Wings On Water

By
Updated: July 3, 2020

Apprentice carpenter Perth Standlick had to give up on his pro surfing dream, but now he’s flying.

Raised in Bondi’s urban jungle amidst the high-flyers, die-hard locals, backpackers, hipsters and celebrities, Perth Standlick fed off the eclectic energy and emerged as a surfing prodigy. Blessed with a fluent, eye-pleasing style, Perth left school early to compete, travel and train; focusing all his efforts on qualifying for surfing’s elite division, the WCT. While only 34 competitors make it on to the WCT at any one time, hundreds of gifted surfers from around the world follow the second string, WQS tour, vying for one of those coveted top 34 spots.

For a time Perth relished his chosen path. Sponsors paid him a handsome wage as he journeyed around the world, pulling on a contest singlet to ply his trade and embracing the exciting experiences that came his way in various corners of the world.

Pleasure and Pain

When not competing, pro surfers are making videos and shooting photos for sponsors and magazines. Typically, the mags want to feature dreamy scenery and perfect waves, so between events he went on all-expenses paid trips to exotic locations like Indonesia, Taiwan and Hawaii. Most of these sojourns were a heady mix of glorious waves and wild times after dark. There was, however, always an element of danger. Pro surfers are expected to take more risks in big waves to capture the most eye-catching photo or footage. On one such surf mission Perth nearly broke his back when he landed on a reef while surfing off an isolated island off Indonesia.

After a long and painful journey out of Indonesia he wound up in a Singapore hospital wondering if he’d ever be able to surf again. Fortunately, he bounced back, but dealing with some kind of injury became part and parcel of his career.

Paying the Price

In his best year of competition Perth came within one spot of reaching the WCT tour. Breaking through to the WCT is like qualifying for the majors in golf or tennis, only it’s a more exclusive club. The prize money is substantially better, and suddenly everyone is watching you on their TVs and computer screens. As your exposure levels rise sponsors are also more inclined to offer lucrative endorsements. For Perth it was devastating to come so close and just miss out. He competed for a few more seasons but as the sponsorship dollars dried up, he admits he eventually became disenchanted with professional surfing.

“I couldn’t see the point anymore. I was always struggling with some kind of injury and it was hard to justify getting older and not making any money – getting to the end of the year broke…and then there were the really good highs and the really bad lows. Like when you just travelled around the world and spent $10,000 on five comps and didn’t make a heat.”

A few people close to Perth still believed in his ability and loaned him money to keep travelling to contests, but he never felt comfortable relying on others to keep his dreams alive. “It just sucked owing money to people and never having the chance to pay them back,” he reflected. “It just lost any bit of fun. And it made it very stressful.”

Tough Decision

Eventually, at the age of 25, Perth decided it was time to make a hard call and seek out a new career that of fered more financial and emotional stability. “Once I made the decision it was the best thing I’d ever done and I almost wished I’d made it earlier,” he reflected.

Initially he tried his hand at being a chef, and although he enjoyed having structure in his life and a regular income, after two years in the kitchen he wasn’t convinced he’d found his second calling. When a builder friend suggested he’d take him on as an apprentice, Perth jumped at the opportunity.

“The offer was actually $10.00 an hour more than what I was getting in the kitchen,” he enthused. “I was like, ‘When do I start?’”

Heaps Better

Perth claims he now thrives on the physical and mental challenges his new gig brings. Where donning a contest singlet and tearing apart a fleeting wave was once the objective, now he gets a sense of accomplishment on the building site.

“It’s nice just rock up every day and chip away at the house come back the next day and do a little more and just watch it slowly take shape,” he said. “It’s like building a really big puzzle over a couple of months…even just something like building a really nice set of stairs and just standing back and looking at it after you’ve finished for the day and it’s like, ‘Wow. that’s really good.’”

Perth may be totally invested in his new carpentry career, but he didn’t completely turn his back on surfing. Instead he took it in another direction.

Something New

Being out of the competition scene has given Perth the opportunity to experiment with a range of different surf craft. On the circuit the narrow judging criteria means surfers always ride very thin, highly refined boards. It’s a little like having to drive a very temperamental F1 car all the time when it would be nice to just take the ute out for a spin.

Perth now rides a range of regular surfboards, but by his own admission has recently developed an addiction to foil-boarding – a new form of wave riding which makes use of two submerged wings attached to a board by a mast. The highly engineered craft are tricky to ride, but once mastered can transform a surfer into a kind of human hovercraft. It’s possible to reach speeds well beyond 30kph and travel vast distances gliding a few feet above the surface of the water, like an albatross with its wings flung wide.

Perth explained he got the foil-boarding bug after a younger friend, Grayson Hendricks (a pro-surfing protégé of sorts), suggested it was an entirely different kind of surfing buzz.

“He was in Hawaii and he tried it and just couldn’t stop talking about it…and I was like, ‘All right. When you get one, I’ll have a go.’

“We nearly killed each other out at Long Reef when he first bought it.”

Gettin’ It

Aware that he was an expert surfer Perth naively assumed he would automatically be able to ride the foil board. Instead he found himself repeatedly falling off and frustrated.

