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The Unlikely Tasmanian

After leaving his home coast 16 years ago, freesurfing icon Dion Agius discovers that getting in touch with his roots is easier said than done

We had just finished dinner with Tasmanian charger Benn Richardson at his house in Clifton, overlooking the placid, moonlit waters of Pipe Clay Lagoon. It was getting late, but Dion Agius, Creed McTaggart, and Noa Deane were wide awake in the living room, throwing back beers in a vain attempt to calm their nerves.

"You boys will do fine at Shippies," said Richardson. "It's not as crazy as you think it is."

"Yeah f–king right!" Agius laughed. "You're really trying to sell us on this one."

We had been driving around the island for days, chasing our tails in a search for surf. Now the best swell of the trip was less than 12 hours away, and we had a serious decision to make. We could wake up at our leisure and drive five minutes down the road to a spot called Wedge, where we could expect to find head-high A-frame barrels and playful ramps. Or we could wake up at 4:30 a.m., travel two and a half hours by car and boat to Shipstern Bluff, and spend the morning pulling into deadly caverns.

Photo: Gibson
Shipstern Bluff, where no shortage of hazard awaits. Photo: Gibson

It was a choice between two incomparable things, like deciding whether you'd rather go play with a litter of Dalmatian puppies in the park or go toe-to-toe with Sasquatch in the Thunderdome.

I suggested that we watch some clips of Shipstern online before making any rash decisions. The first YouTube video that came up in our search was titled "Biggest Shipstern EVER!" and was filled with terrible carnage: Waves the size of two-story houses, barrels with multiple steps in the face, and surfers being violently thrown around like crash-test dummies.

"Well, this was a great idea," Agius said after a particularly mutant wave came on screen. "This is so heavy…"

Another video that came up in our search was of our host, Richardson, dropping into a massive wave, launching over a mid-face step, pulling into a chandelier-ing pit, and casually emerging onto the shoulder. It was nominated for an XXL award in 2015, for obvious reasons.

Richardson is like the Chuck Norris of the Tasman Sea. He's just under 6 feet, with a strong, broad-shouldered build and short reddish-blond hair. Richardson has an economic approach to conversation, seldom speaking unless answering a direct question. When he's not charging deadly slabs, Richardson works as an abalone diver, donning a 9 mm wetsuit, gloves, and booties, scouring the ocean floor in frigid, shark-filled waters.

Considering Agius' reputation as a small-wave aerial wizard and fashion-forward freesurfer, you'd be forgiven for doubting that these two would be sitting at the same table, drinking beers while discussing the wind and swell direction for Shipstern Bluff. But Agius and Richardson share a lot of history. The two Tasmanian surfers have been friends since they were in grade school. They grew up in the small town of Beaumaris, on Tasmania's east coast, and surfed together in the local boardriders' club events, pushing each other along the way. They both remember a time when they were surfing at the same level in the same waves—even though now that feels like a lifetime ago.

Agius left Tasmania at age 14, before his friends got their first taste of heavy slabs, after his family decided to move to the Gold Coast. It was a shock to the system, as the Gold Coast is about as different from Tasmania as a place can be. The water is warm and the waves are playful and forgiving. Compared to the burly, roguish chargers of Tasmania, Gold Coast surfers seem fairly pedestrian with their deep tans and pointbreak-refined cutbacks.

"Everyone surfed on the Gold Coast, so it was really front and center," says Agius. "Luke Munro went to school with me, and he was sponsored by Quiksilver, which basically made him the varsity quarterback of our high school."

Agius was a shy, studious, small-town kid. It didn't help that, on Australia's mainland, the rural island of Tasmania is the butt of a lot of inbreeding jokes. When other kids heard where Agius was from, they would ask him to "show his scar," referring to the alleged mark all Tasmanians bear on their neck where their second head was removed.

What Agius had going for him was his natural talent on a surfboard, which helped him make friends and attract sponsors early on. But Agius never thought he'd be able to make a career out of surfing. Instead, he set his sights on video and photography and got an internship at Surfing Australia, the governing body for the national contest circuit, shooting photos and videos of the junior-series events he was also competing in at the time.

"I'd travel to the events with my surf stuff and all this camera equipment," says Agius. "I'd stand on the beach and shoot every heat I wasn't surfing in, then I'd go home at the end of the day and upload my photos to this news-distribution website so newspapers could grab them if they wanted to run a story. It was tough, because I'd be on the road with a bunch of high school kids who just wanted to party, but I'd be shooting and surfing all day, then color-correcting photos all night."

It was a lot to juggle for a high school kid, but the experience gave Agius valuable perspective. He got used to hustling, applying a creative eye to everything he did, and not taking anything for granted—skills that would later define his career as a pro surfer.

