Feature

Finless in the Red Desert

An excerpt from “Edges of Disaster” from TSJ 25.1.

In issue 25.1, a cadre of finless surfers led by Derek Hynd setup in the Australian desert as part of a film/music project known as The Reef. A collaboration between violinist Richard Tognetti, director Mick Sowry, and cinematographer Jon Frank, the film eventually ran as a multimedia production for the Australian Chamber Orchestra. The project also became an opportunity for the surfers to experiment with the limits of finless performance, as Hynd and the cast attempted to negotiate the notoriously heavy Western Australia surf. In this excerpt from our feature about their time in the desert, author Steve Shearer dissects some of Ryan Burch’s contributions to the cause. 


The idea was not just to capture the surfing on film as a visual accompaniment to the music, a sort of visual tone-poem to the score, but to capture the moods and feelings of the landscape and the ocean, the interplay of cosmic forces and peculiar, stunted biology, which the desert rat knows to be a drug as pure as any deep tube ride.

You feel it around the campfire at night, watching the embers glow and the meteors smearing gently across the star-filled sky. You feel it squatting barefoot in the dust, watching the swells throb gorgeously in fecund lines out of the Indian Ocean. The whole world of human affairs retreats into a shadowy hinterland, irrelevant and insubstantial. All that matters is the possibility of the present moment. The pure act of existing in the desert becomes the creative act itself, an awareness of interior spaciousness and outer insignificance, of natural respect for nature and her ever-changing pallet of color and form. It was this that director Sowry and Tognetti wanted to capture in moving picture and music.

He paddled into the biggest and squarest of the sets, claiming the inherent flex in the raw sled allowed him to negotiate the stepping ledges.

And the logistics of the exercise, setting up a remote desert camp for weeks for musicians, surfers, and filmers, all within the corrugated tin of a coastal sheep station, has taken its toll. “Board” can mean many things in the case of Ryan Burch. In this instance, the word applies simply to a finless, rectangular block of foam, glued back together from two pieces into one, then leaned against a small clump of saltbush to cure. It’s not what you, or I, would choose to paddle out to a heaving, technical reef break for my first surf, but that’s why Burch is here: to expand the possible.

And on the opening day, on his tiny slab of glued-together foam, he paddled into the biggest and squarest of the sets, claiming the inherent flex in the raw sled allowed him to negotiate the stepping ledges. From what I saw, that was true. With his rubbery physique and balletic grace, Burch carried the aura of a young Wayne Lynch, and like Lynch he was determined to carve out his own track.

His fish surfing later in the week was equally as radical in intent and classic in style. He may never generate anything like the historical effect that Lynch triggered within surfboard design and performance, but one thing is certain: some young kid will have their mind altered by Burch’s trip, and that could lead anywhere. Maybe it’s already happening…

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Photo: Sloane