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High Flyer

by editor

Once upon a time Pama Davies launched airs for a living. Now he makes sure the footings are well set.

When I catch up with Pama Davies he is reclining on a couch in the stylish Bondi home his father built more than a decade ago. Pama was raised in Bondi; part of the core community who watch the kaleidoscope of travellers and dreamers roll through Australia’s most celebrated beachside town. It’s a heady scene to grow up in, full of distractions and disparate influences, but for Pama it will always be home.

The 25-year-old with the faint moustache and sweep of sun-bleached brown hair proudly tells how he’s just completed his apprenticeship and is waiting to collect his trade certificate. Thanks to a boom in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, he has been flat out for three years straight, working under established builders on residential jobs with hefty budgets and high-profile clients. However, while Pama happily pulls on workboots and loads up the ute each morning, he spent much of his youth with his toes jammed into surfboard wax, soaring above the waves.

As a teenager, Pama – short for Pamatatau (he has Cook Island/Kiwi heritage) – dreamed of becoming a professional surfer; a career that typically involves pulling on a coloured singlet and duelling with other elite surfers in thirty-minute heats.

“I’d tell my mates that’s what I wanted to be, a professional surfer, and they’d laugh,” recalls Pama.

Despite the tall-poppy jibes from his friends, Pama’s surfing flourished from a young age. He was also lucky enough to grow up in a home where his family encouraged him to cultivate his talent.

Pama’s father, Andy, is a keen surfer who was raised in New Zealand. However, Andy’s wave-riding obsession never won favour with his parents and one day as a 15-year-old he returned home from a surfing sojourn to find his clothes and belongings scattered across the front yard. It was his mother’s blunt way of kicking him out. Eventually Andy secured a plumbing trade and moved to Australia where he met Pama’s Mum, Dee. Given his own passion for riding waves, Andy understood how his son had fallen under the same spell Although Andy now lives in Bali, the fatherson duo was a regular fixture in the water at Bondi when Pama was growing up. Andy passed on whatever knowledge he had to his talented son and wholeheartedly supported his quest to become a professional surfer.

“He only wanted me to be a surfer. He didn’t even want me to start a trade,” explains Pama. “He was always like, ‘keep going’.

Initially Pama hurled himself into the competitive arena and enjoyed a measure of success as a junior, but he soon grew disenchanted with a contest scene that stifled creativity and forced him to employ ruthless tactics every time he paddled out. “I just wasn’t competitive,” reflects Pama. “I realised I was just like, ‘Oh, I don’t really want to win this comp right now. I don’t even really want to be here’.”

Fortunately for Pama there was an alternative. While following the competition circuit may still be the conventional path for aspiring pros, talented surfers can also earn a living as freesurfers. In what some might consider the best job in the world, freesurfers are paid by sponsors to roam around the globe, surf in exotic locations and hang out. Their only real obligation is to make sure they capture photos and video footage so others can live vicariously through their exploits.

It was the sort of gig Pama could definitely handle.

Blessed with an eye-pleasing surfing style and the sort of looks that lend themselves to a sideline gig as a model, Pama soon found there was a swathe of companies eager to pay him for endorsing their products. It also helped that he was particularly good at aerial manoeuvres; complex tricks performed above the wave often inspired by surfing’s skateboarding and snowboarding cousins. A good photo or clip of Pama soaring high above the waves would not only demonstrate his aerial skill, it was a great way to show-off his sponsor’s sticker plastered over his board.

In his early twenties Pama was flush with cash and encouraged by his sponsors to travel. Like many surf companies, they wanted imagery of him riding waves in faraway places with eye-candy backdrops and dreamy blue water. Sure, there was pressure to perform complicated tricks and keep up with his freesurfing peers, but looking back he admits it was an ideal situation for any young surfer to be in.

“It was pretty special…on one trip I got to just go and travel around Europe for five weeks. Everything was covered and they paid for my mate, Dane, to come along as a filmer…”

In Portugal the duo was happy to stay in simple accommodation and even spent a couple of nights in the car they’d hired. Riding waves, capturing footage and experiencing the local culture was all they cared for.

Their journey also coincided with the major surf contests in the European leg of the world tour. When the highly ranked contest surfers were knocked out of the events early, their hotels were often paid up for a week or two in advance. If you knew the right person you could lob in the vacant rental for free.

“We stayed in Jack Freestone’s unit and then Joel Parkinson’s place, which was next level. It was pretty fun,” recalls Pama with a chuckle.

Indonesia was another favourite location. The archipelago is home to countless perfect waves and exists as a kind of endless Disneyland for surfers. In Indo, thousands of different surf spots provide unique challenges and experiences; most of them feature hollow or tubing waves breaking over jungle-fringed tropical reefs. For Pama it was the ideal place to refine his skills and capture footage.

“I’ve been on so many little trips in Indo that it becomes a blur, but I found my best times in Indo involved just getting in the car and hopping on a ferry boat, and going to different islands and then just driving around the island.” 

However, while Pama was grateful for his nomadic, freesurfing gig and the perks that came with it, the job also had its drawbacks. The sponsors frequently insisted the surfers go on trips that had nothing to do with surfing and everything to do with posing like a fashion horse. While this often meant exploring new locations like Salvation Mountain in Palm Springs or downtown LA, Pama found the catalogue trips awkward and pretentious. He also felt the money might have been better spent on genuine surf trips.