Having grown up in Tasmania, Agius is used to donning thick wetsuits and chasing cold-water perfection. Here he finds chilly bliss in South Australia. Photo: Respondek
Having grown up in Tasmania, Agius is used to donning thick wetsuits and chasing cold-water perfection. Here he finds chilly bliss in South Australia.
Photo: Respondek

By his late teens, Agius was shooting more than just contests. He started filming and surfing with Sunshine Coast surfers Dean Brady and Mitch Coleborn, who introduced Agius to the future culture-shifting filmmaker Kai Neville.

"At the time, I was actually still surfing a bunch, and we'd all take turns filming," says Neville. "I remember that first session, we were surfing this little left shorebreak and Dion was just going loony. He was flying down the line and doing huge punts, and just kind of blowing us away."

The writing was on the wall, and Agius' days behind the camera were quickly coming to an end. After landing a sponsorship with Globe and a starring role in Joe G's 2006 surf film Secret Machine, Agius was on his way to becoming one of the best young freesurfers in the world. But his real breakout moment came in 2009 when he was asked to take part in Neville's watershed film, Modern Collective.

Modern Collective was equal parts high-performance surf montage, art-house film project, and ecstasy-fueled rave reel. It was divisive, with some core surfers thumbing their noses at the shots of surfers playing with strange crystals and the bowel-shaking bass of the mostly electronic soundtrack. Others saw it as the contagiously fun, fist-pumping future of surf filmmaking. Either way, the caliber of surfing was undeniable.

"The surf world was pretty conservative at the time," says Neville. "But the beauty of that project was that we were all super green and just didn't give a shit. We were young, listening to electronic music, going out at night and running amok, then surfing every day, and the movie reflected all of that. We didn't really have anything to lose, so we just threw it all out there, and we were lucky that people gravitated toward it."

Photo: Respondek
Patterned wetsuits, hand-painted surfboards, and aerial wizardry have defined Agius' surfing over the last decade, and have influenced freesurfing as a whole. Photo: Respondek

According to Neville, Agius was a big influence on the overall aesthetic of Modern Collective. The two had similar tastes in music and film, and with Agius' background shooting and editing video, Neville used him as a sounding board during the production. He also saw him as the surfer who most embodied the spirit of the film.

"The way Dion surfs, and even his weird wetsuits and spray jobs, were really refreshing," says Neville. "He's got this really fast, aggressive style to everything he does. When you watch him on screen, it's clear that he's not holding anything back, which really pulls you in and gets you psyched. He brought something new to the table, which I feed off as a filmmaker. Looking back on it now, I think he's paved the way for a lot of the younger freesurfers today with his approach to surfing, and the way he's made a career out of just being himself."

On land, Agius cuts a striking image as surfing's perpetually beanie-clad, all-black-wearing scion of post-punk aesthetics. In the water, he's a kamikaze pilot, hucking himself off of massive sections and either landing impossible-seeming airs or crashing and burning in his attempts. It's this unique approach that's earned Agius starring roles in the best high-action surf movies of the last decade, including Year Zero, Strange Rumblings in Shangri-La, Lost Atlas, Dear Suburbia, and Cluster.

Being the quintessential video freesurfer of a generation comes with certain perks. Agius has traveled to some of the most obscure coastlines on Earth to score perfect waves, he's branched out into the business side of surfing, starting his own sunglass and traction-pad companies, and he's made friends with many Scandinavian models with hard-to-pronounce names along the way. Even for Agius, it's hard to believe that a kid from Podunk Tasmania could have gone so far in the surf world.

Recently, however, Agius started to feel a strange gravitational pull back toward his home breaks in Tasmania. It started last year while he was living in Los Angeles. Agius found a place in the über-hip neighborhood of Echo Park so that he could establish a U.S.-based distribution company for his sunglass brand, Epokhe. The problem with being a surfer in Echo Park, of course, is that there isn't any surf there.

"The first month I was in Los Angeles, I was just sitting in traffic all day and not surfing at all. Around the same time, I started thinking about Tasmania for the first time in years. Compared to L.A. freeways, the thought of Tassie's natural beauty and waves made me so nostalgic. I realized how much I'd missed simple living and surfing good waves."

"The first month I was there, I was so over it," says Agius. "I was just sitting in traffic all day and not surfing at all. Around the same time, I started thinking about Tasmania for the first time in years. Compared to L.A. freeways, the thought of Tassie's natural beauty and waves made me so nostalgic. I realized how much I'd missed simple living and surfing good waves."

