A Good Cobber

Prawn fisherman Heath Joske is charging the heaviest waves he can find

Heath Joske was 16 hours from his birthplace of Nambucca Heads, Australia, driving across the Simpson Desert at dusk with 17 surfboards strapped to the roof of his beaten ’90s Honda, when he hit a kangaroo and totalled his car. He laughs as he retells the story: “The whole front of the car was rooted. I ended up hitching a ride with a couple of good cobbers that had an empty trailer. I was sitting up front, but I hadn’t had a shower in a day and a half; I can’t even imagine my stench. We spent the next 11 hours together backtracking to the town of Wagga Wagga.”

Joske was headed home after competing in the Burton Pro, a World Qualifying Series (WQS) event held this past February in Newcastle. Though he earned a 9.80 in Round Three—the highest single wave score in the event—he was knocked out in the following round. When the contest was finished, every pro with a taste for fame and fortune headed to the Gold Coast for the first cyclone swell of the season. With luxury apartments on the beach, five-star dining on the strip, and blue, crystalline tubes stuffed with what seemed like every pro surfer on the planet, the Gold Coast was a far cry from the kangaroo-riddled desert road Joske was traveling.

He’d moved to South Australia two years ago to be with his girlfriend, Eliza. At the time of his move, Joske was training near the Gold Coast, following the WQS with little to no luck. He was going broke. He had lost his sponsors and was forced to shift gears. Like his older brother, Sage, who shut the doors on his surfboard business in 2011 and went to work in the coal mines, Joske was also driven to a less idealistic job just to keep the wheels spinning. He began working on a prawn trawler, traveling out to the west coast fisheries and pulling nets from sundown to sunup.

When you spend your days hunting down giant Southern Ocean surf and your nights hauling fishing nets on prawn trawlers, , the beard just comes naturally. Photo by Kidman
When you spend your days hunting down giant Southern Ocean surf and your nights hauling fishing nets on prawn trawlers, the beard just comes naturally. Photo by Kidman

“It’s pretty hard work,” Joske says. “You’re out to sea, pulling up all sorts of specimens from the ocean through the night. But you’re working with some true-blue blokes, you have a good laugh, and make an honest paycheck. At first I was a bit concerned; I’d never done anything like it before. I got seasick quite a bit those first six months, but I got used to it. I love being out at sea; it’s just absolutely beautiful out there and I never get sick of watching the sun rise and set over the ocean.”

It’s no secret that Carcharodon carcharias also frequents the waters of the Great Australian Bight, where Joske often works and surfs. For Joske, working on a prawn trawler is a regular reminder of this. “You don’t wanna know what’s out there” is a favorite saying of fishermen at the drinking holes from Port Lincoln to Albany when they converse with surfers over a beer. I asked Joske how he deals with knowing this.

“It used to play on my psyche quite a bit. I would come home from a trip out at sea and there would be all sorts of stuff running through my head,” he says. “We definitely see a lot of great whites, and you get more comfortable around them, but you see how much power they’ve got. A lot of the best surf spots are out in the open ocean, or they’re out off the tips of headlands near seal rookeries—spots that feel sharky. When I first moved down here I was hearing stories every other day about someone spotting a 12-foot pointer [great white] here, someone spotted a big bronzy [bronze whaler] there; it was all a bit hard to believe. But once you’ve been down here for a while, it all becomes a bit more believable.”

The wide-open spaces of the desert and the Antarctic groundswells that sweep out of the Southern Ocean are a far cry from the vibrant hills, valleys, points, and beachbreaks of the New South Wales coast where Joske grew up. His mother, Jenny, was a schoolteacher, and his father, Paul, made surfboards. They were country kids of the late-’60s counterculture revolution who shunned the lure of the cities’ bright lights and opportunity, opting instead to bring their children up on a small farm in Valla, a rural area smack in the middle between Sydney and the Gold Coast. Joske has fond memories of growing up there: “The first seven years of my life, we lived in a shed. Mum and Dad had their room and Sage, Violet [sister], and I were in another. We had five acres; it was a seven-minute drive to the beach. Mum used to grow all our veggies and we had an epic orchard. We’d have grated apple, banana, and guava for breakfast. I loved it.”

Heath's appreciation for old-school shapes doesn't mean he's trapped in the past. His above-the-lip game is finely honed, thank you very much. Photo by Shield
Heath’s appreciation for old-school shapes doesn’t mean he’s trapped in the past. His above-the-lip game is finely honed, thank you very much. Photo by Shield

Paul eventually built a house for his family using native hardwoods and turned that shed into a workshop where he could build his boards. He soon developed a reputation as one of Australia’s finest and most fastidious surfboard builders. He kept a detailed record of every surfboard he’d ever shaped and glassed, including the time and temperature it was the day he mixed the resin. Paul’s eldest son, Sage, followed in his footsteps, learning in earnest all his father’s skills. Heath was the ripping little brother. Paul and Sage built Heath’s contest boards and he quickly became one of the best junior surfers in Australia.

