Derek Hynd and the Philosophy of Free Friction

A profile from our October 2011 issue

More than just a fad or a way to add a layer of excitement to an otherwise mundane surf, finless surfing has, through Hynd, again found relevancy and legitimacy. Photo: Van Gysen

Cutback readers—on whatever craft you favor—to the previous evening at the Pass. A violent lightning storm is in progress. The sky is almost black, blazingly illumined by jagged shafts of lightning that seem far too close for comfort. The surf is overhead and close to perfect, racing along a shallow sandbar in a series of barreling sections with 50-yard feathering lip lines. I had caught a wave and was running back around for a last one before night engulfed the lineup. Hynd came rushing out of the twilight, at full chattering speed in complete control (in many days of observing him he barely fell off). Bottom-turning, he put the board into a full-speed slide across the lip line, with the tail-half of the board fully exposed (a sudden flash of lightning like God’s own photographic studio froze the moment in my brain). A full board slide finner, as if performed by Fanning or Reynolds. But as he came back down, backward, the triangular foamball picked him up (a white knuckle against thundering black storm clouds) and rocketed him into the next tube section, where he regained his rail control and got a deep barrel. It perfectly framed the following thought on Free Friction by Hynd into a physical reality: “Speed tended to displace the function of conformist turns, for the hell of it. And the hell of it is an amazing thrill. Just being completely abandoned and free.”

There’s a more modern antecedent in Hawaiian culture that Hynd riffed on at length, in obvious homage: “The stoke factor gets me right back to my teenage years when Bertlemann, then Buttons, then Liddell used to be on screen at the movies. Getting to see them in the flesh, particularly Liddell, and seeing how far ahead he was of every surfer there…well, I wanted to do that. I wanted to be like that. The respect I had for his smile, and just his grace on a wave while doing bizarre shit—it never left me. A lot of this is dedicated to him: to his spirit of adventure at speed.”

But we’re outrunning section after section here, fellow surf fans. We need to get somewhere back in time, closer to the take-off point, where this bizarre, reverse-aging icon first stumbled upon the fountain of eternal youth. The young Hynd moved to Sydney’s northern beaches from Avalon to Palm Beach. The Morning of the Earth country soul and design innovation era was at its zenith. To the south—from Narrabeen to Dee Why—AC/DC and hard rock bought in a darker and less conservative mood to the Aussie suburbs. Newport beach was smack in the middle of these competing influences. It was the beginning of the end of the age of innocence for Australian surfing. Twin demons in the shape of drugs and motorcycles ripped a swathe through the Australian suburban landscape and surfing was on the frontlines of the cultural battleground. Overnight, most of Hynd’s small circle of friends disappeared into a drug vortex.

It was the event that shaped Hynd’s character, the moment where he turned away from the herd and pursued the logic of his own observations: “Just about every family back then had an association with drugs and motorbikes. The two went hand in hand. It seemed to me then there was an art form in drugs. Seeing how guys approached drugs and seemed to be able to mull up 5-star joints laced with all sorts of things in the car park, it was like, ‘Look at these guys, they’re geniuses.’ Of course, geniuses going nowhere. It was a complete letting go of any conservative remnants of the ’60s. I saw the innocence of a lot of friends vanish in months, sometimes days, never to return. The bodysnatchers took away a lot of crew. I was left without much, except a dragster bike and a few faithful dogs.”

A passionate anti-drugs stance has been part of the Hyndian religion ever since that day.

We were in the sun-dappled tea tree forest of the Noosa Points now, walking towards Tea Tree Bay and its perfect peelers. I was feeling like a burned-out car wreck after days of running the Hynd line. Three hours sleep a night, jump in the car and drive in the dark. Surf. Jump back in the car and drive in the opposite direction. Surf until dark. Fatigue and white-line fever. Hynd snatching remnants of sleep while I drove, twitching as the muscle memory of the finless rides seared deep into some sub-coetaneous neural pathway. One of Hynd’s chief disciples, Richard Tognetti, is no stranger to caustic self-discipline himself, being a classically trained violinist. He describes Hynd’s regime of self-discovery in protestant terms: “All our joy must be paid for by equal amounts of torment and struggle. That is a big part of Derek’s makeup: the struggle.”

The air was freshly scrubbed by the tropical storms and Hynd was taking me back to that time in the early ’70s when the Dark Prince of surfing, Michael Peterson, absorbed the insidious energy of hard drugs and the tender sunshine of the new professional surfing dream like a black hole. The media was obliged to hero worship Peterson, and that was a bad mistake in Hynd’s eyes.

“This whole drugs in pro surfing thing may go back to the idolization of MP,” says Hynd. “The guy could do no wrong and yet was in a deep, dark hole. The media faces predominant blame for celebrating the drug lifestyle and not bearing witness to the total ill of the situation. It’s just a pity that more people didn’t come forth and try to do something about the amount of drugs on Tour. It possibly would’ve saved Andy Irons from the fate that befell him, if there were role models on Tour and corporations that were willing to help the bloke in public. It’s a tragedy.”

Hynd has born witness to other destructive drug binges in pro surfing. “It’s no great secret that Occy completely f–ked up at the peak of his powers,” he says. “And that really cut me to the quick because I was coaching him.”

Hynd created a group named “On the Nod” as a result of the Occy meltdown, which required at least two years of being drug-free to join. It was a dismal failure. Derek is philosophical about his anti-drugs crusade: “It’s amazed me that there’s a drug factor in surfing that removes the natural high. Fame and influence in a sport full of supposed heroes just create so many dark corners that are hard to resist. I wanted to change things and I didn’t change much. Maybe one day we will confront the phantom that has hovered around the tour since Day Ane.”

All things considered, people become products of the landscape—not just the physical landscape, but the artistic and emotional ones. The physical reality of the Northern Beaches, with its series of almost hermetically sealed beaches and scenes, created unique tribal nodes of design and surfing style. Nothing created a bigger emotional and artistic impression on the young Hynd than the first Coke surfabout Contest in 1974, which roamed the Northern Beaches with it’s cast of larger-than-life surf heroes who had only been seen on the big screen up until that moment. It planted the seed of a dream for Hynd that led to both a career as a pro surfer and later as the most perceptive writer/critic of the sport to this day.

“Make no mistake, the first Coke Surfabout for any Sydney surfer, for any kid surfer, was just huge,” says Hynd. “It was bigger than any event today because people were so starved of seeing the people that they’d only ever seen on screen. And there they were. And none so great as Barry Kanaiaupuni, who in 2- to 3-foot Narrabeen Alley rights, was just tearing the bags off it. It was more art form than sport. It looked incredibly artistic and it spawned a lot of young minds to do some backyard hacking. Art form back then, plain sport now. Boxed, packaged as the industry wants it. Interesting now that they’re going back to bleacher events in a reactionary stab against the success of the sports that have largely consumed surfing, which are skate and, to a degree, BMX. If they’re regressing to the OP Pro of ’85, ’86 then I can’t see that as being incredibly foresightful on their part.”

“Yes,” I countered, “but you must acknowledge the beauty of the performances of, say, Parko and Dane.”

“I don’t find enough beauty in these performances. I want an arena where these phenoms get to surf repeatedly against each other,” he argued. “There is no room for 48, 32, or possibly even 20 surfers on Tour. The public deserves the stimulation of pinnacle performances. Not hackneyed, controlled, over-coached, counting turns, join the dots, repetitious heats day in day out, with sometimes the best surfer being knocked out early in the heat. There are a bunch of Blind Freddy’s out there who can see it, but apparently not the ASP. The ASP is incapable of lateral thought.”