The Joel Parkinson Interview: When Giants Roamed The Earth
WHEN GIANTS ROAMED THE EARTH
The Joel Parkinson Interview by Sean Doherty
SW: The Brazil contest ran last night and it’s the first time, since, well, forever that there is no you, Kelly, Mick or Taj there. Gabe did a backflip. The tour looked like something very, very different. You missing it?
JP: I’ll be totally honest: I don’t have a guilty conscience about not being there. My knees been a bit sore and it’s been affecting my backflip game. I easily could have went and surfed I suppose, but the last two years there I haven’t enjoyed it. Rio itself is great. I’m never going to knock Rio, it’d be so much fun to go there with a bunch of mates in a different context, but being there for a surf contest, sorry. If it went somewhere else in Brazil I’d be there in a heartbeat – Maresias, Florianopolis, wherever – but it just feels Rio has had its time. The waves are no good while there are so many waves everywhere else over there. The event is just a below par event.
Is that view the by-product of 20 years on tour?
For sure. In a way you could say I’m a spoiled brat, but after 16 years on tour and knowing I’ve only got a couple more left I reckon I’m entitled to that viewpoint. One thing I’ve learned staying on tour so long is that the secret has been enjoying it. Even my dad said to me when I told him I wasn’t going to Brazil, he said it was the best thing I’ve ever done. When I came home from Brazil last year I was so sick it took me weeks to get over it and feel good again it put me in a negative spin with the tour that followed me for the rest of the year. I really feel like I’ve changed that around and I’m enjoying it again and I don’t want to jeopardies that by having a repeat of Brazil last year. I’m pumped to be surfing heats but I just don’t want to do it in Rio. I’m enjoying being on tour and I don’t want to knock myself out of that little orbit.
Is it easier to enjoy the tour now you can see the finish line?
Definitely. I’ve probably got a couple of years left and I have dead set started thinking that way, like I might only have 20 contests left in my life. Once I go I’m not going to be doing the Johnny Farnham comeback tour.
No Dooma Hardman or Occy retirement calls followed by turning up at Snapper on day one the following year.
Maybe if Kelly gave me a call for a specialty wavepool event, but I’d only be doing fun things. I’ll never chase points again.
Kelly, Mick, Taj and yourself have pretty much made the tour your personal plaything for the past 20 years. It’s been an era of domination like the tour has never seen. You guys have had it on lock and killed off several generations of next big things. How are people going to see that era?
I guess for a while there it was, like, the big five of the African wilderness and I was thinking about it the other day. I was chatting with someone and they said to me, “You’ve lived in the best era on tour,” and it made me think. It might have been cool to be around in the Busting Down The Door days in Hawaii, but I was lucky enough to be in the era of the best waves, the best surfing, and the best surfer of all time. I was there for three-quarters of Kelly’s career and to watch some of the shit he did, and to see the Andy and Kelly battle, to be sitting front and centre to watch all of that go down, that was one of the greatest, fiercest rivalries in all of sport, let alone just surfing.
I notice you’ve been pissed off about getting called out for being old on the broadcast commentary.
Far out, I keep hearing it everywhere! I never hear anyone say anything about Otto! I had a heat a few years ago at Trestles. I was 32 at the time and it was me, Taj and some young kid, and the beach commentator was Dave Statsfield, and he finally got his stats wrong. He’s going, “We’ve got the young buck here who’s 19, then we’ve the old guys, Taj who’s 31 and Parko who’s 33.” I looked over and Taj was pissing himself laughing, cause Taj is three years older than me but they still think he’s a grommet. Taj was actually, like, 36 at the time.
Do you feel like an elder statesman on tour and are you relishing the role?
There’s no denying it and I’m fine with it. I’m the fourth oldest guy on tour right now, but Taj has thrown the towel in already and if Otto goes, then Kelly calls it I’m fucked. I’ll be the oldest guy. I’ll be the oldest guy on tour. You know what shits me? I read a lot of commentary and people almost start calling for your retirement. You’re done, you should retire. I read comments on my Instagram and I’m like, what? Not that it bothers me, but the world works that way, you can get elected as president or you can get a coach sacked by creating a campaign around it. I’m like, just let me enjoy my last couple of years and I’ll ride off into the sunset. But the changing of the guard has been coming for a long time, for too long, and I shouldn’t even be saying it but I’m so glad it’s finally happening.
Why do you reckon the changing of the guard has taken so long?
I don’t know. Kelly, Mick and I have weathered the Dane and Jordy one, we weathered the Julian and Owen one, and for a few years we weathered the John John and Gabby one. We’ve survived a few hype storms and now I really think it has arrived. Time moves on and it’s so cool to see. Man, the talent on tour is so good and I think it’s in a good place.
