A career in professional surfing sounds like the ultimate gig: travelling to vibrant beach towns around the world to compete, partying at venues where locals turn on the hospitality and then venturing to exotic, tropical islands for surf trips.
It’s true a select few enjoy this kind of enviable existence, however a ticket to the dream life doesn’t come easy. While the surf industry boomed throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the global financial crisis, combined with growing competition in the marketplace, mean the big surf companies don’t have the same kind of cash to splash around they once did. Invariably there is less money to spend on sponsoring talented young surfers who want to chase the professional circuit.
To offset the insecurity associated with pursuing the surfing dream, some young surfers are juggling their competitive aspirations with a trade. Callum Robson, from Evans Head on the north coast of NSW, is a gifted young surfer who hammers in nails between heats in major surfing events.
Last year Callum, 18, finished second on the Australasian Junior series, which fields the best competitors from Australia and New Zealand. The result gave him a chance to line up against the best young surfers on the planet in the world pro juniors. However, while simultaneously chasing contest glory, Callum was also chipping away at his carpentry apprenticeship and working for his father, a builder.
While Callum’s dad gives him time off to surf and compete, he doesn’t cut him much slack when it comes to getting the job done and learning his trade.
“He definitely makes me work for my apprentice wage,” insisted the solidly built, natural foot surfer.
Dividing his focus between work and competing can be challenging, but Callum still gets a buzz out of his time on the tools. “It’s pretty frustrating not being able to get something right, but when you finally get the hang of something and make it look good, it’s a satisfying feeling.”
He also believes being under the pump at work offers a form of psychological training for high-intensity moments in the water. “It’s challenging trying to concentrate while the boss is breathing down my neck barking orders at me, but it’s a good pressure test for an intense competition situation.”
Callum’s media profile recently received a spike, cour tesy of a sur f-magazine trip to Indonesia. Travelling on board a chartered yacht alongside six other young professionals, Callum journeyed through a series of island chains in northern Indonesia. The region is really like Disneyland for surfers, with each island offering a range of different waves. The shallow reefs in the region are famous for twisting the Indian Ocean swells into long, curling cylinders. Between surfs, playing cards and fishing were the primary focus for the seven surfers of fortune. “Yeah the trip was amazing! It was my first boat trip so that was a huge highlight in itself…so many laughs after surfing all day,” reflected Callum.
Ups And Downs
On such trips the camera lenses (stills and video) are pointed at the surfers every time they hit the water, creating the platform for a different kind of competition; one where the best photos and footage get the most airplay in the competitive surf-media landscape. Not surprisingly, when seven talented surfers descend on one break you can expect the level of performance to be pushed to extremes.
“It was good to have consistent sessions where the level was so high out in the water,” explained Callum. “Seeing someone go for something and then going to try it yourself. It felt like I really improved over the trip.”
While Indonesia is undeniably an exotic destination that offered an abundance of surfing delights, chasing waves in the region can still become a wild goose chase, as Callum found out when he extended his stay.
“It felt like we ran into every problem possible: plane delays, missing transfers, boats breaking down and so forth. I guess it’s all part of the adventure and makes it all the more worthwhile when you finally get waves.”
The Big Time
Meanwhile, surfing at home around Evans Head has its own tooth-riddled challenges for Callum. A recent drone survey conducted by Department Of Fisheries in conjunction with life-saving clubs revealed more shark sightings at Evans Head than anywhere else on the east coast of Australia. Callum admits he has had a few close encounters in the waters around home.
“I’ve had a few spooky moments surfing in front of the river mouth. I’ve seen a couple (of sharks) breach out the back as well.”
As a rule he tries not to surf alone, but concedes there are times when the lust for waves and the need to practice overcomes the rational fear of what lies beneath the surface. “I hate surfing by myself around home. I always try and get someone to come surf with me. Sometimes you just gotta bite the bullet and paddle out, but I’m not really a fan of those sessions.”
In spite of the sharks and the challenging work/surf schedule, Callum is determined to become a fully-fledged professional surfer. At present he is making the transition from the junior series into the qualifying ranks for the WCT tour – the best 34 surfers in the world compete on the WCT tour. To get there you have to earn enough points on the grueling World Qualifying Series (WQS). At the end of every year the bottom ten from the WCT drop out and the top 10 from the WQS replace them. Callum needs to be in that top 10 group some time in the next few years if he wants to make it as a full-time pro.
A Tough Road
While Callum was a stand-out in Australian junior competitions, taking on the WQS means being matched against surfers from around the world; thousands of them chasing the coveted top 34 spots which ensure access to the big-league events, more prize money and better sponsorship deals.
Competing on the WQS often means spending large sums on international flights to get to contests. Sometimes he’ll travel halfway around the world, only to be knocked out of the contest in the first heat. “The hardest thing I believe is not letting the losses affect you too much and keeping your picture clear in where you want to go,” suggested Callum, “as well as having the finances to be able to get to all the different events around the world.”
For the time being Callum is training hard, chiseling through his apprenticeship and doing as many photo and film trips as he can to keep his sponsors happy. He recently watched one of his young friends, Liam O’brien, finish second in a major WQS event and drew inspiration from the result. He’s prepared to fall back on carpentry and building if the surfing dream doesn’t come off, but Callum definitely knows he’d much rather spend the next decade carving through the waves than sawing through timber.