While many of us were happy to see the back of 2020, for Josh Ku it was an epic year. The roof-tiler and surfer from Maroubra kicked off his own business, chased glorious winter swells in Sydney and somehow made it to Mexico to see his girlfriend.
With more than a decade’s experience under his belt, Josh ‘Kuey’ Ku decided 2020 was time to bite the bullet and go out on his own. Kuey’s Roofing was born at the start of the year, and after some intense Sydney storm activity, Josh was soon flat out.
Despite the early success of his new business, Josh soon found himself with a personal issue to confront. When COVID19 began to cast its ugly shadow across the world, Josh’s American girlfriend, Berit, was stranded in the US. After half a dozen attempts to bring Berit to Australia proved futile, Josh was resigned to the fact he would not see her for a while. He figured he was better off putting his head down with work and coming up with another plan.
Despite the added responsibility and heavy workload, being his own boss meant Josh could organise his work around the waves. His favourite break in Sydney is the notoriously treacherous Cape Solander. The wave is located on the southern side of Botany Bay, right near where Captain Cook first landed on Australian shores, and is also known as ‘Ours’, ‘Cape Fear’ or simply ‘The Cape’.
At Cape Solander the waves are so thick and powerful it’s like riding beneath a slab of concrete. The danger factor is magnified by the fact the swells erupt a few feet from a cliff and sharp-edged rocks. For Josh the wave has an added degree of difficulty because he is a goofy footer, riding with his back to the wall on the perilous right-hander.
Josh knows full well the risks associated with riding The Cape. In his twenties he broke both his back and knee at the wave on separate occasions. The nightmare injuries have made him much more measured in his approach to The Cape these days.
“I’m not bulletproof…I can’t afford to have six weeks off with a broken leg anymore,” he said.
Despite his efforts to be more disciplined, Josh admits it’s still difficult to hold back when the waves are up and the adrenalin is pumping. “I try to keep a sensible head but it’s a different case when you’re out there and you want a crazy one,” he chuckles.
In the autumn and winter of 2020 weather events conspired to produce a number of days with ideal conditions for The Cape. Josh didn’t miss a beat. His house in Maroubra is five minutes to the boat ramp and from there it’s a 10-minute trip on the jet-ski across Botany Bay to Cape Solander.
“I didn’t miss a Cape swell,” he says proudly. “On certain days my best mate and I would surf Cape ’til 11.00am, come in and go straight to work.”
While Josh’s new business was thriving and he was relishing the winter swells, he missed his girl. Overcoming bureaucratic hurdles to get her into Australia during COVID19 may have proved too challenging, but the US government was less inclined to stand in the way of love. As most Australians buckled down at home to beat the virus, Josh soon found himself on a flight to LA to reunite with Berit. Both were conscious LA was a COVID19 hotspot and decided they were better off heading to Mexico to ride out the worst of the pandemic. Berit mentioned a couple of touristy locations, but Josh soon convinced her a little surf town by the name of Puerto Escondido was the perfect place for an oddly-timed holiday.
Mexico was certainly not COVID19-free, so they booked a villa that allowed them to limit interaction. Pretty soon they slipped into a classic Mexico routine. Mornings were spent surfing until the wind came up. A big, western-style lunch was followed by some local exploring on the scooter and an afternoon siesta. Once the sun was less brutal in the afternoon they would emerge for cocktails and a taco dinner. Then it was sleep, wake up and do it all again.
“The place is like groundhog day,” insisted Josh in a positive tone.
Many people picture Mexico as a dangerous place beset by cartel wars and drug-related killings. While Josh admits he was cautious, he was also quick to point out that not all of Mexico is imperilled by the gang culture.
“We had our wits about us because it is known to be dangerous, but that actual town’s pretty mellow.”
Puer to Escondido is also known as Mexican Pipe and the waves are famous for being really big and hollow. They march in like giant pyramids before bending into giant holes in the ocean. At Mexican Pipe there is pretty much one goal – to get tubed. Out in the water Josh soon found himself trading tubes with gung-ho American expats and a few of of the world’s best big-wave riders.