You guys have been the household names that have carried surfing for so long, how does the tour survive without you?
I guess someone else will become household names. Gabe will wear most of it on his shoulders as the big name in surfing, along with John John. I hope that’s allowed to happen and it doesn’t keep running back to Mick and Kelly as the big stories. I wanna let the young guys take the wheel.
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Kelly’s wavepool, your first reaction?
Shit, I just stopped in my tracks. It was incredible. It’s inevitable there’ll be a ‘CT event in that pool. I might even surf in one before I retire. Kelly had already changed surfing like it had never been changed before, and then he went and just did that. He just keeps spinning the coin.
I don’t know how much of a purist you are about that kind of thing, but does the wavepool fundamentally change something about surfing? The fact there is no such thing as wave choice? The element of the unknown is gone? Does it become skateboarding on water?
My first thoughts were I can’t wait to do it, where’s Kelly’s number? But I thought about it and I’ll ride three waves and will probably get bored. I get bored at Snapper. Snapper is quite mechanical but it has backwash and it has sections and it has guys dropping in on you, and I still get bored of it. I don’t know, a wavepool event might get monotonous to watch; the guy who gets the 22-second barrel beats the guy who gets a 21-second barrel. I don’t know, who knows.
It’s predictable until Kelly gets up in the control room during your heat and your wave is the first wavepool to ever close out.
He’s probably got an app on his phone he could change the conditions. Make your wave a left, make it close out, make it go onshore. He’s been doing that in ocean heats to us for 20 years already.
I was going through some old notes the other day from France in 2010, and I’d just interviewed Kelly. It was when he was going for his 10th world title and he said, “If I’m chasing another world title when I’m 45 just punch me in the face.”
Bullshit! That’s next year, huh? You going to do it? Is that a free punch?
But did you watch that clip and did it suddenly feel like a brave new world out there?
We all knew it was coming. There are talks of a wavepool popping up here on the Goldy. They’re closer than just rumours now. It would change the sport at its core. For one it would make it so much more commercialised, and I don’t know of that’s a bad thing or a good thing.
Does more people surfing make surfing better or worse? Everyone thinks it’s bad, but should you be upset by more people doing the funnest thing in the world? That’s a selfish way to think. The ancient Hawaiians surfed because they enjoyed it and that hasn’t changed over a couple of thousand years and you can’t stop people enjoying themselves.
Mick last year… do you see him in a different light after seeing him dealing with that stuff the way he dealt with it?
Not really, I don’t see him any differently. I actually see him more the way I already knew him. He’s happy now and I guess he’s closed that chapter of the book behind him. I haven’t sat down with him and gone through all that stuff, but he’s happy and he’s cruising and not engulfed by the tour anymore. Maybe six months down the track, will he be bored? Who knows? But for now he’s content to be free and do what he likes. His life, he’s had a few huge bumps in his road, but last year was something else and the earlier ones I reckon made him mentally tough enough to deal with last year. Losing Sean made him so mentally tough. To be able to deal with the shark, the divorce and losing Pete… I think losing the world title at the end of all that, while it was tough, it was kind of poetic in a way. He’d already proved himself. He didn’t need a trophy. For a guy to deal with it all the way he did is a testament to the guy he is.
I spoke to Shane Dorian two years ago and he said he knows that his window to push himself is closing, and that he only had a few more years where he’d be able to do the things he wanted to do without living the rest of his life with some kind of regret. Are you feeling the same way?
Definitely. I think a year or two ago I got complacent and just fobbed it off – I’ve got five or six more years, I’ll deal with it next year – but now I’m at that point where it’s like, fuck, I don’t have the time to do everything I want to do. I really don’t have that time. Two years. I wanna really win a contest, not so concerned about a world title, but I just want to turn up to a contest and surf a good first heat. I got so sick of turning up to events last year and surfing terribly in those early heats. I’d walk up the beach last year so disappointed in myself.
So what’s on the bucket list? Sixty-foot Jaws with Shano?
It’s on the list for sure. I wanna go over there with Dingo and Hippo and have a crack. I’m no Aaron Gold but I might sit on that end bowl on the inside, maybe get Albee to show me where to sit. But there are a couple of mystery waves I wanna chase and surf. As a surfer we all know there are waves out there somewhere and I have a couple up my sleeve and I can't wait to move into that, go on trips with Shano, go exploring.
What event have you got left to win?
