When Wayne Lynch recently came through New York to discuss Uncharted Waters, a film about his life, there was (understandably) a considerable amount of excitement. A packed theater watched and later listened as Lynch spoke about his days spent literally redefining the sport. He graciously spent a few hours with writer Tyler Breuer discussing the state of the surf industry today, the consequences of drug abuse and why surfboard prices are too low.
TB: Can we start off by talking about the current state of surfing and the industry its become? Did you ever imagine it would get so huge?
WL: You know: you see it on TV — surfboards in the background on a Good Morning Australia-type show. Or, on football panels, the guys’ll be talking about going surfing and such. Even really expensive cars like Mercedes will picture surfing. That was the last thing I wanted to associate with. I mean really — the last thing. It’s quite remarkable. Obviously money came into it.
TB: What do you think about that?
WL: There’s nothing wrong with earning a living. But at some point, when you’re talking about billions of dollars, you’ve gotta acknowledge that there’s greed involved. Because at some point people come into it that have no feeling for surfing or understanding about surfing and are not really interested in it.
TB: They just want to make a buck.
WL: Yes. When the money gets quite big, everyone starts to go “I have to make something out of this.” So you’re not getting people contributing [to the sport], you’re getting people working out ways to make money. And I’m not against that, I don’t mean that negative. But some pretty weird shit does start to happen.
When it began, people came to surfing fairly organically, with a genuine fascination with the culture. They came into surfing with the idea of learning. But once you commodify it and bring people in on a mass level, they don’t care, they’re just out there to get what they can. And there are a lot of negative repercussions in the long term if you don’t somehow try to keep that real culture alive. Surfing’s not just business. It’s not just about competition.
And [surfing] — it’s a finite resource. There are only so many surf breaks. There are only so people that can fit onto any given break before it becomes an absolute congested nightmare of aggression. At that point, the sense of freedom and relationship you have with the ocean and the other guys surfing would be gone and surfing would be ruined.
TB: I feel like surfing is becoming like skiing or snowboarding in some ways — done on such a mass level.
WL: But the difference between surfing and those sports is the unpredictability of it. I think that’s one of the things we all love about surfing and the thing that might also protect it from becoming like skiing in that way.
TB: Two words — wave garden. It’d be the worst thing for surfing I think.
WL: Why’s that?
TB: I think you’ll have a lot of people who grow up completely disconnected from the environmental aspects of surfing, with no clue how to read the ocean, defer to locals or behave in the water.
WL: That’s a really good point. I never thought of that. I thought the wave pool might be good for the professional surfing team because you take it away from the coasts and put it where the population is. You don’t have to take the population to the contest.
TB: That sounds so boring doesn’t it? Competitively?
WL: Competition is boring. I don’t mean to knock the guys surfing — their surfing’s brilliant — but the competitions are so structured and corny. The contests used to be festivals where people would come and there would be lots of stuff going on. Now instead of people milling around and interacting, you have the Rip Curl stand and the Quiksilver stand and the whatever stand so everybody’s isolated in their cliques, you know?
TB: Yeah. Let’s talk about your shaping for a minute. How do you break down a board for someone?
WL: It’s a feeling really. I’ve got a pretty good understanding because I’ve been making boards for awhile. But if it’s someone I don’t know so well, I ask them what they want, and they’ll give me some dimensions, find out their weight, and really talk to them about their surfing — how long have you been surfing, where do you surf? Because if you’ve been surfing for a long time, you’ve got a bit of single fin technique in your surfing — that’s a big issue. And the same with your age. If you’re over twenty-something, usually you’re not trying to break the tail free. So they’re the factors, really, and it’s a bit of intuitive guesswork from there.
TB: Do you find that because you have such a recognized name and reputation, you’re able to charge a premium for your boards and have better margins on them than maybe other shapers?
