Two years ago, surfing’s greatest photo journalist disappeared from the scene. Fred Pawle investigates why.
“On chemicals, especially those ecstasy things, it’s not just possible but highly probable that you’ll do something you otherwise wouldn’t do. On chemicals literally anything is likely and even acceptable – until ground zero the following morning when you find yourself headbutting a brick wall searching for an answer to the perennial question: Why? How could you have been so promiscuous, so presumptuous, so outrageous… so stupid?”
— Paul Sargeant, Tracks, December 1998
“I’ve got nothing to say,” says Paul Sargeant, 52, the most prolific and influential photojournalist in surfing history, during the third and final abrupt phone conversation I have with him. His voice is shaky and higher than it was when he appeared, in happier times, as the court jester in his own Sarge’s Scrapbook videos, before he was banished from the sport. His sentences – the few he utters to me – are short and stern, a far cry from the casually articulate way he chronicled the crazy side of pro surfing in Tracks and other mags for more than 20 years. In the background I can hear a woman talking loudly, which sounds like daytime TV but could be his mum, with whom he moved in early last year.
The conversation is overshadowed, as usual, by my desperation to keep him on the line, earn his trust, and convince him to agree to a face-to-face meeting. I tell him that his involvement in this profile, which I’ve spent eight months researching, would be a good chance for him to re-emphasise the positive contribution he’d made to surfing, but he knows that that is not all we’d be discussing, and wants no part of it.
“I’ve got nothing to re-emphasise.”
Does he ever want to return to surfing?
“If it’s God’s will, it will happen,” he says.
But what about your will?
“My will doesn’t matter. It’s all about God.”
How’s God helping you these days?
“Every which way, just like He always does.”
How’s your state of mind?
That’s relatively speaking, of course. What I didn’t get a chance to bring up with him was the reason he was banned from all future ASP-sanctioned events in October 2005, which sent him into, according to his friends, a potentially suicidal depression. It was a sudden departure. You didn’t need to be a keen follower of the tour to notice his absence. After more than two decades of ubiquity – reporting pro surfing through magazines, videos, websites, a 0055 phone service and even, towards the end, as an official media liaison officer for the ASP – he was gone. That the surf media has never mentioned it is in itself scandalous.
I began calling Sarge in November 2006, leaving messages asking to meet. I started making other inquiries, and was asked, through Gary Dunne, a friend of Sarge’s, in May 2007 to back off while Sarge recovered from a bout of depression. I renewed it with more conviction three months later, and the immediate response from almost everyone was extreme wariness, if not resistance. “You’ve got to give people time to heal,” former Tracks and Australia’s Surfing Life editor Tim Baker said, summing up the attitude of many. I disagree.
The incident that led to Sarge’s banishment from the sport involved him performing an unsolicited sexual act on another male journalist in his sleep, who suffered from violent nightmares for two years afterwards. Despite the ban, Sarge retains a toehold in the sport through his presence on worldprosurfers.com, the surfers’ union website, and, as he says, he is not ruling out somehow returning to the sport (the ASP offered him the option to discuss a review of the ban from January 1, 2007, which he has so far declined). It is in the sport’s interests that the surfing public knows what happened, how the ASP responded, and whether Sarge is remorseful for what he did.
One point needs to be made clear up front: Sarge was born with enormous psychological burdens. He is bipolar, alcoholic and at various times has been openly bisexual or gay, which, in some sections of the pro tour, especially in the 1980s, was akin to leprosy in the 19th century. Not only that, he lost his dad when he was only 24. Most of his close friends have, at one time or another, talked him out of committing suicide, usually in phone conversations that go on for hours. Only a handful of people I spoke to didn’t in some way empathise with the tortured ways his mind works, and how the circumstances he was in exacerbated them. Dean Whiteman, a former Cronulla boy who has known him for 20 years, says, “He’s a complex, intelligent guy, as much as a fuck-up, but he’s always had good intentions. And he’ll never know what he really stands for until he’s able to come out and recognise what he is as an individual.”
Sarge’s younger brother Steve, with whom I have a long conversation about the many unacknowledged good things Sarge did for various surfers over the years, is taken aback when I ask him how long ago it was that he learned Sarge was gay. After a pause, he says:
“But he’s not gay.”
The incident that ended Sarge’s association with the ASP happened at Jeffreys Bay, South Africa, in July 2005, a few days after the Billabong Pro had finished. Sarge had been sent there by Rip Curl to shoot Tom Curren. The only remnant of the pro circus was the 14-man Drive-Thru crew, which included Pat O’Connell, Nathan “Nudes” Webster, Benji Weatherley, Pottz and Donavon. Accompanying them was journalist Adam Blakey, who was writing a feature for Transworld magazine. It was the last day of the Drive-Thru trip, and that afternoon they had surfed eight-foot J-Bay for six hours.
