Words by Danny Johnson
All photos by Duncan Macfarlane
I thought my life was pretty good until I did a surf trip with five pro surfers who are all younger, richer, skinnier and slightly better at surfing than me. The moment I stepped onto the boat with these guys it became obvious that my life sucked in every measurable way. But rather than enter a deep dive of comparative self-hatred, I decided to use the time isolated at sea to learn the wisdoms of these masters of surf. Aka steal all their secrets.
Sure, I could attempt to improve my life via more experienced mentors, like Anthony Robbins’ audio books or Tim Ferris podcasts, but can those guys do full rail roundhouse cutbacks? And am I about to start taking advice from kooks? Besides, I wanted to go deeper than ‘life hacks’ and generic ‘goal setting’ nonsense, I wanted real change and big backhand hacks.
The plan was simple: I had 10 days at sea onboard the Mangalui, a luxury Mentawai charter boat, and I would make each one of these surfers my new father. Five new dads that would teach me everything I needed to know about success. I would look to each surfer to teach me something different, a different life skill they specialised in. The same way each Ninja Turtle specialises in their own unique weapon.
By the end of the trip I would become all I can be or the project would be a failure, like my life so far. Keep reading to find out what happens (suspense).
Jack Freestone is rich. I’m poor. Jack is a shred-head. I’m a kook. Jack’s baby mumma is Alana Blanchard. When girls take one look in my direction they want to throw their ovaries in the bin. It’s like we’re not even related, what could I possibly learn from my new papa bear Mr Freestone?
It was Jack’s his first trip since he had a kid with his beautiful pro surfer lady-friend, and he missed his young family desperately. But that didn’t stop him from coming second in the secret competition I had in my mind for the best surfer of the trip. He might have even come first if I’d seen all his waves (the judging in this event was incredibly flawed). What I’m trying to tell you is what you already know, Jack is a psycho talent when it comes to hi-fi surfing.
Time and time again, like I’d seen on all the videos, Jack did crazy stuff. He lived out peak moments where he defied all Newton’s Laws and landed something crazy. This is what I decided I’d learn from Jack-dad Mr Freestone.
I’m not saying I want to land backflip twisty pops in the surf like Jack. I’m saying I want to be able to reach these peak levels of performance like Jack does, but in my own way. For me it might translate to pouring the perfect amount of milk on my cereal or, if I’m really nailing it, cooking two minute noodles without looking at the instructions.
The first thing I noticed when I was surfing with my dad – Jack – was that he could be deep in conversation sitting in the line-up and then, three seconds later, he’d be flying upside down three foot above the lip and 12 foot above the shallow Mentawai reef. He has the ability to flick his focus in a millisecond.
Jack was shoving his perfect jawline into barrels when they were there, and slapping up lips when they weren’t. Every single person on the boat at some point made mention of Jack’s make rate. “He doesn’t fall off” despite constantly doing upside down loony stuff. I’m pretty sure our masterful Indonesian chef Ewayn, who doesn’t speak English, even mentioned it to me at one point, but then again he might have been saying, “Berhenti makan semua Beng Bengs,” which means, “Stop eating all the chocolates,” in Indonesian.
The only wave I remember Jack blowing was a take-off at a barrelling right on the first day. It was one of the better waves that day. He swung late and was unable to get a rail in before it ran off without him. Who cares, right? It’s only one wave, we’re the only ones out, no big deal, just catch another one. Jack emerged from the water not far from where he’d attempted to stand up and immediately started punching his board. Hard. He was super-mega-ultra pissed off. This, I decided, was the secret to my dad Jack’s phenomenal ability to focus and achieve great things. He cared, immensely, about every single wave.
