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Culture, Sport

So Long Cowboys

by Warwick Wright / 29.08.2011

I remember a time when surfers were more than just professional athletes. A more exciting era when pros charged as hard at the bar as they did in the waves. Surfing has come a long way on the back of that rebel spirit but today most pros are eating raw carrots and doing yoga on balance balls, that leaves me with a question: “Where have all the cowboys gone?”

I grew up in Durban, I wouldn’t say on the wrong side of the tracks, but it was hard living for most and surfing went hand in hand with rock ‘n roll , booze, drugs and fighting. If you were a core surfer back then you were respected on the same level as an MMA fighter today. That or you were socially spat on by the “respectable society”.

Allow me to pick out someone like Neco Padaratz as an example. One of the best surfers to come out of Brazil, ever, he was an animal and he just destroyed the shit in his path. He was like one of those prehistoric warrior cave man types who showed his emotions by grunting and screaming. I’ve known him for a few years and I still don’t know how to have a conversation with the guy. Once in a nightclub called “Fannies” in Newcastle Australia I watched him screaming at a wall for a few minutes breaking only to down whatever it was he was drinking. Batshit crazy but fuck what a classic guy.

On my first trip to Brazil to surf on the WQS, I watched Neco win the whole contest, and just before the final started he had his walkman on but he wasn’t singing to his music he was talking, it was weird because I could hear the loud techno music coming out of his ear phones but he was just muttering to himself. I locked eyes with him as he walked past, he looked fucking possessed, his eyes were small and black and he almost looked rattled.
I asked one of the Brazilian surfers why he looked so on edge.
“He’s on acid.” Was the reply.
As a young grom on tour, I was taken aback but what stuck in my mind was his last wave in the last minute of this contest. He scored a perfect 10. Just  30 seconds before that wave came to him, I shit you not, he had both his hands up in the air his head facing the sky above and you could hear him shouting as if summoning a set, as he did that the whole crowd on the beach started hooting and I swear, as god as my witness an 8 foot set pops up in the middle of the beach where only he was sitting. It looked like Backdoor. He takes off gets absolutely drained and then spat out with his hands in the air riding the wave to the beach, gets off his board and kisses the sand.

Later he was banned for using anabolic steroids to recover from an injury. “I don’t even know what the stuff is called,” he said. “A medicine is a medicine to me, but obviously the ASP sees it differently.” Last year on the comeback trail he infamously tangled with another surf rock ‘n rawler, Sunny Garcia at Pipe. Sunny also had a colourful surfing career that included everything from podium finishes to a stint in jail and more beach beatdowns than I care to count.

Not too long ago, pro surfers would go out and party all night and make it to back to the beach just in time to put the vest on and smoke any guy in the water, shit, back then one of the best surfers I know, who still owns it today, got fucken shot at a club and not only did he live to tell the tale but he got straight back up, flew over to Hawaii and managed to leave most of his scalp on the not so friendly reef at Off the Wall.

A famous Durban surfer I won’t mention by name once bit half of Sunny Garcia’s ear off in a fight, only to wake up the next day and have one of the best heats I have ever seen surfed at the Gunston 500. Bro, it was like the Wild Wild West. And when I stop to think about those not so long ago days, when surfing was raw and barely legal, it excites me. In my short life span I’ve seen it evolve from the raw, unsupervised freakshow of talent it was then, to the professional, hyper-competitive global sport it is today. And with it surfers have evolved from a more exciting breed of hard partying neanderthals to a new breed of serious professional sportsmen and respected gentlemen.

My point is that characters like Neco and Sunny and a million other lay abouts, drop outs, drug fiends and social misfits have lent the sport of surfing a rebel attitude that has been leveraged to sell all kinds of products. And let’s not kid ourselves, it’s partly due to the wild antics of ous like these that has made surfing so much cooler than other sports like tennis.

But how long will that last when our heroes are rolling down to the comps, a board in each hand followed by a personal trainer, a coach, a manager, a personal videographer and a traveling girlfriend carrying backpacks full of Powerades and protein bars. It’s professional, but it’s not rock ‘n roll.

On one hand, it’s good to see it get serious, it’s good to see that the sport and talent is not taken for granted, it’s good to see someone like Jordy put a fucken million Rand in his pocket every month. We’ve come along way in a short space of time. We want the sport to progress and be recognized. And it’s important for talented people to make a good living out of surfing.

But in the relentless pursuit of excellence and professionalism, I’m just saying, let’s not forget how cool we were. Remember the lifestyle, remember Mickey Dora and Bunker Spreckles, remember all those hard rocking South African pros before they found Jesus. Respect to all the lifestyle refugees, the drifters, hippies and counter-culture bums and freaks who make this great sport what it is today.

*All images © ASP.

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