Paul also spent hours behind the camera filming Heath’s progression, giving him feedback, and teaching him about flow and the importance of a good bottom turn. But it wasn’t all about performance and contests. Paul wanted Heath to have an appreciation of surfing’s history, its culture, and its design possibilities. “For my 13th birthday present,” Joske remembers, “Dad made me a Skip Frye twin-keel fish. I rode it in all the grommet comps before fishes were even back in trend. I hadn’t even seen any of them around.”

Joske eventually became an elite junior-level competitor. He traveled all over Australia with his father and eventually won the Billabong Pro Junior series in 2007. He sealed the title with a win at perfect Bells Beach.

Paul and Jenny still enjoy watching their son compete. I joined them for the 2015 Australian Open at Manly Beach. Amongst the neon-orange bleachers, skate ramps, loud speakers, and rock-concert platforms, Paul and Jenny sat underneath a small paisley beach umbrella poked in the sand. Nearby, Joske readied himself for his quarterfinal against a gleaming-bald Freddy Patacchia. “It’s the hairy versus the hairless,” Joske quipped.

The grind of the pro tour’s qualifying series, with its emphasis on riding waves on equipment designed specifically to please the judging panel, can take its toll on an open-minded surfer like Joske. Fortunately, he’s always been able to shift his focus to the alternative designs his father recommended or the shapes his brother was messing around with. His curiosity has paid off and helped him become a well-rounded surfer.

Heath plumbs the depths of a New South Wales drainer on a Morning of the Earth-inspired 5'8" single fin shaped by his brother Sage. His willingness to put alternative shapes through their paces makes Heath the perfect test driver for Team Joske. Photo by Kidman
Heath plumbs the depths of a New South Wales drainer on a Morning of the Earth-inspired 5’8″ single fin shaped by his brother Sage. His willingness to put alternative shapes through their paces makes Heath the perfect test driver for Team Joske. Photo by Kidman

Two years ago I was in the throes of making the film Spirit of Akasha, a modern-day homage to Morning of the Earth, Albert Falzon’s 1970s classic. One of surfing’s most iconic images was taken from Falzon’s film: 18-year-old Michael Peterson’s cutback at Kirra on a single-fin board he’d shaped for himself. I thought it would be interesting to document some of the world’s best modern surfers riding single-fins in my film, since they were the only boards ridden in Morning of the Earth. I was curious about the lines modern surfers would draw, and because of Joske’s history of riding different designs, I approached him with the idea.

He liked the concept and asked his brother to shape him a couple of boards. “Realistically, I had only just started getting into single-fins when Sage made me those two boards for Akasha,” Joske says. “I’d ridden single-fins before, but I’d never really had one that I connected with and kept riding until I figured it out. That high line at Jeffreys Bay was definitely a direct result of surfing those single-fins, there’s no doubt about it.”

Joske drew that high line on a wave at the 2012 Billabong Pro at J-Bay. Much to his surprise, video of the wave—Joske perched at the top of a perfect J-Bay wall, knees slightly bent, arms thrown casually above his head in a moment of pure bliss—went viral on the Internet. “The crowd on the beach kind of erupted when I did it,” Joske says. “I’d been taking those lines for days. I probably hadn’t thrown my arms back and got that carried away, but I’d wanted to. I was looking at those sections and thinking, ‘Man, you just want to be flying at that top section, letting it all hang out.’ That’s one of the best feelings in surfing; it’s like flying.”

As spontaneous as the high-line ride was, the rest of Joske’s surfing during the event even further showcased his reverence for pure lines. He rode deep in the tube, and he repeatedly passed up maneuvers in favor of connecting long sections. The speed from his high lines enabled him to drive through seamless top-to-bottom power carves. It was breathtaking to watch. The soul-arch high line, an inspired nod to J-Bay’s “Sultan of Speed,” Terry Fitzgerald, just iced the cake.