Surfers at Jack’s level might get a handful of dream air sections a year. This isn’t skateboarding. You can’t just practice tricks whenever it’s not raining. Everything about surfing is finite: Your physical ability, the waves and the surf trips you get to go on. We’ll all be dead soon, so you’ve got to make the most of every wave. And besides, when your job is doing aerials there’s even more reason to take every lump of ocean seriously. How many good waves do you actually catch a year? Are you even paying attention? Or are you going to let them slip by because you were thinking about how many Beng Beng chocolates you ate yesterday?
The realisation of this adds lots of weight to opportunities you get in the water. And this pressure leads to intense motivation to focus, and that’s how diamonds are made! Thank you, Jack-dad. I had unlocked my first key to success. What was it again? Oh yeah, treat every wave and every cup of tea seriously, acknowledging the rare gifts they are. Let that lead to intense focus and then shred and sip like a king.
I only had to talk to dad Jay Davies for five minutes or so to realise what I’d learn from him. It’s adventure. Everything about Jay’s life screams, ‘ADVENTURE LUNATIC MAD DAWG SNAKE WILD BOY.’ Other than our masterful boat captain, Albert, Jay was the most comfortable on a boat and knew his way around the controls. When he’s at home in the wild West Aus, he’ll drive all night to surf shallow slabs without sleeping. These were the types of things missing from my life and a mentality I needed to learn.
When you’ve been living in a city for a while, like I have, you really start to notice people with skills that cut in the wild. If we ran out of food, Jay could feed us all with his fish and squid-catching skills, which he demonstrated throughout the trip. If things went bad, and we turned into cannibals, he’d also easily win the fight to the death and be the last to be eaten.
I know my fatty flesh would be first on the menu. Our bodies reflect our lifestyles. Mine is flabby, pale and has become useless after years of weak excuses. Jay’s on the other hand looked like an upsid- down tanned triangle, well structured and purpose built for physical achievements that go far beyond sitting at a computer with bad posture 12 hours a day. How Jay hasn’t been cast as The Hulk in a surf spin off film is a cinematic crime.
Jay is the most manly man I’ve met in my life as a man. When he stood up on a wave and wound up with so much pepped-up testosterone and then flew down the line vaporising sections, ferociously displacing water, I felt like a nine-year-old. I’m pretty certain that if any ladies had their pick of the men on our boat they would pick Jay every time. That’s my understanding of women’s mate-seeking behaviour, they look for big, strong men who’ll be able to protect them when the zombie apocalypse comes. I’m also assuming they don’t mind a man that can huck big power aerials into the flats.
Wait, how did we get here? We’re talking about adventure. The more I learnt about Jay, the more our lives seemed to differ. Also, it pained me to see how much better his stories were than mine. For example, Jay’s ex-girlfriend was bitten by a crocodile. My ex-girlfriend was bitten by consumerism and used to complain about not owning an expensive new 4WD that she couldn’t afford (and definitely didn’t need in the city). It’s hard to have adventures in the congestion of a city. There’s something about the isolation and extreme weather conditions of being from a small town at the bottom of Australia that have led to Jay’s disposition for adventure, but there’s also a genetic factor at play.
Jay’s dad is a respected local surfer and proper wild-man lunatic himself. So wild that one day at a party he was having too much fun for the adults, so he went and rode bikes with the kids. He then took this to the extreme as he rode one of the bikes at top speed straight off the veranda. He hit the earth so hard that as he laid there motionless everyone assumed he was dead. He wasn’t dead, but he did break his back, an injury that meant he would never surf again.
As a kid, Jay had a videotape of his old man surfing that he watched religiously until it wore out, which was around the same time he became old enough to follow in his dad’s footsteps chasing similar hairy waves. This path for Jay had been set, and risk-seeking behaviour was the key component. It’s what drives him, he reads books about some of history’s greatest adventures. Like Endurance, the harrowing tale of British explorer Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 attempt to reach the South Pole. And Batavia, a true story set in Western Australia about a 1620 shipwreck.
What I’d learnt from my dad Jay was simple, move out of the city. Don’t pull out a phone, pull out a fishing rod. Take more risks. And date girls from the Northern Territory.
