Mick Sowry is an Australian surfer/filmmaker responsible for Musica Surfica, a film which has won awards at surf film festivals all over the globe. An adept storyteller, he also writes the surf blog Safe to Sea. Mick graciously allowed us to talk to him about his life.
What was your life like growing up?
I was born in Fiji and spent my childhood to age 10 in Adelaide, South Australia, about two minutes from the beach. It was a surfless beach, but my love of the water comes from wonderful days there—getting sunburnt and beginning my freckle collection. I didn’t have swim fins then, and came up with the bright idea of running around on the bottom with a rock. That little beach did give me one of my first profound wave experiences. A bit of a storm, and sitting right in the shore break letting the waves blast me. I absolutely loved it.
It was with my dad in front of my house in Adelaide I saw my first surfboard. 1958. On top of a white Holden wagon. I thought they were jets. Dad informed they were surfboards, and I wanted to be a part of it—whatever “surfboards-ing” was. Not long after that, I saw my first Waimea footage on the telly, and my first wave out there in 1986 was a good moment. It took me till late 1968 for my first board surf though and a year more to the first board as dad said I had to work to get it.
When did you get your first surfboard?
New Year’s Day 1970. I’d borrowed boards before that and could already stand up and turn, but that day was my ground zero. I looked like a duck … sometimes still do.
What was the feeling you had when you first stood on a surfboard?
Whoooosh and “Holy crap, I can turn this thing!”
Who did you look up to and admire when you were a young man?
I struggled knowing what I wanted to be, and consequently didn’t go as hard as I should have at school. On exam days, I even disappeared for a splash and must have been a massive disappointment to my parents. I had always been good at art and writing, so I ended up in advertising when in retrospect I’d have loved to paint. I love being inside my head … always a bit of a dreamer really.
But advertising it was—as an art director. And there were people within that world that became great friends, but always, always, the artists and photographers had my attention more than the people filling the advertising awards books.
In surfing, I had my heroes. Barry Kanaiaupuni. I loved that bottom turn and every time I paddled out I’d imagine burying the rail nose to tail. Terry Fitz, Wayne Lynch, Nat in Morning of the Earth. Maurice Cole rode one of the best waves I ever saw ridden at Winki. A local legend, Mick Pierce. Micky could devour a lineup, and was a great tube rider. A thousand stories around that guy. Funnily (and through the oddest of separate circumstances), Nat, Wayne and Maurice actually became friends, though much later. Plus, I had a chat with Barry once. The laugh was I’d imagined a giant of a man and he was about the same size as me.
The biggest surfing compliment I ever got was recently when I was chatting to Derek Hynd and out of the blue he said, “You know, Mick, that bottom turn of yours has a lot of B.K. about it.”
My head exploded.
So back to people I admired, in the deepest sense. My parents, Brian and June, for grace, compassion and grit. Always being there. A happy, loving home.
Of all the places you have traveled to, what place in particular stands out and why?
Surfwise…Hossegor, in France. My mate Rene and I, along with three Queenslanders (Cap, Brando and the Phantom) who we met on the beach there, were pretty much the first travelers since the Evolution crew to settle there for a bit. Empty perfect beaches Can you imagine surfing perfect Esagnots or Capbreton by yourself, and the most welcoming, lovely people? Magic.
After that, Spain, Portugal and Morocco. Perfect surf in each, wish I’d stayed longer, but had hung so long in France… I did get Mundaka, though, as good as I’ve ever seen it.
Individual un-named breaks off Sumatra. Slick, gurgling, heaven.
As a place alone… an ad shoot in the centre of Australia.. dropped on a mountain top by helicopter, left for a couple of hours when the film crw went to get some stuff, dusk, an horizon that went for 2 or three thousand miles in any direction and I might have been the only man on earth…it could have been 20,000BC or 2300AD. Not wanting to get mystical, but it put me in a good place.
Who/what inspires you?
Recently, Derek Hynd and Richard Tognetti for obvious, but different, reasons. Rich because of his drive to get the best out of his art, the best out of Australia in a cultural sense. And because with all he’s achieved and with the razor sharp intelligence he has, he is still a regular guy. Great with kids. A surprisingly good surfer, particularly finless, given his hectic schedule. He and my son Tom have a wonderful rapport.