“I swear I was the only Aussie in the town,” claims Josh, a little chuffed he’d managed to enjoy a Mexican vacation in the midst of a pandemic.
There are few places in the world that offer an adrenaline-charged atmosphere like Puerto, and Josh thrived on the challenge of riding throaty tubes every day for two months.
“I loved it. Everyone there’s just psycho. There are guys who are 50-plus who are psychos. Everyone just wants the biggest, craziest wave. It pushes the boundaries so much because everyone’s so hungry and going deeper.”
Any chest-beating bravado at Puerto is always tempered by the ever-present chance of serious or even fatal injury. Although it breaks close to shore, Puerto is known for its brutal hold-downs. The churning waves have a tendency to pin surfers in the impact zone, repeatedly pushing them underwater until they are exhausted and can no longer fight to survive.
“You see so much intense stuff go down there,” commented Josh. “There was one American guy whose board flung back from a stretched legrope and went straight into his eye. I think he can still see but he was so close to losing his eye…another Brazilian mate of mine rescued a bodyboarder who was about to drown.”
Josh showed up in Puerto a little unprepared for the biggest days. When a 10-foot to 15-foot swell pushed through he borrowed an 8’6” board and a vest for extra flotation. Many surfers use a buoyancy vest on heavy days. The vests are a little like a lifejacket. They make a surfer more corky and are designed to limit the time spent underwater and hopefully prevent drowning.
On several occasions Josh found himself in the lineup at Puerto alongside former bigwave world champion, Greg Long. Long is like the Roger Federer of big-wave surfing – calm, focused and brilliant. Despite his godlike status in the surfing world, Josh found Greg to be friendly, and when they got chatting Josh quickly went to school on Long’s approach.
“You have to be patient out there. I really learned from watching Greg. He just sits there, and he sits there for hours, and when the right one does comes along he just makes sure that he’s ready to go.”
Josh was grateful for his unique Mexico experience in a year of global misery, but there is a hint of dissatisfaction in his voice when he evaluates his own performance in the surf.
“Even though I didn’t get the wave that I really wanted, it was just a really cool experience being out in that energy.”
One senses he will be back as soon as the world opens up again.
Between waves, siestas and tacos he managed to sort out his girlfriend’s visa and she is now by his side in Australia. Kuey’s Roofing is back in full swing after the Mexican sojourn and he’s intent on making his own business a success.
Josh is well aware that, like surfing big waves, his job is not without its risks. He’s fallen off roofs a couple of times and is the first to admit fear plays a role in his work.
“I’m actually scared of heights. If you’re careless and not scared, that’s when accidents happen.”
However, despite a healthy awareness of the dangers involved with slippery roofs, climbing ladders and working up high in scorching heat, Josh is completely committed to his trade. “I love everything about it,” he insists.
After completing his apprenticeship Josh actually wanted to make sure the grass wasn’t greener on the other side, so he studied marketing and worked for the clothing and accessories brand Assembly Label. However, he soon realised there was nothing fun about sitting in front of a computer for long hours and not being able to knock off at 3.00pm to go for a surf. The experience only served to reinforce his passion for his trade, and as his own boss he couldn’t be happier.
“I love meeting new clients, identifying problems with roofs and solving them,” he emphasises.
Josh’s work crew all surf and they always have a keen eye on the weather. The forecast is a bible for roofers who are always trying to get things done before the rain hits, the temperature soars or the winds get too strong. Likewise, it’s also the guide for when the waves will be best. Indeed, Josh’s life is something of a juggling match that evolves around the whims of synoptic charts.
“I’m always checking the weather for work and surf,” he admits.
Invariably, if Josh Ku is not tip-toeing across a roof you will find him gliding beneath the lip of a giant tubing wave, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. Some may say he enjoys living on the edge, but his risks are calculated and his approach balanced. He is also living proof you can work around your hobby and be a success on both fronts. And perhaps his story also carries one more important lesson: if the government ever says your girlfriend can’t come to Australia, tell her you’ll meet her in Mexico.