Words/Photos: Dave Sparks/Rip Curl
Tom Curren, Mason Ho and one week spent scouring the coastline of a wave-drenched, storm-ridden island in the North Pacific… This is #TheSearch
The sixth typhoon of the year looked promising. Like its geographical brethren, the southern cyclones and northern hurricanes, typhoons may deliver the yin or yang of nature: joy to some and devastation to others, depending on your location and desires.
Never was this more evident than now, for while I was en route to a hopefully wave-rich rendezvous in the North Pacific, a triple-pronged horror show led by Hurricane Irma was destroying the Caribbean, also staring with its three malignant eyes at Florida. Meanwhile, as if nature’s wrath wasn’t enough, the demented despot Kim Jong-un was firing missiles around the place like a naughty kid with a slingshot. Why is it that dictators so often seem to be comical, even ridiculous figures, yet are simultaneously murderous psychopaths? Something about their childish natures make them even more threatening, in a sense less likely to be tempered by reason. We cross our fingers and hope that the leaders of the world don’t cross an indelible line. Surfers chase bombs, but not the metallic kind.
As far as interesting – and reasonable – characters go, I couldn’t have been happier with the two I would be teaming up with. One of them was Tom Curren, who, if you need an introduction to, you probably shouldn’t bother reading this. In his fifties, he surfs better than the vast majority of surfers on earth, and frankly, is so far ahead of his peers and elders it is a little bewildering. The same as it ever was for them, I guess. Mason Ho was to be Curren’s foil, and has gathered a lot of fans for his hard charging at Pipeline, as well as his crazily entertaining web clips, boosting airs over startled heads and olleying over dry rocks. And, of course, his unique post heat interviews – hilarious stream-of-consciousness gems that are more than a breath of fresh air – they are pure personality. And in today’s world, originality like that is priceless. Compare them to the banal “I’m taking it one heat at a time” drivel that poor Rosy Hodge usually suffers through, and you realise how fun things could be.
These islands boast a culture as old as time, and a language as different to English as the desert is to the ocean.
The written form of the language is equally alien to our own Arabic letters. The characters are more like hieroglyphics, except they are stylised versions, like pure abstract artworks. Sometimes you can almost make out a figurative, representational idea from them, but just when you get close they seem to dissolve back into pure design. They have an ethereal beauty, and I’m not sure if that comes from the novelty of them or if they are just simply wonderful works in their own right.
In keeping with this paradigm, the people seem to live and build and even eat in a similarly elegant way, in a sense reminiscent of the Balinese who live out their entire existence in the most beautifully artful style. In the front yards of many of the houses here, people have grown surreally twisted and contorted trees. They have a crooked, almost tortured, look – like old men bending into the breeze. They bring to mind giant bonsai plants, although as far as trees go they are small. We passed many of these as we drove south from the airport to meet Tom, who was already staying down the coast. Local friends and surfers – Nalu, a Rip Curl team rider, and Kai – had picked me up, and would help guide us through language barriers, cultural mores, and hopefully into some waves as well.
As we drove the hour or so south to where Tom was hanging out, I relished casting my fresh eyes over a new coastline. There is nothing better than reconciling the reality of an unknown place with your prior visualisation, the more so since they so rarely match up. This is one of the myriad jewels of travel.
The swell had definitely hit, and I grabbed fleeting glimpses of reef breaks and headlands, trying to weigh up potential and devise angles, while regularly being rudely cut off from the view by the endless tunnels drilled through this mountainous, heavily pine-forested island.
The coast here is so convoluted and studded with islands and coves and big bays, it is sometimes difficult to gauge swell size and direction, as the mood of the ocean changes with every bend in the coast. This however provides lots of wind protection possibilities, the trick on onshore days being to split the difference just so between swell exposure and wind favourability. The shorelines are characterised by bizarrely striated and tessellated volcanic rock formations, some of them so gun barrel straight it is hard to believe they aren’t man made.
We eventually rolled into a big sandy bay, with a thickly jungled island about the size of Greenmount headland sitting just offshore. Off the northern tip of the island, a sandbar had formed and was producing long, fast rights. Although it was onshore, you could see the potential of this bank. Unfortunately it was positioned badly for the present conditions, as not only was it onshore, it was also only about three-foot, thus offering the opposite to the combination you’d hope for. There was, however, a right reef to the west of the island which provided a better set of options – offshore and breaking cleanly at about six-foot. Only catch was, there were car-sized rocks jutting out right in the middle of waves, and weird boils here and there. Recalling Mason’s wild rock hopping web clips, I thought it would be right up his alley, but he wouldn’t be arriving until tonight.
