Coolangatta, Right Now
RAINBOW BAY SURF CLUB FEELS LIKE HOME.
Well, not to me — I was born 10,000 miles from here — but to someone else. Or a lot of someone elses. The lighting is dim and not in the romantic sort of way. It casts only faint shadows that soak into the club’s perfectly worn carpet like spilled beer. The walls wear explosions of surf-related décor and not in that new-trendy-surf-shop sort of way. Photos, trophies and checks all firework through the darkness and they make a guy like Mark Occhilupo feel a lot less like a world champion and a lot more like a son. (Even if he wasn’t actually born here.) The place bustles with patrons who couldn’t seem more at home even if they were spooning a pint of ice cream while shirtless and sweating on a recliner. And did I mention there’s a bar?
I’m standing at it, waiting to order my next Tooheys or Coopers or definitely not Foster’s. The soil of my patience sprouts a conversation. The other voice box belongs to an Australian man, 65 or so, an owner of eyes that seem like they’ve seen a story that somebody or anybody should maybe listen to. He’s the type you see wearing a function-first FCS aqua hat on a boat trip in Indonesia, only 10 years after his most recent sojourn. His skin is damaged from the leather-making Australian sun but it still has a certain glow tonight. I can tell that he can tell that I’m not from here. Maybe that’s ‘cause I want ice cream.
“This town has produced more champion surfers than anywhere else in the world,” those vocal chords strum to me. And this ain’t a drunken fisherman’s tale. This is truth. Coolangatta has been responsible for 12 surfing world titles since surfing decided it had a title to give 39 years ago. That’s a big feat for a small town — the population lingers around 5,000 — but his spiel isn’t all statistics. It rambles on into accounts both firsthand and otherwise that tell his version of what makes the town tick. However, his anecdotes were all things of the past. And this is about Coolangatta right now.
Plus, I just got my beer.
COOLANGATTA, RIGHT NOW
I’m jet-lagged. Or hungover. It can be hard to distinguish between the two. SURFING Senior Photographer Steve Sherman picked me up from Brisbane International Airport and, 90 minutes later, we’re riding the vertebrae of the road that snakes along the Coolangatta beachfront and gives my American eyes their first look at the Superbank.
The Superbank. A place I never thought I’d see. And not because I’m old, diabetic, retired and my idea of seeing the world is an all-inclusive Carnival Cruise that makes a bold stop in Jamaica. But because, well, I’m goofyfooted and blind out of my right eye and think about how fun going right would be for a man like me. Not much “super” about it.
But even though I’m a lazy-eyed cripple and even though the swell isn’t much to write home about (which is exactly what this story is), there is something very impactful about this. It’s that feeling of finally seeing something that you’ve seen so much of without ever having really seen it. That disbelief, the Grand Canyon effect, the way you feel as a child seeing Mickey Mouse for the first time. I don’t know if I’m jet-lagged or hungover, but I know I’m happy to be here.
The sun feels closer. Every second of exposure serves as a singeing reminder that there actually is a ball of fire somewhere up in that blue sky. It’s 12:30 in the afternoon on a Sunday and the waves are flat. The sun is only creeping closer, and its ultraviolet rays melt ambition like a Popsicle in a child’s hand, dripping down fingers and collecting into a sticky puddle on the hot concrete. The beach is busy but the bottle shop is busier. It’s going to be a good afternoon.
On an invitation and a whim, I hand myself over to that oppressive sun and walk down a road that leads to the house of the Mad Hueys. The house of the Mad Hueys is, in more specific terms, an apartment owned by Shaun and Dean Harrington’s grandmother. And on this decadent Sunday, it’s the starting line for that aforementioned good afternoon. I kick my shoes off, open the creaky screen door and walk in.
Pleasantries, handshakes, beers, seat. After the formalities of a welcome are taken care of, the room slips into something a little more comfortable: conversation. Actual conversation — nothing concealed or contrived — the kind of shit you probably shouldn’t say in front of a guy who is admittedly there to write a story. Bede Durbidge recalls the times when the Australian WCT fraternity took over Namotu. He’s recounting events that a belligerent frat boy might blush at. Yet here they are, filling the humid Australian air with a thunder of laughs.
That thunder rises not from lightning, but from the small storm of people who sit in the shade of Nana’s apartment. They range from guys like Bede to Coolangatta’s common man. The Harringtons are listening, engaging and, of course, cackling. Stories surface from all corners of the room, but in the absence of oneupmanship. Nobody’s story strives to outdo its predecessor and nobody’s voice booms with more importance than the next. It’s just people.