Teahupoo. I had it and Mick fucking pinched it off me. But Tahiti or Fiji, one of them would be nice. Or maybe another win at J-Bay. It’d be so nice to start my career and end it with wins there. But it’s funny, my family… that’s the problem now. The family are doing Europe with me, and the kids are like, we actually wanted to go Disneyland but that’s cool, we’ll just go next year, and then we’ll go back to Africa the year after, and I’m like, whoa there! My kids are old enough now and they’re fun and at the right age to travel and their worlds are opening up and they want to go to Paris and Hollywood, so I’m here trying to throw the towel in and they’re going, there’s no way you’re retiring!
Speaking of the kids, you grew up in the blokiest environment in the world – behind the rock at Snapper – then went on a blokey surfing tour and then you went and had two daughters. How do you reckon having daughters first up changed the way you looked at life?
For sure. Girls are so more caring and in touch with who they are, and they bring out a softer side in you. Regardless of boys or girls, I had kids when I was young and having kids and being on tour so young, it calmed me down a bit. I had more purpose in my life. I’d go out the night before a comp and then things stopped and it was a blessing. It gave me so much more purpose and it stopped me from being hot and cold. We’ve all got friends who are up and down, but having a kid you can’t do that. You just can’t. You have a calming aura come over you and that’s why I think I had success over a long period of time on tour. I wasn’t a guy like Andy, who if he wasn’t first he was last. You’ve got to be that way as a father, and even today I’m trying to keep a steady outlook on life and always conscious of how my kids see me. Giving them someone they know and can trust. It’s funny, my boy Mahli has just started surfing and he’s all over it, waking me up every morning to go and surf Rainbow. The other day he saw all the guys up the point at Snapper and he goes, “What’s that up there?” And I tell him, “It’s Snapper. I’ll take you up there when you’re ready.” Then he goes, “What happens after Snapper?” And I go, “Then you go to Pipe.” And he goes, “What’s after that?” I go, “I dunno mate, maybe you go back to Snapper.”
Do you get sick of riding white, 6’0” thrusters?
Definitely. It’s just that when the waves are proper you want to be on the right board, but on fun days I can’t wait to get a couple of boards out of the garage. I got this little black thing and a big single fin and I’m not far away from making some crazy shit with JS and seeing what my surfing looks like riding something else.
Do you reckon the public knows the real you?
I’d like to think so, yeah. My wife might disagree, because I’m a mad frother when the waves are good and that’s never going to change. That’s going to keep me surfing till the day I die but sometimes I get impatient and antsy if I knew there are waves and I’m missing them. That messes with me psychologically but I guess I’m not as bad as I once was. I used to think I should be everywhere at once but have come to realise I can only be in one place at one time.
The Cyclone Winston swell, you didn’t miss that. Did that take you back to the salad days of the Superbank, when it first formed?
It did, but this was three weeks of swell, it wasn’t just one week or one day but there were days everywhere. I surfed D-Bah off the wall as good as I’ve surfed it, but that Winston swell, that one big day, that was the biggest, cleanest, straightest period east swell I’ve seen in a long time. I can’t remember one like that. The intervals in the swell were 18, 20-second periods, so the waves were proper and behaved differently. They moved like waves at Chopes or Hawaii.
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Give us a moment from that swell.
This day was at the top of the swell and it was too big, wild and washy for Snapper – Greenmount was firing – but on the dead low of the tide, right on the ebb when the water settles, well, I ran around and it was so low out there and a solid six foot behind the rock, and I saw one and just thought, wow, look at that thing. It was way too big for Snapper but right at that point there was no water moving and the current wasn’t moving that hard, so I paddled out at Froggies and got over there. It was myself, Jai Gudenswager and Josh Glennon, the only guys out, and these waves have come in and the first two waves I pulled back on. You just couldn’t get down them. They were only six foot, but they were the biggest, squarest, blue-green things you have ever seen. I ended up getting two good ones before the tide started pouring back in and the moment was gone again, but for that 15 minutes it was the biggest, thickest, angriest Snapper I’d ever surfed.
Not fun Snapper.
Nothing fun about it at all.
You look at the storylines in your career and how people have characterised you broadly, and the first one was “Parko: too easy,” then it was “Parko: family man,” then it was “Parko: the best surfer to never win a world title,” then it was “The Parko push,” then it was, “Parko: too old, retire already will ya.” What’s the next one? Parko: backflip? Parko: big-wave rider?
You won’t see Parko: big-wave rider, but maybe it’ll be Parko: happy guy. He’s getting barrelled over here, he’s getting barrelled over there, he’s having a good time. But I’m not done yet. There are a few guys I need to beat first.
