It Starts Here
As the environment faces growing threats on a global scale, Dave Rastovich is engaging surfers on local issues in hopes of mobilizing them for bigger fights to come
As the environment faces growing threats on a global scale, Dave Rastovich is engaging surfers on local issues in hopes of mobilizing them for bigger fights to come
Dave Rastovich looks like he’s been washed ashore.
He is lying on the southern edge of the Australian landmass, on a beach, on a spongy bed of rotting seaweed, in repose, hands folded across his chest, legs crossed, a white floppy hat crowned by an eagle feather pulled down over his face, a swarm of sand flies forming a halo around his head, eyes closed, nostrils whistling, lights out, cooked.
As he likes to describe it, Rastovich is currently experiencing an “altered state.” How did he get here? Twenty-four hours earlier, Rastovich had flown halfway across Australia, driven overnight, only stopping to violently evacuate his stomach after contracting food poisoning from a truck stop, didn’t sleep a wink because he has a rule about never falling asleep in the passenger seat as a courtesy to the driver, arrived at his destination at dawn, loaded a 9-foot surfboard into a tin skiff, motored out to an offshore reef, surfed some very big waves under a hot white sun, came in, stepped onto the shore by the boat ramp, looked down and discovered the universe had provided him with a perfectly-fine, natural mattress. It’d be rude not to, really.
Dave is channelling The Ancients. He’s been fascinated for years by stories of Mike Doyle and Joey Cabell experiencing “papaya consciousness”—eating nothing but fruit for days to create a state of “oneness with the ocean” before embarking on a leisurely swim along the length of Kauai’s Na Pali coast. After hours in the ocean, pickled and exhausted with the Na Pali skyline towering above them, they’d experience total immersion, delirium, and, eventually, a form of transcendence. “The old boys were gnarly,” offers Rastovich. “They’d get into these altered states by just pushing themselves in the living world. I love the idea of marathon surfs, skipping sleep, skipping food. It changes your perception. The world around you is the same as it’s been your whole life, but you’re not. You see it in a whole new way.”
Truth be told, Rastovich’s current horizontal state has more to do with sleep deprivation caused by his baby boy then his surf mission. In fact, Rastovich’s whole life these days could be considered an altered state if you contrast it against his freewheeling days when he traveled the world chasing waves, rogue whalers and environmental ideals. Rastovich and his partner, Lauren Hill had their first child, Minoa, last year, and little “Minnow” arrived at a transitional time for his father.
Rastovich had recently jumped ship from long-time surf sponsor Billabong and signed with environmental crusader, Patagonia. As part of the process, he flew to Ventura to meet with Patagonia founder, Yvon Chouinard. They knew each other well despite never having met. They hit it off. They’re both figureheads of the environmental movement, they’re both friends with George Greenough, and they both occasionally walk around looking homeless. Chouinard grizzled his disapproval of the whole system of sponsored athletes from whence Rastovich had just come. “Performing monkeys,” was the term used, I think. Rastovich’s program when he eventually made the jump would be very different. He took the title of “Global Surf Activist,” although he had no idea what that actually meant and nobody in the company did either. He was the first.
For the first year of his new global gig, he wasn’t very global. Minnow had a bit to do with it, but Rastovich also had a run of injuries. After years of crusading on behalf of the ocean, the ocean seemingly turned on him. It started when he stepped on a stingray and was barbed through the foot. That was two months out of the water. He then got the rail of his board to the face and broke his jaw—twice. That was six weeks each time.
All of this kept him close to home, which isn’t a bad thing when you live where he does. Rastovich, Lauren and Minnow live on a sylvan parcel of Broken Head hinterland, with Greenough and Chris Hemsworth as neighbors. It’s got everything he wants: a track to the beach, cabins for visiting friends, a dam for the ducks and—miraculously—almost no cell phone coverage. Rastovich was given his first cell phone as part of the new gig, and picked it up half in disdain, half like it had just fallen from outer space. Fortunately, the only place he gets reception on his property is at the far end of the study, against the window, and even then he sounds like he’s talking from the bottom of a swimming pool. It helps keep the peace.
