Book Excerpt: The Robbie Page Story from Australia's Century of Surf

12 Dec 2013 0 Share

How a Big Island At The Bottom of The World Became The Greatest Surfing Nation On Earth
By Tim Baker

Mark Sainsbury and Robbie Page in the pages of Tim Baker's Australia's Century of Surf

Mark Sainsbury and Robbie Page in the pages of Tim Baker's Australia's Century of Surf


It was a tough year in pro surfng in 1992. Mark Sainsbury, a former world amateur champ credited with inventing the floater, was found face down in the water at his local break at Avoca on the New South Wales Central Coast. Going for a morning surf alone, he’d suffered a sudden brain aneurysm. The news sent shock waves around the surfng world. In Europe, the assembled pro surfers went on a monumental bender to grieve their fallen mate. Mark Occhilupo was attempting a competitive comeback at the time, and the news triggered a manic episode that would see him abandon the tour altogether.

A month later, another Australian pro surfer found himself in trouble. A career in surfng had seemed like a lifeline for Robbie Page,  who rose out of the housing commission suburb of Bellambi, near Wollongong. He enjoyed a decorated career, winning the Pipeline  Masters and holding down a top-thirty slot. But it also tossed him and other young surfers into a world of risks and temptations with minimal  support or mentorship, and the toll was often costly. It was the era of the tour party animal, and the greatest party animal  of the lot, Rod Kerr, was even honoured by the ASP at its annual banquet as pro surfng’s ‘cultural ambassador’. His qualifications for this mantle included breaking Australian cricketer Rod Marsh’s longstanding drinking record between Australia and England,  and surfng an early-morning heat in Spain drunk and with no sleep. He punctuated his remarkable winning performance with a voluminous vomit in the shorebreak.

In 1992, Robbie Page had flown from Spain to Japan, having enjoyed the European leg of the pro tour to the fullest. Cannabis is decriminalised for personal use in Spain, and the Spanish leg had long been characterised by late nights  and wild parties as the touring pros lapped up the Continental lifestyle. When Rob flew into Tokyo, he was pulled aside  by customs for special attention, hardly surprising given his long hair, colourful clothing and surfboard bag.

He was relaxed about the customs officials’ earnest interrogation and search through his belongings, convinced he had nothing to fear. As they tore through his luggage with mounting frustration he sat and watched impassively. But when they went through his wallet, a small, folded square of blotting paper fell out and fluttered through the air, as if in slow motion. Rob’s heart skipped a beat . . . the acid.

‘We were all in Europe  having a good time after  the contest finished,’ he explained to me later. ‘They were partying in Spain, you know. People smoke marijuana in Spain – and hash. It’s all right. It’s legal.  And myself and a couple of guys bought a couple of trips off this Spanish guy, had a big night, got wasted, charged on. And I had a couple of them  left in a bit of paper, which I’d lost in my wallet with a lot of receipts and shit. Then I went through Japan six or seven weeks later and, Merry Christmas, someone found it for me. Thanks,  you know.’

Robbie spent sixty-six days in a Japanese prison, half of it in solitary confinement. While he sat alone in his cell, the Marui Pro in Chiba, only a couple of hour’s drive away, went on without him. Yet no one from the sport’s governing body, the ASP, checked on him or offered any support or legal counsel. They simply listed him in the event results as a ‘no show’. When he was eventually released and deported, the ASP board voted to impose an eighteen-month suspension from competition, despite the fact that many of the surfers who voted in favour of the ban had been known to ingest the odd prohibited substance themselves. At the age of 26, it was a virtual death sentence to his contest career.

‘When I came back out I just came out of a solitary box, and I sat there with tears in my eyes and said, Don’t try and throw me off the tour,’ Rob recalls, the emotions still raw today. ‘They looked me in the eyes and voted me off the tour – it blew me away.’

In a bizarre twist, four months after  his release Robbie travelled to France to visit his clothing sponsor Oxbow, and soon found himself in a romance with the granddaughter of the French President, Francois Mitterrand. ‘From jail in Japan to sitting in the President’s house, four months,’ said Robbie. ‘That’s why I knew God was playing a joke . . . My contrasts have been absurd.’ Indeed. Rob’s path as a professional surfer has taken him from dire poverty and a broken home to the top of his sport – a Pipe Masters title, a starring role in the Hollywood movie North Shore and, more recently, a world Masters title in Peru and an Australian Indigenous Masters title. Along the way he’s put in twenty-two Hawaiian winters, twelve years living and surfing in France and ten years on the pro tour rated in the top thirty in the world.

‘I’ve walked the red carpet of Hollywood, I’ve had a whole feature flm made of my life, Rolling Thunder . . .

I lived with the President of France, been to jail, won Pipe, two Aussie titles and a world title and carried the Aboriginal flag for the first time out of anybody in surfng history,’ Rob neatly summarises with an odd mix of pride and wonder, having recently discovered his Aboriginal ancestry. ‘To the day I die, I’m the first guy to take the Aboriginal flag to the top of my sport.’

As the 90s progressed it was hard to shake the sense that the actual surfers themselves were little more than logs thrown  on the furnace of surf commerce to keep the tills ringing. The casualties were numerous and young surfers were picked up, exploited  and discarded with virtually no concern for their wellbeing. If one stumbled and fell, blew out a knee or self-combusted, there were plenty more starry-eyed kids ready to take their place for a modest monthly cheque and some free clothes and stickers. But to others, the new generation of pro surfers came across as pampered, spoiled  brats with a surfng life their forebears could only dream of handed to them on a platter. This perception was strengthened by incidents like the two young Australian pro surfers who were flown to Tahiti by their sponsors for a photo shoot.  When there was no one there to meet them  at Papeete Airport, they sat around completely incapable of fending for themselves and boarded the next flight back to Australia. An exotic surf trip that would have been the most  idyllic fantasy for pro surfng’s pioneers was now treated as an onerous inconvenience.

But the ASP churned on regardless. In the wake of Kelly’s domination, a whole new generation of hyper- talented, clean-living and media-savvy young Americans put paid to traditional Australian surfng dominance on tour. Slater, Rob Machado, Ross Williams, Shane Dorian, Kalani Robb, Conan Hayes and Chris Malloy formed the ‘Momentum’ generation, their talents documented by their young filmmaker friend Taylor Steele to a new California punk soundtrack, provided by the likes of Offspring, Pennywise and Sprung Monkey. The hard- partying Aussie surf animal began to look like a self- destructive anachronism as Slater racked up world titles, soon overhauling the once untouchable record of MR’s four. At the same time, a virtual collapse of the Australian domestic circuit of feeder pro-am events meant there was no stepping stone for even the most disciplined young local talent to break onto the tour. Wollongong surfer Todd Prestage had to base himself in California in order to qualify for the world tour in 1994.

From Australia’s Century of Surf by Tim Baker
Copyright © Tim Baker 2013
Reprinted by Permission of Random House Australia
All Rights Reserved
RRP $45.00 by Ebury Press. Available from booksellers and online retailers from 2 December 2013

Tim Baker's Australia's Century of Surf is an absolute ripper of a read and is about $45 to own. You can get yours from from Random House.

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