Stab Magazine | Long(er) Read: Kalbarri And Son

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Long(er) Read: Kalbarri And Son

The ocean gives and the ocean takes. It’s a lesson Ry Craike and the Kalbarri surfing community have learned harder than most.

style // Nov 28, 2016
Words by Jed Smith
Reading Time: 11 minutes

You wouldn’t know it, but Ry Craike is doing it as tough as he’s ever done it right now. We’re sitting over a beer at the iconic Kalbarri Pub, the one with the plastic marlin hanging over the bar and the life-sized images of local heroes dropping into giant barrels plastered over the walls. Ry is sitting with a bunch of friends preparing for one of the biggest parties the town has seen in a while. It’s a 50th, for a legendary local figure known only as ‘Wayno’. By the end there will be fifty-something acid freaks crawling across the lawn in the light of day like lizards. But that’s later. Right now, we’re going through these past few years of Ry’s life.

KAS 01

There is such a thing as an ‘Australian’ pub. It’s not worth describing here. You’ve either been to one or you haven’t. The Tote in Melbourne is one. The old Annandale in Sydney was another. And the Kalbarri Hotel, in its way, is also one. This is where Ry Craike wets his whistle. There are pictures of his mates dropping into thick, blue tubes on the walls. There’s a marlin mounted over the bar and you can expect Ke Sanh on any Tuesday karaoke night.

After parting ways with longtime sponsor Quiksilver several years ago, he’d signed with good mate Luke Egan’s brand, Depactus. But he hasn’t seen a cheque from them in months and he thinks they’ve gone bankrupt. This poses a problem. Craikey had never planned on surfing to pay his bills through life. It was assumed he’d one day fall into the family abalone trade alongside his father. But courtesy of a series of rare cyclones in the north west, a spike in ocean temperatures off the coast of Kalbarri boiled the whole abalone population off in one hit. And their million dollar license was destroyed instantly. With a mortgage to pay off and a child to raise (he is recently divorced from his wife), it’s put Ry in a real bind.

“Yeeeeah, so that was a bit of a bummer… but life goes on,” he begins in classic Aussie drawl.

Though, the loss was also bitter sweet. The same cyclones that delivered the warm current also brought some of the best and strangest surf conditions this stretch of coast has ever seen. Kalbarri, a region known mostly for meaty ledges, suddenly became home to sand-bottom rights running the opposite way down the coast. At Jakes, Kalbarri’s premier grinder, the cyclones had created down-the-line kegs on the reef, while a short paddle to the other side of the headland found you a churning right point ripped straight out of Mexico.

“It was a bit of a fucken hard one,” Ry says. “There was piles of ab shells all washed up on the beach, just like fucken tonnes and tonnes of them. But at the same time, we were getting all these fucken hell rights, so that was pretty sick.”

He’s back to old fashioned wet-lining with his father now – a hook attached to a fishing line, dropped into a school of targeted fish. It’s hard work, the yields are comparatively low, but it keeps him on the water with enough time to surf, so he’s happy enough. More troubling, however, is the persistent grief that’s dogged Craikey since the loss of two mates from Kalbarri at sea last year after their commercial fishing boat overturned in heavy seas off Karratha. One was Craikey’s neighbour, also one of his closest mates. The pain was exacerbated by the fact their deaths might have been prevented had information from the boat’s vessel monitoring system – a device installed in commercial fishing boats to alert the West Australian Fisheries of their position – been passed onto rescuers earlier. As it was, the information didn’t reach them for five full days. Meanwhile, the
Kalbarri community had made the 11-hour drive up north and launched a fruitless rescue effort of their own using boats and skis. The captain was found, but not the boys.

“Our mates could’ve been fucken floatin’ out on the ocean, like, clinging to something,” says Ry. “They didn’t find ‘em on the boat so you know, if we had have been notified earlier… Yeah, lost at sea. Pretty fucken heavy way to go. We’ll never fully know what happened to them.”

