"Koby Abberton saw a really good wave of mine and he paddled over and said, 'I usually just write off cunts like you, but you can surf that thing,'" laughs Harrison Roach. "It was the most ridiculous compliment I have ever gotten."
It's early in the afternoon and the 24-year-old Australian is perched outside his tent at an altitude of 7,000 feet, in the shadows of Java's Mount Bromo, talking about a session at Nias last year. The conversation is interrupted by the sound of his friends fanging motorbikes around the undulating lava fields below. Roach switches from the past to the present with a sip of his campfire-brewed tea: "This is amazing. I love getting as far away from a normal surf trip as possible."
Roach and three friends had driven through the night from Bali in a Land Cruiser laden with 15 surfboards on the roof, loads of camera gear and bags stuffed inside, and two customized Yamaha Bison motorbikes on the back. It was the first day of a journey that would see them travel the length of Indonesia, surfing and documenting the 1,300-mile overland crawl to Nias, the same place where Abberton issued the ultimate backhanded compliment.
"That week was incredible, a week of perfection," Roach continues. "By the end of it, all of us that experienced those waves were friends. Nias isn't the most adventurous place to go to, but with waves like that, that's irrelevant. The waves trump all. When you push yourself over the ledge and fly through a green tube and get spat out on a 6’8″ six-channel single-fin, that's when you feel alive."
Currently, there are few people in the surfing world who are as alive as Harrison Roach. With boards handcrafted by some of the sport's legends, motorbikes customized for surf adventure by his sponsor Deus ex Machina, time at home on the Noosa points bookended by winters in Hawaii and summers in Indonesia, he has been taking his high cheekbones, his on-trend '60s surf look, his easy, articulate confidence, his effortless noseriding, and his love for waves of consequence to an increasingly wide and appreciative audience.
"There aren't many surfers out there that can pick up a board from 5’0″ to 10’0″ and make it look natural. I really do appreciate his love for the ocean and riding whatever board excites him on any given day." —Julian Wilson
"I was in the shaping bay last year with Bob McTavish when he was in residency at Deus' Temple of Enthusiasm in Bali," says Roach. "Apart from soaking up the design side of surfboards, I loved hearing him telling stories of stowing away in a cargo ship to Hawaii and surfing Lennox and Noosa on his own in the early '60s. I wondered if 30 years from now I'll be talking to kids and whether they'll be blown away by some of the experiences I'm having in Indo right now."
With his next story, he makes his own question rhetorical. "We'd heard through the grapevine there was a wave on Java that was like Pipeline. On one of the biggest swells of last year, Joel Fitzgerald and I went to find it. It was in the middle of a national park, a six-hour motorbike ride from the closest little town. It was absolutely insane. A mix between Pipe and Teahupoo, although nowhere near as perfect. It was huge and gnarly—probably the heaviest surf I've ever had and some of the biggest barrels I'd ever seen. The problem was I rocked up with a 7’5″ single-fin, the completely wrong board, and a 6’2″ I'd shaped myself—equally useless," he laughs. "Joel was incredible, though, absolutely ruling. We camped behind the dunes with no one around for miles. While it wasn't perfect Lennox, it showed me that surfs like that can still happen. If you want it bad enough."
Because he's perhaps better known for his longboarding skills, I was surprised to hear that Roach was tracking down 12-foot slabs in the middle of nowhere. "It's really easy for people to judge you on what you ride, and they can be pretty quick to write you off," Roach says. "They just think you're some hipster or whatever, but to just surf and let that do the talking, that's important to me."
That reminded me of an incident earlier in the year in Hawaii. Roach was coming out of the water after a session on his log at Beach Park. Veteran photographer Tom Servais, impressed by what he had just seen, asked Roach whether he was the Australian Alex Knost.
"Fuck no!" was Roach's emphatic response.
"I was probably a bit harsh with Tom," says Roach, "but so much comes with that comparison. I am not in a band. I am not an artist. I am my own person and I want to be taken seriously. I document the things I do and the things that happen around me through my writing. I love surfing's history and I want to be a part of every aspect of its future. Alex is an amazing surfer, and I know Tom was paying me a huge compliment because Alex is the guy for the younger generation of longboarders. He has been a huge influence. I just didn't want to be stereotyped into that scene, or any scene. A lot of those guys only ride single-fins and I just don't want to limit myself; I still want to ride quads and thrusters and do airs."
I look up to the Land Cruiser with its 9-foot logs, five-finned bonzers, snub-nosed shortboards, and quad-fins raked with deep, staggered channels.
