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Step Inside The Psychotic World Of A Young Southside Slab Shaman

Meet Mad Max McGuigan.

Words by Jed Smith
Reading Time: 9 minutes

The year’s 2017, and it’s the night of nights for the Maroubra Boardriders Club. Seventeen-year-old Max McGuigan is in line to receive top honours. 

After toiling all season in the club rounds, he’d come into the final event of the year ranked one and two with his longtime friend and mentor, Richie ‘Vass’ Vaculik. The pair fought it out in the final comp earlier that day, but who finished where is being kept a secret for a big reveal on the night. 

That moment has arrived. As is customary at Maroubra Boardriders, the top two ranked surfers in each division are forced, by their peers, into a dance-off before the final standings are announced. As Max and Vass take the stage, however, someone produces boxing gloves instead. For Max, this poses a real problem. Vass is not only ten years his senior, but also midway through a professional mixed martial arts career that will finish with him fighting five times in the UFC (15-10-5).

Max does not die wondering.  

“He was just trying to take my head off,” recalls Vaculik. “I ended up taking him down cos he was trying to punch the shit out of me,” he says, adding, “If it wasn’t for my (jujitsu) I was in trouble from the young punk. He came at me hard and fast.”  

Max might have been choked out on the floor of the pub, but he won where it counted, taking out the coveted Boardriders Open Division, adding a nice flourish to a junior career that included a NSW State title and a berth representing Australia at the ISA World Championships.

Like most kids from Sydney’s Southside, Max was keen to try his hand at whatever while growing up. Until his early teens — and then again in his early 20s — he sought to emulate his father, an elite rugby league player from South Sydney. 

“I was a mad footy head,” Max laughs. “I got to that age where everyone grew and got real big and started getting facial hair and I didn’t. I stayed small, and coming to a point where I had to choose surfing or footy ‘cos the comps were clashing on the weekend, I ended up choosing surfing, the safer option.” Max’s calculated/unhinged approach at Shipstern Bluff landed him a cover on the latest edition of Surfing World magazine. Photo: Nick Green

Like Vass, Max also trained as a boxer and martial artist at different times, though it’s in the heavy water arena that he’s really made his mark in recent years, earning plaudits from the likes of Jamie O’Brien, Taj Burrow and Tom Carroll for his heavy water heroics. 

“He’s come into his own,” says Vass. “Not only is he going the hardest and wanting the biggest waves, but the way he’s weaving through barrels, I’m always blown away by the surfing he’s doing.” 

Growing up in Maroubra, there was no shortage of maniac-mentors willing to school Max in whatever discipline he chose. 

“The history of the place, every young fella is aware of that and wants to have a crack and fly the flag for the community. It’s encouraged down there. Any kind of madness is encouraged down there,” explains Vass. “If you wanna go hard on the piss you’ll find crew who will encourage that, if you wanna go hard on the footy field, getting into knuckles, or if you wanna have a crack in big waves, there will be plenty of crew who will encourage that.” 

Like a good boxer, Maz is light on his feet. Framgrab: Talon Clemow

Raised in Chifley, a few minutes from Maroubra Beach, Max didn’t have to look far for a reminder of where one bad choice could land you. Between his house and the beach sits the infamous Long Bay Jail, where more than a few people from his community have ended up over the years. 

“I’ve got a fair few mates who ended up in (prison). They made that decision and they gotta pay for it eventually,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I prefer to work — work for my money, work for the stuff that I do and live my life, and I have my parents to thank for that. They’ve kept me out of the shit,” he says. 

Both Max’s parents have elite sporting pedigree. His father, as mentioned, was a talented amateur and semi-professional rugby league player, who represented the top-tier Cronulla Sharks club. His mother was a pioneering ‘Ironwoman’ who shattered gender barriers in the 1980s, competing against men before a women’s field existed. He credits his parents with creating the environment and values that made him the man he is today.

“I was lucky, I had good parents and good guidance,” Max says. “It was everything a kid could ask for, living in a good street, a cul-de-sac, mates in the street, always coming down the beach surfing…bikes with little wooden jumps you go over. It was unreal.” 