Things flow like this a little while longer until, eventually, the well of beer runs dry and the party crosses the street and parades into Rainbow Bay Surf Club. Inhibitions haven’t been seen in hours and the Harringtons order a bucket of the Hueys Lager. I guess they have their own beer? It isn’t overly delicious. But this isn’t a beer review.
A conversation on the birth of the beer leads to a conversation about the birth of all things Huey. How? What? Why? Huh? “It started out as our team name in a fishing tournament,” Dean tells me with a shrug. “We made some shirts for ourselves, then our mates asked us to make a couple more. Then we ordered about forty, and people kept asking and asking…”
Since then, the Mad Hueys has burst into a multimillion-dollar company. You can’t go anywhere in Coolangatta without seeing a hat, T-shirt, sticker or apparently a beer. The brand is spreading like a virus on an international level, but the Harringtons seem pleasantly disconnected from it all. They can hardly answer any of my business-related queries and don’t even appear to have much enthusiasm or interest in the growth of it all. To them, their six-figure enterprise is just something that happened, almost by accident. And it all started on a day like this, with beer, with friends, with fun.
I wonder where my check will come from.
It feels like an investment at the time, but bank statements and an elongated lull will soon reveal that it was an ill-fated gamble. I’m streaming the Quik Pro webcast while driving along a road that bends and curls alongside the Tweed River, spending a dollar on international data charges at each turn. My destination, at the end of this spaghetti strain of a street, is Joel Parkinson’s house. Earlier today, Parko lost a Round 3 heat to Wiggolly Dantas in undersized Snapper. There was a strange leash-tangle incident toward the end of the bout and Joel wasn’t much too pleased. I hope he feels better now.
I pull into the driveway and is it weird when you recognize a dog? A Boxer — the one from Parko’s movie, Free as a Dog — charges up to the car, wagging every big of its almost-tail in excitement. Parko follows shortly thereafter, shirtless, beer in hand. He welcomes me into his home. Not that he needed to anyway. The door was open all along.
It’s tasteful, this Parkinson place — chic, comfortable, nothing unnecessary. The sleek living room couch wears the weight of friends. They are drinking and betting on the afternoon heats because that’s what adults do. In the backyard, Parko’s son, Mahli, sprays the dog with the hose because that’s what children do. Everything feels in balance, and there are no egos to sway that equilibrium. Jason Stevenson is one of the world’s best shapers and he asks me where I’d put my money on the next heat. Joel won the world title three years ago and he just handed me a beer. Turns out he does feel better now.
As heats go by, each wave is thickly coated in banter. Bede’s board looks so good, says JS. Filipe is a freak, says Parko. Stories are told in a vibe that is comfortably similar to what I experienced with the Mad Hueys and I begin to wonder how all these townspeople are so successful if all they do is drink beer on a couch.
“I think it’s the waves,” Joel says. “It’s just so good. There are so many guys to look up to when you’re a kid, and so many other good kids to be competitive with. I think that’s why you see so many amazing surfers from here.”
I believe him. I’ve seen the Superbank. I’ve met Mickey Mouse. I know how good it can get and witnessed the obscene level of talent that lives in the water here. So I believe what he’s saying. I just have a feeling that there’s more to it.
BECAUSE THE NIGHT
It’s a Friday night. The waves don’t exist, the contest is off tomorrow, the town is bursting with life and did I mention that it’s a Friday night? To the streets we go.
Coolangatta’s got a full spectrum of nightlife. It ranges from the Rainbow Bay Surf Club that feels like home to a place called Rattlesnake that sounds like house music. Somewhere between the two is Komune.
It’s overpriced and ditzy but what’s ditziness if you’re not overpaying for it and why overpay for anything to be normal? Komune is the unofficial home of all parties Quik Pro. And tonight, it’s home to a diverse flock of people. WCT surfers to Russian tourists to Byron Bay hipsters in the floppiest hats to Australian jocks whose fists pump and pump and pump and then hand over nine Australian dollars for another Red Bull vodka.
It’s easy to get sucked into the night here, easy to behave as if tomorrow is just some far-out hypothesis that hasn’t yet been proved and only might be true. And so that’s what I do. I order a Red Bull vodka — still not sure why — and surrender to the night.
