Max Pam on Surfing

1. What's your first memory of surfing? How did you get started?

When I was in junior school, Queensland and the beach resort town of Surfers Paradise was a place of great allure. A sort of imitation fusion of Las Vegas and Miami. We would as a family escape each year from cold hearted Melbourne and drive north two thousand kilometres to the tropics. It was an adventure just getting there. Dad was an aggressive driver, the road was long and bad. No seatbelts, full-metal dashboards and the dodgy mechanical engineering of dad’s lipstick pink Studebaker Monte Carlo. It was always shocking and exciting. Dad driving through a flock of parrots on the road, dad wipeing the car out when he hit a big Kangaroo. Dad roundly abusing all other drivers. Fan belts busting resulting in mum having to remove her tights so dad could make a temporary fan belt out of them to get us to the next town. Flat tyres beside hot roads and the endless fucking around with an inadequate wheel jack and a toy like wheel brace not up to the task of loosening the wheel nuts that seemed to be welded in place. Then finaly the pure magic of the vulcanizing kit pyrotechnics covering the hole in the tyre tube. We did not travel with a spare tyre. According to dad it took up too much boot space. Re-inflating the tyre with a hand pump was torture, I had to help, my sister Marcia had to help. My mother, quite reasonably I thought, always refused to help.

In effect it was a familial decision to connect with the new, vibrant beach culture as exemplified in Surfers paradise, way up north. The awesome sight of a surfboard rider effortlessly negotiating the beauty of the waves impressed us all. My parents made a profound commitment to the beach by shrewdly investing in a weekend house at Anglesea, a seaside village at the gateway to the Great Ocean Road. The house was also only twenty kilometres away from Bells Beach. At Christmas 1962, not long after my thirteenth birthday my parents bought me the first surfboard. It was a no name balsawood plank made in someone’s back yard, heavy, accommodating, buoyant, the perfect appliance to learn surfboard riding on.

2. What draws you back to surfing?

I stopped surfing in 1973 and never went back to it.

3. For people who've never surfed before, what does it feel like to ride a wave, standing up and balanced?

For so many people in Australia now and as in my childhood fifty years ago, we are drawn to the sea, to the beach, to the sense of almost instant well being and primal relaxation to be found there. You have almost nothing on, the sun is a drug radiating into your body. The water lifts the burden of gravity from your shoulders as you float and dive and submit to the osmosis of freedom it immediately starts processing into your skin.

As a child I would come home from a day at the beach with my family in a state of elevated consciousness that would last well into the next day.

It's a holistic experience, far more than just the mere act of standing on a surfboard. Of course it’s a life, a calling, an obsession and like any obsession more time is spent in the shadow of its culture, speculating about it and how you will negotiate its exigencies than actually doing the act.

In my teenage years I found huge validation in realizing that philosophically the surfing life was resolutely counter culture. As a cabal of young surfers none of us wanted a job, our parents were conned into financing this massive divide between us and them, their culture, what they stood for. Hard work and the rewards of Capitalism, the bogus plastique cool of Frank Sinatra, utterly repellent constructs for teenagers smoking drugs and listening to Led Zeppelin. We were draft dodging (anyone interested in a little war in Vietnam?) dope smoking drop outs living OK and unmolested on social security dole payments. Mainstream Australia and its passé stereotypes were of little interest to us.

The surf itself was the most compelling drug, on a good day, normally this would be mid winter in Victoria, you would surf for five or six hours, with very short breaks on the beach.

The water of the Southern Ocean is very cold. Often my feet would become so numb from the cold I could no longer stand on the deck of a surfboard. In the early 1960’s wet suits were at first non existent, then rudimentary. I used to surf with older guys at Bells Beach, it was that kind of break. It could get very big when there were massive storms coming up all the way from below latitude 20. There were two guys in particular I would watch, both really accomplished surfers. They never acknowledged me, spoke to me, a little boy, I was beneath them. They were Brain Singer and Doug Warbrick. I would be out in the line-up with them watching them up close, how late the took off on the wave face, how far back in the line-up they remained, the boat-wake turns off the bottom of the tube with almost nothing but a millemetre of fin and rail sliding and holding as the hydrophysics of salty water and resin coated flexing fin re-vectored to a cut back into the blue green tube. I wanted to be them.