“We were as happy as pigs in shit,” says Pat. “Everybody was so high, we really felt like we’d nailed the trip. We’d worked really hard, and felt this tremendous sense of accomplishment.” They celebrated that night at a sushi restaurant called 20 Pepper Street, the only meeting place in town. There were about 25 surfers at the restaurant that night, and Sarge was among them. There was a lot of table-hopping. Donavon was setting a high standard on the open mic with his hippie guitar tunes while the rest got stuck into drinking games.
“It was one of my favourite nights ever,” Pat says. The only slightly negative detail he recalls is that Sarge, more drunk than most, was “getting a little close” and invading his personal space.
Adam, tired and drunk, snuck off at about 7.30pm, and returned to the hostel, which had been booked out for the Drive-Thru team, where he was sharing a room with a cameraman. He went straight to sleep. Pat left a few hours later, and did likewise. Afraid there might be some drunken pranks when the rest returned, he locked his door. The party from the restaurant, including Sarge, returned to the hostel. The drinking games had had their inevitable effect, and everyone was raucous. Nudes, however, became worried by Sarge’s behaviour. “I was sharing a room with Benji,” he says. “I remember saying, ‘We’ve got to lock the door because Sarge isn’t in a good way tonight’. I was worried about him being a sleazy drunken pest rather than anything really sinister. He had said something really rank to me earlier in the night, about having his way with me.” Sarge had said similar things to Nudes in the past, but Nudes had never considered them real advances, and just attributed them to Sarge’s struggle with his sexuality. The comments had never affected their good friendship. Nudes and Benji eventually retired.
Some time later, Sarge entered Adam’s room and performed an unsolicited sexual act on him while he slept. Adam’s roommate walked in. Sarge told him to get a camera so the act could be recorded. (In one of those few conversations I had with Sarge, he said he was taking the wrong dosage of bipolar medication at the time, which, combined with the alcohol, might explain his indifference to being seen performing an unsolicited sex act.) Adam woke up, and – shocked, angry and half asleep – told him to “get the fuck out”.
Adam woke the next morning, he says, feeling “confused and violated”. He told Nudes, who said the roommate had already told him about it. Adam was booked to fly to LA that morning, and drove to the airport in a distressed state. He’d known Sarge since he first walked into the Tracks office as an aspiring surf journo, aged only 14. For the next five years, he idolised Sarge for being the first to portray pro surfers as genuine sport stars. At 19, Adam became editor of Waves, where he regularly commissioned stories from Sarge. The two became good friends and colleagues. Now, more than 10 years since they first met, he felt, “completely and utterly betrayed on the deepest level”.
While waiting to check in, Sarge suddenly appeared behind him. “Whatever you’re feeling, I’m feeling 100 times worse,” Sarge said. He showed Adam a text he’d sent to the Drive-Thru team, calling for a meeting that night, where he would explain what happened. Sarge asked if that would be enough to resolve the issue. Adam, knowing he wouldn’t be there anyway, said, “Whatever. I gotta tell you I’m pretty fucking bummed.
Something’s gonna happen.”
Nudes had a text-message exchange with Sarge that he recalls as “surreal”.
“What have you done?” Nudes asked.
“What?” Sarge replied.
“Don’t what me.”
“Don’t say sorry to me, say sorry to Adam.”
At the meeting that evening, Sarge told everyone he was gay, and admitted to performing a sexual act on Adam, but neglected to say it wasn’t consensual. He also said he’d talked to Adam at the airport, and that Adam was “OK with it now”.
“I don’t think he understood the severity of the situation,” Nudes says. “He was definitely upset, but he seemed to think everything would be OK because it was all amongst friends, and wasn’t so serious. Then again, I was angry, and I’m not sure if anything he said would have been enough.”
Pat, the leader of the group, was too shocked to deal with it. Besides, he had to ensure 14 people and loads of equipment made it to the airport the next morning. “We were leaving at five am,” he says. “We had to get all of our stuff packed. We all kind of looked at each other and I went, ‘Sarge, we don’t have time for this’. It was a heavy conversation, but my thing was like, ‘Cool, let’s get the fuck out of here. I wanna pack’.”
The next morning, while driving to the airport in a convoy of cars, the truth started to sink in. “We were like, ‘Holy shit, did that really happen?’ When Sarge told us, I don’t think it registered with any of us.