It was around this point that Tom showed up, and he was immediately in form. “Oi! G’day Sparksie! How are ya mate? Yeah, nah, yep, yep, sweet, ‘ken oath cobber!”
He is one of the better Aussie imitators I’ve heard amongst the Americans, never falling for the trap of the Cockney accent that most of them seem to trip over. He’s hung out with enough Australians to get it wired, and he does a “No roight turn at Ryde Roawd” that is priceless; you’d swear it was Steve Irwin. He’d been in the islands for a while, playing music at a series of festivals with a local band, and seemed pretty ready for some waves.
“They are fast, In fact I’d go so far as to say they generate speed hitherto unbeknownst to mankind.” – Tom Curren
You might be familiar with the fact he’s been surfing on skimboards lately, and I was curious to check them out. They are almost like wide tow boards, and their lack of buoyancy has forced him to glue bits and bobs of foam on the decks. They look rough as guts, especially the one he made himself out of foam and bamboo slivers. They have the air of George Greenough eccentricity about them, all scrappy and ragged, classic function-over-aesthetics theory, with the creator having just enough of the vibe of genius about him to get away with it.
Tom delighted in my horror.“They are fast,” he grinned. “In fact I’d go so far as to say they generate speed hitherto unbeknownst to mankind.” I tried to look impressed, but I was still doubtful. “I made this one,” he said, pulling out one that was obviously more primitive than the first couple of modified, professionally made ones. It was a nightmare of foam and cork and bamboo.
“You don’t need much rocker, you see, because they are so thin that the board creates its own rocker, the correct rocker for any given time, through flex imparted by the wave’s force. The curves kind of enable this, because the flex will be less at the widest point, and more at the narrower points. And you know how I got the starting, resting curve? I used the transition on a skate ramp, where the flat at the bottom of the ramp merges into the initial curve going up the ramp.”
I tried to think of some clever question or snide remark, but I choked. I was saved by Tom’s sudden acknowledgement of the sketchy righthand minefield reef, and to my delight he liked the look of it. He was out there, but I wasn’t sure.
“You sure you want to surf that? It looks pretty suspect… although it’d look pretty sick with that island backdrop!” Not that any of it mattered. Tom dances to his own beat, and he was already getting his “boards” ready. The wave was even scarier than I’d initially thought, but he survived a couple before pulling the pin while all four limbs were still in tact.
Mason and his partner in crime and footage, Rory Pringle, arrived that night and flew straight into a bbq thrown at our digs on the top of a hill. The guesthouse overlooked a big bay dotted with reef breaks and moored boats, and seemed to offer possibilities as endless as the view over the cobalt blue Pacific.
At the barbie, people seemed to appear out of the ether. There were friends of Tom’s and friends of theirs, and the endless social etiquette of these affable locals was at times almost overwhelming. I think they may be as friendly as the Fijians, and the awe in which they hold Tom is incredible. Some thirty years after his heyday, he is still approached by surfers for photos several times per day, and takes it in stride, appeasing his loyal subjects with patience not unlike the patience he shows waiting outside for bombs.
“I love dad telling me the old stories, I don’t even mind hearing them over and over…” – Mason Ho
Mason wasn’t far behind; these people know their surfers. The sheer number of surfers who recognised him was testimony to his worldwide impact. He was only too happy to oblige, and there were more shakas thrown than at an Ehukai luau.
Having grown up under the watchful eye of legendary Hawaiian surfer, Michael Ho, Mason thrives on surf history, and loves every minute of his father’s surf stories from the old days:
“I love dad telling me the old stories, I don’t even mind hearing them over and over. I really pay attention and remember the details to see if I can catch him out next time he tells ’em, so I can go ‘Ah ha, I knew it was bullshit’, but he always tells ’em the same. It’s so sick, ‘cos I know it’s real. I love MP (Michael Peterson), so I’m always hitting dad up for MP stories. He was a few years older than dad, so it was like dad was the grom. I love the one about them driving to Bells, all the way from the Gold Coast, with MP driving really fast. Whenever they’d pass a big truck, MP would put his fingers on the windscreen to stop stones flying up from the truck and breaking the glass. Sometimes a chip of glass would fly off and MP would go ‘See, Hoey?! I saved us from that!’ Dad would think ‘Maybe if we weren’t going a hundred miles an hour we wouldn’t have needed to be saved’, but being the grom he’d never say it. One time the windscreen shattered anyway, so MP just kicked it out, put his aviator sunnies on, and kept going! Classic.”
We settled into a pattern of surf hunting, in between eating the most incredible food I’ve ever had.
