The Drifter Journals

Johnny Abegg | Beyond Competition

Lying off Australia’s southern coast, Tasmania is often viewed as the country’s last great wilderness.

Sure, there’s the mighty outback, the Daintree Rainforest, the Otways and the beachside isolation of Cactus, but Tasmania’s challenging climate, old-growth forests, low population and Antarctic swells make it a raw and powerful natural outpost.

This was the spawning ground of Johnny Abegg, filmmaker, father and former WQS contender.

Almost 25 years ago, Johnny uprooted his family - parents and siblings - to move to Byron Bay in pursuit of his pro-surfing career. But he found, once contest jerseys and point scores detracted his attention from the purity of the surf, his rose-tinted dreams soon became tainted and he yearned for nothing more than the escapism and simplicity of riding waves.

Photo: New Zealand - Macaulay Rae

We talked to Johnny about his connection to nature, his shunning of the professional ‘dream’ and his new project to highlight climate change amongst surfers.

• • •

Growing up in Tasmania, were you immersed in nature from a very young age?

Johnny Abegg:
I’m hitting 40 this year, but I can see how there’s that link right back to when I was surfing at 10 in Tassie. It was always more about the elements, the cold, that interaction that I had with nature. It was way more simple; it wasn’t about performance, it was about going surfing. Obviously, that came later, but I can really see all these points leading to now where I’ve always fought for that.

When I moved up here [to Byron Bay] I got right into the competitive side of surfing. But I always had this weird thing in the back of my mind where I just didn’t feel in the competitive mindset - I wasn’t able to get right in there.

I suppose Byron has changed a lot in the 20 years that I’ve been here. I can really see a different side to it. The things I used to think of 40-year-olds when I was 16 and surfing at Broken Head point, wondering why they were a little bit jaded, or why they were going down the beach when the point was cranking… I can totally see why now. I’m finding it very difficult to function if I go surfing around people because the whole thing for me with surfing now is having that experience with nature, and with myself. Just having that time to self-enquire and ask questions, and having that space - it feels like way more of a gift now. I’m definitely not getting the best waves, I’m not trying to search them out nearly as much as I did. I feel like I’m getting more stoked just by having space, even if it’s onshore.

Photo: Home - Nathan Oldfield

Perhaps it’s about not needing as much anymore to be content - like you have a lower threshold of fulfilment?

A little bit, yeah. That frustration still creeps in at times, but it definitely feels like its waning. I feel like I’m just letting go of that. Having the talent to get all those good waves and be a part of that pack in a crowd when it’s pumping, I could be a part of that, but I just don’t have that connection, that need, that same reward of getting those waves - I’d much rather have the space.

Did your parents guide you into nature, or give you a deeper appreciation or respect for the natural world?

My dad rode a waveski, so he always used to be in the water riding that. We used to just sit on the rocks and watch him - he used to be really good. He sort of stopped that and pushed all his energy onto us. He used to take us all over the place - little adventures everywhere, to lots of different surf breaks and walks - it was always an adventure down there [in Tasmania]. He was a bit of a guide to having that connection with the elements and nature because he was a real outdoorsy sort of man in his earlier life and that definitely rubbed off on me.

I even feel that with my own kids now. I find it hard just to sit at home and relax because I always want to go for a walk or go to the beach or do something that is outdoorsy. It’s definitely ingrained from my earlier years.

Your early career push as a WQS surfer gave you a need to be in the elements, but it also gave you the opportunity to travel. Was global travel a part of that psyche, that connection with nature, or was it enough just to be in the ocean and in the waves, wherever that might be?

I think I just lost it a little bit in that attainment of a goal, in trying to fulfil the dream that I had. It happened really quickly. The purest form of surfing was when I started. It was all about the experience and the surf. Then I bought surf mags and thought, ‘so-and-so is doing well in a comp - maybe I’ll do that’, and it ignited so quickly. I just wanted to move to the mainland, be a pro surfer, travel the world… I think you just get so wrapped up in that ideal of what you want to be and what you want to achieve. It just became a performance for someone else.

Photo: Home - Nathan Oldfield

Do you think that being a pro surfer disconnected you with the nature of surfing and the same thought process led towards a more environmental perspective?

JA: I think so. Maybe it’s the awareness now of our culture and our environment, but I feel like we lived in the golden years a little bit. You could do anything, you could travel anywhere, you could camp by the beach with no problem. I feel that, since all that competitive stuff, I have gone back to the innocence of that upbringing and that connection to nature with the awareness of what’s happening now. I feel that, wouldn’t it be great if we could have that back and just live like that now, but it’s not like that anymore. I suppose it’s that with age comes an awareness of what we had, and now having kids, you want to be able to give those experiences to them, to have those moments where they can have space and to experience things with innocence, and to be able to access and appreciate the natural world.

It’s something that comes in waves of passion, I suppose. At the moment, I’m quite passionate about it, especially coming out of that bubble of the early years of fatherhood. I have three kids now, and I feel like that’s the next phase for me; to give back, to give to them, to do something, anything, that looks after the environment or acknowledges what I had as a little kid to try and give it to them.

Do you find, after 25 years of living in Byron Bay, that it’s still enough of an adventure to simply experience nature in your own back yard to sate any wanderlust?

I think there’s always a bit of wanderlust on an international level, but the whole Covid thing has definitely put the perspective back on travelling within your home town or region. I’m amazed, living within this 20-kilometre space, at how if you keep on top of the sandbars and the shifts and changes, you can always be a little bit ahead of the pack and have a little moment to yourself in the water.

Talking to some of the older crew, such as [third-generation Byronian] Max Pendergast, they talk about all these shifts, like, “this time of year, this or that happens”. You just start to pick up on all those little threads of knowledge. It’s a little bit of a dance with nature.