However, he is quick to acknowledge not everyone on Sydney’s Southside gets that opportunity. 

“It’s pretty easy to get caught up with riff-raff down here for sure. I know a few of my mates who’ve been in the riff-raff…Not everyone had money, few of the boys in the housing commissions…it was like you said, either surf or get stuck in the riff-raff,” he says.  

Max was raised on the beach with his mum in the Surf Life Saving Club movement, riding his first waves standing up on a giant clunky rescue board. He graduated to the obligatory second-hand heapa before eventually securing a prized custom shape from local legend, Rex Marshall. As he continued to show promise, his dad introduced him to the heavyweights in the local surf scene and before long Max had heavy water icons like Mark Mathews on speed dial, demanding he take him across the bay to Ours. Max was 11. 

“He ended up going, ‘Yeah sweet, we’ll take you out on the ski.’ I met him at the boat ramp, there was Vass and (Stab owner) Sam Mc,” Max recalls. “I ended up on the sled with my board, and I remember flying out and I lost my board from underneath me. I had my leggy on, which pulled me off the mat, and I was stuck in the middle of Botany Bay for ten minutes. I didn’t get many that day, but it was a good introduction — prob three or four foot. It was super fun, got a couple, got put on the rocks a little bit.” 

A couple of years later, aged 13, Max was making his way home from school when his phone lit up with Mathews telling him to pack his gear. They were leaving for Shipsterns Bluff that night. 

“I grabbed my best wettie — a 3/2. No gloves, no hood, no booties,” he recalls. 

“I just remember being freezing all day. I was that cold but that frothing to be down there and watching what is one of the scariest waves in the world, and watching Mark and Ryan Hipwood out there, it was pretty surreal to be honest. It was one of the best experiences.”

Rigid with cold and paddling into a stiff offshore on his 5’6 step-up, Max predictably failed to make his mark, returning to Maroubra and committing himself to a heavy-water apprenticeship under two of the best to ever do it, Mathews and Vaculik.  

“Mark has done a lot of things for me that I’ve never got to thank him for; helped me out with sponsors, taking me surfing, pretty much shaped me into who I wanted to be as a surfer…Same as Vass, he’s a UFC fighter, a legend, charges waves as well, and just doesn’t care,” says Max. 

Over the coming years, Max continued to ply his trade at Ours, making incremental, painstaking headway at what is one of the most technical and consequential waves on earth. 

“You got the cliff, you got the backwash, you got a four or five-foot lip trying to go over your head…It draws off the reef so hard, there’s very little space in the barrel. I know it sounds weird, but when you’re in the barrel it’s not as big as it seems ‘cos it’s so thick and there’s not much room for your board to fit in that little curved bit,” he says.  

Not to mention he was attempting it backside.

“I’ve only got it a bit more dialed in now, over the last three to four years,” he says. “It’s a hard one. It’s all instinct when you’re on the wave. It all comes to me when I’m up and going.” 

After several years of merciless beatdowns, Max found his line out there and it is a thing of beauty. His ability to read the wash and warp, contort his frame into the cupped-out contour of the tube, and ride the bucking bronco has put him in a rare category of surfer to master the wave backside (Jai Abberton and Kirk Flintoff being the other two notable examples).  

It’s also proved the making of him. If you can master Ours backside, it only gets easier from there. 

“I’m pretty sure it’s one of the hardest waves to surf on your backhand, and it’s definitely made it easier surfing other waves on your backhand. When you go surf somewhere else it’s 10-times easier,” explains Max. 

This explains why he’s been on the wave of the day at right slabs all over the country these past few years. All while working full-time as a lifeguard in the summers and carpentry in the winters. 

“It’s definitely hard work, but it’s all worth it in the end when you get to surf these waves. It’s pretty rewarding,” he says. 

When a giant swell hit the aptly named Deadmans, on Sydney’s Northside, Max and Vass made the dash across the harbour to take it on. 

Max has the first wave of this clip, but please watch the full thing. Are you not entertained? 