He recently bought one of Greenough’s custom fiberglass fishing boats and he and Greenough regularly head out to sea together. Greenough has almost 50 years of reef marks out there, and Rastovich returns home each time with a bag limit of snapper, pearl perch and Greenough stories. Between his garden, his beehive and spearfishing the sharky back beaches, Rastovich doesn’t need to go to town for much. It’s all very Garden of Eden, just not very global.
Amongst the Council of Elders Rastovich consults is Helena Nordberg-hodge, a Swedish academic, Byron local and one of the world’s foremost authorities on localization, happiness and localized happiness. Rastovich has been a friend and devotee for years, and has been able to fashion a perfectly happy little world triangulated by Byron Bay, his little tribe and the waves.
“Surfing is simpler than it’s ever been for me, in terms of being stoked every time I’m in the water,” says Rastovich, “But it’s lo-fi and there’s nothing fancy to it these days. There’s no expectation. If I don’t get a kick out of it, I’m not going to pursue it. That’s come from hanging with George—it’s more about the wave than the surfer riding it. I love hearing those guys talk about it—find the fall line, the sweet spot of the wave, the fastest point and dance around that. I reckon that’s where surfing is for me now.”
But this Global Surf Activist knows that when it comes to activism, Byron Bay can be its own stuffy little globe. It’s been described as the activist capital of Australia, and on any day of the week there are a dozen local issues causing various levels of outrage, from shark nets to longboards without leashes to a huge residential estate being planned for the outskirts of town. The letters section of the local weekly paper, the Byron Shire Echo, positively screams.
“I’m not very good with paying attention to big-scale politics,” offers Rastovich. “I’m not really that engaged in it. I don’t have a natural interest in the drama of it and there’s a powerlessness about it all. Like, what the fuck can I do about Trump and that whole story over there? Instead, I like to dive in and digest the machinations of politics here, locally—and trust me, that’s hard work in Byron. There’s all kinds of shit happening here directly affecting my life.”
It’s a different form of activism than that of his previous life, when he sailed with Sea Shepherd, the radical marine conservation group, and took on the Yakuza in Japan, who were trading dolphins on the black market. “Ten years ago, it was more about being out in other parts of the world and risking arrest and injury and risking a lot more, but, for me now, integrating activism into daily life, being able to raise my little family, regenerating the piece of land I live on and standing up for what’s happening in my local town is pretty rewarding.” It also got him thinking; what if you could get coastal towns everywhere to buy into activism like they do in Byron?
Just after Rastovich signed with Patagonia, we’d sat on a bench at Broken Head and watched the waves. I asked him about the new gig, which gave him the ideological backing he’d always craved and the resources of a billion-dollar-a-year company behind him. “Where do you start?” He started close by. His favorite local beach is named after a white settler, and Rastovich wanted it returned to its indigenous name. “The blackfella name has a story that tells you something about the spirit of the place. The whitefella name just tells you who turned up late to the party, cut down some trees and ran some cattle. Why not even run dual names, whitefella and blackfella names?” Rastovich is a consensus activist, and a damn good one. He’ll try and bring everyone with him rather than pick sides.
We talked surf activism, whatever that is, and I challenged him. We talked about the casual disregard most surfers have for any form of activism. In Australia, at least, it feels like it’s bottomed out from peaks in the ‘70s and ‘90s. But we also talked about having this great dormant activist force just sitting there, waiting to be mobilized. I got excited. I imagined a new movement, environmental, cultural, whatever, but led by surfers—surfers finally enlightened enough to be the “throwaheads of the human race” Timothy Leary once flagged us as in the very pages of SURFER magazine.
Rastovich almost laughed in my face. “Good luck.”