“After we all got checked in, we sat down for coffee. And we all went, ‘How do you guys feel? Everybody OK?’ And everybody went, ‘No man, I’m fucking not OK’. It was really weird. We all had the same feeling. I never want to have that feeling again.”
Sarge stayed in South Africa. On August 25, Adam, his fingers trembling with rage, emailed Sarge with an ultimatum: quit the tour and enrol in long-term counselling, or he will go to the ASP and the police. Adam added, “I know this is a heavy call for you because the tour is your whole life, but you are a talented writer and photographer and you can do this, you can help yourself. You do so much good for surfing and surfers, Sarge, but if you truly love these guys you will eliminate any chance of inflicting the kind of emotional damage that can affect a life forever.” Adam ended the email by saying, “The ball is in your court. Don’t write back.”
Sarge never did.
Adam heard through the grapevine that Sarge had not accepted the ultimatum. Rather, he had contacted some pro surfers and had gone into “self-defence mode”, Adam says. “I didn’t want to get emotional because I wasn’t seeking revenge. I thought I’d given him the opportunity to take responsibility for his actions, and he ignored it.”
Adam called ASP president Wayne “Rab” Bartholomew in early September, who was at the Japan WCT event, where, unbeknown to him, a rumour about it was spreading like wildfire. He says he immediately told the chairman of the ASP rules and discipline committee Robert Gerard in California, although Robert himself says he was only told of “a serious issue” regarding Sarge, and never heard the details until he, and the tour, landed in France in late September.
Meanwhile, Sarge had rung Rip Curl chairman of marketing Neil Ridgway, his former editor at Tracks, who had originally hired him to go to South Africa. “I said, ‘What are you doing still there (in South Africa)? I sent you there to shoot Tom Curren, I’m not paying for you to stay three weeks afterwards’,” Ridgway recalls. “He said, ‘Oh, we’ve been doing this and that, and, oh, by the way…” at which point he began telling Neil abou the incident involving Adam. “I said, ‘Why are you telling me this?’ I was at home on a Sunday night watching Harry’s Practice with the kids, and he’s telling me this?
“He said, ‘I was drunk, I can’t remember, I’m not sure if I did it.’ I said, ‘If you can’t remember doing it, don’t go round telling people you did it, that’s stupid – it just brings you and Adam into something that may not even have happened.’ At that point I wasn’t sure what he was saying could be true. I tried to call Adam, but I couldn’t find him for another two weeks.
“I also said, ‘Sarge, if what you say is true then you may well have ended your career,’ or words to that effect.”
In France, Robert was instructed by Rab to conduct an investigation, which he did immediately, interviewing over a dozen people, and wrapping it up within two weeks. Both Adam and Sarge were interviewed numerous times over the phone.
Sarge co-operated fully with the investigation. “He acknowledged that the incident (involving Adam) happened and that he was ‘really bummed’ about it,” Robert says. “And he said that he had been to see his pastor and been baptised again to keep this from happening again.” Robert was concerned, though, that Sarge’s only attempt to apologise had been his expression of regret – for himself as well as Adam – the next day at the airport.
During the investigation, two professional surfers approached Robert privately and separately, and arranged individual, confidential meetings. On condition of anonymity, they recalled previous sexual encounters with Sarge. Both surfers were adults at the time of the incidents. They told Robert, however, that the memory of the incidents continued to disturb them.
Robert asked Sarge about these prior incidents. Sarge didn’t deny them. “I concluded that not only were the facts (concerning the Adam Blakey incident) brought to my attention accurate, but that this was not an isolated case of Sarge causing others anguish and grief,” Robert says.
However, in passing judgment on Sarge, Robert considered only the incident involving Adam. “I felt that it would be completely unfair to Sarge to consider reports from unidentified sources,” Robert says. So, based solely on the seriousness of the Blakey incident, Robert decided to revoke Sarge’s ASP press credential and to ban Sarge from the tour.
“I knew that there would be people who did not understand the decision… In fact, I have been severely criticised, chastised, ostracised and even once called un-Christian by individuals in the surfing community, many of whom I like and respect, who think my decision was unfair or too harsh…
“I am not involved in this stuff to win a popularity contest, however, and I dare say though that any reasonable person who knew what I know about this issue would say the decision was the only right thing to do. I have a completely clear conscience about what I did.”
