So What The Hell You Gotta Do to Become a Pro Surfer in 2021? - Stab Mag

So What The Hell You Gotta Do to Become a Pro Surfer in 2021?

Luke O’Connell’s sure got the surfing part down.

Words by Alistair Klinkenberg

Luke O’Connell, known universally as “Pancake”, doesn’t look like a surfer apart from his year-round neck tan.

It’s my favourite thing about him, besides the green gummy bears that seem to miraculously appear whenever he’s around. We’ve got enough salt-addled longhairs.

Eighteen and from the south coast of New South Wales (which is a paradise for everything apart form surf exposure), Luke’s the current pride of the region with good reason. He’s one of the most complete surfers it’s produced, and there’s a lot of good surfers in the area. If fellow locals Russ Bierke and Sean Mawson (the pair who, incidentally, popularised Luke’s nickname after they caught him sneakily wolfing down his namesake on the streets of Milton as a child) had a baby then they’d surf like Pancake. In short: massive airs and effortless style in the tube, honed on the areas’ fickle, tricky slabs.

Pancake’s just finished school. Like teens around the globe currently, graduating the educational incarceration system was even more of an anti-climax than usual — “We got robbed, didn’t even get a schoolies or nothing!” — cutting the festivities short and catapulting Luke straight into the “what am I supposed to do now?” phase. Ten years ago Luke would’ve already been being paid to surf when he walked out the school gates, but times have changed. Luke’s recently inked a deal with Rip Curl, but it’s not paying the bills, yet.

Pancake spins at a wave that’s infuriatingly crowded, but damn irresistible for the goofy fly boy.

“I’ve just been lifeguarding, cruising, trying to get some money together to travel and get some Cloudy or Deserts footage when the world opens, and just generally trying to get my name out there,” Luke says. “It’s hard being from the south coast a bit in that regard.”

Growing up where Luke did is like coming of age in Indo. The waves are so good at home that driving/flying hours to slop around trying to win heats isn’t appealing. However, Pancake’s entered the Australian QS this year to see what happens. “The local crew who’ve had a crack at the comps said, ‘What are the odds of you missing a swell? It’s a week out of the year, so you’re likely to land on the worst conditions,’” he says. “But I feel like I do my best surfing in freesurfs, when I’m just going with the flow.”

Speaking of freesurfing, last winter was a productive one for young Pancake. Some of the folks down the coast even dubbed it the “Winter of Pancake,” which in these parts means he got tubed, a lot. The clip you see above is a bundled together highlights package, and if you thought that the ending is abrupt then you’d be right. Filmmaker Max Zappas, who shot some of the footage and cut the film, got to 1:27 in the editing process and promptly disappeared and hasn’t been seen since. Before he left us, Max told me of the session at 48 seconds, where Luke scoops and drags with trademark nonchalance, that Pancake dominated. Hanging on the rocks in between pits and declaring that he “hoped” it was “getting bigger”.

Luke’s old man’s not scared of hollow waves breaking over shallow ledges (“Yeah dad rips,” says Luke), his Mum’s Brazilian and their neighbours are a family called the Bierkes. Growing up sandwiched between Russ, Kirk Bierke and his Old Man sealed Luke’s fate. He was permitted to punt into the wind in regulation surf, but when the red blobs of winter appeared, he had no choice but to tag along.

“Ah come on, just come out and watch a few,” Pancake, his neighbour, and the familiar surf check.

“Yeah I’ve known Pancake since he was about five years old and learning to surf,” Russell Bierke tells me. “I always knew he was going to rip but his tech surfing has been getting better and better. I’m stoked to see him step things up in some heavy waves last couple years too.” 

“The Big Wave Dave stuff is pretty gnarly,” Luke says when asked if he was considering following his neighbour’s career path. “Seeing what Russ does is incredible. He’s the best in the world at all around big waves: big paddle waves and slabs. That shit scares me, I don’t know if I could push it enough to be the best in that department.”

Talking of “shit” that scares Luke, he was out at the recent big bombie session that split Russ’s arm open and rewarded Paul Morgan, one of the OG’s of this stretch of coast (that spot in particular), with the well-deserved wave of a lifetime. 

Don’t be fooled by the casual demeanour, this is a big, critical cathedral. (Photo by Max Zappas)

“I was paddling over the top when he swung late,” Luke says. “He got a flogging on one before, and after that one I jumped on his ski and he was freaking out. I asked him if it was the best one he’d got out there, and he said it was the best wave of his life. For him to claim a wave is a big indicator of how good it was.”

Pancake, a veteran of sorts at the spot after being dragged out numerous times by Russell, didn’t fare as well. 

“It nearly closed out the bay when we were paddling out,” Luke says. “I didn’t expect it to be that big. It was maxing in the morning, just the biggest greenest tubes out there.”

Rest assured, Luke can kick the tail with the best of them, there were just lots of tubes the winter past. (Photo by Pete Balmer)

After negotiating the crowd (“there were 30 people out there, but only 15 catching waves”), Pancake has a momentary lapse of reason and turned and rolled the dice on an ugly one, subsequently landing himself in the worst position possible.

“I didn’t really like the look of that thing to begin with when it came through,” Luke says. “There was a booger on the wide bowl taking off which wigged me out, but the wave split in half so it didn’t really matter. I stuck the landing and rode out straight, took a big breath, went under and came up. The first one wasn’t too bad, then the next wave was real foamy and landed square on my noggin. It held me underwater in the washing machine and I didn’t know where I was. I started fighting to come back up, which is a mistake. It went black, blacker, blacker, and I thought I’m going to pass out here.”

Pancake managed to remain conscious, and was subsequently scooped up by regional legend, Dylan Longbottom, but admits that the experience made him “tweak out.”

Cute on land, deadly in the water.

Whilst it’s impossible to predict what the future holds for Pancake’s surfing, he’s doing all the right things to put himself in the picture for a professional career, perhaps most importantly, by having his head screwed on.

Luke runs with a rat pack of mates down south who share deft touches in the tube, big smiles and humble, laid-back attitudes on land. A welcome departure from the hot groms of ten years ago who seem universally full of themselves. Asides from Pancake’s surfing, which is a perfect modern blend, he’s a reminder that growing up with the internet in the palm of your hand doesn’t necessarily rot your brain and warp your outlook. The kid’s alright.


Pancake braces his nuggety frame for landing,

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