Church of the Open Sky is Nat Young’s ode to surfing as a way of life. Much more than a simple pastime, riding waves has been the activity that underpinned his other identities as board shaper, film producer, writer, raconteur, conservationist, activist, pilot, husband and father. From its early days as a popular Hawaiian leisure activity, to the global counterculture revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, to the hyper-branded professional sporting juggernaut that surfing, in the eyes of some, has become, wave riding has transcended many eras and rebirths. And as many surfers will attest, the pull of desirable swell, wind and tide falls more within the realms of religion than any hobby or diversion.
Packed with a collection of true stories of Young’s surfing life – and the friends, foes and heroes he’s met along the way – Church of the Open Sky explores what it means to be a surfer. In the passage below, Young reflects on his first Western Australian road trip, in aid of the creation of one of surfing’s all-time classic films.
In 1962, I was just turning fifteen and Paul Witzig invited me to go on the Australian leg of The Endless Summer shoot, a surf surfari to Western Australia. Of course it was a big deal for me, being a typical Aussie kid from a working-class family who had done nothing more than show a bit of talent for riding waves.
The other young surfer invited on this adventure was my school chum Rodney ‘Gopher’ Sumpter. Gopher and I were really good mates. We hung out together and stayed at each other’s house on weekends. We were the same age and in the same class at Narrabeen Boys High School. When the day finally came to leave, we laughed as we drove away from Sydney. We figured that even if we didn’t get any perfect waves, the trip would be a great way to get out of school for six weeks and go surfing with your best mate.
Paul had met Bruce Brown in Hawaii in 1959 while Paul was surfing and Bruce was filming that classic sequence of Phil Edwards in Surfing Hollow Days on the west side of Oahu. Paul and Bruce must have hit it off pretty well, since Paul was given the green light to shoot the Australian sequence for The Endless Summer. Armed with an old Bolex, a tripod and reels of film, we set out due west from Sydney in Paul’s Volkswagen kombi van. Alongside all the stuff mentioned above, plus a pile of personal goods, we had a huge projector on board. It weighed a tonne, was old and solid, and took up half the kombi. The plan was to barnstorm Bruce’s last movie to pay for the trip.
After two long days of nonstop driving we arrived in Port Augusta, smack dab in the middle of South Australia. Up until that point, I don’t think any of us realised how far it was across Australia, or how far we still had to go to get to the west coast. In Port Augusta, Paul decided to put us all on the Trans-Australian Railway, including the kombi in freight. It was a hell of a contrast to bumping up and down in the cramped van, and Gopher and I loved every minute, sitting back in comfort for two days watching the desert slip by all the way to Perth. Paul was in his white-linen-suit and gin-and-tonic phase. We played up to that, pretending we were his spoilt little brothers, to the amusement of the other passengers.
After the movie showings in Perth, the true adventure began. We headed south to the Margaret River area and drove down every dirt track we encountered. We spent two days camping in complete isolation on a beautiful wide bay with perfect little lefts off a rocky reef. To this day, I have never seen the footage of that part of our sojourn. It was the best part of the trip to WA – but maybe it was just a figment of my imagination.
Eventually, we were all getting pretty gritty so Paul checked us into the luxurious Caves House in Yallingup. The next day, Gopher and I tried to paddle out at the infamous big-wave spot of Margaret River. The surf was probably only 8 feet (2.4 metres), but I remember there was whitewater everywhere. As a couple of Sydney grommets, we were way out of our league. We pushed on further south and did find a few smaller waves more to our liking at Ocean Beach in Denmark. It was pretty flat that day but I do recall there was a sign on the top of a cliff that read ‘Killer Waves / Beware’.
We drove to Kalgoorlie, put the car back on the train, and after another two days ended up back in Port Augusta. From there, we drove to Bells Beach in Victoria, which is where Paul filmed the only wave of me that made the final cut of The Endless Summer. The shot shows me falling off the front of my board and the narration is a typical Bruce Brown send-up: ‘Young Aussie Nat Young has to go one better than the Americans’ hang ten. He is seen here hanging body.’ At first I thought it was a complete embarrassment, but I loved Bruce’s style and laughed when I saw it in the completed movie. Driving across Australia for one shot seemed like an awful long way to go. I guess that’s the movie business.