In a letter dated October 7, 2005, Robert tells Sarge that he is banned indefinitely from all non-public areas of ASP events, but he leaves the door open to begin reviewing the ban any time after January 1, 2007. Robert also notes that Sarge had sought “both spiritual and psychological counselling”; and that he and everyone he had spoken to was seriously concerned about Sarge’s well-being. “As you have acknowledged, problematic encounters between you and others have uniformly involved alcohol,” Robert’s letter says. “I mention this because on a day-to-day basis nearly everyone I am aware of on Tour (including myself) who deals with you when you are not drinking maintains a professional, if not friendly and personable, relationship with you.” In signing off, Robert pays tribute to the other, equally prominent aspect of Sarge’s character, one that has endeared him to dozens of pro surfers over the years: the selfless and instrumental support he has provided to many athletes and to the sport itself.
Danny Wills remembers it clearly. It was the European leg of the WQS in 1996. He’d badly injured his knee while skateboarding, and needed to heal it fast if he was going to surf at his best at the event in Zarautz, Spain. “I actually half-dislocated my knee,” he recalls. “Sarge took it upon himself to find someone to fix it. He found this guy who was half French, half Japanese, in France. He did shiatsu. He was one of those guys who had a really good vibe. Sarge drove me there every day for five days.” The drive was about 45 minutes each way, and Sarge waited for an hour or two while Danny received treatment. They took Sarge’s hire car, and Sarge never asked for petrol money. This was while the comp was on, and Sarge was missing out on shooting the action. “The waves were fun that year, so he would have missed some good photo opportunities for sure, but he never looked at it that way,” Danny says.
“That to me was pretty special. It was unreal because I ended up making the semis or the quarters at that event.” In fact, it helped define Danny’s career. He qualified for the WCT that year, and has been at the top level ever since.
While working as his brother’s manager in the mid 1980s, Steve Sargeant was reminded almost daily of Sarge’s generosity. “Guys would ring up and ask for a photo (Sarge had taken) for their resumé. They’d ask how much it would cost, but Paul would just print it off and send it to them (for free), so they could take it to their local board manufacturer in the hope of getting a sponsorship. Paul would always say, ‘Keep in touch, let us know how you go, send me your results’. If they went half any good, he’d ring Billabong or Quiksilver or Volcom or whoever, and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this young guy, what’s the chance of getting a sponsorship?’”
Damien Hodge was a promising Cronulla grom at the time. When his sponsor, Platts, went broke, Sarge asked him which company he’d prefer to be sponsored by in the future. Billabong or Hot Tuna, Damien replied. Three weeks later, a package of summer gear – boardies, T-shirts, hats and so on – and a contract arrived in the mail from Billabong. “I was unbelievably stoked,” Damien says. “It just fitted with my dreams as a grommet. Dad was mega-proud. It made a big impact on my life and pumped me up to surf more. And I could name 10 other guys from Cronulla who he did the same thing for.”
Damien doesn’t overestimate how difficult this was for Sarge. “He just made a phone call,” he says. “But he was in a position of influence, and he didn’t have to make that phone call. And he didn’t want anything in return for it, and he never got anything. From that first day of the contract being sent out, I dealt with Billabong directly.” The deal lasted for 18 years.
This behind-the-scenes manoeuvring became a Sarge forte, and remained even when he was operating at the sport’s top level. Not many pro surfers had managers in those days, and Sarge voluntarily filled the role. “He knew how much everyone was getting paid and he would go in to bat for you,” says Jake Paterson, who was on the WCT from 1996 to 2006. “He was always on the surfers’ side instead of the industry. Surfers don’t tell each other what they’re earning. He was the one you went to to find out what you were worth when you were negotiating contracts.”
Clint Kimmins remembers meeting Sarge on the North Shore in 1998, when he was 14. “He was shooting the Aussie movement in Hawaii,” Clint recalls. “It’s pretty hard to make a statement over there. He just came up to me and said, ‘Hi, I’m Paul Sargeant, get out there and I’ll look out for you’. He made me feel like I was part of something, like I was doing a job out there. It was pretty cool because he was a big name and he was helping me out. I can’t speak highly enough of the guy.”
“I love the guy,” says Pat O’Connell. “I think he’s a very unfortunately messed-up person who has a great heart. He has a lot of things that he has to go through to get through this.”
“He was always good to everyone,” Steve says. “He just loved surfing. He can’t believe that lifelong friends have turned on him.”