In two decades, I’d never heard a single word leave Rastovich’s lips that didn’t
signal complete faith in surferkind to, one day, take up their higher calling as coastal guardians en masse. I might have oversold the idea, and I suppose there’s a weight with being Dave Rastovich. He’s been out front of surf activism and struggling for support for so long that he’s heard it all before. He admits to being burnt out during those years of constant campaigning. But it’s also the very nature of environmental activism itself, because at the heart of it is the great truism that “you never win.” Every win is just a decision waiting to be undone by some guy poured into a bad suit at a point later in time. The whole exercise can feel like fighting the tide or swimming to the horizon. It’s a tough game, and can deflate even the bounciest of souls.
Rastovich’s new gig at Patagonia has paired him with a surfer who’s also learned the hard way, over the course of five decades, about the vagaries of activism. When Wayne Lynch learned he’d been conscripted to fight in the Vietnam War as an 18 year old, he was already a famed surfing prodigy, which came, as he discovered, with it’s own unique set of challenges. And when Lynch ran, he wasn’t just running from the war, he was also running from what surfing was becoming. By driving off down the Great Ocean Road one day in 1971, he became a conscientious objector to both. The whole experience affected him profoundly, drove him underground for years, but also left him with a simmering sense of social and environmental justice, just looking for a cause.
Late last year, Lynch was driving down the Great Ocean Road with Rastovich in the passenger seat. The pair had been traveling around the country, working on a project called “Never Town”, a film pitched as a reawakening of surf activism from a long and dozy slumber.
“You know Dave,” offered Wayne, “I thought surfers would have been at the forefront of wanting to preserve the natural world. I really did and still do, but I don’t always see it. There’s a lot of people who work hard at it and are very motivated, but, generally speaking, considering the huge population increase, there’s quite a real indifference there.”
They were driving down the Great Ocean Road, back into Lynch’s past. They drove along the most picturesque stretch of coastline in Australia, and Lynch was pointing out all sorts of secret waves and hidey-holes. He was a ghost down there for years and knows it like nobody else. As they drove, Rastovich hung on every word, even the 45 minutes of Lynch complaining about his bad knee, the traffic, and the crowds in the water these days. Lynch paused. “I’m whinging again, aren’t I, Dave? But seriously, it’s all I’ve got left to cling to these days!” This was followed by a long, hyena laugh that trailed off right at the end, just enough to make you think that maybe he’s not really laughing. They drink from the same glass—rastovich’s half full, Lynch’s half empty—sharing a deep respect for and understanding of the natural world. Together as campaigners, they’re quite a formidable pairing. When they talk, people listen.
The process of shooting and screening the film has lit a fire in both of them. Rastovich has taken the art of small town activism he’s perfected at home in Byron and taken it into dozens of town halls all over Australia, from the edge of the South Australian desert to the bottom of Tasmania. He refers off the cuff to these shows as being in the “middle of nowhere,” but immediately admonishes himself: “They’re in the middle of somewhere.” He’s building something from the ground up. He shows the film and addresses the locals in his beanie and fingerless rainbow gloves and talks about deep water oilrigs or industrial salmon farms or river dredging—whatever is threatening the local ecology. Surfers mightn’t care about much beyond their next surf, but he knows they care about their backyards and that’s the place to start engaging them. Rastovich talks to the crowd calmly, coolly in the second person, like he’s talking to everyone in the room individually. If he can turn all these little towns into Byron Bay—where the whole town probably cares way too much—then this grassroots movement might just have legs.
For Lynch, meanwhile, it’s upwelled memories of the early ‘70s, a time when people took to the streets and people power ruled. “Like Vietnam, when the Moratorium marches started, when mums and dads and little kids and everybody started getting behind it, that’s what changed it,” Lynch says. “It wasn’t the radical left, it was people, human beings, going, ‘We’ve had enough. This is a lie. This is disgusting. It’s a disgrace. We don’t want it anymore,’ and the changes that came about because of that were profound—some of the most positive, productive changes in our political social structure came about after the momentum of those marches and the anti-war movement. So it can happen, and it can happen again.” Lynch is now campaigning against the proposed Adani coalmine in Queensland, which will be the biggest in the Southern Hemisphere, dug on land belonging to the indigenous Wangan and Jagalingou people, with a huge ecological risk to the Great Barrier Reef. “Don’t get me started,” has become Lynch’s new catchphrase.