KAS 02

A memorial for the duo is being built as we speak, overlooking the town’s main wave, Jakes Point. But even that has its critics. Certain sections of the local surfing community argue that the memorial is not what the boys would have wanted, and that the planned BBQ and shelter overlooking the wave will kick off the development of the red-earth carpark, which will in turn lead to more crowds. Kalbarri is fiercely localised and Craikey has found himself in the sights of his own people more than once. Of all the things that should be causing him indigestion right now, it’s the arrival of a team of American pros on a Surfing Magazine trip tomorrow that’s troubling him the most. “You know who’s gonna cop all the flak for it,” he says.

Located six hours north of Perth, Kalbarri is a strange oasis. Fed by the ancient Murchison river to its east, it is the last frontier of fertility before the great red and yellow desert begins. Green balls of shrub sit atop ochre dirt while savage red cliffs ripped straight from Mars stand like shipsterns over an endless cobalt ocean. It is also a town in decline, the boom times of the 1990s, when the crayfishing and abalone industries were at their zenith, having faded. “You hear some of the old boys telling stories about how the pub was back in the day, just wild stories, pulling all nighters, back out the next day, brawls, the boys pumped up after being at work,” says Ry.

Craikey was three when the family arrived in Kalbarri. His father was a fisherman and surfer from coastal Victoria originally. His father, along with his identical twin, spent his youth in a creaky wooden boat traversing the notorious Bass Strait (between Tasmania and Victoria), fishing everything from crays to sharks. It was a tough gig, but the Craikes are ocean people. They live to fish and surf, and unravel if they’re not doing either. His parents were regulars at Red Bluff in the eighties, the fly-blown surfing and fishing nirvana in Australia’s far north west. Craikey remembers half a dozen trips across the Nullarbor as a kid and it was here his father first got wind of the Abalone lifestyle on the go in Kalbarri.

“He was like, how fucken good is this?” recalls Craikey. “You can only do it when it’s dead flat and low tide. It’s the perfect job for a surfer. He didn’t know fuck all about them really. He just went, this looks pretty good, and gave it a crack.” On their way to start their new life in Kalbarri, the family made a pit stop in Cactus where Craikey’s parents served as caretakers of the property for a few months. Though, it wasn’t until Kalbarri that he learned to surf. That was back before he was a goofyfooter. “I was a natural-footer learning down the bay and me old boy’s like, fuck mate, we live in the land of the lefts, fucken, try and change over to goofy,” recalls Ry. “Now I only go left apparently!”

KAS 03

When Ry Craike arrived in Kalbarri as a three-year-old, his father immediately had him surfing the bay out front – the same one you’ll find this left in. There’s three shallow lefts in the bay, finishing at a tiny beachbreak on the inside. It was there, on that beach, that Craikey first stood on a surfboard as a child. He was a natural footer back then but his father changed that. “Me old boy’s like, fuck mate, we live in the land of the lefts, try and change over to goofy,” recalls Ry. “Now I only go left apparently!”

Craikey’s fondest childhood memories are of piling into his father’s rusted Land Rover ute with the men where he’d curl around the steaming gearbox at their feet as they drove hours deep into the desert. They would spend days, sometimes weeks, camping in isolated fishing shacks along the coast, abseiling down cliffs on bits of old cray rope, and returning with up to 20 or 30 grand worth of abalone on a good trip. It’s these early adventures he credits with the irrepressible thirst for discovery, that still powers him today.

“The whole nor-west of WA has been an epic spot to grow up,” he says. “That’s what I like most about living in this area: It’s such a vast fucking landscape that there’s still so much you can explore. Just as fun as scoring hell waves with your mates, is the adventure of getting there. You know, fucken down the road in the hell fourbee (4×4) and exploring, and all that shit that goes with it. That’s the way we were brought up and it’s been a rad spot to grow up.”

Craikey’s rise through the surfing ranks began when he was discovered by West-Australian big wave pioneer, Paul ‘Antman’ Patterson, at a state surfing contest. He was 12 at the time and Antman, who was working for Quiksilver, signed him immediately. Four years later, Ry won a Quiksilver Airshow Series event in Cottesloe, pocketing six grand and earning him the call up to a Quiksilver Crossing trip to the Mentawais alongside Kelly Slater and Tom Carroll. “Can you imagine that? Here I am, this little grom from a town like this, just going, ‘what the fuck?’”