Despite the many positive things he has done, three persistent rumours have helped define the way many people perceive Sarge. Some years ago, two people, returning home from a night of drinking, walked in on Sarge, partially dressed or naked, lying face down on the lounge room floor while a high-profile adult male surfer, also partially dressed or naked, knelt beside him. Suspecting that what they saw was sexual, the pair immediately turned and left. One of the witnesses spread the story the next morning. The other witness, let’s call him David, was asked by people who had heard the story whether he could confirm what they’d been told, that Sarge and the surfer were engaged in sexual activity. He said he couldn’t deny it, but added that neither was it a certainty, and that the pair may have still been partially clothed. That part of the story was quickly discarded as the rumour spread. It has since “grown out of proportion”, David says.
“I didn’t see any sexual activity. We didn’t see any genitals. They could have had their scungies on, for all we knew. He [the surfer] could have been giving Sarge a massage. I never suggested that anyone saw any sexual penetration. If anyone says there was, he’s a fucking liar, because I was the first one through that door. And there wasn’t. It could have been totally fucking innocent, and that’s what I’ve tried to impress on a million people. But it [the rumour] has grown out of proportion.”
David has had a tough time dealing with the consequences. “I’ve had fights over it,” he says. “It’s nearly had me killed a couple of times.”
Repeated calls and messages to the surfer named in the rumour yielded no reply. The second rumour arises from the time Sarge helped out a young Cronulla surfer called Dean Whiteman. Dean, now 40, left his troubled home at 15, and moved in with Sarge, 11 years his senior, who became his guardian in some respects, signing sick notes for school and so on. “He was like a father figure to me,” Dean says. “He helped me in enormous ways. He gave me a roof, he gave me encouragement. He was definitely a stabilising effect.”
Dean was oblivious to signs, which other people had noticed, that Sarge might be gay. However, a few years later, when Dean was 18, Sarge suddenly declared he was in love with him. Although Sarge had never made any advances on Dean (and there is no suggestion he wanted to), this freaked Dean out, and he moved out immediately. Later, he learned that people were talking behind his back all along, and that his good friend Richard “Dog” Marsh had sometimes got in fights with people who had insinuated Dean was sexually involved with Sarge.
Dean says Sarge’s response at the time suggested denial. “He apologised, but he said it wasn’t him (to be gay), it was that he had recently been diagnosed as manic. He blamed the condition for what he said. I reckon he was just throwing it out there to see how I’d respond, then when I didn’t respond he blamed it on something else.”
Dean remains in contact with Sarge, and says, even now, little has changed. “I said to Sarge after the Blakey thing, ‘Why don’t you just come out and admit that you’re struggling, mate, you’re struggling with your homosexual tendencies and everything else?’ But he’s in denial. He always has been. He’ll continue to struggle until he addresses the real issues.”
The final rumour involves an encounter Danny Wills had during his first trip to the North Shore, when he was 19. One night, Danny woke up at four am to find Sarge sitting on the end of his bed. “I didn’t know how he got in there or what he was doing,” Danny recalls. “I just woke up and he was at the end of my bed. He looked pretty wasted. I’d been on trips with him when I was 13 or 14 and never saw that side of him. So it was a bit of a spin for me to see that. I was like, whoa, what’s going on here?”
Sarge asked Danny how old he was. “I was like, hmm, that’s a weird question. It was a little bit freaky. I didn’t quite know how to take it.” Danny told Sarge to leave, which he did. At no time did Danny feel threatened by Sarge, and there is no suggestion that Sarge intended Danny harm.
The next morning Danny told Sarge’s friend, the late Andrew Murphy, what had happened. Murph explained that Sarge had been missing his medication, which placated Danny. “Murph worded him up, and he started taking his medication again, so I was fine about it. He’s just one of those guys who shouldn’t drink alcohol. And with any illness, if you’re not taking your medication, you’re not doing yourself any favours.”
If Sarge was struggling with being bisexual or gay on tour, he didn’t need to. One of the many people he told was Neil Ridgway, some time during Neil’s tenure as editor of Tracks (1994 to 1997).
“I said, ‘No problem – it doesn’t change the way we work together. If that’s who you are, that’s who you are. Just don’t ever try to root me!’ It was pretty funny at the time, and broke the ice. He was welcome at work, he was welcome in my home.”
Neil laid down some strict rules, however: any transgression, or anything that brought the magazine under scrutiny, would not be tolerated. “Sarge understood the rules and they were the same rules for us all. Not that there were many. Basically, any employee who did anything that would hurt the magazine’s reputation would cop the same fate. It was about being professional and nothing else. He told me not to worry about him doing anything he shouldn’t with the crew on tour.”
