Lungi Slabb uses the wave as a platform to draw attention to indigenous issues.
“I think him looking back at classic styles from the past and then trying to throw his own twist on them is what makes him a standout,” says Currumbin’s Stace Galbraith, a former professional surfer, current WCT coach, and a mentor figure to Slabb. “Not many kids his age show that kind of maturity, but he leans heavily on the likes of Jay Phillips and Asher Pacey, and even some older guys like WillLewis. He’s very impressed with how they approach and read the ocean.”
Recently Slabb has begun taking his act to the section behind the rock at Snapper, jostling for position amongst one of the most intense packs in surfing, made up of a group he refers to as ‘The Big Dogs’. And the crowd isn’t the only degree of difficulty. When the sand is filled in, the takeoff and first section becomes a writhing coil of muscle that bends and flexes, the challenge amplified by ribs of backwash that ricochet off the sharp rocks. It’s fierce.
Slabb’s approach and commitment hasn’t gone unnoticed by Snapper’s titans. Mick Fanning regularly calls him into waves, and will often pull him aside to offer a few words of advice.
“I’m pretty open to, you know, having Mick in my corner and supporting me,” Slabb says with a grin.
While Snapper might be his proving ground, home will always be across the border in Fingal, where his roots run deep and he’s connected with the culture of the Bundjalung people he belongs to.
Both of Slabb’s parents are indigenous Australians, and his father, Kyle, is an indigenous educator who travels around the country helping First Nations communities to preserve and celebrate their culture and language. As a result, Slabb embraced a deep appreciation for his history and traditions at an early age.
“There’s always been a pretty strong connection to the land,” he says. “My dad’s grandparents and great-grandparents lived here. My dad has a lot of knowledge about our culture, and he makes sure that our culture plays a big part in our lives.”
His father speaks the Bundjalung language fluently, and Slabb can understand it and is comfortable using a range of phrases. Asked to recall his favourite word from his local dialect, he ponders for a moment before confidently uttering the term, “Garrima.”
“It means respect,” he says, “and you always keep that word in mind because in our culture respect is one of the most important things.”
And if Slabb’s dad was responsible for imbuing in him a love for his traditions, it was his uncle Joel, CEO of the Jurakai surfing organisation which focuses on creating opportunities for indigenous kids to enjoy and appreciate riding waves, who helped put him under surfing’s spell.
Slabb is acutely aware that his surfing talents coupled with his proudly indigenous upbringing give him a platform to influence people on both sides of the divide. Like his father, he sees a role for himself as an educator, particularly through history and language.
“I definitely want to teach people about my culture, and how to connect with their culture as well. I think it would be super cool to teach the language in schools—to have the dialect from where the school is—and teach a little bit about the culture and history of wherethey’re from.”
It’s a lot to shoulder for a young surfer, but Slabb is well positioned to encourage other young indigenous Australians to get in the water.
“I’ve always wanted to inspire other indigenous kids,” he says. “Getting in the water is one of the best things ever. You canalways find so much joy out of it.”
While Slabb no doubt has a dynamic future ahead, he’s still a teenager and his path in surfing is only just getting started. He’s yet to travel overseas, but has a couple of major trips in his sights, namely milestone treks to Indonesia and Hawaii.
It’ll be interesting to see how Slabb interprets the hollow treasures of the former and the raw power of the latter. But in the meantime he’ll be cruising at home in Fingal, waiting for the next swell to hit Snapper. When it’s on, that’s where you’ll find him, sitting with the big players behind the rock, waiting for ribbons of swell to rear up and bend violently over the hard-packed sand. Then he’ll slide down the vertical face before pulling up under the lip with the kind of hypnotic elegance and physical charisma that turns tube riding into an entirely new form of performance art.
“Everything just sort of comes to me,” Slabb says. “Just working with the wave and relaxing. That’s the way I like to surf.”