Tyler Warren was on the trip, too. Californian, shapes his own boards, doesn’t do airs but still rips. You know the archetype I’m dancing around here; friends with Alex Knost etc.. I instantly liked Tyler a lot, and I wondered what my American dad would teach me. Something about America maybe? Freedom? What makes eagles so special? How to shoot a gun?
Tyler was the most introverted person on the trip, which meant not so much talky talky. And as the trip neared the end I thought that Tyler wasn’t going to teach me anything. But then on the last day it hit me, and I double realised that Tyler had been teaching me a lesson the whole time. How to not be annoying – a very underrated skill.
Annoying people is something I specialise in. I ask lots of questions, require other people to be doing what I’m doing to be having fun, and when people are are in bad moods I don’t give them enough space. What I’m describing here is a general neediness that’s completely absent in Tyler.
It’s important to avoid annoying other people in the close confines of a boat, but back on land in your normal life it’s a skill that’s even more important. Have you ever thought about how being annoying might be really limiting your opportunities in life? No one wants to give a job to someone who chews too loudly. Shut your mouth and read on so you too can learn from American dad.
It’s impossible to be annoyed by Tyler. Look at the photo of Tyler, if there’s one on this page. Try and be annoyed at it. Guaranteed you can’t. He’s most probably doing something stylish but authentic. It comes down to being on his own program, a mix of being involved while keeping to himself.
He lived out his own program with almost zero influence of the external world. He knows what he’s about, where his wheelhouse rolls, and he’s not swayed in any other direction. In comparison, I realised I live my life like spilt petrol. Anywhere there’s a spark of energy, I’ll light up and burn out quickly.
Even Tyler’s surfing is free from any annoyances. His boards have more foam than your average shortboard, and his surfing lacks any desperate struggle for speed, which, let’s face it, is an annoying thing to watch. The only person who can really pull the “I’m in a hurry” look without being annoying is Taj Burrow. Tyler doesn’t waste waves either. He surfs every one of them from start to finish.
There were plenty of sessions where there were other surfers out and Tyler opted not to surf. Why would he annoy anyone by surfing better than them? He doesn’t annoy fish either because he doesn’t fish. He does eat fish, though, but you can’t annoy something if it’s dead.
What’s Tyler’s take on this? I couldn’t really tell you because he didn’t talk much. Does it paint the picture of a timid shy pushover type? Don’t get me wrong, he isn’t that. Far from it, I learnt from stories told by surfers on the boat that he’s actually gnarly. Tales of assertiveness and confrontations where Tyler came out on top. Some really good tales, too, that you probably want to hear about right now in this article? Sorry, I can’t tell them because that might annoy Tyler, and I’m trying to be less annoying these days.
If all the surfers on the trip were a boy band, you would assume Mitch Coleborn was the bad boy of the group. The rebel archetype. The one with a hint of facial hair, partly covered in tattoos, wearing a leather jacket and not smiling often. The first two descriptors are accurate, but what I quickly learnt about my daddy Coleborn father was that he’s the opposite to the brooding bad boy, he’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.
I don’t use that word lightly, either. I’m not saying he cracked a few clever jokes here and there, I’m talking you-better-grab-your-crotch-so-you-don’t-yellow-your-pants level funny almost all the time. It really snuck up on me because, despite being a diehard surf nerd, I’d never heard Mitch speak. Everything I knew about Mitch was via Kai Neville’s editing suite.
There isn’t much room for humour with Kai’s sense of taste and aesthetic: A brand of high standard surfing and mood driven lifestyle moments intertwined with artistic conceptual themes. As a result, Kai makes people look cool, and talking isn’t that cool. Neither is being funny. As brilliant as they are, when you’re watching Kai’s films you’re not really getting to know the personalities on screen. You’re getting to know Kai.
Humour is a commodity that Mitch hasn’t tapped into with his career, but, as my newest father, it’s what I decided he’d teach me. Watching Mitch crack LOLs night after night, I realised there’s two crucial components to his and maybe everyone’s humour. One being timing, and the other being unpredictability.