“We had the wildest and weirdest time. He could kind of do it and I had no idea, I was so bad at it.”

However, the few moments of bliss he experienced in that first session were enough to make Perth hungry for more. “I got up and going a couple of times and I was like, ‘Wow, I have to master this.’”

Convinced there was a feeling of freedom he was missing out on, Perth spent three months saving up for his own foil rig. Once he had his own gear he threw himself headlong into it, channelling all the raw energy that had once been used for competing into figuring out this trippy new approach to riding waves. “After two sessions I was like, ‘This is the best thing ever! I’m not even going to surf much anymore, ha ha.’”

Now that he has achieved a degree of expertise on the foil, Perth describes the sensation of knifing through the water as being one of extreme pleasure. “There’s no pressure. You’ve got no drag or push back and you’re just going real fast. And it’s just a real comfy feeling. It literally just feels like you’re floating.”

Strength Moves

Unlike surfing which requires a powerful breaking wave – typically close to shore – the foils can be ridden in really mushy wind chop or deep, ocean swells.

They actually require less of a wave to generate significant velocity.

While the hydrodynamics is complex, essentially the submerged foils act like a plane wing, but instead of air pressure creating the lift, it’s the wave energy. While you need a little bit of crumble or broken water to paddle in and create the initial speed, once they are on a plane the foils can draw upon the energy of an unbroken swell. Sometimes Perth also uses a paddle to create the initial pick-up speed, or if he’s really serious he can whip in behind a jet ski.

“I don’t need to be near anyone in the water,” he explains. “On a good day I can get 15, 500-metre rides.”

That much time relying on your quads to keep you balanced and stable obviously delivers a solid burn.

“For the first couple of months it just hammered me. My leg strength is through the roof now,” insisted Perth.

Safety Zone

Asked if he understood the physics, Perth suggested he is still getting his head around it.

“I feel like you pretty much have to be someone who designs plane wings to understand it properly, but I’ve been listening to podcasts on it and figuring out certain things and a few things have helped.”

However, while foiling may feel like floating or flying when you are zipping across the water, what happens when you crash? With their sharp, metallic edges the wings and masts can certainly slice into body parts if you connect at the wrong angle.

“You don’t want to be anywhere near them when you fall,” emphasised Perth.

The high speeds you can reach make the endorphins pop, but they also make landing on water less forgiving than you might assume.

“I reckon I’ve gone up to 40kph,” indicated Perth. “When you fall at that speed it’s like hitting concrete, you definitely see stars.”

If you decide to give it a try he advocates finding a long stretch of unoccupied beach so you don’t pose a risk to anyone else while learning the basics.

Dreaming Big

Where once the aim was to win competitions the foil now has Perth zoning in on objectives with a more geographic framework.

“When I first started doing it, I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s get a wave from North Bondi point to the beach. That’s a sick goal’. And then when I achieved that on the first day I was like, ‘Oh my god, what can we do?’ Now I think the goal is to get a wave from Benbuckler and pump out to sea and get to Bronte.”

That’s a distance of more than two kilometres, spanning three separate beaches. And if you are asking yourself what sort of a wave travels across three different beaches you are probably thinking of the wrong kind of wave. The foils don’t need a traditional broken wave to maintain momentum. A swell doesn’t necessarily travel into a beach, it can run parallel to the shore if it’s from the right direction.

The ultimate ambition for Perth is to compete in the foil division of the Molokai challenge. The gruelling 53km race sees competitors traverse the ocean stretch between the islands of Molokai and Oahu in Hawaii. Last year, renowned waterman, Kai Lenny, set a new record for the race, completing it in the astonishing time of 2 hours, 29 minutes and 38 seconds.

Then there’s the prospect of taking the foil into big waves. Lenny has ridden his foil in giant swells at a break named Jaws, on the island of Maui. Meanwhile Laird Hamilton recently rode a peak with a sixty-foot face at Nazare in Portugal. Perth has always been confident in heavy seas but is full of awe when discussing Laird’s Nazare session. “It’s hard to comprehend how you even do that…he’d have to design his own foil for it. And a certain type of mast that’s really stiff. There are so many different variables and you would have to have such a good awareness of how not to hit a bump as you’d so easily come out of the water.”

Looking Good

Although he may not yet be ready to follow Kai Lenny and Laird Hamilton into the path of monsters, Perth is certainly keen to experiment with riding bigger waves on his foil.

“It would be so much fun to ride 15-foot or 20-foot swells or whatever we can get around here,” he enthused.

While some of his regular surfing sponsors may have dropped off, Perth now has backing from foil-boarding companies who supply him with expensive and highly sophisticated equipment. He’s intent on taking the pursuit as far as he can, but career-wise he is focused on finishing the apprenticeship and then studying for his building ticket so he can run his own projects. Perhaps foil-boarding will evolve into a part-time profession for Perth, but for the time being he’s content with the unique sense of freedom his new passion delivers.

“It’s so relaxing just being out in the ocean on your own and not having to think about anyone hassling you and just taking any wave you want. It’s like surfing perfect waves every day.”