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For Australian surfing legend Nat Young, life on the waves was never about winning

When Nat Young says "I'm happy to just catch a three or four waves, share it up and watch from the beach", an immediate reaction is a guffaw of complete disbelief.

Because to be brutally honest, as someone who has surfed the same crowded breaks with him on Sydney's northern beaches, "sharing" hasn't always been part of the Young surfing lexicon.

Surfer Nat Young at Palm Beach, November 8, 1983. Picture: Daryl John Gregory

Surfer Nat Young at Palm Beach, November 8, 1983. Picture: Daryl John Gregory

This is a surfer who would dominate a break like the biggest, baddest silverback in the jungle.

And while some people think surfing is some sort of aquatic ballet, on a small day at North Avalon when there's 50 people scrambling for waves, it can be a real jungle out there.

Surfing around the northern beaches, Young was hard to miss in the surf line-up.

A tall (6'4"), long-limbed bloke with an unusually large bonce, he could paddle a board like he had an Evinrude strapped to the back.

And as a bloke who has won Bells four times, the Australian amateurs three times and knows every wave-gathering trick in the pro-surfer catalogue, would employ them mercilessly in hunting and gathering his more-than-generous share of waves.

After Nat Young published his previous book Surf Rage about being bashed on the beach by an Angourie local and needing facial reconstruction, it could be said quite fairly that few who have had to compete with him for waves, even in a weekend "recreational" sense, would be unsurprised at this outcome.

Nat Young (above) doing a full rail bottom turn at the height of his dominance during the late 1960s. Picture: Surf Beaches of Australia's East Coast.

Nat Young (above) doing a full rail bottom turn at the height of his dominance during the late 1960s. Picture: Surf Beaches of Australia's East Coast.

Perhaps at the fierceness at which he was towelled up that day, but not as to why it happened.

That incident was nearly 20 years ago.

Grey-haired Young is 71 now. He openly admits that the march of time has turned down the wick on the "burning need to catch every possible wave" that once burned so fiercely.

In fact, a good number of his contemporaries are either dead, have given up surfing, or just can't stand up on a surfboard any more.

"Getting to your feet quickly and having all the bits of your body able to bend the right way to help you do that is such a critical thing in surfing," he said.

"I was so lucky that when I had my knee replacement, I did the research and found the knee joint which had the proper flexibility for surfing.

"Without that correct knee joint, my surfing would have been buggered."

It's a sure sign you're getting on when a chapter in your latest book details the correct choice of knee replacement. (He thought that observation funny, but probably not at the time).

After finding he had no cartilage on the inside of his left knee and very little on the outside, the "knee chapter", as he calls it, emerged because it was a "monumental" decision to proceed.

That chapter is actually titled "The End of an Era" but fortunately, it hasn't been for Nat Young

"[Former Newport-based world surfing champion] Tommy Carroll got his knee done and he gave me plenty of good advice," he said. "After the op, I practised [standing up quickly] on the carpet.

"It [the operation] worked and I'm still getting out there. And considering all the dumb and risky things I did when I was younger, I'm pretty happy about that."

In the whitewash of time, what's often forgotten is that Young was a genuine surf pioneer and emerging industry success back when surfers were regarded as weirdos and misfits. The "straights" (non-surfers) would shake their heads as apparently rational and intelligent people gave up comfortable jobs and sacrificed relationships just to live in their cars and chase waves all day, every day.

Nat Young. Picture: Supplied

Nat Young. Picture: Supplied

Young was one of these, hitching a ride with his board in the back of flatbed truck up a bumpy and winding Pacific Highway, couch-surfing long before it was even named, smoking pot and surfing.

Anyone who now visits the ritzy suburb of Wategos Beach in Byron Bay, with the posh Rae's resort at its base where all the beautiful people stay, may not believe that entire hidden valley was once a banana plantation.

Way back in the day, Young lived rough around there "because the Pass waves were great", and stole bananas for breakfast, lunch and tea. He ate so many bananas, it gave him a weird leg growth (which went, after he stopped eating so many).

As one who grew up in a beach culture - mine was the Tasmanian variety, so substitute thick wetsuits and freezing water for Okanuis and sunshine - during the 1980s, Nat Young's newest book has a strong resonance.

The placegetters from inaugural Australian surfing championships at Bondi Beach, November 23, 1963: left to right, Mick Dooley (2nd), Rob Lane (3rd), Nat Young (1st). Photo from The History of Surfing supplied by Evans Family.

The placegetters from inaugural Australian surfing championships at Bondi Beach, November 23, 1963: left to right, Mick Dooley (2nd), Rob Lane (3rd), Nat Young (1st). Photo from The History of Surfing supplied by Evans Family.

Such is this two-time world champion's reputation (and ahem, age), Young has rubbed shoulders and shared stories with many of those who re-wrote performance surfing, radically changing board construction, materials, weight, size, and rail shapes.

Many of the names, some familiar and some not and their often funny, quirky back-stories are contained in his latest book Church of the Open Sky. The title of the book refers to what he listed as his child's religion on a school nomination form but more broadly reflects Young's view that far from a sport, surfing is closer in nature to an art form or a spiritual quest.

"Being out on the ocean stills your mind like no other place," he said.

In 1986, Peter Garrett talked Young into running as an independent in the by-election for the safe NSW Liberal seat of Pittwater, on Sydney's northern beaches. It was a time when local ocean water quality was a huge issue, and surfers led the protest.

We all trooped across to the Mona Vale Surf Club, beers in hand, for his modest local campaign launch. There wasn't a tie to be seen; the place was crammed with scruffy surfers in thongs and their equally scruffy dogs. After railing against the sewage outfalls sending balls of poo onto the local beaches, he finished with a solemn, but eye-widening promise to support the legalisation of marijuana.

It was later claimed the audience's rousing cheer could be heard all the way down at Narrabeen. Given the electorate's conservative make-up, a longer political shot you could never imagine, but Young polled strongly, gathering a quarter of the votes and frightening close behind the Liberal candidate.

"Probably a good thing, in hindsight," he laughed.

"Can you honestly imagine me riding off to work in Macquarie Street in the back seat of a white Fairlane?"

  • Church of the Open Sky, by Nat Young. Penguin, $34.99.
This story There's kind of a special feeling, when you're out on the sea alone first appeared on The Canberra Times.