I wasn’t so good then, but by the time I stopped surfing, at twenty three, I could do all that. It just took me a long time to get there, to become a good surfer played out as a long time line for me. Good surfers are not that common, look at any surf break today, crowded with people contesting too few waves. Those two guys sold wetsuits out of the back of their car to finance their surfing life. The wetsuits were made by them, in a small domestic car garage, using a sewing machine borrowed from Brain’s mother. The wetsuits were really well designed one piece things that zipped up the back. Perfect for the freezing Victorian winter. I couldn’t afford one. Lots of people could though. To the point that a few years ago these two guys sold their company they named Rip-Curl for five hundred million dollars.

4. And for the same people, can you describe how to do it in a paragraph?

It's impossible for me to describe this in a way that does not reduce the process to Surfboardriding 101 for dummies. Maybe this book exists? I see people getting surfing lessons on the beach and I wonder that it’s not a total waste of money. I guess everyone has their own spin on how it works.

5. Given that you've traveled extensively, where have been some of your favourite locations to surf?

I wasn’t good at sport. But I was a good swimmer. It was my love of the Ocean that gave me a framework to build a life upon. The major pillar of that scaffolding of a possible unfolding life of my choice was the surfboard my parents gave me that christmas in 1962. This was the year that my rigid and unsympathetic mind did me the great favour of being totally receptive to the concept of a way of life, the surfing life. This way of life was developing, re-inventing itself first on Californian beaches and then on Australian beaches from 1962 through to 1970. It was all I lived for, chasing waves up and down the coast. With each wind shift or swell direction alignment there would be a new plan, a new beach to make for in overcrowded worn out old cars, a rigorous exploration of the Victorian coastline with a brotherhood of fellow obsessives. All of us were serving an exacting apprenticeship of mastering the art of surfing. The art itself, its possibilities physical and philosophical seemed to be changing up every other month. The design of surfboards, shifting smaller, lighter, more responsive, gave birth to radical new maneuvers, created a whole new cosmology of younger surfing gods you could read about in the latest issue of Surfing World Magazine.

I could pull out a map of coastal Australia and annotate all the great surfing moments of my life. I had no favourite location other than the experiential memory of all of those surf breaks I had managed to come away from feeling something magic had happened.

6. What photos/videos/art related to surfing really resonate with you?

I got so much from the early surf movies when I was young. Bruce Brown’s Surfing Hollow Days and Endless Summer then a few years later Paul Witzig’s Morning of the Earth, they gave me the possibility to dream to become a surf filmmaker.

I bought a cheap Japanese SLR 35mm camera the year I dropped out of high school. I really wanted to be a full-time surfer and so the sort of photography I was interested in was sports oriented. Big Wednesday at Bells Beach, how good does Kenny’s cut-back look through a telephoto lens. Surfing with my friends in the mid 60’s introduced us to the road trip. Sometimes we would begin a search for the perfect waves not far from Melbourne and then later find ourselves thousands of kilometres to the north having followed the Southern Ocean coast all the way to the Pacific Ocean and Noosa Heads.

I applied for a spot at an art college in London that taught documentary film. In the late 60’s there were no schools teaching the artform in Australia. They accepted my application. The outcome of being accepted into the programme at Harrow College of Technology and Art eventually led me away from the surfing life, away from any idea of filmmaking. Photography became my new quest, swept away everything that came before it.