Sarge shot to the top of the surf photography business because of his impressive skill with a manual-focus lens. It was a talent for which he had long been recognised. In 1979, he became the youngest ever winner of the Rothmans Press Photographer of the Year, taking out three other categories (best sequence, best sports photo and best photo) for a series of four shots, miraculously taken without a motor drive, of a surf boat spectacularly nose-diving at Maroubra. Malcolm Fraser, the prime minister at the time, presented him with the award.
He worked for the Daily Mirror newspaper, where he stayed for a few years, but was drawn to sport, and in about 1982 started his own company, Sarge’s Sports Photo. At its peak, the company would send small teams to Bathurst and the Formula One grand prix in Adelaide, taking shots for car manufacturers and oil companies to use in advertising. Sarge, meanwhile, was quickly establishing himself as one of the world’s best and most reliable surfing shooters. The company prospered.
Steve says one shot of Alan Moffatt’s RX7 was bought by his sponsor, Peter Styvesant, for $25,000, and wound up on cigarette machines around the world. Cashed up and high on success, Sarge started to throw his money around. He hired a chopper on a few occasions to fly Occy, Dog Marsh and fellow Cronulla professional Gary Green to Black Rock for photo shoots, but only accompanied them once. It was typical of Sarge’s behaviour whenever he was able to shake the shackles of depression – he was full of ambitious ideas, some of which worked, and some of which crashed and burned before they could turn a profit.
Meanwhile, new photographic technology started to appear in 1988, which by 1990 had thoroughly blunted Sarge’s competitive edge. “Guys were turning up with gear that was point-and-shoot and pin sharp,” Steve says. “Previously he got $1000 or $2000 from a surf company for a shot, but now some guy would turn up and offer them the shot for $50. “It happened in motor sport as well. Guys would take shots that probably weren’t as well composed, but the company would look at the bottom line and say, well, I could use Sarge’s shot or I could have this one for a hundred bucks. It made life exceptionally hard.”
Sarge left the company and embarked on a complementary career, to become a surf writer. His first short story, published in the February 1989 edition of Tracks, was about the press conference Barton Lynch held at Sydney Airport after winning the world title. Like most work by fledgling writers, it was a mundane account, observing that “Barton Lynch has all the markings of a worthy and capable ambassador”.
But it is the accompanying photograph that sets the tone for almost all of Sarge’s subsequent journalism. Sarge broke away from the crowd of television and newspaper photographers, crouched behind Barton, and took a shot over the world champion’s shoulder at the media itself. It perfectly illustrates Sarge’s enduring attitude to the sport in which he was already becoming a significant force: media attention was noteworthy because the mainstream was different. Almost everything he wrote from then on is imbued with the notion that he, and surfing, were esoteric outcasts.
Perhaps he felt like this because, as a non-surfer, he wanted to prove himself, and become a torch-bearer for surfing’s traditional status as a cool, drug-addled counterculture. If so, it worked. For the next few years, the byline “Words and photos by Sarge” guaranteed that what followed was a uniquely entertaining, honest, gonzo report from the front line of pro surfing, back when the pro tour was little more than a thin veil for a travelling party.
From the event in Zarautz, Spain, that year, he wrote, “I didn’t see much of the first day of the contest, or the second, third, fourth, etc. But they say the surf was pretty good for day one of the trials.” The following year from the same event, he wrote, “Europe was one big freefall. More and more people are making it. This sport has no boundaries.” In January 1991, Tracks gave him a “Self-Abuse Award” for, “masochism above and beyond the call of duty in his quest to fully document every aspect of the pro surfing lifestyle”. Cronulla professional Gary Green is quoted saying, “Sarge’s equipment for a night on the Countrieau includes a pair of overalls, a collapsible bed strapped to his back, a return to sender tag around his neck and a bracelet engraved ‘In case of emergency feed Cointreau intravenously’.”
In the same issue, Sarge complained that the awards ceremony at the Drug Offensive Pro at Margaret River served only light beer. “It was like the party your olds threw for you when you were a grommet,” he wrote. “It was one sure way to mar a good contest.” But the writing was on the wall, and when he declared, from Bells in 1992, that “you’ve got little chance of clean living in this industry … I’m sure we’re all damned”, he didn’t know how right he was.
When the tour was split into the WCT and WQS in 1992, it brought an end to the daily revelry. Previously, there would be hundreds of competitors at every event, and every afternoon there was a group of surfers who had just been eliminated and were ready to hit the nearest bars and night clubs. Now, the surfers who qualified for the WCT had to defend their places, while those on the WQS were locked in a more intense struggle to be promoted.
Secondly, Kelly Slater arrived, talented, sober, hard-working and ambitious. In a Q&A with the upcoming star, in November 1990, Sarge asked, “Why have you returned home to Florida to finish your last year of school? I’d have to suggest that any other grommet in your shoes would be out there doing it rather than going back to school for a year.”
