Say Hello To The Least Friendliest Waves In WA
Slab Surfing with the Society Unseen Crew
It’s such a brilliant idea and amazing it hadn’t happened sooner. A tight confederation of Western Oz’s most revered heavy-water talent have been quietly building a unique film project, Society Unseen. The concept blends local knowledge and cinematic scope into a heart-stopping vision of the most terrifying waves west of the 129th meridian. Slab surfing looms ever larger in the public eye in this country. Already this year we’ve been blown away by Leroy Bellet’s behind-the-surfer perspective, and again by the mad heroism of Cape Fear, but early glimpses indicate this is different to anything that’s gone before. The light, the intensity, the distinctively West Australian obsession with rugged transport: choppers, planes, skis, zodiacs, seriously grunty boats and 4WDs. Waves that for size, power and remoteness are beyond the physics of paddling. It’s like seeing Channon and Mcleod’s road song leap off the page and into a high definition, surround-sound future where the machinery might be science fiction, but the ancient cliffs are still staring down time like it doesn’t exist at all.
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BROTHER NUMBER ONE – KERBY BROWN
A man with serious miles on his surfing clock, Kerbs has been a top-flight junior competitor, a QS journeyman, and for many years now, at the cutting edge of big wave exploration in this country. At 33, his reputation is global, his body in fine shape, and he’s ridden through the hard lessons that make great watermen. For what this project requires, he’s at his peak. The Brown brothers are the sons of a Geraldton rock muso and crayfisherman, and were already scouring the northwest coast for waves before their dad decided to relocate the family to Kalbarri. Kerby was doing runs to Hawaii every season, and his dad hit him with the ultimatum: you’re not turning up at school. Either knuckle down and study or make a go of the surfing and take it seriously. The choice was obvious.
But there came another turning point a little further down the road; the QS burned him out. “I realised it wasn’t for me, hassling Brazilians in one-foot waves. I was half-hearted, partying heaps. And I knew I was missing good waves back home.” At around 21, he started chasing big swells with single-minded focus. But one after the other his sponsors, SMP and Mambo, went down. Just as Mambo fell, Kerby and his partner Nicole were expecting a baby. Time for another reinvention. Kerbs did what many West Aussies in his position did: he got into offshore oil & gas and made a good living. “It was a huge change from surfing and partying to realising I need to raise a family.” The change was a blessing in disguise – forbidden by the employer from drinking and partying, “It was like I was in training. I surfed more in those years than I did when I was kicking round – and I got six months off.”
Now the resources party is over, and Kerbs now faces another reinvention. This time he’s pivoting towards his two favourite passions (aside from whipping into building-size barrels): photography and food. To add just another layer of mystique to the many hidden behind those whiskers, the man is an astonishingly good cook. Kerby credits Rick Rifici as the prime mover of the Society Unseen idea. Rick’s already captured Kerby in some unimaginably dangerous situations – snarling lip over his head and dry ledge under his feet. But he’s not the loudest guy in the room by any measure. Why does he do it? “It fulfils me,” he says. “I’m always looking forward to that moment, surfing a ridiculously heavy wave and surviving it. I’m not content living a normal life, without extremity – I get bored easily.”
He agrees that becoming a dad changed his approach. “I was more reckless. I didn’t care – ‘If I don’t come home, that’s it then.’ Now, it’s like, ‘I’m not coming home to my child.’ I’m not backing off, I’m just mentally more calculating. Sometimes.” He laughs. “Other times the thoughts come afterwards.” He’s nursing a knee at present, but so far, the biggest physical damage from surfing slabs has come in ways you mightn’t expect. “The Right pushes you so deep – I did my eardrum in May and again the other day.” His kid brother Cortney has seen him off to hospital “so many times. Nicole’s amazing. I know she gets worried for him but she does a bloody good show of hiding it.”
The days when it’s worked – the weather, the swell, the technical stuff – make it all worthwhile. “One of the first trips we did as a group, we had three skis way out to sea on this wave down south. It was sunny and huge and amazing. Dangerous, but a good session. We’ve been chasing those moments ever since, but it’s hard to make ‘em align. Especially on these waves – they’re evil.” The project is “all our own time and money,” despite the millionaire vibe created by Corsaire’s flying toys. Therefore it’s hard for Kerbs to predict when it will be in the can. “I can’t see an end date just yet,” he says. “We’ll keep building and see where it takes us. The other factor is – how long can we keep doing this without someone getting seriously hurt?”
