google Maps, the app confirmed that he did live near the Koonyum Range. As I rolled down his driveway, he appeared from behind a shed, signaled where to park, then walked back out of sight. After a few minutes of talking, I noticed he had a self-deprecating way of assuming he’d failed to adequately express himself. Occasionally he’d be midway through a sentence, then stop, frustrated that he hadn’t found the right word, and prompt me for a suggestion. It was as though he had a level of self-expectation that was perpetually unsatisfied. It reminded me of that sequence in Paul Witzig’s Evolution when Wayne is in knee-high water, throwing his board and yelling at it. Maybe rigorously self-imposed standards are essential to achieve what Wayne did on a surfboard, and to live a life not swayed by celebrity culture and financial incentive.
After showing me some of the boards he was working on, Wayne gestured to two chairs set up outside on the pavers. We walked over, sat down, and started talking.
SR What was going on with those dreams you spoke about in Uncharted Waters?
WL One of the things that bothered me in that film was how brief that snippet of interview was, and I didn’t get to articulate any more about the experience. A better word than “dream” would probably have been “visualization.” I remember lying on the floor listening to a record by The Fugs at a friend’s house in Torquay; it must have been 1966 or ’67. I was just zoning out and watching this imagined vision unfold: I walked into a little dry creek bed with hardly any water in it and followed it down through the rainforest towards the ocean. As I came around a bend, I looked out and saw this guy surfing right-handers. This person was a natural-footer, which always struck me as strange. I remember just watching this figure doing surfing I’d never seen before, things I’d never even thought about. I just kept watching and watching and watching. The whole thing probably happened over about five minutes, but that seems like a hell of a lot longer when you’re in that state of mind. It was absolutely remarkable. Now that I’m older and I’ve listened to other people and read more, I think these experiences are something your consciousness or subconscious can produce spontaneously. It’s possible for anyone to have those insights; it just depends on how much you love something and how dedicated you are to it.
SR What do you think prompted that visualization?
WL I mean, in a way it is a bit of a mystery what our consciousness is—what are we and where are we and what’s going on. You know, surfing and many experiences to do with surfing are hard to articulate. We can talk about the spiritual implications of surfing and what it represents, but there’s not a whole lot of use in talking about something that cannot truly be explained. Surfing is simply a lived experience in the heart of nature. That’s all there is. All I know is that from the day these visualizations started happening to me, everything changed in my surfing—everything. Gradually, those visions I’d seen began happening in my surfing, without me being totally conscious of trying to do them. But I did have to refine my technique, and it wasn’t all from these visualizations, of course. I was also influenced by the surfing going on around me, by people like John and Bill Monie, Bob McTavish, Nat Young, George Greenough, Ted Spencer, and the person I always give enormous credit to, Peter Drouyn. In 1966, the way he was surfing up on the Gold Coast was phenomenal. It was the high point of his creative surfing. He was the first guy I ever saw put his back foot down really low and go into those really powerful cutbacks. I can remember sitting there on the dunes with Dave “Baddy” Treloar just going, “Can you believe that? How was that turn?!” I started trying to do those powerful cutbacks too. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but a frontside cutback is the same as a backside bottom turn—practically the same movement. So from emulating those solid frontside cutbacks I’d witnessed Drouyn doing, my backside bottom turn also completely evolved. Instead of coming out of the bottom turn and just going out onto the face, suddenly my board would be going straight up into the lip and I would just follow it, and then all these totally spontaneous movements would happen. I just kept following my board, and that process of almost unconscious evolution, in conjunction with the visualization stuff that was happening to me, led to my surfing’s development. At the beginning I was ending up in the lip, totally out of control, but I took that and kept trying it and refining it. That motion eventually led me to start controlling my board as it came up into the lip. I just became totally focused on refining that motion in my surfing.
SR With these visualizations—and this gets a bit fluffy—did you get a sense that this was coming from some other place?
WL Look, I know what you’re saying. And I’ve always been afraid to go there because it does get a bit fluffy. But I’ve thought about it a lot, and I think creativity comes in many forms to all sorts of people—some of whom aren’t particularly refined. [Laughs.] I’ve always felt—and I’m fairly convinced of this—that there is a wellspring of creative energy that just exists, and it exists in all of us. Sometimes you may be able to intentionally tap it, but more often than not it just spontaneously breaks through your day-to-day consciousness. I’ve listened to Leonard Cohen talk about it. He often said things like, “If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often.” When those moments of inspiration happen to you, you’re just there, like a vehicle of this creative energy. I think it was Bob Dylan who said of Leonard Cohen, “He hears the music of the spheres.” I take a lot of interest when I hear that stuff. They all talk about how you can strain and struggle and do all you can, and it’s just not there. And then, click, it’s there. But I think that’s why a lot of artists, and I am using that word broadly, struggle a lot in their lives. Sometimes it’s there and sometimes it’s not, and it sends them a little bit neurotic. I suppose that’s why a lot of them have depressive aspects to their personalities. They try so hard in their pursuit of excellence that it almost sends them mental.
SR Have you had times with surfing when you feel like that?
