Earlier today, the financially robust surf historian Matt Warshaw sent an archived interview with the message, “Best post-world title interview ever? I say nothing’s even close.”
I applied myself to the fruit of his searchings and found that, yes, the interview, snatched of the 18-year-old world champ Nat Young in 1966, was splendid. Frank, cruel and cheerful. It really does ricochet.
BeachGrit: First, I want to list my favourite quote: “Girls shouldn’t surf, they make fools out of themselves.” Provocative! A different time, yes?
Warshaw: There’s nothing to say in Nat’s defense except he’s 18, invincible, and Australian. In that interview you do get flashes of the man he would later become. Nat can be really generous and funny and gracious. But by and large, in this piece, he’s just a bastard. In many ways I love how raw he is. But in other moments, like the “girls” comment—which was cruel even by 1966 standards—you just want to punch him. Or get someone bigger than yourself to punch him. Did you see the comment about the poor Irish surfer?
BeachGrit: “What is the meaning of it all?”
Everyone at the 1966 world titles had to fill out a questionnaire, and one of the questions was “What do you get out of surfing?” And Nat, in the interview, wonders “how the Irish guy answered something like that. That would have been ridiculous.” Just lashing out at that poor guy, his name was Kevin Cavey. Nat can’t imagine an Irish surfer having any kind of meaningful relationship with the sport.
“Nat can be really generous and funny and gracious. But by and large, in this piece, he’s just a bastard. In many ways I love how raw he is. But in other moments, like the “girls” comment—which was cruel even by 1966 standards—you just want to punch him.”
BeachGrit: Everybody dumps on the Irish! But let’s do a little background on this interview. It’s 1966, San Diego, it’s the world title and Nat Young is an eighteen-year-old animal. Big. Smart. Powerful. Colour it in for me.
Go back a year, and Nat probably should have won the 1965 world titles in Peru. Kid was just 17, but already so good. Big, tall, powerful, the best paddler in creation, talent and ambition to burn. He out-surfed everybody in Lima, but Felipe Pomar played by the rules, got the biggest waves, rode the furthest, and won fair and square. Nat was runner-up. And I think at that point there was no way he wasn’t going to take it all in 1966. He won everything in Australia that year; the New South Wales titles, Nationals, Bells. Nat and Bob McTavish and George Greenough meanwhile were all hunkered down working on equipment. Thinner boards, long narrow flexible fins. Nat flew to San Diego with a 9’4” that was less than 2.5” thick. Ten-foot by 3.5” thick—that’s what the other guys were on. David Nuuhiwa was God to American surfers, just 17, but smooth as honey and could hang ten from here to the next county. Nat was good on the nose too, but beyond that was just far and away the most progressive surfer in the world, on the most progressive equipment. So he won the contest going away. In the finals he rode a wave to the beach, stepped off onto the sand, put his hands on his hips and just stared down the judges. The mother of all claims.
BeachGrit: Can you imagine John John, say, or even Kelly Slater being this lucid, this self-aware, this…candid… in a post world title interview? The references to ego in surfing, the talk about “commercial interests”, self-expression an so forth. I wonder, has the commercialisation of surfing, the snatching of children from the cradle to become pro surfers, the removal of all stimuli and challenges except those related to surf technique, turned our best athletes into empty vessels? Balls of stupid?
Barton Lynch was sort of like Nat in his interviews, but without the arrogance. Pam Burridge, the same. Smart, aware, didn’t pull punches. But sweet. Rabbit was a great interview, but there was always a sense of performance, that he was putting on a show. Kelly is very good, but also very calculating. With Kelly, you never get it raw. But all of them were all a lot older when they won their titles. Nat was just 18. So my answer is . . . nobody was like him, certainly not at that age. It wasn’t just that he was smart and lucid. All the bluster aside, Nat was eager to learn, open to new ideas, a good listener. He just absorbed knowledge, from Midget and McTavish, from Greenough, and certainly from Bob Evans, who was a father-figure. Nat wasn’t a man in full at 18, but he’s on his way, you can tell.
“The actual worst interview? She’s not a world champ, but I tighten up whenever Courtney Conlogue is interviewed. She’s a tremendous surfer, but all I really get from her—in the way she rides waves, and from her speech—is just all the sweat and toil and practice and repetition.”
BeachGrit: I’m awfully fond of Nat talking about surfboard design, about the thickness of boards, accelerators and brakes. This, “If you want a paddleboard, and you want to get out the back, you go out and buy one. But surfboards are made to ride waves and have nothing to do with paddling.”
When I hear that, I hear McTavish’s voice. The bit where Nat talks about two trains being on the same track — that’s a McTavish riff. I think the gas pedal comment is also from Bob. But so what? That’s what I was trying to say a minute ago. Nat just sucks in ideas and thoughts and concepts. That’s what the great ones do
BeachGrit: Was LSD and marijuana an influence on the ability to be so… expansive?
Not in 1966, no. But there’s a funny picture of Nat in Peru from the year before, at the after-contest party, just shitfaced on the dance floor.
Nat! Shitfaced on the dance floor!
BeachGrit: If this is the best post-world title interview. What’s the worst you’ve heard or read?
Damien Hardman had nothing to say to creeps like me, to any surf writer who raised a microphone to his face. But I always loved him for that. It’s like Nat says, Be who you are. Damien never wanted to be a public figure, and didn’t fake it, and good for him. So his interviews are terrible, but for a good cause, if that makes sense. The actual worst interview? She’s not a world champ, but I tighten up whenever Courtney Conlogue is interviewed. She’s a tremendous surfer, but all I really get from her—in the way she rides waves, and from her speech—is just all the sweat and toil and practice and repetition. Endless repetition. I always drink more on the nights after I see Courtney onscreen.
BeachGrit: So we start off with Nat insulting the girls, and end with you doing the same?
Well, Nat was in a position of power. I’m just some poor geezer blogging for free on your website. Courtney could beat me up and still make it to the gym on time.