“I hated the photo-shoot trips that they wanted us to do. They’d fly us all the way to America and stuff to just not even go surfing. It was all right, but it’s not that fun. I was like, ‘Why don’t we spend that money and go surfing somewhere and make a really sick surf video and shoot those clothing ranges at the same time?’”

A life of frequent-flying and regularly seeing new locations through fresh eyes has its appeal, but for a young person it also means you are on a very different schedule to the mates you grow up with. While they are finishing trades or university and locking in careers, you’re floating between locations and trying to stay in touch whenever you can. Meanwhile, between trips the surf isn’t always good at home and the long days alone can send you a little stir crazy.

The surf industry is also more fickle than a bushfire in a swirling wind. Companies play favourites and there is always a new kid emerging, eager to claim your cut of the sponsorship pie. The money doesn’t always necessarily go to the best surfer either; in the era of the ‘influencer’ it’s often the guy or girl who is working hardest on their social media account who wins favour with sponsors. 

By the time he was 22, Pama could see the writing on the wall. He’d realised his dream and loved his time as a fully paid freesurfer, but he sensed the run was coming to an end.

“Basically, I knew that Rusty (his major sponsor)  weren’t going to keep kind of paying me, so I started an apprenticeship,” recalls Pama.

When a local builder friend, Jesse Billington, offered to take Pama on, the idea of a steady gig and spending more time with his mates seemed appealing. Pama had also seen his dad run a plumbing business while his Mum operated a successful beauty salon. Together they’d built their house in Bondi and a holiday villa in Bali. Pama had witnessed first-hand the value of a good trade and hard work. Although he was letting go of what many might consider the ideal job, the transition to a carpentry apprenticeship was relatively seamless for the level-headed surfer.

“It wasn’t hard to make the step. I’d seen my dad build his place and I kind of really just wanted to be at home and not traveling around anymore…hanging out with my mates and just do everything with them kind of thing.”

When Pama put down the surfboard and picked up a hammer there was no shortage of work in Sydney’s east. “That first year-and-a-half you’re just getting drilled. You’re just like digging holes. I mean, you gotta earn it, but that was a shock.”

Meanwhile, at TAFE, Pama was a couple of years older than many of his fellow carpentry students and the seniority helped him adopt a more mature approach to his studies.

Pama soon found himself on jobs with $2,000,000 budgets and high-pressure clients. The learning curve was sharp, but he thrived in the setting and relished the new sense of order in his life.

“I was happy to be doing something with my days. The structure and the routine. That was one of the biggest things for me.”

He’s grown in confidence and his current boss, Travis Tierney, is already entrusting him to run jobs with the assistance of an apprentice. Now his own carpentry apprenticeship is completed, Pama is tossing up whether or not to return to TAFE immediately and complete his building certificate. The ultimate goal is to go out on his own, but he concedes he still requires more experience before making that leap.

“I obviously want to start my own company, but I need to work with Trav for at least another two or three years until I’ve learned a lot more.”

Having worked on big-budget residential projects, Pama admits the responsibility of dealing with demanding clients and putting in accurate quotes is daunting.

“Learning to deal with people and quoting, that’s a whole different ball game. You definitely don’t want to underquote yourself…I’ve seen that happen.”

So where does surfing fit into his life at present?
“I enjoy it more now,” he insists.

Although Pama once had a steady supply of boards from big-name brands like Rusty and Hayden Shapes, these days he’s happy to ride designs made by his old plumber mate Eddie Scott. Meanwhile, he’s still trying to sell the ones he accumulated while he was sponsored. They are scattered around the house and at his parents’ villa in Bali. They’ve all become too small since he started working on building sites and training more.

Competitively speaking, Pama still pulls on the contest singlet to represent Bondi Boardriders in the major teams events which see clubs from all around Australia duking it out. He loves the camaraderie in the teams challenges, but claims the pressure is intense, particularly now the events are televised.

“Pulling on the jersey for Bondi is good, but I get so nervous.…I literally surf so different. I look like a stiff skeleton.” 

Pama also has a protégé of sorts. His girlfriend Ruby Belnick has become a keen surfer and the two of them can frequently be found trading waves at Tamarama on weekends. “She’s been dropping in on me a lot lately,” he complains with a chuckle.

After two years of COVID travel bans Pama’s looking forward to visiting his parents who are now based in Bali. As soon as airports open up he’ll be on a plane, eager to join his dad for a wave at one of the many world-class waves Bali is home to. In the interim, if he really wants to escape the crowds at home, he goes foiling. The keeled boards hover high above the surface and only need a lump of unbroken swell to gain momentum. This means they can be ridden well beyond the busy surf zone. Pama is part of a band of committed Bondi foilers who all claim it’s the closest thing to flying.

At only 25, Pama still has many challenges ahead of him. Real estate prices have gone crazy in Bondi and he knows it won’t be easy to emulate his parents and buy a place in the suburb where he grew up. At least he can carve out his future, confident in the knowledge he lived out his childhood dream of becoming a pro surfer. Pama has memories and photos and reels of footage to look back on if he ever wants to remind himself of those wonder years as a travelling freesurfer.

However, for now he is content to work hard, catch a few waves and cruise with his mates at home.

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