Without much thought, Agius booked a ticket and found himself back home, where we met for a weeklong wave hunt. At first, he was relieved by how little had changed. His old neighborhood in Beaumaris looks identical, and his name is still legible on the wooden railing in front of the left at Dark Hollow, where he'd carved it next to "Nug," "Rozza," and "Kunt" in grade school. When Agius paddled out at his home break, Cattle Grid, he ran into the same locals who had been surfing there since he was a kid. While Agius was floored by this encounter, the locals simply gave a nod and started asking him about the coming swell. It was business as usual, as if Agius' 15-year absence had never happened.

Tasmania feels like a place untethered from time. Huge eucalyptus trees line backcountry roads, which cut through rolling green hills dotted with grazing sheep, cattle, and the occasional llama. Driving through the interior of the island, you'll likely find all manner of prehistoric-looking roadkill, like giant wombats and, of course, Tasmanian devils. At Bay of Fires, not far from Beaumaris, a thick forest descends from the hills to meet a glowing white-sand beach where strange rock formations covered with thick orange algae can be found, exactly as Agius remembered them.

When Agius met up with his old surf buddies, however, it was clear that some things had changed. Most of his former crew had taken jobs at sea working on oil rigs, or as underwater welders, or abalone divers. When the swell jumped up, they weren't as interested in the little left-hand runners they grew up surfing at Cattle Grid as they were with whipping into 20-foot slabs.

"It's like I moved to the Gold Coast and got soft," Agius told me as we drove past a sign that read "Break-Me-Neck Hill" somewhere in the Tasmanian backcountry. "All my friends started surfing deadly slabs and hunting for food along the bottom of the ocean. I guess that's what happens if you stay here long enough. Tasmania makes a man out of you."

When we met up with Richardson in Clifton, Agius wrestled with the idea of surfing Shipstern Bluff for a long time, drinking a lot of beer in the process. On one hand, he wanted to experience the wave that had such an impact on his friends and Tasmanian surfing as a whole. On the other, this is Shipstern Bluff we're talking about, and he doesn't have a death wish.

Photo: Archbold
Driving through the sprawling forests of Tasmania's interior, you can go hours without seeing another person. Photo: Archbold

Richardson explained that it would likely be big enough to tow, but that Agius would have to paddle—an unwritten rule for first-timers. This meant that Agius would be stroking into bombs on the biggest board he brought, which was a paper-thin 5’9″. Agius sighed and downed the last of his beer.

At daybreak, running on little sleep, we piled into Richardson's aluminum skiff and set out for Shipstern. As we left the placid waters of the White Beach harbor and made our way south into the open ocean, our small boat rose and fell on the lumps of raw swell, sending spray over the bow and drenching our group. The coastline near Shipstern is lined with enormous, sheer cliffs that would seem more at home in Lord of the Rings than any of the high-action surf flicks in which Agius frequently stars.

The lineup at Shipstern was populated by a motley crew of hellmen. They had names like Zeb and Jughead, and they seemed to relish the chaos of the wild, wonky conditions. Two conflicting swell directions created huge lumps in the face of every wave, which could be added to the list of obstacles to avoid, including the step following the takeoff, the guillotine lip, and, of course, the rock slab just below the surface.

A few minutes after he made his way to the lineup, a midsized wave, which was still easily double overhead, came straight to Agius. He paddled his 5’9″ and stood up just as the wave hit the slab and started to pitch. But right before he made it to the trough, his board caught on a huge lump moving up the face, and he went down hard.

Photo: Respondek
Agius, taking flight. Photo: Respondek

There's something to be said for the intensity of a Shipstern wipeout. If you could somehow harness the energy of one set wave detonating on the slab, you'd likely be able to power every house in Tasmania for a month. The crashing sound it makes is similar to that of a falling tree, cracking and splitting in a deafening burst. Add a helpless human body to the equation and you have a recipe for severe discomfort.

After a prolonged thrashing, Agius popped up just in time to take a breath before wearing the next wave on his head. He washed up on the inside—winded, but with a pulse—put his head down and paddled back out for another. On Agius' second wave, he stuck an airdrop, navigated the mutant lumps, and made it to the shoulder unscathed.

"That was about as tricky as it ever gets out there," Richardson later confessed. "It's a hard wave to figure out at the best of times, and that was not the best of times."

Agius caught several decent waves during that first session. It wasn't a glorious conquest of one of the world's most dangerous slabs, but Agius had survived, which was no small triumph considering the unruly conditions.

Back at Richardson's house, we cracked open another round of beers. Not the kind you drink nervously as you prepare to go to war with the ocean, but the kind that taste all the sweeter for having made it back in one piece. Agius was talking about how good it felt to be surfing in Tasmania, and how he was considering moving back for at least part of the year. He quizzed Richardson about tracking swells at Shipstern, what to look for in the weather charts, and what you need to know about towing into heavy waves. This was all unfamiliar territory for Agius, but he was eating it up. He wants to get a solid wave out there, and in all likelihood, he will. He is Tasmanian, after all.