WL Constantly. Especially back then. I think for most of us it was like that. Our surfing could just fall apart. I’ll often look back at footage and go, “Oh, God. That period. I could barely get anything happening.” Then I’d have these periods where everything felt electric and alive and free flowing. All of us suffered limitations in our surfing. Whereas with the younger guys these days, I think they surf so much and compete so much that they have this athleticism. It’s genuinely more sport-orientated, so their standard remains a lot more consistent. And also, the boards they’re on now have been refined and developed to such a high degree since those early years. That refinement has come on the back of a lot of hard work figuring out what worked and what didn’t.
SR Do you watch the events?
WL A bit. I’m always interested in what’s going on, especially if [the contests] are held in good waves. I was actually watching some of John John’s surfing recently, and it was unbelievably beautiful and so powerful. I’ve seen snippets of Mick Fanning, Joel [Parkinson]…every now and then I’ll see them ride a wave with real power and not that set-it-up-for-an-aerial type [of] surfing, and it’s so good to see. Sometimes I don’t like the emphasis on aerials when it sacrifices opportunities for other really beautiful forms of surfing. But an aerial that fits into the rhythm of the wave is fantastic. I don’t want that to sound like I’m not impressed by the maneuvers, because I am. And I’ve always taken an interest in Slater’s surfing. I love watching Stephanie Gilmore. There’s just beauty there. Real beauty. I saw her last year at Snapper do this maneuver that was so solid and smooth. She actually didn’t pull it off and got eliminated, but that surfing was as good as anything I’ve seen anyone do.
SR What year did you go up to the Northern Territory?
WL My daughter was born in ’88, so it was early ’88. About eight months we were up there.
SR Where were you specifically?
WL We moved around a bit, but we were mostly on Larrakia country, around Darwin.
SR What brought that trip about?
WL I was absolutely fascinated by Aboriginal dance, but it was more than that. My mum always spoke up about the injustices against Indigenous people and made a point of educating me about the real history of this country. Some of my earliest memories are of my mum talking about what was done to Albert Namatjira. So, for as long as I can remember, I have been deeply interested in Aboriginal culture and their artistic expression. By that I mean specifically how their creativity is often an expression of their relationship to country and people. For my friends and [me], surfing was about acquiring knowledge about the places we were trying to surf as much as it was about surfing well. The accumulated knowledge Aboriginal people hold about the weather, seasons, landscape, and coastlines is something I have deep respect for. I was very interested in witnessing their dancing because, to me, the way they dance is how we should aim to surf. They’re so centered in here [gestures to stomach area]. Everything that happens around that center is so relaxed, perfectly coordinated, and rhythmical. I could watch it for hours. At the time, I was so frustrated with the docos I’d been watching because the cameraman kept getting in the way. You know, he wanted to film the dust rising off the ground or cut-cut-cut [between scenes]. You could never actually get inside and truly see the dancing, how they were moving their bodies. It was sort of like over-editing surfing—someone ripping, cut, next guy ripping, cut, maneuver here, cut. That ADHD-type sequence—images just bang-bang-bang—drives me mental. [Laughs.] Anyway, the real motivating force was to go and spend time with the Aboriginal people to learn more about their culture and to witness their dancing.
SR Were you able to see them dancing out there?
WL I was, which I’m very grateful for. Nearly all the people I met out there took me under their wing and taught me things. It was one of the most inspiring and seminal experiences of my life. It affirmed that the way I was approaching my life and my surfing was exactly how I was going to stay until the end of my days. I don’t know how to describe it. It was just enormous inspiration.
SR So it affirmed some of the decisions you’d made up until that point?
WL Yeah. I’ve copped a lot of flak in my life for my approach and my decisions—for not going in all the contests, people saying, “You’re a hippie.” I won’t go into [it] all, but there was some pretty nasty stuff from a lot of the “industry chiefs,” as we’ll call them. They were looking for athletes, and I wasn’t an athlete. I wanted to talk about other ideas and stand up for other things, like the conservation of our coastlines, and I didn’t see competition as the be-all and end-all. In fact, I thought it could be quite negative if it was taken to its extreme. Especially in those early years, when we were experimenting with designs, the last thing we needed was to construct our surfing around a competitive paradigm. I wasn’t anti–pro surfing or anything; I just had a different take on it. They don’t usually like it if you speak up against the business model. I bit the hand that fed me if the hand was up to no good. [Laughs.] By that I mean dud products and crap. They didn’t like that. You’re meant to shut up. This industry, it’s like a bag of chips to a pack of seagulls. They get in there and get what they want. They don’t give a shit. At the end of the day, the paper bag is empty, just blowing in the wind. Fortunately, these days most of the guys earn a lot of money, so when it’s all over they’ve got a foundation for the rest of their lives, which they are very, very lucky to have. Otherwise, you’re subjected to all sorts of things, particularly indifference. [Bursts out laughing.]
SR The way you went is inspirational to a lot of us in my generation. Looking at footage from the early 80s, when the comps were really taking off, it looks like it was a very macho, revved-up, ridiculous time in surfing.