Derek with his restless intelligence. He’s creating a new surfing. At its best, his finless act is mind-boggling. Not in gutless crap, but ten foot Bells at ridiculous speed, power drifting, spinning—glued to the board and laughing. At 52! Even if no one took it up, the opening of minds to something else is what sets him apart. Richard too.
My dad because he lost everything at 55 and started again. My mum for her calm, and making me realise the 50’s housewife was the most honourable of professions.
My Sue for bravery as I watched her deal with a brain tumor 12 years ago,
The battle against the closed mind. Fearlessness. That is probably the answer.
I fight it in myself, as self-doubt is a killer …and it gets to me a lot.
On that note I’d have to add Nat Young. His self-belief is complete to the point of pain in the arse-ness, but it gets things done. When he was bashed in the surf, his response as he recovered was, “Stuff this! I’m gonna do a book about surf rage.” A couple of months later, it was out. He didn’t vacillate. He just did it. There is a lesson there.
It’s not easy though, as everyone has moments of resistance to the new, or challenging. In a way though it is what we should all strive for as even the most basic thing, like say, racism, is really fear of the unknown, the new, the other.
What lead you to finless surfing?
There’s an obvious answer, but I will say I still would call my involvement a dalliance. I can do it reasonably well on the board Derek Hynd made me, make maybe 60% of my waves, but struggle enough that if it is dialing, I’ll take the finned board out so as not to be a danger in the lineup. It’s fun, and recent stuff I’ve seen of Derek has got me fired up again, so who knows? The crux is I don’t have the luxury of a daily surf, so I tend to cherish them. I go with the mood.
I’ve just made a couple of alaias—a new challenge, stand-up as opposed to prone is maddeningly difficult. My goal there is to get stand-up-proficient, though these new hybrids with some float that Tommy and Jon Wegener, Sage Joske and others in So. Cal. are playing with … that looks interesting.
You have to remember I’m near to 56, was never a real gun, so even the fact that I’m still on a 6’0” is an achievement in my eyes. One good turn makes a great surf. Happy surfs are easy to find if you keep trying new stuff.
Musica Surfica completely breaks the mold for surf films. Were you at all surprised by how well it was received?
Musica was the most amazing thing I’ve ever been involved in professionally. The confluence of personalities, circumstance, finance, weather, on and on—it would only take brick to have it all fall down.
The opportunity was given to me. I kept thinking, “Don’t stuff this up.”
Thankfully, with some wonderful people in it for the ride, I … we didn’t.
That it was well-received … well, critically it was a huge success, but people do struggle with it too. Sales? I think it’ll burble along for years, but the house is gone, a couple of torrent sites have it as a free download and have had more of them than we’ve had in total sales. So it gets you thinking. And making another with two kids at school? It’s a challenge.
You see, it’s a difficult film to pigeonhole. Try telling anyone to buy a film about finless surfing and classical music and they go, “Huh?” You have to see it to get it, but to get people to see or buy it is a job. Even the trailer doesn’t really do it justice.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to try surfing a board without fins?
Stay low. Stay neutral and off you go. Once you find trim and begin to make waves, then start to work out how to apply power. Be prepared to faceplant, and be prepared to smile. It is a great talking point in the water. Everyone starts grinning, asking questions, wanting a look.
What are the greatest things you have learned in your life?
Keep an open mind. Respect another’s right to be. Persist. Stay calm. Treasure your friends. Love.
I’m not religious at all. You don’t need the promise of heaven to do the right thing. Your moral obligation as a human being is enough. And take a few deep breaths before a big set.
Do you have any regrets or wish you had done something differently?
If I had done anything differently I wouldn’t be where I am now—so near to stuffed financially, but with a family I adore, a growing group of friends around the world, and again because of the GFC, the prospect of working till I die. Now this might sound like a gripe, but a challenge ahead is a better prospect in many ways than saying, “Righto, the bank’s full! I’m putting my feet up and waiting to die.”
All good, in a different sort of way.
What are you most proud of?