Photo: Bird Man - Matty Yeates

I’ve been hanging out with Dave Rastovich and, as with everything, he’s just on another level. He’s so connected to the most obscure little patches of sand. I’ll be like, “Okay, I’m going over here”, and he’s already surfed somewhere completely different that was absolutely cooking. It’s still really exciting on that front. So there’s still space in Byron, even though sometimes it gets really suffocating.

So if you had no time or travel constraints, no family commitments or hindrances, what would be the most fulfilling experience you could have?

JA: I don’t think it’s as far-fetched as it used to be. I used to crave those really crazy destinations. It’s funny, you know - Tassie is still so strong. There’s a couple of trips I want to do down there that are walking-based trips, where you wander off into some of the really isolated areas and go camp, find the right conditions and score some little spots in there. I’d really love to do that, more as a solo mission or with a couple of mates, and just see what comes up.

I’ve been running so much in the last year and a half that it feels like so much has become attainable because my fitness level has gone way higher than I’ve had for most of my life, so I could quite easily, in my mind now, picture certain aspects of that where I could walk for 20 ks and then camp up, go surf, and then walk another 30 ks or whatever. Those sorts of things are really interesting to me.

Then, I suppose, I’d also really like to do a good, authentic Australian road trip with my family, go to the centre of Australia, especially, up around Gnaraloo and through South Australia. I’d like to tap back into country, learning more about the stories and meeting some interesting people along the way. And really exposing my kids to that too, before they get too far along the education track or too old. They’re just little sponges, so to experience something like that all together... there’s just so much in Australia that I haven’t done. 

Photo: Glen's Otway Rainforest sanctuary, built in 1990 when Glen fought and overturned a 5,000-hectare clearfell logging coup.

I feel that there is so much I could learn moving forward as well, about appreciating what I have here in Byron.

Your film Two Weeks [in which Johnny isolated himself in the Tasmanian wilderness for 14 days] - was that part of your journey, or did that kickstart you on a new path?

JA: It actually started with my first movie, On Credit. That really shone a light on having a different perspective on that pro surfing framework. Two Weeks was more of an unravelling, where I felt that I was changing as a person, perhaps moving into a different phase of manhood, shifting through a relationship, having a different perspective on the surf… I suppose it was just a really strong reconnect. It felt like I was too far removed from who I was as a person and I needed something really raw and strong and a bit crazy and confronting to reconnect me with myself.

So often when you’re in nature, you get a lot of clarity with where you want to go. I feel like that Two Weeks experience gave me so much clarity - it was like one of those lightbulb moments when you realise, ‘I should be doing this’, but then when I came out, I had to actually walk in that direction, which is always more challenging than the lightbulb moment itself. It was a really strong pivoting point for me.

Have your children opened up something new in you, or have they just re-instilled the same message of appreciating and protecting nature?

Big time. It’s really given me a kick up the butt a little bit, whereas I used to be way more about my perception and what I wanted in my life. Now it’s more about giving my kids as bright a future as they can have. I feel it so often that I really want to give them that same connection that I had when I was a kid; climbing trees, camping, or just hitting the road with your dad and seeing somewhere totally new. That’s something that I want to give to them, but also with a new awareness about the environment and what we have to do to move forward. I want to really paint that picture for them - not in a doom and gloom sort of way, but just keeping it positive while making them aware that things are different. They don’t know - they’re just little balls of innocence - but it’s still taken on a different meaning for me.

Photo: Surf check with Yvon Chouinard (L), Dave Parmenter (R) and Wayne Lynch in the car

I’ve recently been looking a lot at enneagrams and I’ve got a lot of clarity on how I’m a mediator, as I’ve sort of always known. I see both sides. I really want to give the kids that perspective too, of trying to find the middle road and understanding that people have different points of view.

At the core of it, everyone really wants to do the right thing. I really do feel like there’s that core part where everyone wants to look after the environment; we just get caught up in social pressures.

You’ve recently started a project with Belinda Baggs - what’s it all about?

JA: Last year, we both did a trip that my wife was invited to on Heron Island through the Climate Council organisation. I asked if I could come along and be a part of it, and we brought the kids up as well and made it a bit of a family thing. It was all about climate change and what’s happening. It was a bit of a shake-up and came at a time when things had shifted with the kids a little bit. They had got a bit older, I felt a little glimmer of coming out of that parental bubble, looking at how I could direct my talents and skills in a certain direction. It really hit me strongly, and really hit Belinda strongly as well.

On the plane back, I started thinking that I should start activating surfers a bit more, so I started this Surfers For Climate advocacy group, just a little movement, it’s pretty small at the moment. I’m just trying to find that middle road, but it’s really convoluted and really hard with that very strong messaging - people can be really put off or really passionate about it.

I got home and kicked it off and messaged Belinda and said, “I’ve just started this Surfers For Climate thing - what do you reckon? Do you want to be a part of it?” She said, “oh my God - I did the same thing! I had a slightly different name, but your name’s better - let’s just both do it!”

We just want to bring about an awareness of what’s happening with the climate and offer a few solutions. I’d love to be able to give people the voice to say what they think about things. It may not be the right or wrong way. But I think it’s nice to let people comment on it, and then obviously guide it a little bit with some of the realities of it, but we want to keep it more positive and solutions-based, and not be so hard-hitting.

We’re still trying to find our way through it. It just felt that, moving from my children and having the photography and filmmaking skills I do, there was a nice framework that I could maybe start creating some stuff with people who operate in that space. It felt like a nice way to build something that my kids could be proud of and I would be proud of, just trying to do something for the environment.

Find out more about Surfers For Climate at:

Instagram: @surfersforclimate
Facebook: surfersforclimate
Web: surfersforclimate.com

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