When I call Nat Young, he’s at his daughter’s home in California hanging out with the grandkids and enjoying a bit of downtime before the press tour of his latest book, Church of the Open Sky. He’s just received a visit from one of his oldest friends – 80-year-old Little John Richards, who he used to surf with way back when. Normally he’d be in excellent spirits, however, he’s just gotten word that his property in Nymboida – a rural village in NSW’s Northern Rivers – has been razed by a devastating fire.
“It’s just really hard to take,” he says.
“I don’t even know how to tell you… I built this place in 1973. It’s a 7000-acre cattle and timber property. Everything’s gone: the house, the cattle, the timber mill, the barns, and the area where my son and I shape surfboards.”
Nat says he tries not to get hung up on material things, but admits the loss of the house cuts deep. He has a number of residences (he divides his time between the north coast of New South Wales and the Sun Valley in the US), but the Nymboida house was meaningful in ways he can’t really articulate.
“What’s interesting,” he muses, “is that some houses are used primarily just as shelter. And then there are houses that inspire you to be a better person. They give meaning to your life. And that’s what we had at Nymboida. But in the end it’s all material. We’ve got to be tough about it.”
In the same way a house is not just a house to Nat, surfing has never been just a sport to him either. Despite being one of the greatest surfers the world has ever seen, for the last 40 years he’s been vehemently against the notion of ‘professional surfing’. Competition just doesn’t fit with surfing, he say – it’s not the reason millions of people around the world participate in the activity. Instead, Nat considers it an art form; a religion. Now, he surfs for the sheer joy of communing with the ocean, relishing the stillness and the connection it provides.
Nat began surfing as a youngster after watching his older neighbour, Robert ‘Kenno’ Kennerson, surf in their hometown of Collaroy Beach in Sydney’s northern beaches.
I had my board taken away from me a number of times for surfing inside the patrolled area. We were against their principles and their rules and, because of that, they were very cruel to us.Nat Young
“Summertime meant north-easterly winds and carrying our boards over the headland to Long Reef,” he recalls.
“Besides having the benefit of being offshore in a north-easter, Long Reef had three submerged reefs running out into the ocean. We were the only group who surfed Long Reef consistently, and I think this was the main reason I became a good surfer.
“I remember long days spent surfing with my mates, then coming in and laying around in the warm sand. It didn’t hurt that the girls who hung around with our mob were all stunners––a few of the girls surfed but in those days most of them just hung out.”
Surf culture in the ‘50s was largely considered by the older generation as wild and reckless. Nat recalls the ongoing power struggle between the surfers and the surf club as to who had the run of the land – or the ocean, as it were.
“The surf club was a post-war organisation that had no concept of what surfers were really doing riding waves,” he says.
“They obviously didn’t like surfers or the fact that we were riding waves for fun. The club was very regimented and they were trying to hold onto the power and control of the beach. And for a long time they did.
“I had my board taken away from me a number of times for surfing inside the patrolled area. We were against their principles and their rules and, because of that, they were very cruel to us.
“I recall them digging these deep holes and putting us in there. Of course, we were too small to climb out, and they’d throw beer on us—they’d even piss on us.
“There was a lot of alcohol-induced stuff that went on – a lot of ugly things – but I can also see that a lot of good things have come out of surf clubs. Because of the surf club, I’ve been able to help save a number of people while out surfing. Being able to save someone caught in a rip by putting a surfboard underneath them and pushing them onto a wave… that’s the most sensible way to save someone in that situation.”
These days, at 72 years of age, Nat’s still out there catching waves and living life to its utmost. He’s happily married to wife Ti, and has four children: two kids with his first wife Marilyn, Naomi and Beau, and two with Ti, Nava and Bryce.
Being a husband, father and grandfather certainly keeps Nat busy (in addition to his other pursuits as a board shaper, film producer, writer, raconteur, conservationist, activist, pilot… the list, I suspect, goes on).
Asked how he keeps on top of it all, Nat credits meditation with keeping him grounded while surfing keeps his body and mind sharp. “If you stop moving, you never start again,” he comments.
“And in times like this,” he says, referring to the sad news of the fire-ravaged Nymboida property, “you just have to drink French Champagne."
I remember long days spent surfing with my mates, then coming in and laying around in the warm sand. It didn’t hurt that the girls who hung around with our mob were all stunners—a few of the girls surfed but in those days most of them just hung out.Nat's memories of summer
Wrapping up our chat, Nat tells me there is indeed a silver lining to the fire situation. “I just realised, most of my diaries have burnt down with the house. Thank Christ!
At least that means I won’t have to write another bloody book,” he laughs.
Church of the Open sky explores what it means to be a surfer, with a collection of true stories of Nat’s surfing life—and the friends, foes and heroes he’s met along the way. To get yourself a copy, visit penguin.com.au or your local bookseller.