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

Surfer - - Contents - Words by SEAN DO­HERTY, Pho­tos by RYAN CRAIG

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.

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