You’re no stranger to challenging the norms within surf culture and pushing the boundaries. Can you tell us about your experiences in PNG and what’s happening in those places now with regards to how their surf cultures are continuing to develop?
Whilst you were in PNG, did you get a chance to catch a few waves on one of the traditional palang “splinter” boards?
I realised how different the approach to surfing is in PNG. Although they have had a lifetime of interaction with the sea, most local surfers at Tupira Surf Club (TSC) have not been formally taught how to surf or exposed to much of how the mainstream surf industry depicts how surfing is ‘supposed’ to be (at least until recently, before the arrival of the World Longboard Tour event at their local spot in early 2017) and I wonder does that make a difference? It seems to leave the interpretation of surfing, and how it can be approached, wide open. Surfing there is more of a feeling thing that goes beyond the boundaries of human language and draws upon a more environmental language. There’s no charging into a wave or pushing too hard. The approach is more fluid, waiting for the wave to come to you. Effort is kept to a minimum and you let the wave set the cadence – the rhythm that your body must intuitively match.
Tupira Surf Club’s timber surfboard project, a collaborative initiative co-created by surfboard virtuosos and master shapers Bryan Bates and Tom Wegener, and supported by the Surfing Association of PNG (SAPNG), seeks to be a national symbol for how to breathe contemporary life into an ancient culture; to honour old ways while creating something new, or as co-founder of the project Nicki Wynn would say, to awaken PNG magic. The project creates an alternative way of approaching surfing, one that is more creative perhaps and more accessible in a place like PNG with a ready supply of fast-growing hardwoods. The timber boards encourage children and people of all ages, backgrounds and gender. It is a medium that fosters a sense of autonomy, self-actualisation and unlike fibreglass boards, timber boards don’t create a dependency on imported and/or donated products from ‘wealthier’ (western) surfing nations. The timber surfboard lends itself to developing an exceptional wave knowledge and an ability to feel the waves through the characteristics of the various types of wood. It’s perhaps no surprise then, that my own more ‘personal’ experience of the sea happened after I’d taken a break from fibreglass boards to ride a timber belly board just for fun. What a different, more intimate feeling.
My last session at Tupira was spent on timber boards with talented local surfer, 17-year-old Ruthie. A little bit of PNG magic under our bellies as we flew across the reef left me feeling like both a novice again and like this is the most natural thing in the world. Ruthie was learning to shape her own timber boards. Her surfing abilities and regular presence in the surf, perhaps aided by the ready access to surfboards for female surfers as a result of the Pink Nose surfboard initiative (organised by the Surfing Association of PNG and encouraged by the recognition of her equal status in the line-up), is translating into the shaping bay: A space traditionally male-dominated the world-over.
There are many ways of being a surfer and many different ways of doing surfing. We need to celebrate the diversity of the lines that we can draw and how we can move through the water and waves.
You grew up in a surfing family on the wave-rich coast of northwest Ireland. Can you tell us about the waves that you’ve ridden the Seadar on (if you can do so without giving away any local secrets!)?
They are all flat, limestone slabs of reef where I’m from. What I found with the Seadar was that each spot required a different line to be drawn. It would always take me a couple of waves before I would begin to find my flow. The Seadar especially loved the fast, down-the-line set-ups. I’ve never gone so fast in my life, making what I thought were unmakeable sections. It’s surprisingly fun in the pocket and keeping a high line. That said if you try to force a line to hard it’s quick to throw you off!
You’re an academic (with a Ph.D in Environment and Society) in with an awful lot of projects on the go at any one time, but you’ve said in the past that at the core of everything you do is a desire to help people better understand each other and their environment through our connection with the sea. Do you have a typical day, and is your connection with the sea the way you maintain balance?
Yes, the sea keeps me sane! And I’m not alone in this thinking. At the moment, I’m working at the Whitaker Institute at the university in Galway a research team on a new project called NEAR Health. It explores the connection between healthy environments and healthy people, and how might we engage communities with nature for their health and wellbeing. Within that, I lead a part of the project that investigates the impacts of ‘blue space’ or outdoor water environments, especially the sea. There is very strong evidence emerging to suggest that the sea literally does enhance our sense of connectedness as well as boosting our mood, immunity and even empathy – our ability to understand and relate to each other and our environment.