Even the 7-11 type stores had amazing food, you could just grab packaged stuff from the shelves and it would always be good, unlike the crap you get from Australian or American convenience stores. The restaurants were always next level, food so tantalising we’d almost always eat too much of it.
The locals here love a drink and love a laugh, and dose themselves liberally with the former while dishing out equal portions of the latter. One of their favourites was shochu, a sort of spirit distilled from potato. It’s smoothness hides a sneaky left hook.
Kuni, a shochu lover and friend of Tom’s from way back, had fled his old home up north a few years ago during an earthquake, and with a tsunami warning issued he got on his pushbike and peddled for his life, riding south for nine hours non-stop.
“I never looked back,” Kuni said. “Not once. I just rode.” He ended up living on the southern tip of this island, on a bluff under a lighthouse, with his wife and two young kids. There are reef breaks scattered around the coves below, and wild horses roam the green hills of this beautiful peninsula. It must feel a long way from what he left behind.
Mason is a ball of energy, skating and bombing hills in between surfs, and is up for what ever is going. He loves a joke and is a laugh a minute.
“I had this dream once,” he began, as were heading off to check the waves. “And the thing was, V-Land was at Sunset Point, so I knew I was dreaming! I thought, ‘I can have anything I want here!’ I figured a Dream Shop would be good, so I thought one up that had girls, surfboards, cars, you name it. I ran in, grabbed one of everything and went and surfed V-Land – at Sunset, ha ha!”
I asked him which girl he’d gone for. “Oh, an Egyptian one! She was beautiful…”
Most of our car rides were punctuated with tears of laughter; the more the conversation degenerated into increasingly debauched tales, the more it dawned on each of us what maniacs the others were.
There is no barrier breaker as effective as the realization that the other guy is as tweaked as you. Mason is vital, alive, dynamic. He eats life like a hunk of chocolate cake; just stuffs it in.
His reverence for Tom is obvious and this deep respect goes further than Tom’s skills as a surfer. It is in keeping with Mason’s appreciation of who and what came before him. The respect level is stratospheric. One morning I’d asked Mason where he wanted to check and he shot back, “I’ll surf wherever Tom surfs.”
On a sunny afternoon we check a vivacious beach break, solid six-to-eight foot in the north corner, thick and very tricky. Holding ground is hard enough, let alone catching waves.
Tom doesn’t fight it and lets himself drift way out wide, finally getting a roll-in bomb which reforms on the inside and goes square. His skimboard is almost too fast, and he can barely slow it down enough to get fully pitted.
His skims seem to be, rather than totally functional craft, more functions of a freak talent. Someone who has surfed so many waves, and has done it so easily for so long, that he needs greater challenges to stay interested. None of us, barring Kelly, can comprehend that mindset. That said he put in some wild performances on the skims, maybe in spite of them rather than because of them.
We hit a locals-only type restaurant towards the backend of the trip – a modest place with a small menu, filled with locals we hadn’t met. Tom was holding court, the life of the party, the very antithesis of the popular public perception of him.
His quiet, low-key image is nowhere to be seen when he is with friends and people he knows well. He was on fire this night, linking dry one-liners with a continuous monologue that was simultaneously hilarious and clever. He made an aside about an epic pit he saw Michael Ho get at Inside Sunset way back, which Mason gobbled up like a bit more cake. It was perfect.
The specialty of the house was chicken. Char grilled; in dumplings; in soup; even sashimi chicken. As this last entrée was served up, we looked at it with some alarm. Then we looked at each other and did what had to be done. It tasted extremely chickeny, sort of like… essence of bird. The locals were stoked with us for taking the plunge. Actually, they’re always stoked. It was as if we’d gone out to dinner with them, like we were in their crew. It dawned on me that the people here really know how to live.
Some people work like fiends their whole lives, thinking they are accruing wealth. No. In fact, they are growing poorer. They are frittering away the only real asset any of us ever hold: our time!
To spend an asset of infinite value but very limited redeemability, doing things that often aren’t in any way fulfilling, seems insane. While they amass a pile of filthy lucre, their true wealth – youth – diminishes at an exponential rate. You can’t buy back those years with a super fund, or a luxury car, any more than you can buy back broken waves.
And at the end of the day, who knows what’s coming? Irma’s nasty niece could appear, or Kim Jong-un might end up getting his really big slingshot out, and God help us if him and Donald Duck really get into it. Us plebs can’t do much about it, so we may as well surf, and get as much life and love in as we can. Why not work a bit less? Go on that surf trip; chase that girl; throw that party; give freely of yourself. Go and Search.
Why live a little, when you can live a lot?