"Look," Roach continues, "it may have fucked up my surfing, because every time I hop on a board I'm like, 'OK, I gotta figure this one out.' But it also inspires me. I might have been a better surfer if I just stuck to just a thruster.
"On the flip side, I am so aware of measuring my performance against other surfers, because increasingly I am surfing with incredible surfers," Roach continues. "Like last year in Bali, we cruised on our bikes from Canggu to the east coast. We thought it was going to be small, so I just had my single-fin. Turns out it's solid and this slab is firing. I spent the session going over the falls, getting licked, while Dean Morrison was getting stand-up pits. I was screaming to myself, 'I am such a kook.'"
Julian Wilson, who grew up with Roach and remains a good friend, provides a counterweight to Roach's self-whipping. "There aren't many surfers out there that can pick up a board from 5’0″ to 10’0″and make it look natural," says Wilson. "I really do appreciate his love for the ocean and riding whatever board excites him on any given day."
Roach grew up at Sunshine Beach, the next beach south of Noosa National Park and its famous pointbreaks. While his parents—his dad, an airport bus driver; his mom, a resort manager—didn't surf, the family spent most of their spare time at the beach.
"We all spent our days at First Point, riding any board that we could get our hands on," says Wilson. "Harry has always had a special gift to ride any kind of board."
That gift translated well competitively, and by his mid-teens Roach was having success in both shortboarding and longboarding events. At 16 he was the Queensland and Australian junior longboard champion as well as the Queensland shortboard champion.
"Even though I had some success, I could easily tell that where Julian had that crazy X factor, I didn't," Roach admits. "I was never going to be on the World Tour. I was competing 'cause it was fun and it was an excuse to get out of town."
"If you saw me behind the rocks at Snapper pulling in on a longboard, I'd expect you to slap me. There is a time and a place for everything, and some things are just wrong. But if you are surfing First Point Noosa or small, perfect Malibu, you are kidding yourself if you are on a shortboard."
He was having more success with his longboarding, though, making professional-event finals from age 15. At 17 he received a trials spot in the 2007 ASP Longboarding World Championships, held in Anglet, France. Despite making the quarterfinals, Roach found the pro longboarding environment fairly odd. "The whole scene was off-putting and confusing," he remembers. "I remember seeing the guy that would go on to be the world champion doing a chop hop—a 180 ollie. I was like, 'What are you doing?' When you are a kid growing up on a shortboard, you learn that at 13, and by the time you are 14 and a half it's the most uncool trick in the book."
Roach has strong views on longboarding and isn't afraid to voice them. "Longboards make you ask the question, 'Can I be on a better board for the conditions?'" he says simply. "If you saw me behind the rocks at Snapper pulling in on a longboard, I'd expect you to slap me. There is a time and a place for everything, and some things are just wrong. But if you are surfing First Point Noosa or small, perfect Malibu, you are kidding yourself if you are on a shortboard."
Roach's first surf at Malibu came the year after the France trip, when he was invited by Joel Tudor to compete in a noseriding expression session event at the U.S. Open at Huntington Beach.
"Longboarders often have a chip on their shoulder and an arrogance because they have been shit on for so long," says Tudor, who since that first trip has remained a friend and mentor to Roach. "And while he can be an arrogant little shit, that's mainly because the kid is hot shit. Luckily the cool thing with Harry is that he has an elegant wit to him that can be taken as charm, not arrogance. He is a little smartass, but an incredibly well-spoken one."
Roach did well at school and was accepted into university to pursue a journalism degree, but took a gap year—one that has lasted for five years now.
"The plan was to go back to university, you know, get my life on track. But I was working part time and getting opportunities to go on surf trips; I went to Sri Lanka and did a few Indo boat trips. I started getting a little sponsor money and just felt the longer I did it, the better it got. After two years, the deferment was finished and I was just in it. I was into finding ways to get paid to travel.
"I'm 24, and normally in the surf industry if you haven't made it by then you are finished. I feel like I am just coming into my own, but for many of my mates it's already over, despite their incredible surfing talent. Pure surf talent isn't as marketable as it once was."
For Roach, pure surfing talent isn't an issue; with style to burn and a thirst for adventure, he set himself apart from the surfing establishment. I watch on as his posse packs up the tents, places the bikes on the rack, ties down the flotilla of surfcraft, bundles in, and points the vehicle north before making a slow, rumbling descent across the lava fields, toward the coast.