Nick Carroll: Kanga's Massive Life

14 Apr 2019 9 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

Phwoaaarrrr! The cover image of Volume 2 of Kanga's story. Photo: Bruce Channon

Phwoaaarrrr! The cover image of Volume 2 of Kanga's story. Photo: Bruce Channon


Volume Two Of Ian Cairns’s bio has been released, but does anyone know what it means?

Ian Cairns was at the Avalon Bowlo on Thursday evening to talk about his life, and 27 people showed up.

Twenty-seven people!

Twenty-seven people!!

Like I understand that on Sydney’s upper northern beaches these days, surfing is not really what it once was, and it’s largely now about Wellness, personal growth and such. In some lights perhaps it now resembles the description used by Lena Dunham’s editor in the tv show Girls, when sending Lena on a surf school assignment: “Shitty Yoga.” Something, in other words, slightly disconnected from its history and deeper self.

I also know that Ian lives in California and so is possibly outside the daily purview of Australian surf culture, especially among recent converts, who may still be wrestling with what the hell they have got themselves into.

But this is Ian Cairns for god’s sake.

This is one of surfing’s greatest and most polarising figures, a person who actually began to surf at Avalon 54 years ago, who moved to Western Australia with his family, developed a highly distinctive power surfing style, decided through a complex mix of personal motives to dive headlong into professional surfing even though it barely existed at the time, matched or exceeded the very best in Hawaiian surf, won everything but a world title, started a pro surfing team with the help of a Sydney journalist and wore jumpsuits for the camera, moved to California and coached the US kiddie pools of the 1980s, and started and ran the Association of Surfing Professionals – the first truly coherent organisation in pro surfing history, if such a word (“coherent” that is) can ever be used in a surfing context.

A true eccentric in other words. A real, no bullshit, scary, lifelong surfer. Whatever you think of Ian, you can’t put him in a box.

He showed up at the Bowlo with writer Wayne Murphy and several boxes of his biography, which has exploded out into two volumes. (See our review of vol one here.)

I was ready to ask him something smart-arse, like “Two volumes? Who are you, Winston Churchill?” But Cairns beat me to it. Apparently Phil Jarratt had used the line on him recently, so he was ready. “There’s ten volumes of Churchill’s biography, 1000 pages each, and I’ve read them,” he told everyone. “I’m no Churchill.”

We conducted an interview, sitting on the edge of the stage. The audience didn’t grow, but Ian didn’t seem to mind. He spoke vividly, candidly and sometimes amusingly to his small throng, seeming to enjoy the familiar faces among them — people like Graham Cassidy and Simon and Sharon Anderson, and Rob Bain, and Tim Bonython and Bill McCausland, and host Kirk Willcox. And the scattering of people he wouldn’t have known, but who have actual surfer faces, like Marty from Bungan, or Rory Gorman or Scott Beggs.

Speaking of faces. Ian’s face is a treat. It’s huge. His cheeks alone look like entire Mongolian steppes. Deep-set blue eyes glitter beneath vast drawn-down brows. His mouth is either flat and set, or pulled back into a half-smile. I imagined it being carved into some sort of surfing version of Mt Rushmore.

Ian has used this face many times in battle, and not always to merely psych people out. Maurice Cole told me a hilarious story about a head butting contest he and Ian got into years ago, following an ASP meeting. They lined each other up, smiling, and nutted each other back and forth, neither willing to give in. At one point, a blood blister formed in the centre of Ian’s forehead; on the next butt, Maurice popped it, and both were sprayed with Ian’s blood. 

This is kind of nothing compared with some of Ian’s duels over the years. I think his favourite subject at the Bowlo was the idea of the worthy adversary: the foe worth the fight. “They’re the people who end up pushing you to be the best you can,” he said. “You hope that now, down the track a bit, you can say to each other, ‘Well that was then, and weren’t they great days we lived through?’”

Volume Two of Kanga is full of these adversaries, worthy and otherwise, fearlessly explored and given their say. They light up the book with snap and crackle, sometimes resolved, sometimes not.

I do think of the volumes, number one is the better. It’s more grounded, more written. The geography and settings of Ian’s childhood and early career come to life; you can feel the context forming around him, during a time when the surfing world was changing so rapidly, and nobody could be sure what lay ahead. 

Number two feels rushed, with a lot of long quotes thrown together in place of story-building, an occasionally fractured time-line, and much talk about ASP Board meetings and nearly-done business deals. Ian’s development as a person, and his place in the surf culture, feel as if they vanish a bit in the mix. As does the context. I dunno if you can really get through a long series of discussions about pro surfing in the US in the 1990s without mentioning Kelly Slater.

But then again, Ian’s life is huge. Bigger than anyone else’s who learned to surf at Avalon. In surfing’s tiny little world, he is outsized.

Only 27 people showed up for it. They were lucky.

You can get yourself a copy or two of this massive book double up at now.

Kanga Book Signing Events This Week

April 16: Tuesday 5pm. Torquay Books, Talk story and book signing

April 17: Wednesday 7pm, National Surf Museum in Torquay, Talk Story and book signing

April 16 to 19, Bells Beach for the Rip Curl Pro and sales at WSL merchandise area.

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