My work is an introversion, but more importantly my work is a sort of validation of the questing fantasist that I truly am. Did that really just happen to me, that moment when life hijacked the script, snatched it away and gave me something completely real with both barrels? It used to happen often enough when I was the young fantasist, surfing Bells Beach, or Bulko Bay.

All of a sudden the skinny and mediocre boy surfer would cease following the plodding script of the eternal wannabe surfer hero. I’m in the correct spot, the swell comes at me out of the Bass Strait, big, cold, green and blue, backlit by a setting sun, reduced by deep water and converting to perfection the moment it hits the shallows on the point. It’s Bulko Bay at its best and I’m slightly on the wrong side of the peak, which means if you make it through the take-off you become another surfer, the one you ought to be, the person who can do no wrong on a wave: the fast carving turns, the slashing cut-backs, the slo-mo flying saucer disco drainpipe moment deep back in the greenroom. It just happened like that some days. But who bore witness to it? Did my friends in the water or on the beach see it? No! So by the time I was independent enough to flee north of the equator I made damn sure someone would bear witness to my own private big Wednesdays; the world’s most effortlessly beautiful girl holding me, the crazed hadji pointing the Ruski machine gun at me, the defective bong which has just set the beard of Abdullah alight. You own a camera, you have it with you, you report on the moment life hits the afterburners and takes you with it.

8. How do you feel about the Western Australian government's shark culling efforts, which seemed to have support from some surfers?

A few years ago at a Cottesloe restaurant in Perth, overlooking the beach people having breakfast on the terrace bore witness to an event more likely to be seen in a horror movie like Jaws. Down in the water a man was swimming 200 metres from them. They saw him attacked by a white pointer, the guy was bitten in half infront of them. His friend who bravely hauled what was left of his body to the shore was savaged in the shallows by the same shark. Public opinion came down hard against sharks after that event. Anti cull activists have a real point to make, a valid position based on science, ecology and common sense. The activists despite their very public and well attended demonstrations represent an absolute minority of opinion in Perth. Here people have become a lot more twitchy about going in the water, worried about it becoming a gladiatorial event they will lose in the most painful way imaginable. This was never the case when I was young. The sharks have a right to occupy their home, however if people keep getting savaged at the rate we are seeing today, sharks will be hunted and culled of that I’m certain.

9. What's something most people don't realise about surfing?

Just how tricky it is to become a good surfer.

10. Finally, have you ever tried (or had the desire to try) big wave surfing?

The biggest surf I was ever out in would have been about eight metres. That wave was big enough to keep most people on the beach, out of the water. It was late 1969 at Bells Beach. Although less people were surfing then, it was a weekend and normally good surf at Bell’s, even then, would draw a crowd of 30 or more surfers. Only two were out there. None of my friends felt comfortable about the size. For me the waves looked totally rideable, even though there was a slight south westerly pushing the swells from behind. With an offshore wind those waves would have been absolute perfection. I caught my first wave, it was far bigger than anything I’d ever ridden before. The plan was to drive straight down to maximize the power coming off the turn at the bottom.

The feeling was like diving off the 10 metre tower at a swimming pool, the suspension of time that kicks in as reality reverses itself suggesting the water is coming up to meet you rather than the opposite and that it is moving more slowly than physics should allow. Bell’s has a rock bottom, the wave was big enough to suck up a lot of water from the bottom into its vertical bulk. When I hit the bottom of the wave it was choppy from this massive siphoning action. I hit the chop hard and became airborne and separated from the surfboard, the wave broke hard enough to snap my leg rope and bounce me off the rock bottom. Coming up for air I found myself right under the next towering wall of dark blue voodoo, that frightened me, I dove as deep as I could, grabbed a seaweed covered boulder and held on, I felt the heft of the rock move as I clung to it, that freaked me out even more. Pummeled and gasping for air I was really relieved to make it to the beach. The ocean is awesome and frightening. The contemporary big wave riders take on surf three times the size of the wave that crushed any ambition I had about XXL surf.