Timing is important, everyone knows that. Often, hilarious words delivered a second late are not the slightest bit funny. I noticed his timing in the water too. When he gets a good one and stands at the top of the wave pushing on the tail, building the tension until a section stands up and WHAM! Blow tail reverse. But if you did the same move on every section, or cracked the same joke with every sentence, that’d be boring. Hence unpredictability.
And that’s what I learnt. You can’t be funny all the time, so don’t breathe down people’s neck with it. Wait for your moment then WHAM! Rip a zinger, but not the same zinger every time of course.
Sometimes timing and unpredictability come together to make the sweetest of champagne comedy. Like the last morning of the trip when Mitch woke everyone up at 4:30am, swinging from the roof of the cabin, still drunk from the night before and yelling obscenities and insults, something that Mitch can do without offending anyone. He was the last to get up every other morning, so this was definitely unpredictable, and yeah, then there was the timing, the painful time of day. It’s like being tickled, it wasn’t necessarily enjoyable, but we were all laughing.
Even before I got on the boat I knew what I was going to learn from the youngest of my new dads, Ryan Callinan. This article is a big joke, I’m not some desperate insecure freak who needs the guidance of pro surfers to help me through the basics of life. I’m only 70 per cent that, the rest of me is a capable human. But Ryan had something I do place a lot of value on learning.
Ryan recently lost both his parents. Something most of us are going to face at some point, but Ryan experienced this tragedy very young and within the space of 12 months. A year on, Ryan has the biggest smile and a genuine warmth you couldn’t imagine anyone would be capable of given the circumstances. I’ve heard very challenging experiences like these can either make you bitter or better. This handling of grief is what I wanted to learn.
I’m not talking about general loss, either. I’m talking specifically about losing our parents. Regardless of the quality of relationship, the connection to parents is like no other relationship in our lives. That’s why I chose the silly analogy of calling these guys my dads. Our parents wired our brains both genetically and experientially, and shaped our view of the world. The relationship is huge, and so is the loss.
A year or so on from his loss, Ryan can talk openly about the depth of his struggle, where he went wrong and what’s helped him through the process. A good indication of healthy grieving. Ryan’s also supremely fit at the moment. No body fat. Physical health as it relates to mental health is a clear one. Stay off the sauce, don’t eat like a moron and you’re going to be offering your brain the best possible chemicals to process grief. An obvious one I’ve failed at many times when things have gotten weird in my life.
But Ryan’s taking it to another level, I noticed him meditating on the boat when he had a spare moment. He was also reading a book called Stealing Fire, a book about flow states as it relates to psychology, neurobiology, technology and pharmacology. Real smart stuff. Yep, Ryan’s pretty on top of things, and his ability to navigate his grief is the direct result of his self-awareness and the hard work he’s put in.
His self-awareness extends to his surfing, too. Each year he tries to work on a different aspect of his surfing. Last year it was how to string complete waves together. Multiple tricks, slides and hacks combined on a wave seamlessly. On this trip, the results of that were clear. Ripping on another level.
He said his breakthrough with grief came when he realised he was denying the reality of what had happened. He wasn’t completely accepting his family’s loss deep down. A common idea in psychology as it relates to suffering is: Suffering = Pain x Non-Acceptance of the Pain. Identifying this concept is one thing, living out its truth is a whole other kettle of fish, which Ryan has been able to do.
What I’ve learnt from Ryan is that you have to choose to do the work. You don’t just get lucky and come out of tragedy without lasting negative effects for you and everyone around you. It’s work. Do the obvious things and the hard work that set you up for success, and from there just continue on that upwards spiral towards living an effective life. Read more. That’s a good one. I also learnt that from Ryan. The difference between you and people you admire is that they read. And that’s definitely true in the case of Ryan Callinan.
Article courtesy to Coastal Watch
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