Rastovich holds a deep respect for Lynch as a surfing elder, but also a deep respect for the role of the elder in surfing society. “Wayne gives a shit and he’s paying attention and he’s outraged because he’s paying attention,” says Rastovich. “He’s still pumped about boards and having a smaller footprint, and he’s stoked on algae foam and trying to find that elusive biodegradable surfboard and all those things are neat. They’re blueprints for living. Those old surfing crew who are in their 60s and 70s and beyond are animated and healthy and lit up. I look at them as teachers. What can I learn from them that will keep me healthy and surfing into my vintage years?”
It hasn’t really dawned on Rastovich yet, but he’s now an elder himself—an elder for the modern day. He turns 39 this year and he’ll laugh and point out the gray hairs in his fringe and a couple of yellow, busted up teeth, but he’s now being looked up to by a generation of young surfers for whom he’ll be Lynch, or Greenough, or maybe Paul Watson, founder of Sea Shepherd. And he’s totally positive about the next generation coming along with him.
“They don’t have their heads in the sand about issues, they’re learning instruments and life skills and they’re engaged in the world.” And as for kids living their lives on screens, Rastovich sees a major recalibration coming. “It’s so boring. The initial phase of living on the Internet is coming to an end, and we can get back to using it for what it was designed for and be less addicted to it. But the best thing is that their folks are all on Facebook, and if it’s full of old people, that makes it instantly uncool for kids. Even I know that.”
You sense Rastovich is just finding his feet in his role and there are some big years coming his way. He’ll be an elder in a very different world to Lynch and Greenough—a world with more people, more competition and the natural world will be threatened in ways that aren’t even invented yet. Today there are archconservative forces controlling most of the world, and the threats are real and they dot the landscape. Rastovich, as he does, sees the upside. “I suppose it’s a great time for activism, at least. People have been jolted awake and it’s eliciting more response from people to give a shit.”
I put it to Rastovich that surf activism might have to get a little dangerous again if it’s to match the level of the threat. “Maybe Wayne needs to spray his boat black,” Rastovich jokes. He still takes cues from his activism mentor, Paul Watson, who has famously employed everything from conventional protests to direct-action tactics, such as ramming whaling vessels at sea, for the sake of protecting marine mammals. “A rare bird and a master of strategy,” is how Rastovich describes him. “Paul Watson said to me there’s no golden formula for environmental campaigning, because if there was, we’d all be following it. You do the best you can with what you have.”
Rastovich knows that, despite how surfers may be perceived from the outside, they aren’t innately prone to sticking up for environmental causes. “It’d be great if that was true,” he says, “surfers being so in touch with nature and really giving a shit about it as a result. Surfing is such a big organism now that includes every walk of life—doctors, real estate agents, ferals, jocks, the wavepool kids—every type of person you can imagine is surfing, and surely there are activists amongst them. Or maybe the key, though, is finding the activist inside each of them. It’d be great if it was popularized and more ingrained—if you didn’t even think about it; it was just part of being a surfer. The old way where just going surfing was an act of protest.”
(This page)Rastovich, burying rail on the kind of powerful, stylish turn that first catapulted him to surf stardom roughly two decades ago.
(Left)With long stretches of overgrown, pristine coastline in New South Wales, it’s no surprise that Dave Rastovich and many other local residents are so intent on preserving natural balance at home.
(Opposite)When Rastovich isn’t traveling to spread his activist message, he can usually be found right here, under the lip along his favorite stretch of NSW coast.
(Above, right)In the Rastovich household, you’ll find no shortage of tools for making aquatic fun.
(Right)Many twin fins sit behind this door adorned with fish, probably not by coincidence.
(Above) Rastovich, standing with King Island residents in opposition to a proposed salmon farm. Photo by TED GRAMBEAU
(This page)It’s moments like this sunrise high-line that first kindled Rastovich’s passion for the ocean, and later his resolve to protect it.
(Left) Rastovich is one of the few surfers known just as well for his activism as his surfing, and the way he approaches both has never ceased evolving.