Of course my family—a madhouse that is an even mix of screaming and laughter … often within minutes of each other. Sue and I have nearly divorced a thousand times and yet here we are 25 years later. Getting kids through the teens and seeing them on their way is the great challenge for any parent and beyond any personal ambition. That is my main goal.
That’s probably where I envy those that started early and lived some dreams when they were most able to. There is no time like now to begin, the younger the better. My “now” came a little later than I’d have liked, but it came nonetheless.
What meaning does surfing hold for you and how has it changed your life?
Surfing is a calm centre. My peace. It’s kept me healthy as long as you’re not a dermatologist, who no doubt will build a swimming pool off me. It is as constant as breathing; it is a place of beauty and familiarity, and my gift to me. Amongst the myriad frustrations and maddening difficulty, there are still enough moments of ahhhhhh to keep me coming back till I drop.
What brings you the most happiness in the world?
A good laugh, family, my friends. Eating together. Basic stuff. The odd boat trip wouldn’t hurt either.
My greatest happiness in a personal sense, after all of the above, would be to live with a view of a wild ocean coast.
Who are some of the people you feel are shaping the path for surfing today?
Performance-wise, the kids: Kelly, Joel, Mick, etc. That high-end thing will always be an evolving, rising benchmark. The other paths grow as surfing becomes something beyond a sport. It now has depth and history. There is a folklore of boards, style and art. The path is chasing the feeling that is you on a given day. More than ever just getting wet, having a slide on whatever, is enough. You rip. You don’t. So what? As long as you work with your limits, and have a smile, ride away.
What is your favorite board? Your favorite surf spot?
Favourite board? If I’m on, my Maurice Cole 6’3”. A wave last year at six foot Bells was as close to an extended perfect moment as I’ve had in years. Smooth, fast, for that wave I just … was. If I’m not on though, the best board in the world won’t save me.
Favourite wave? There’s a spot down south called Massacre. A heaving hell drop right with a slot that lets you in, a square bottom, mad power, a tube sometimes and a grinding race through the inside … or a fat shoulder. Sunset-like. Rarely crowded, often lonely, always fun—suits me down to the ground and the home of some of the most satisfying surfs I’ve ever had. Good from 6 to 12 feet; best around 8 to 10. I love it, but only get to surf it a couple times a year.
My favourite surfing moment though was a session at three foot Spooky’s Beach at Angourie.. A long, fast, high tide right bank breaking from the middle of the bay, by myself, 6 a.m., forest to the water, birdsong, glassy. Peach pink and gold morning. An endless trim on the front end of Nat’s 10ft Takayama. No ego. No one to watch. Just crouched up the front, finger in the wave, watching the light.
What’s your favorite meal?
Anything Italian or a hot curry or Chinese. Mushrooms on toast. Indo food. Food, dammit. That’s my favourite food.
What are you currently listening to on your iPod?
The kids laugh at my crap. The driving disc I made for our Christmas run up the coast had “La Mer” by Charles Trenet (1954), Radiohead, Philip Glass’ “Etudes for Piano”, Israel Kamakawiwo’olé, Spem in Alium (The Tallis Scholars.. 40 part renaissance motet..circa 1570), “I’m Alive” from Morning of the Earth, Led Zep (“Stairway”), Madeleine Peyroux (“Dance Me to the End of Love”) and Jimmy Hendrix. It drove the family mad as they‘d love one thing then, “What the … ?” Needless to say none of my stuff gets played at home. I love all sorts of stuff. As long as it takes me somewhere.
What causes/organizations do you support?
Greenpeace and the WSPCA get cash every month, and when someone comes to the door they get something if they don’t try the hard sell. It depends on how full the wallet is.
What are you most grateful for?
Being born Australian.
What’s next for Mick Sowry?
I’d love to finish what I started before Musica, and I have more than couple of other projects that I want to see through. More writing. More photos. To paint more. To do and make inspiring, entertaining things with talented people. To do the best I can for as long as I can.
Feed, and enjoy, my family.
And keep surfing, preferably with my sons and my friends in the water. Sue’ll be on the beach reading. She hates getting her hair wet.
Find out more about Mick Sowry here.