“Mate, it was huge. You couldn’t even jump off the rock where the jump-off was. I remember we paddled from that beach around the corner, it was a massive paddle, my arms were dead by the time we even got there,” he recalls. 

In typical Maroubra fashion, Max and Vass charged each other up by calling each other cowards. 

“I was giving it to (Vass) ‘cos he’d just had a shoulder operation. I was going, ‘You’re fucking scared mate!’ He was fucking scared, but then he got one and got absolutely smoked and came up like he does all the time with a smile on his face,” laughs Max. 

As it was at the Boardriders’ presentation, Max got the nod over his mentor once again, pulling off one of the great backhand tube rides ever at the spot. After waiting two hours for a crack, Max managed a chip-in among the mutants, buried a bottom turn-up and under the detonating double-up, and adjusted his line with millimetre precision. 

“That was one of the best waves I’ve ever got,” he says, adding, “It’s hard ‘cos there’s a lot of waves that don’t do it. There are heaps of diamonds in the rough. It was kind of looking good, easy take off, bit of a roll in, and it looked like you could get down it before the step and pull up under it. But there are a lot of waves that go mutant and are hard to ride. That one was near perfect. It made my job a lot easier.” 

Closer to home, Max and Vass downed tools to meet a monumental south swell that saw a local bombie doing a fair impression of 25-foot Waimea, but with more wash-throughs. 

“I remember waking up and I’d never seen waves break that far off Wedding Cake Island, ever,” he says.  

Riding a 9’4 his dad had shaped him, Max and Vass made their way into the rogue, open-ocean lineup only for disaster to strike. 

“First thing that happened: I was sitting a bit wide waiting for the smaller ones, Vass was right on the inside and wanted that first wave. I just remember a 20, 25-footer breaking on his head. I was shitting myself ‘cos I thought he was dead, but as Vass does, he just pops up laughing,” recalls Max. 

Max managed to jag a bomb on his dad’s Rhino Chaser before hurrying to safety. “Dad was at work, he rang me straight away and said, ‘How’d it go?’ I said, ‘It went good.’ The thing weighs a tonne. It’s a big gun with a lot of weight to it but it’s good for out there, it just cuts through all the chop,” he says.   

Among Max’s many exploits in psycho slabs, his recent performances at Shipsterns have been particularly noteworthy. Despite visiting the wave for the first time as a 13-year-old, he’s only managed three trips since. Though his past two have put him right in the wheelhouse of the best goofs to ever surf it. On the same day the WSL was running a World Tour event in a chest-high wave pool, Max paddled himself into the kind of backside tube that would give the reigning world champ nightmares. 

“There weren’t many waves in the day, and it kind of snuck under the tow-ers. Marti (Paradisis) and a few of the local boys like Noah Hasset were sitting with me, and I asked them, ‘Do you boys want it?’ They said, ‘Nah.’ So I swung late and just snuck into it, went over the step, and it was kind of already breaking. I just made it, then pulled up into it. I was lucky to get that shot. I didn’t know anyone was there,” Max says. 

If there is a wave that stands up to Ours backside, it’s Shipsterns. Though for different reasons. 

More carnage. See 9:24 for Max’s no-hands negotiation.

“As soon as I packed into it, there was so much going in that barrel,” Max explains. “You’re taking off on a steep drop, going over a three-foot step, pulling up and into a barrel, there’s a split-second vision, you don’t get a good look at it, but it’s obviously amazing from inside.”

Max might be on the pointy end of the slab game, but he’s yet to test himself in the proving grounds of Tahiti and Hawaii. He assures Stab it’s on the cards. 

“I was meant to go over (to Tahiti) with Dylan Longbottom, but it wasn’t meant to be. It’s definitely on the bucket list though, don’t worry,” he says. 

In the meantime, he’ll keep saving kooks from rips and hammering nails into wood for the chance to pack mondo cones in his spare time. 

“(I’m) just trying to keep doing what I’m doing, doing it for the love of it, just surfing and hunting slabs,” he says. “That’s what I want to do, pretty much just keep working on the way to save some coin and do this stuff.” 

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