Kelly replied: “A lot of guys that start to make money think that they don’t need anything else. I don’t look at it that way… High school isn’t a hard thing to do… It keeps your mind in gear.”
Eventually, the rest of the competitors, especially the hard-living Australians, would be forced to play by Kelly’s rules. Meanwhile, though, Sarge continued to champion, or at least excuse, the recklessness of the diminishing Aussie challengers. In a profile of Shane Powell in September 1993, he said, “We can all be tempted, and when we are, we often give in; we indulge… Surfing’s history is strewn with the names of surfing freaks, potential greats, who were sucked down into the bottomless vortex of indulgence.” You didn’t need to be a psychoanalyst to know Sarge was dipping his toe in the vortex himself.
He remained indomitable for the rest of the 1990s, however, because he worked hard, and had unrivalled access to the surfers. “Sarge had a connection to the tour that nobody else could provide,” says Neil Ridgway. “I didn’t mind him celebrating the party aspect of it because the tour was different back then. Surfing hadn’t really decided whether< it wanted to be a professional sport or a rollicking rock tour. I worked well with Sarge.
He had a high work ethic. When he produced he would produce prolific amounts of material.”
Sarge finally clicked to the dramatic competitive shift in 1995, and in typical style resolved to do something about it. He created LMB, an informal grouping of young Australians doing the WQS, which would help them encourage each other in the increasingly difficult task of defeating Kelly and his new American generation. His account of LMB’s first road trip, during the five-week European leg, marks a serious change in Sarge’s attitude. “Indulgence, as we have come to know it, was kept to a minimum,” he wrote. “This is a different bunch.”
Eventually, LMB would develop into communal accommodation for young Australian men, organised and partly funded by Sarge, to help those who were struggling to survive the tour. Over the years, up-and-coming surfers like Joel Parkinson, Kai Otton, Jarrad Howse, Richie Lovett, Andy King, Mick Fanning, Nathan Hedge, Sam Carrier, Nick Wallace, Will Lewis, Matt Griggs, and Dean Morrison either stayed in various LMB houses or hung around them, soaking up the camaraderie. At times, the house was so popular that there would be four to a bedroom and tents in the back yard. “It was the sort of place where you’d stay if you were on your first year on tour or didn’t have a sponsor,” says Howse.
Sarge realised that drinking and drug-taking were becoming a bit anachronistic, and, at Richie Lovett’s urging, began his long struggle to give them up. Then, in March 1997, while suffering another horrifying bout of depression at home in Currumbin, he discovered God. He described one of the significant things about Christianity in an interview he gave to The Daily Surf, a website he created in 2003: “The hardest thing to accept and actualise in your belief and faith after you become a Christian is that you no longer have a ‘past’.
The Daily Surf, which shut down in April 2007 but parts of which remain online, provides insights into Sarge’s movements and state of mind since dropping off the tour.
On August 23, 2005, after the Adam incident but before being banned by the ASP, Sarge wrote from his home on the Gold Coast about his recent trip to South Africa and elsewhere: “It was an awesome trip, one of the best I’ve ever had in 21 years on tour, but man, I am absolutely exhausted.” Paradoxically, he then goes on to say that his behaviour during the two-month trip had been “stupid, destructive and out there”, which he attributes to being in a manic phase.
Just before Christmas that year, after the ASP had imposed its ban, Sarge apologises for not attending to the blog while on holiday in Europe, but refers only obliquely to the trouble he’s had to face: “Not being on tour, I really have had nothing to say or report, hence the lack of updates. A number of the Top 45 offered to pass on news and behind the scenes commentary secondhand, but I decided not to be a legacy. It’s been probably the toughest time of my life these last four or five months, off the tour, and separated from what was my life, job, passion, family, and all the rest… At this point in time, I’d say I won’t be back on tour next season, but I don’t know about that or anything much else at the moment.”
By September the following year, he reveals a new personal objective, one that indicates the ban has forced him to reassess everything. From his new home in New Zealand, he uses the blog to explore spiritual issues while relying on others to file reports from the pro tour. “I passionately long to reach people, to help them understand themselves, to set goals, and run with passion. I want to see and be surrounded by loving understanding forgiving people who have peace – REAL peace… I have NO desire to get back on tour full-time. Most of the crew already on tour… are keen to help us out and continue to bring you the latest in what is happening in surfing, right around the globe. Yeah. I’ll still travel a bit, but boy oh boy, I have no desire to leave this heavenly place… I have slid, at least partially, towards the back seat. Little old 51-year-old Paul Kenneth Sargeant is anchored – finally!”
