When does an underground surfer become a mainstream hero?
Over time, in many surfing frontiers of the world, the concept of the underground charger has become a little warped.
There’s one at every break, of course, but wherever localism prevails you’ll usually find the underground charger who remains underground for the very good reason that he only thinks he charges because his beach buddies are too scared to tell him he doesn’t. Around my home breaks, which are usually pretty mellow despite the crowds, I see it all the time – a syndrome I call Fat, Forty and Freaking.
Seething with resentment and frustration at their inability to catch waves on their five-four quad wafers, these once-warriors yell, punch and kick boards at all those recreational surfers who have dared to find virtue in volume. These are people who will tell you they are underground chargers because they choose to y under the radar. In truth, they are kooks with attitude.
A real underground charger – and I’ve known a few – would never use the term and would be embarrassed to hear it applied by others. These are surfers who simply go about their craft – art if you like – without fuss or favour. Com- mitted, dedicated, and usually completely disinterested in building a profile in surfing, although when you peel back a layer you often find that they are extremely high profile in some other aspect of life.
When I started at Tracks in 1974, in the old bungalow on Whale Beach Road with a view up the beach into the eye of the Wedge, we rarely missed a good session. I loved surfing with stylish goofies like the photographer Robbi Newman and his protégé, the late Richard Bailey. Between Palmie and the Bilgola Bends there were other surfers just as good – Kim “Fly” Bradley, Nigel Coates, Peter Hock, Ronnie Berczelly, to name a few. South of the Bends, no one had ever heard of them.
In Bali it was much the same. Those early trips, no one knew who these guys charging the Bukit were, although some of the cast was the same, like Fly and Hocky from Avalon. Even Peter “Grubby” McCabe from Newcastle was pretty much underground until Jack McCoy and Dick Hoole started shooting him knocking around with Lopez. And on the epic Ulu days there were plenty of other “nobodies” in the lineup, like Tim Watts from California and Tony “Blinky” Brinkworth from Hawaii. (And I omit Vice-Admiral Tony “Doris” Eltherington from this list only because he’d already become a somebody on the Gold Coast.)
Then, of course, there’s Camel. Only met him once, and briefly, at G-Land in the ‘90s, when he must have been quite young. Hard to tell. I have no personal experience of him, but the stories are amazing, and pretty much de ne what I understand as the quintessential underground charger. But the problem is, how big does the legend have to become before you officially forfeit underground status? One last story from California. I hadn’t been in the Tracks editor’s chair very long when I made my first trip there, and found myself driving up the coast highway alone, looking for surf. Rincon looked pretty good, but it was horrendously crowded. Then, coming into Santa Barbara I spotted what looked like a fun righthander as I drove between luxurious beachfront estates. I found somewhere to park, waxed and rubbered up, climbed over a couple of fences and slipped through a couple of gates and found myself paddling out to a pristine line-up with no more than a dozen surfers in the water.
I picked off a couple of insiders without really engaging the other surfers, but as I paddled back out I watched in amazement as one of them absolutely ripped the bag out of a head-high wall of glass before kicking out in front of me. He had long hair and a moustache around a friendly face, but he wasn’t smiling. He paddled up close and asked where I was from. I told him.
“Australia! No shit! That probably explains it. See, this is Hammond’s Reef, it’s private.”
“I’m sorry, I had no idea. (All those signs, all those fences, who knew?) I’ll catch a wave straight in.” “Hell no, you’re here now, let’s surf.”
My new friend Tom was the underground charger from hell. When we’d finished a long session he insisted I stay overnight at his cabin up in the Montecito hills. Late that afternoon he took me skating on the long gun wood deck boards he had all over the house. I’ve never forgotten that session, speed-warping down smooth, paved hills in the blue-grey of evening, occasionally catching glimpses of the ocean below us. Tom was fluid and fast, no tricks, just speed-lines all the way.
Following behind him, I was scared shitless, but I made the runs unscathed, and when we settled back at the house and drank some beers, I felt a wave of contentment come over me that skating has never induced since.
Before a re that night, a little twisted to be sure, Tom Sims told me about his bold plan to make the sliding game his own. “I’m going to take skateboards to the snow,” he said. “I’m gonna make a fucking fortune!” He cackled manically and got more drinks.
Before the end of the Seventies Tom Sims had won a world skateboard title and patented a snowboard design. By the mid-Eighties he’d added a world snowboard title to his collection and the name Sims was synonymous with the best skateboards and snowboards in the world. He was no longer underground.
We’d just gotten back in touch through social media when he died of a heart attack in 2012.