Taj Burrow – Living High In The Dirty Biz Of Pro Surfing
From Stab issue 64, on sale now...
Words by Elliot Struck
Portrait by Peter Taras
Glamour is alive on the world tour, and it lives in Taj Burrow. A passport creased and stamped with cities from a vintage Pan Am advert. A camera memory card maxed-out with postcards of the high life. The ability to enjoy those places as a man can, unshackled by fatherhood and with a penchant for opulence. These are things of glamour and Taj has ‘em all. Taj sees life through rose coloured glasses and it ain’t often you’ll hear him sigh or say dull things. He just burns away like a fabulous yellow roman candle exploding across the stars.
Taj is about to launch world tour stint number 15. And, how many of them d’you think he’s finished outside the top seven? That’d be only twice. You can call that a talent for staying relevant. Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s a cakewalk, either – Taj works hard to know what he does. The pups sure help stoke the fire, but in the end, experience is the best teacher and Taj is a professor.
Wanna know a few things about the world tour? Cross your legs and listen up, Mr Burrow’s speaking’ now…
Stab: What is the single best bit of surfing you’ve ever seen on tour?
Taj Burrow: Watching Andy and Kelly battle when they were both in their prime. The thing that blew me away was how good they were in big, solid tubes. They’d just man-handle big waves. I was just blown away by how hard they’d go and how good they were. In such serious conditions, they’d just have it under control so well. And, you could just see them pushing each other. I was such a big fan of watching those two go head to head.
And, more recently? Watching Kelly at Fiji this year was incredible. A couple of those 10s he got… and how good he surfed perfect, six-to-eight-foot Cloudbreak was really impressive. That was a highlight for me. We just got emailed by the ASP with all these awards, like best tube, best heat, best moment on tour, and I answered the same for a few questions: Kelly.
Well, I was gonna ask if Andy and Kelly bought the best surfing they’ve ever done out of each other, but I guess Kelly ain’t slowing down. Well, yes, they did, but Kelly doesn’t slow down. Now, he just uses the younger generation to fuel his fire, to keep his wild air game in tune.
So, when it was with Andy, perhaps it was a different focus, more about power and aggression. Now, he’s adapting to a more progressive game. One hundred percent, that’s exactly what he’s done. He just tries to excel in the areas that he has to. Back then it was power surfing and big tubes. It still is that, but it’s a lot more hi-fi, technical stuff. He seems to have adapted to that well, too.
What is the single best place you’ve ever visited on tour and why? That’s a rough one, they’re all pretty good. Tahiti and Fiji are hard to beat. Fiji is one of the best events ever. We get spoilt with an empty lineup at Cloudbreak and Restaurants. But, I really like Tahiti. I like the people, I like the family I stay with. After so many years on tour it’s like I’m part of their family. They call me on Christmas and New Years and stuff, they’re such awesome people. Obviously, the place is incredible, you get such awesome waves. It’s hard to beat. The family I stay with are the Teriinatoofas. I met Hira Teriinatoofa on the ‘QS. I’ve stayed at his place since day one and haven’t changed a thing.
Most of what you see from Tahiti is Chopes. Tell me about the other waves. There’s not a bunch of spots as good as Chopes, but there’s some fun little novelty waves around and I surf a lot of them because I stay with a local guy. Where I stay is actually 45 minutes from Chopes, so I don’t get down there every lay day. I surf all these other tricky little joints, which are really fun, but Chopes is the one, that’s what you’re there for. It’s pretty busy when the comp’s on, it’s a tough, hungry pack out there. I just surf it a coupla times before my heat to pick the right board. I try to sneak around the island and surf other little spots, mainly outer reefs, but a few fun little reefbreaks.
What is the most momentous event you’ve witnessed? When Andy beat Kelly that one year at Pipe, when he needed a 10 in the final to win the world title and he got it. There were two Kelly-and-Andy-Pipe-deciders, which were both incredible, but one in particular had good waves and they were just so furiously competitive. I had goosebumps every wave that went down. It was quite a bizarre vibe because, obviously, there were a lot of people going for Andy since it was in Hawaii and because Kelly had dominated for so long. I’d say the majority wanted Andy to win. But, it was kinda an eerie feeling, just ‘cause there was so much at stake. It was coming down to this last event, then it came down to the final and it was just weird. You’d have been a lot more comfortable in Andy’s shoes. I’m sure it felt weird for Kelly just to be walking around Hawaii. The place is pretty intense as it is, then when there’s something like that at stake and the whole island’s kinda against you, or rooting for their local boy, of course, it’s gonna feel weird. And for me, as a spectator, I picked up all those vibes. Kelly did so well to put up the fight that he did. There was a lot of pressure on him.
What kind of things stick out in your mind from that first year on tour? I remember the second year a lot better ‘cause I battled Occy for the world title and came second to him, in ‘99. But first year, I finished 12th on tour. I remember how all the guys on tour were just such pricks. They were just ruthless. They were hardly friends, everyone on tour just wanted to kick each other’s ass. They didn’t like each other in or out of the water. It’s a lot different now. I remember when I was first in the Coke Classic, when I won my first event, which was my second year on tour in ‘99, I was in the quarterfinal against Damien Hardman. I said “good luck” to him on the way out and he just looked at me and gave me the filthiest look. He just grunted. I just went, woah. He was so intimidating. He just hated me, like, who the fuck is this kid? I was so timid, like, “good luck mate!’” He just growled at me. It was awesome, just brutal back in the day.