WL: That’s a good question. I think boards have been too cheap for years and years. I mean, I made more money in the late Sixties than I do now, relevant to the cost of living. Materials have gone up, taxes have gone up. The wages haven’t gone up. And everybody takes such relatively small amounts of money for the work they’re doing and they try to produce more surfboards to make up the loss. I think that’s kind of failed the industry and it’s
failed those people a lot of the time. In the end they just can’t keep doing it because you can only pump out 500 boards a year for so many years before people don’t really want to buy them anymore because they’re everywhere. So, yes. I do charge more. But I don’t think I charge enough.
It’s really hard, you know? It’s really hard to charge people a lot of money. And the majority of people that surf aren’t very well off. They haven’t just won the lotto.
TB: Do you think shapers now are trying to compete with cheaper foreign imports?
WL: In Australia, once the Chinese flood came, so to speak, boards were everywhere. Plumbers — I’m just using this as an example because I know someone who did it — would get boards sent out from China, and sell them for $400 when everything else was $650 or $700. It became an epidemic and a lot of people shut down — glass shops and such. But then the boards fell apart, the shapes weren’t that great. And a lot of glassers and glass shops refused to repair the boards when they broke. Now it’s gone back to people wanting custom work — quality. They want to feel good about their surfboard. A surfboard’s a beautiful thing. And I think that sense of interaction with shapers — I think that’s important. It’s always been part of surfing.
TB: Have you gotten sick from being exposed to a lot of materials?
WL: Yeah. I’m highly allergic to foam, normal everyday foam. All my mates say I’m allergic to work!
TB: (Laughs) Who isn’t man? Come on!
WL: They say, “You have an acute reaction when you have to work.” (Laughs) And it’s true, I confess.
TB: They have a vaccination for that…
WL: Six months in Indo, six months in Fiji! It works. No, I got really sick from the foam. It broke my immune system down. For nearly two years, I was sick all the time with the flu. I couldn’t work out why. It got to the point where I couldn’t surf. For seven months, I couldn’t even paddle out. I had no energy. I thought I had leukemia or something quite serious. But my immune system had just broken down. It took about eight months to recover, and now I’ve gotta wear a little pack on my back and an asbestos removal suit with it.
TB: So I want to change gears a little. You seem like someone who’s pretty much in the present. You don’t seem like someone who dwells on or thinks about the past a lot. But you just made this film, Uncharted Waters, that chronicles your life. What was it like for you to revisit all of those memories?
WL: I’ll talk about the past, but no, I don’t live it. I don’t glorify it. I’m fairly objective about what it was like. I mean it was great. Those were prime years. No matter what the activity is, the pioneering era can never be repeated. So I have a lot of fondness, respect and gratitude for that time in surfing. But I don’t dwell back there. There’s no point. There’s nothing to be gained. And that’s why I don’t do much true retro work. Even my single fins, they’re not retro single fin.
TB: Was it difficult revisiting the more difficult times in your life for this film? For example, when you had to go into hiding after avoiding the draft or when you talk about finding your daughter after her horrific accident.* Was it a challenge?
WL: No. It wasn’t difficult. Talking about those things didn’t bother me too much, even though my daughter’s accident, I obviously feel very strongly about. But we live in an era where celebrity and all the rest of it’s quite profound in our culture, and I’m big on showing the real story, you know? The good, the bad, the ugly — I’m all of them. So the only thing I did regret a bit is I didn’t get to articulate certain things that happened more fully because the film has to move. That’s the nature of the film. I would’ve gone into certain things more — like drugs. I mean our society’s just riddled with it now. I’ve seen so many problems (because of them). I got it all out of my life a long, long time ago.
People are going to do what they’re going to do regardless of what someone like myself
says, but I think of little kids watching the film and I want them to know what that really is and what the consequences are. I mean so many good
surfers and other people I know have just fucked
their life up because of it, you know? Their lives are ruined. Finished. Michael Peterson was a
TB: Yeah it’s a real shame.
WL: People go, “Oh he was sick!” I knew Michael really well and I know what he was into and how early and how much, and even his mum said recently after he died, “It was the drugs that screwed him up.” I mean he had a capacity obviously for schizophrenia but…
TB: … Sometimes the drugs will unlock that.