WL That’s when it all changed. My instinct was to keep my distance. They dumbed it down and turned it into what they saw as a marketing vehicle to reach the masses. That’s what we’ve got now. They’re still doing it. You know, one thing that I always thought was great about the industry side of it in the early days [was that] people from the outside didn’t come in and make the gear. Surfers made it. That was what was brilliant about it, and it could’ve carried on like that. You look now at where they’ve taken it and it’s not a pretty sight.
SR I know what you mean. You hear or see anything to do with “surf culture” at the moment and brace yourself to cringe.
WL Especially in this country. They carved the heart out of it to make it palatable to the masses.
SR Didn’t you spend some time with a crew of Indigenous surfers on the East Coast a while back?
WL I did spend a lot of time with young Indigenous surfers from Coffs Harbour. There were some incredible surfers amongst those kids. But there were a few tragedies along the way. My friend Eric Mercy passed away. His surfing was absolutely astounding. He worked in the community as a liaison officer, a young man who took on so much to help his people, and he had a deep love of surfing. His level of surfing was genuinely incredible. Powerful and fast. You’d watch him in the water and he’d be going 20 percent faster than everyone else. None of this quick whippy stuff. He was like a cross between a young Dane Kealoha and Johnny Boy Gomes. Brilliant. I used to look at Eric and think, “In another time, with the right support, you would have been one of the best surfers in the world.” There have been so many incredible Indigenous surfers in this country: Andrew Ferguson, Kenny Dann, Gavin Dickenson, Todd Roberts, the Slabb brothers, and now Otis Carey and many others.
SR What’s it like thinking back to those years you were on the run after your number came up in the Vietnam ballot?
WL I’ve spoken to people who have this almost romantic, living-like-an-outlaw take on it. But it wasn’t fun, and it had a fairly profound effect on me. When your own society turns on you for something you know is completely unjustifiable… The war was criminal, and I use that word clearly: criminal. It was a lie. Hundreds of thousands of people dying on both sides, and for what? It was just unbelievable. It was just a waste of humanity, just suffering inflicted on the world. To be regarded as scum because you stood up for something you know is the right thing to do, it has a strange effect on you. I’m very skeptical about what group consciousness can actually manifest in this country—our political institutions, big business, dodgy media. I’ve got real suspicion about all these things.
SR That skepticism is validated when you look at the injustices against Indigenous people in this country.
WL You can never justify what has gone on here. It is unimaginable how much suffering the Aboriginal peoples have been through. I mean, I know Aboriginal peoples all over the country and I don’t know one of them who hasn’t got a story to tell about some horrendous experience in their family somewhere. Not one. Anywhere. And it’s made to seem okay through all sorts of manipulations of media and political persuasions, and people who aren’t in a position to, or willing to, investigate for themselves just take it on. This thing about the other. Australia really got it badly. Look at the Adani [-owned Carmichael coal] mine now. It looks like they’re just gonna take that land. It’s against international law. It’s actually officially Indigenous land, but no, the mining company, with the support of the government, reckon they’re just gonna take it. And you just go, “You gotta be kidding.” The Iraq War is another perfect example. Unjustified criminal activity, but nup, no worries, somebody else is the terrorist, we the Western colonial countries, we’re not terrorists. I mean, you gotta be kidding me. That horrified me. I looked at Iraq and thought, “Oh, if this slides through with no repercussion, our society is on a downturn,” and I really think it is. It doesn’t matter who it is—the British, Americans—colonization is just a nice word for taking a place over and doing what you want with it. They’ve all done it, and to this day it goes on and on and on. And then someone like Noam Chomsky talks about it so honestly and they hate him for it. The American right calls him unpatriotic, etc. And you’re going, “Hang on, he’s just trying to raise the level of awareness and lift the conversation up.” [He’s] not sitting there and pretending it’s all great, [that] we can do whatever we want. I think about 3 million people have been displaced from Iraq alone, and then when these people are trying to find another country, they’re demonized again. It’s absurd. And then climate change. When it really kicks in, there will be many more displaced. Then what? Civil wars? I mean, these people in political leadership, they’re educated people. They know the truth of the situation. It’s political expediency to deny climate change and not do anything about it. To me, it’s criminal. They’re knowingly continuing to destroy the earth.
SR My lifetime is shaping up to be pretty chaotic.
WL [Laughs.] Shit, it does sound doom and gloom, doesn’t it? I mean, we’re doing well sitting here like this. But we need to be saying all this because, well, fuck ’em. It’s time we truly enforce change. We’re seeing what’s going on all over the world. The UN [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] has released the code red for humanity report, and here in Australia we’re not doing whatever we can to fix it. I mean, it’s absurd. This bullshit has been going on for years and years, right in front of us. It’s unbelievable. This is the conversation we as people, but also as surfers, need to be having in the magazines, online—everywhere. As surfers, we have such a blatant reliance on nature for our joy, and this is about much more than our joy. It’s about the survival of people, animals, and environments all over the planet. These are the things that we used to talk about in surfing 50 fuckin’ years ago, and it’s still not sorted out. And it’s very nearly too late. There’s a quote I absolutely love by Edward Abbey that says it all: “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and bread.”