From the front end, it looks like the tour now is a flourishing pot plant of camaraderie. There’s still intense rivalries. People kinda keep them at bay, they don’t get aggressive in public or out of the water. It’s pretty rare. But people wanna beat each other just as badly now, if not worse.
How would life be different if you’d never been on tour? I’m not good at anything else. I was fortunate that surfing went my way. When I was really young I wanted to be either an actor or a fighter plane pilot. They were my two things. When I was really young, I found out that I was colourblind or colour-deficient or whatever. I was red and green colour-deficient and as soon as they told me that, they said, “you can’t fly planes.” I was devastated. I was 10 years old, so sad I couldn’t be a fighter pilot. A bit silly really, but those are the kinds of things you think of when you’re a kid. That dream never happened, but I’m pretty happy with how things turned out (laughs).
What do you think you’ll most miss about the tour? I’ll miss everything. I love just being involved and witnessing all those moments in person that we spoke about. Just the lifestyle, too. Life on tour is only getting better. You get quite spoilt these days. It’s really fun, I love it, just as everyone on tour would. There’ll be a few things that I won’t miss. Good as the lifestyle is, the travelling is rough. I won’t miss that, but I’ll miss 99 percent of it. I don’t like waiting in queues and sitting on planes for 16 hours straight. I struggle to sit still. It’s minor, though, really.
WA is a great reprieve from travelling. It’s the perfect transition from one extreme to the other. It’s the fast life of travelling and airports and cities and being surrounded by huge numbers of people, which I don’t particularly like. I really like the big, open spaces of the west, it’s my favourite thing. It’s such a clean environment and I couldn’t think of a better place to come home to. It is far-removed and it does take a long time to get home once we do finish an event, but that’s also why it’s so special to me.
But once you stop touring, will it be the same living there? I think I’m going to love it. But, I do know it’s rough getting through winter. We get wild weather, it pours and howls wind. A lot of my friends that live here year-round complain about it constantly. I’m lucky I get to skip town when the weather kicks in. I’ll probably travel when I need to, just not as much as now. It’s pretty easy to bolt up north in WA when it’s wild down in the south-west. I do enjoy stormy weather, just not months on end. One of favourite things is just how wild and raw the coast is here. I love those big storms we get. Hopefully, it doesn’t bother me too much when I am locked in for a whole year here. I am looking forward to that stage of my life, f’sure.
Maintaining performance relevance. Who are your muses? I look at everyone. Over the years I’ve obviously looked at Kelly, but I’ve also looked at Mick and Joel. I really like the frontside top turns they do and they both have a really nice carve on them. I look at their technique a lot ‘cause I know mine’s so different and I like the look of their technique when they do their top turn. For more technical stuff, I look to the young guys. I look at Dane a lot. Even though he’s kinda wild and unorthodox, his approach is so sick. His technique is a hard one to break down because he’s so raw.
And, airs? I just look to all the young guys. I look at their techniques for getting their boards above the lip. There’s so many things with surfing that’s changed over the years. A few years ago, you would not throw yourself into positions that kids are now. But once you actually do it, so much more is possible. It’s hard to explain. If you’re open minded about where you can put your surfboard, you can really make it become reality. You see some of the huge airs that go down at the moment. A few years ago it was too scary to land airs like that, but you see guys now making them. I’ve noticed some of the ways they make airs is that your nose might pick in first, or your tail might pick in first, which softens the landing. If you land flat then you know you could probably break a bone or a board. But, you see kids nose or tail pick in first and break that fall. I look at all that kind of stuff and you realise that you can throw yourself into some wild positions and wild spins and go really big, and it’s not that bad if you land correctly. It’s kinda scary, but exciting how it’s evolving and just what’s possible.
Do you look at other guys’ techniques as a big picture, or get down to detail like feet positioning, arms? Yeah, I look at that stuff. I look at what kind of body torque is used, like the way your head goes is the way your body goes. You turn your head one way and your body kinda follows. Little things like that. If I see something sick on a video clip I’ll watch it a coupla times and go, yeah, that was cool and that’s how he did it. I don’t sit down and start drawing diagrams with rulers. I just take it in a coupla times and appreciate it. I don’t often think of it in the water. The one thing I was practising a while ago, when I’d go up for a top turn, I’d consciously tell myself to twist my upper body more, just to really get that body torque going on. It’s hard to remember it when you’re on an actual wave.
What do you get out of an average session now? The most enjoyment I get surfing now is just like at the moment, where the water’s warm, we get to surf in boardshorts, there’s a bank out front of my house and there’s a few tubes on offer, even if it’s a bit wild where you don’t make many but do make a couple. That’s my favourite. When I’m getting up early and getting a quick surf in by myself before anyone’s out there, at my home break.