Heath poses with his parents Paul and Jenny, while Paul poses with the Joey Carell-Inspired gun he built for his son. An unusual template for a board made with deadly surf in mind caused Paul a bit of unease when it was time to hand it over to Heath for his first go. His fears were unfounded. "One of the best sessions of my life," Heath reported back. Photo by Brooks
Heath poses with his parents Paul and Jenny, while Paul poses with the Joey Cabell-inspired gun he built for his son. An unusual template for a board made with deadly surf in mind caused Paul a bit of unease when it was time to hand it over to Heath for his first go. His fears were unfounded. “One of the best sessions of my life,” Heath reported back. Photo by Brooks

When he returned from J-Bay, Joske went into his father’s shaping room and made a board for himself, a 6’2″ winged pintail with a Dave Parmenter–style Widowmaker fin setup (a big single-fin with two small side fins). He made it to ride the biggest slabs he could find, and it became his go-to heavy-wave board.

“It just responded and handled so well,” Joske says. “With that board in particular, I could push it as hard as possible and it would hold and feel solid. On modern shortboards, there’s only so much you can push before the thing just flings out and gives way.”

The other board Joske’s been riding across big open-ocean swells was shaped by his father. The design is based on Joey Cabell’s late-’60s gun he called the “White Ghost.” At the time, Cabell was into “speed surfing,” and he built the White Ghost to cut a pure line across giant Hawaiian waves. During this period, Cabell was acknowledged as the fastest surfer alive. Paul had read about Cabell’s exploits. “Cabell was very much an inspiration,” he says. “His high lines and speed, particularly at Hanalei and Sunset, always intrigued me.”

Paul was in Hawaii in 1998 when he saw a copy of one of Cabell’s 9’6″s on display in a museum. He took measurements and drew a detailed sketch for a future project. Cabell’s board was almost 4 inches thick, with lots of nose lift, little tail lift, a flat bottom, and hard, pinched rails through the tail. “It was an insane-looking board,” Paul says. “I always wanted to build the board, and the impetus to finally do it came once Heath started to paddle into huge waves. When completed, it looked too dangerous to ride, at least compared to modern guns. I doubted my sanity in handing this board over to my son to ride in waves of consequence, but the results of this experiment have been enlightening.”

Joske agrees that the design is all about speed. “When I first got it, I was really uncertain about riding it down here. I was a bit concerned that the thing wasn’t going to work at all and I was going to get hurt, because you really need a decent-sized wave to even try it. Dad brought the board down last Easter; the surf was 10 to 12 foot and really glassy. I rode it and it was probably one of the best sessions of my life.”

Partly because of sessions like that, rather than chasing Qualifying Series points, Joske’s time is now spent with his father developing a quiver of boards to take on the paddle-in slabs and outer reefs he now frequents. He’s not upset that he’s not traveling on the pro tour full time. Joske prefers to chase his own limits in heavy water, and to share the experience with a few like-minded souls. “Having Camel and Sam Jervis to surf with down here is awesome,” he says of two of his charging companions. “We’re all on a similar wavelength, we all want similar sorts of waves, and we’re all keeping an eye out for each other. We’ve had some special sessions with just us three. It’s definitely a different ballgame. Your adrenaline is through the roof when you’re chasing down big lumps of water.”

I asked Joske if the kinds of waves he’s paddled into over the last year have created the desire to ride even bigger waves. “I’d like to get over to Jaws to give that a crack,” he says. “I’d love to get decent Cloudbreak, maybe go to Punta de Lobos [in Chile]. But Mavericks scares the shit out of me just looking at it; I’m not really hell-bent on having to ride every gnarly wave on the planet.”

For Heath, heart-in-your-throat drops at secretive Southern Ocean reefs have proven more satisfying than priority scrambling in a four-man heat. Photo by Brooks
For Heath, heart-in-your-throat drops at secretive Southern Ocean reefs have proven more satisfying than priority scrambling in a four-man heat. Photo by Brooks

On a recent afternoon, out on the edge of the Great Australian Bight, the sun was casting long shadows as it melted into the horizon. The wind dropped, and the ocean’s surface was like oil. Joske could have been out on the trawler, preparing for a night of prawn hauling. But the swell was up.

In haste, Camel and Joske loaded up a motorboat with their 9-foot guns. Joske kicked over the motor, shifted it into gear, and headed downriver to meet the sea. He navigated the small, galvanized boat through the rivermouth and into the relentless shorebreak. He waited for Camel to call the lull and they charged toward the open sea. They cut across the black glass, beelining for the whitewater that broke in the distance. It was quiet when they reached the lineup. Joske killed the motor and dropped anchor. Camel looked around the tinny, then piped up: “Orrr no, I forgot me leg rope!” Joske couldn’t quite believe it.

For the rest of the afternoon and on into the evening, the two cobbers traded giant waves by themselves in the fading light. Camel rode without his leash and Joske was there to retrieve his lost board, the two keeping a watchful eye on each other out in the wild Southern Ocean surf. Lives lived on the edge of the desert, far from the contest bleachers and loudspeakers.