In no particular order: I watch a grown man scale the 10-foot wall like Spiderman in order to dodge a line outside a bar, my friend gets caught having sex in a bathroom, two girls get into a fight, I buy sunglasses and a pie from 7-11 and I lose my left shoe.
Turns out, tomorrow actually is a thing. I wake up parched with that sun getting closer as it sneaks in through my curtains. I’m going to need more than a coffee. Luckily, Dean Morrison will provide that. I arrive at his house just after 11, my red eyes disguised behind sunglasses. Well, it’s not his house — it’s his mom’s. Dean just sold his, and is boarding a flight to purchase some property in West Oz tonight. But for now, Mother Morrison prepares a meal.
The holy smell of eggs and bacon fill the air as plates come sizzling in from the kitchen. We sit down and Dean says grace —quickly, meaningfully — and it is time to eat. The redness of my eyes is revealed and I explain what the town did to me last night.
Dean laughs through a smile. He’s never been known as one to shy away from a night out. I wonder, though, how regularly flooding your liver affects one’s role as a professional surfer. And I ask. But before you answer, could you please pass the eggs?
“F–k, there are so many guys who could have been so good. You know, guys who could have had a real impact on tour. But it’s just so easy to get knocked off track here. If you’re a young, talented surfer, you get paid a lot of money and you’re popular. Everybody wants to hang out with you and party with you. It’s hard to find a balance between having fun and staying focused when you’re a kid. You see the guys who were able to do it and they’re all successful. Then you see the guys who weren’t and they’re still at the bars, warning the next crop of kids about what might happen to them.”
I wonder where they were last night.
NO PLACE I’D RATHER BE
“This door here is from the Capitol Theatre in Sydney.” Noa Deane’s mother is giving me the grand tour of their house and she is undeniably sweet. The place rests on a hill in a quiet Cooly neighborhood — far away from the Rattlesnake. She and her husband have lived here for decades. That husband is Wayne Deane. He’s a world-class shaper, an even better surfer, and the guy who showed Rabbit Bartholomew what to do with Kirra — but right now, he’s just a greyed man wearing old clothes, drinking coffee and reading a book while a dog rests at his feet.
This house tour wouldn’t have always been this grand — it used to be a concrete shoebox, I’m told as I politely decline the offer of a fresh juice. The Deanes collected throwaway materials from construction sites or wherever else they could find them. More scraps, more building, and now it’s the coolest house I’ve ever seen. And an even better home.
I eat almonds in the more literal coolness of the porch and chat with Noa. At home, he’s not the guy who flips off the camera or fucks the WSL. Instead, he’s just a friendly — albeit eccentric — kid born to awesome parents. A few more almonds and Noa shows me skate clips on his phone. Then he shows me Christian Fletcher clips on his phone. Then he puts his phone away and takes out an ugly, brown 1990s board that he recently picked up from the Rusty factory while he tells me about how fun it is to bomb-drop off rocks. Feel the eccentricity?
I prod. This is the child of an Australian Surfing Hall of Famer, an obscenely talented surfer who grew up in a place that prides itself on competitive surfing success. But right now, Noa looks far more comfortable in his loose-fitting, patterned T-shirt — one that looks like it came from the same decade as that browned board — than he ever would in a contest jersey. But does he ever feel pressure to compete?
“Yeah, totally. And I used to do all the comps growing up. I’d get in heats and I’d just freak out and, like, do airs off the back of the wave or try something stupid. I didn’t like the way I surfed during them and I’d always lose, so I stopped doing them.”
Noa is the most gifted Coolangatta surfer of his generation. He’ll never win a world title. There’s a good chance that he’ll never even qualify for the tour, mostly because he might never choose to try. We probably wouldn’t like the way he surfs in heats, either.
A breeze starts to crawl in from the sea, blowing the hot air inland where few people live and fewer people care. Mrs. Deane offers me a juice, again, and this time I accept. Noa and Wayne just sit back and smile. I’ll be leaving Australia in a few days, but right now I’m just enjoying the refreshing taste of pineapple. I think about where they may have scored this glass, but my thinking doesn’t end there.
I’m starting to realize that this town is more than just a wild night and a deathly hangover. There’s more to it than the earth’s best sandbar. Its residents are more than just surfing world champions. Because, above all else, the people of Coolangatta are champions of happiness. And that’s why they’re so successful.
Noa’s voice brings an end to my internal monologue. “All the weird kind of surfers end up living in Byron, and I guess I could move there,” he says, with a tinge of vulnerability. “But I don’t know. Why would I ever want to leave here?”