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MR GOODVIBES – CORTNEY BROWN
If you were to make a portrait of the archetypal nor-west surfer, what would you include? A hyper-stylish barrel rider. A fearless tow-pig. A son learning the ropes of crayfishing from his father. An easygoing lad you’d share a laugh with over a Red Lead. Well there, in a paragraph, is Cortney Brown. Five years younger than his bearded bro Kerby, Corts is a different kind of guy. He’s a neat freak and a hater of filth, where Kerbs is more comfortable with stench and muck. Lightly built, clean shaven and outgoing, he’s nevertheless as close to Kerby as a brother can be. “I’ve surfed with him my whole life,” he says. “He’s the reason I started. I think we used to fight a bit when we were tiny, but we’re the best of mates. I’ve always looked up to the guy.”
That level of brotherly affection leads to an obvious problem with a project like Society Unseen. How do you venture into seriously dangerous ocean with your only brother and your long-term partner, or as Cortney puts it, half your bloody family? “It depends what we’re surfing. I get super worried for them if I’m on the ski.” There are no easy go-downs. “Every time someone goes down towing those waves it’s a fucking heavy situation. You’ve got to be there to make sure they pop up. I don’t care how fit you are: if that wave wants to kill you, it’ll kill you.” He agrees that Kerby and Nicole and their grommet Phoenix offer a model of a life he could emulate down the track. “Kerby being down south is the first time we’ve been separated since we were little kids. I miss seeing Phoenix and Nicole too.” Their departure from Kalbarri highlights the need to adapt in the west – both to get the kind of waves they’re after, and just to make a living. “Kerby’s scored this winter, and I’ve pretty much missed out. On the other hand, he has to come up here and get some sun now and then.”
Cortney’s more than an echo of his brother’s giant talent: he’s got a world class act of his own (he was picked up by Volcom at ten years old). He thinks the two of them are very similar surfers, although “Kerby’s a bit more of a maniac. I can hold back in some situations. He pushes me.” And he’s stoked on having Imogen on board: “I couldn’t imagine travelling with a better bunch of humans.” In his self-effacing way, Cortney’s not sure what he brings to the table, although he helpfully proffers his nickname, “Swiss” because of his ability to come up with an option for any situation, like a Swiss Army knife. When he thinks about it a little harder, he reckons it might be his tendency to bring on the happy vibe: “they’re all pretty serious.”
THE WILD CHILD OF THE BLUFF – IMOGEN CALDWELL
In a tribe comprised of far-flung members, 19-year-old Imogen Caldwell is the light from a distant galaxy. When she answers the landline in the homestead at Red Bluff - there’s no mobile signal out there – a dog barks in the desert night behind her. It’s somehow perfect. Imogen’s parents packed their five children in the car many moons ago and left the east coast on an open-ended road trip. They wound up managing Red Bluff, home-schooling their children, and making the kind of life you find in a Winton or Favel Parrett novel. Imogen lived full-time at the Bluff, with Australia’s most photogenic lefthander roaring away in front of her home. The Brown brothers visited frequently on surf missions. Cortney visited more…and more. “We all knew who they were,” she laughs. They’ve been together for years now.
Imogen learned to dive, and to surf, in challenging waters. Anyone who’s been to the Bluff knows there’s no easy beachbreak to get started on, and there’s a hell of a shorepound in the bay. It’s the Point or stay dry. She grew up a goofyfooter and quickly adapted to fast, barrelling waves. Incredibly, she’s only been surfing for about four years. In that time she’s surfed heavier waves than most surfers – male or female – will surf in a lifetime. Gradually she pulled away from the Bluff. “I was travelling to compete a lot, and I worked out it was easier to travel from Kalbarri than out of the Bluff. I started moving my stuff into Cortney’s and…eventually I was living there. She found her way into modelling and picked up a deal with RVCA that requires her to go on trips and get involved with their design team, as well as model the product. When she’s not doing that, she’s modelling high fashion for international clients or just travelling with whatever’s on offer.
“Originally,” she explains, “I wasn’t part of the Society Unseen loop. Then someone said – ‘we need a girl!’ And everyone looked at me. Since I’d met Cortney, the waves I was surfing were getting bigger and bigger and I’d already started towing, so…”
“Imo’s crazy,” says Kerby. “It’s a spinout to see her in big waves. It’s the last thing you’d expect when you look at her on land. She’s mature and goes hard for her age. She’s starting to look now at the slabby waves we surf. That’s going to be really interesting.” Asked to explain how she finds herself amongst a crew of diehard slab surfers exploring the cold waters of the south, Imogen’s at a loss. “I can’t really explain it. I love surfing. I’m ready to take on slabs. If Cortney’s on the other end of the rope, there’s total trust between us.” She starts laughing again. “I mean, I’m small, I’m tiny. I’ve been getting away with it so far, touch wood. Kerby takes all the hits for everyone. It’ll be interesting, but hopefully we all come out of it alright.”
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