WL: That’s what it did. And it didn’t just unlock it, it…
TB: …Unleashed it.
WL: Or Keith Paull. Underrated, brilliant surfer. The guy was one of the very, very best. And look what drugs did to him. I could talk about this for hours because it’s just one [person] after the other after the other. There seems to be an assumption that a lot of creativity that took place in the late 60s–whether it be music or art or surfing — was somehow influenced by taking drugs as a means to enhance creativity. And it’s not true. At all. [Drugs] don’t enhance or produce creativity. In fact I think it’s the opposite. And that’s what I wanted to say in that film. But we didn’t get there.
TB: Do you think surfing enhances creativity?
WL: Well it’s a creative act, you know. It’s expressive. Expressing how you feel and how you relate to the wave.
TB: There are a lot of surfers who are just not very creative on the wave. (laughs)
WL: Well that’s the one good thing about the way people are experimenting now with different boards. That’s the power of surfing today. I really like it.
TB: Surfing today is very open minded when it comes to surfboard design, which is pretty exciting.
WL: It’s fantastic. My son rides alaias, and I don’t know how anyone can ride those things. I remember when he first started doing it I said to him, “This will really improve your surfing because all you’ve got is the edge.” And he said to me afterwards, “I know what you’re talking about. When I get on a thruster I can really feel a rail now, not just fins.” So, that’s good. That’s one of the real positives.
TB: Can we talk about the selfishness of surfing for sec? In the film, you tell a story about missing Christmas — your first Christmas — with your wife’s family because you’re surfing. How do you keep your wife happy when you don’t show up for Christmas for a week? (laughs) Surfing is definitely a very selfish pursuit sometimes, and watching that film I can’t help but think you were quite selfish at certain points.
WL: I was so obsessed — if the conditions came, there was nothing short of illness or some serious thing in life that would keep me away. But anything else, I was like, “Sorry. This day’s not gonna come again.” But yeah, I can’t really sit here and justify it. You’re obsessed, you’re in love with what you’re doing and you’re trying to get there, to that… that level of understanding. And I think Lindy [my wife] pretty much always understood that.
TB: Do you ever have regret about times you blew off things to go surfing? Were there any things you wish you hadn’t missed?
WL: No, not really. As I said I was very lucky. Lindy was really good like that. I think, right from the start, there was never any doubt about how I was. I’ve always been pretty honest about whatever state I’m in. Like, this is it. You want to come along for the ride? Well okay. I mean it was her choice. I know that sounds really mercenary, and it is I guess, but that’s just how I was.
TB: Are you still that way?
WL: No. Now I’m the opposite. Now I put everything else first.
TB: Did that happen when you had your kids?
WL: Yes. From that point on.
TB: You are kind of a larger-than-life character. You have a reputation and you’re very well known. I’m wondering how you think that effects your kids. Do you think they ever feel pressure to fulfill a certain legacy or follow in your footsteps in some ways?
WL: Yeah I’ve thought about that a bit, especially with Jarrah because he surfs. But I don’t really live my life in a way that that’s particularly obvious, you know? Where I live, I’m…
TB: … Normal.
WL: Yes. And I think that’s been really positive for them. I talked to them about it from a very young age. I said, “Look fame’s fine. If it comes to you, there’s nothing wrong it. But don’t pursue it. And don’t think it makes you special.” I talked to them a lot about that in fear of something arising in their life that would put pressure on them, because it’s the last thing you want. I think Jarrah experienced it a little bit when he first started surfing. I said to him, “You don’t have to prove anything. You especially don’t have to prove anything to me — or to yourself.” And that’s part of that thing about living your own life, you know? I see the ugly parent syndrome at football matches. And I just go, “Wow what are you doing? Let the kid have fun.”
TB: A last question, I always ask these questions when I do interviews. They’re a bit cheesy but they’re fun. If heaven exists, what sort of wave would you like to surf forever?
WL: Cloud Break at Kingfoot. Four times as long.
For more of John Witzig’s work visit his website or pick up a copy of his book, A Golden Age: Surfing’s Revolutionary 1960’s and ’70s.