In November 2006 he surprisingly revealed an intense antipathy towards the sport to which he dedicated most of his working life: “Pro surfing is nothing more than a zit on the butt of world sport, still basically amateur and self-serving in everything from its administration to the attitudes of many of its athletes…
“I used to be truly devoted and almost even subservient to the surfers themselves. I always stuck up for them on their issues with the ASP and the industry and media, earning no end of foes in the process, and I always put their satisfaction and facilitation ahead of my own. I was tripping. I guess I put them on a pedestal… but we forget that we’re dealing with a flawed species – human beings…
“Maybe that’s why God had to boot me out of the pro surfing picture. If I am to be honest, I even put the sport and its players ahead of the Boss Upstairs. Shameful. If you want God to Bless and Provide for you, you’ve got buckleys if you don’t put him first in ALL that you do.”
He ends that posting with a plug for another website, one that suggests, despite the bitter feelings above, that Sarge is keeping his options open.
That other website is worldprosurfers.com, run by the eponymous surfers union. It’s a cool, rapidly growing site, providing direct contact with pro surfers through photos, blogs and video diaries. WPS itself has the noblest objectives, to, “act collectively in assisting world professional surfers’ interests” by, among other things, helping them during and after their time on tour, and providing a benevolent fund for those who get injured. It also aims to “organise, encourage and promote international professional surfing”.
Nine photographers are promoted on the site, along with a selection of their best shots. Sarge is one of them. WPS tour representative Jake Paterson wouldn’t be quoted on why Sarge remains on the site, or whether Sarge’s behaviour in South Africa might affect WPS’s ability to “promote international surfing”.
Sarge’s endorsement by WPS indicates that he still has friends in the sport, and seems to confirm, as he said in that brief phone conversation I had with him, that he is not ruling out a return to the sport.
Could it happen? Robert Gerard says it is “unlikely, unless certain criteria are met.”
“If Sarge came back to me with a request for reinstatement, I certainly would have an open mind to what he had to say.
“First, he would have to express sincere remorsefulness to both Blakey and to the tour for the harm that he’s caused. Second, he would have to convince not just me, but the entire ASP board of directors that this type of thing would never happen again; surely part of that would involve some sort of certification from a psychologist or psychiatrist. Third, I would have to ensure that the athletes on tour were comfortable with him returning. If he did all those things I would be very open-minded.
“Further, I’d like it to be known that I like Sarge. This wasn’t about taking sides. I could care less whether or not Sarge is gay and I have absolutely no personal axe to grind with him. On a one-on-one level, we got on just fine. If Sarge called me 10 minutes from now and said, ‘hey I’m in LA and my car has broken down, can you come fetch me?’ I’d be there in a heartbeat, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart.
“But I’m not going to shirk my responsibility toward the ASP and the young athletes and the support staff and media personnel on tour. I don’t care if it was my best mate who flaunted the rules. I’m not going to put aside my obligation to do my best to protect the people involved with the tour from harm.”
If Sarge satisfied the above criteria, Robert would then present it to the board for a vote. One board member (since 2005) is Sarge’s former editor at Tracks and now marketing chairman at Rip Curl, Neil Ridgway. He is unsympathetic about the burdens that are often used to explain Sarge’s behaviour.
“What burdens?” he says.
Being bipolar, alcoholic, and gay in a predominantly straight world, I say. “Are they any excuse for what he did to Adam? No. He was an internationally feted photographer who travelled the world taking great shots of amazing sports action. He was making six figures, and then some.
“Gay? Who cares if he’s gay? There was a time when he was openly gay, and nobody could have cared less about it. Bipolar? It caused him some drama, wild mood swings on the ups and the downs, but I don’t think it’s an excuse for this incident. I remember carrying lithium to Hawaii for him. I once talked him down from the Gap. I helped him and supported him because I always thought his heart was in the right place and he was worth it. And by the same token I had seen him help a lot of people on tour along the way too. Alcoholic? Well, that’s a burden that a lot of people carry around.
“The ASP has to be incredibly responsible about its constituents, not just the livelihood or the career of one person who has made his own bed and now has to lie in it. Doing what he did is completely out of line. At Tracks, because of work, I introduced Adam Blakey to Paul Sargeant when he was 14 years old. (For Sarge) to have been around that guy since he was a 14-year-old kid and then to bung something like that on, I just can’t wear it, mate. Everyone says what about Sarge, but what about Adam?”