I keep a black book. Maybe Mick at J-Bay. I’d love to have a final against Mick at J-Bay. In fact, it wouldn’t even need to be a final, it could be a three-man heat I wouldn’t care. I’d just ignore the other guy and just go and sit on Mick. I’d hate to think the last heat we surfed against each other was that J-Bay final two years ago. Jeez, even if it was a heritage heat at Bells, that’d do.
A heritage heat while you’re still on tour.
Ha ha… yeah, but a heat with Mick anywhere would be great.
People forget that the year you won the world title you also finished third in the Molokai paddle race. How important do you reckon that was in you winning the title later that year? And is that a blueprint for guys today, avoiding being one-dimensional, only surfing heats for a living?
I didn’t really think of it as a distraction or anything, but it made me knuckle down and train mentally. I did some big paddles, some torturous ones, and it made surfing – and surfing heats – seem easy. It also made me appreciate what I did. Surfing suddenly became a hundred strokes then a barrel, instead of 100,000 strokes in open-ocean then an island. It was a challenge, and I can’t say whether it made a difference to the title cause I was pretty focused on it, but it set a competitive tone for the year. I was pushing hard toward Molokai and it definitely helped me later in the year. I won a lot of heats that year on sheer self-belief. That one against Damo at Pipe for the title, it was just about not accepting defeat. Molokai – and probably Andy – had a lot to do with that.
You and Mick copped a bit of shit about fading guys during that Winston swell. Has your attitude to dropping in mellowed with time? Are there fadings that keep you up at night?
Mate, it’s such a shitfight out there. Such a shitfight. I don’t know. I just try and make sure everyone gets at least one good one. That’s kind of a principle I work by, but principles and good intentions go out the window out there pretty quick. The problem is that people come from all around Australia and all over the world. That swell, people had come in from all over the place, and they’re on one wave, they’re on another one, and another… and eventually you go, well, not this one mate. I had a guy have a go at me out there on that swell. He’s telling me, “You pros, mate, you’re the worst!” I turned around and said, “I’m not a pro; I’m a local.” But it’s hard to watch sometimes. You’ll see some guy on the best wave of his life and someone just barbecues him and steals that moment from him. But we all got dropped in on. When I get dropped in on I can’t even get angry, as long as I’m not in danger of getting hit by a loose board. That’s when it’s dangerous, but a good old fashioned blatant Dingo drop in, that’s not the worst thing in the world.
At least with him out there you’re not the worst guy in the lineup.
I think actually it was that crowded at one point I surfed for three hours and caught one wave without being burned.
You need to speak to Kelly and get a second Snapper built out at Cobaki Lakes.
I’ve had bad days at Snapper before with crowds. Last year, in September, I’d had the kids all weekend, Mon was away, and the waves were pumping. I’d missed them all and then on Sunday arvo my aunty came over and offered to have the kids for a couple of hours while I surfed. I bolted down and it was good, but it was also really slow. I remember yelling out, “I’m going!” and someone still faded me. I lost it. I screamed at the guy, “I’ve got a babysitter for one fucking hour and you fucking drop in on me!” I lost my shit and I got home and had all these texts on my phone. Mick texted me, joking, saying there’s some kid who said he used to think you were his hero. You lose your mind sometime, and surfing can do that to you in a good way and a bad way.
You’re out behind the rock at Snapper and a set is marching around from Froggies and you’re in the slot and you know the sand is good and you know it’s going to barrel for a hundred yards then run for another 200. Does that wave still mean the same thing to you as it did 20 years ago?
You’re always chasing that wave. I just want that one moment where you’re in your favourite place on earth and you can stand on your board and go limp and the barrel just happens around you. You feel like a zombie, your eyes roll back in your head, and your toes point and you have that orgasm moment and then you can just relax afterwards. It’s a feeling of pure therapy. That never changes and it never will.
You surf a lot of lineups all over the world and your homebreak is probably the most contested lineup in the world… how do you feel the vibe in the lineup is generally these days? Is the lineup trying to be more brotherly – or sisterly – but fighting a losing battle against sheer numbers? What’s your read?
It feels more like a brotherhood – occasionally a sisterhood – but the thing is you rarely get to see it play out. Like, I think of what happened to Evan Geiselman this year at Pipe and how he almost drowned, and I’m not that close to him and everyone raves about what a good guy he is, but I saw how everyone rallied around him and that sense that everyone is out there watching out for everyone else. Once you get beyond that selfish short-term thing of your next wave, there’s a real bond there bubbling away below the surface. No pecking order, no hype, no bullshit, we’re all still out there together.
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