While doing the Airshow Series, he was introduced to the man who’d become the single biggest influence on his surfing career, the great Australian surf punk, Matt Hoy. The two would form a formidable travelling duo over the next decade, Hoy playing mentor to the young Craikey and schooling him on the ways of the world as he saw them.

“One thing I admired about Hoy, wherever we travelled with him around the world, he always gave everyone the time of day, to make sure he had a beer with them, or fucken 10 or 20, and people remember that,” says Ry.

After impressing on The Quiksilver Crossing, Craikey was elevated to the first instalment of the Young Guns film series. A trip that put him alongside some of the greatest talents of our time, including Dane Reynolds, Clay Marzo, Julian Wilson and Kelly Slater. These were back in the surf industry boom times, when the Indies Trader IV had a helicopter on its roof for checking the surf.

KAS 04

Craikey says you could never imagine the looks on locals faces the time he brought Metallica to the Kalbarri Hotel.

“They picked us up in a speed boat and we fucken come flying over and see this huge boat with a chopper on the roof, and then they had this seaplane on the jetty for our arrival,” he recalls. “We were just going, holy fuck!”

It was during these trips that he formed a friendship with the enigmatic, ultra-talented Clay Marzo, who Ry would later invite to his hometown. Though it would take a couple years for him to accept: “Once he came, he pretty much never left,” laughs Craikey of Marzo, who now has a local girlfriend and spends half his year in the north west.

But the arrival of Craikey on the world scene wasn’t received well by everyone. His burgeoning profile was bringing more attention to Kalbarri than some locals could bare. He recalls trying to soothe one character’s anger with free wetsuits and merch, but when Ry’s profile film was released featuring a chunk of footage from Kalbarri, the man lost it, returning the gifts to his driveway in the middle of the night along with a stream of obscenities. There’s been upsides to his celebrity too, however. Like the time he got Metallica to the Kalbarri pub after meeting them on the road (both Kirk Hammett and Rob Trujillo surf). “A few of the old birds were tripping,” he says.

Ultimately, he’d have to travel if he wanted to surf and shoot. And travel he did… a very, very long way. North of Kalbarri lies hundreds of kilometres of untouched coast and barely-inhabited country. The potential for waves is mind-boggling and Craikey and his crew have found many. For every day of perfect waves with no one around, however, there are many more of torturous travel and heartbreaking skunkings. Plague proportions of flies, blistering heat, bogs in the middle of nowhere, and the very real risk of serious injury with zero in the way of healthcare or rescue services around, are all part of the experience. The “holy grail” in this part of the world is still Gnaraloo, however, another six hours north of Kalbarri. The wave scares Craikey as much today as it did the first time he surfed it.

“On its day Tombies (Tombstones, at Gnaraloo) is as heavy as Chopes or Pipe,” he believes.

“And a bit different, ‘cos with Gnaraloo it throws those steps at you, it’s a bit more unpredictable than Chopes or Pipe.” He’s seen men with their “faces ripped off” out there and been forced to assist in several harrowing rescue missions.

“What adds to the heaviness of these spots is that they’re so far out of the way,” he says.

KAS 05

Fast, vicious and perfectly controlled, Ry Craike’s frontside gaff belongs to Jakes.

“You’ve gotta be prepared to go to these joints, water, first aid kits, fucken everything, cos if something goes wrong, you’ve got no phone reception, you’ve got nuthin.”

It’s this risk and reward equation that keeps Craikey feeling alive and lately it’s led him past the coast of Australia, to the island chains just beyond it. The finds have been spectacular, but again, not without hardship.

“You’re going out in the most hideous weather, just goin’ fuck, we’re gonna die. Huge waves are breaking over the boat and you’ve got all the skis on the back and stuff. You left at midnight and you’ve got all this stuff organised and you get there and… it’s fucken shit. That happens a fair bit. It’s the old saying, you’ll never know if you never go.”

His first mission to the islands was the worst.

“Torrential sideways rain,” he recalls. “You couldn’t sleep ‘cos the anchor was dragging and snapping off – we snapped the anchor off a few times through the night. We were out there for five days, six of us jammed on this little boat like sardines, losing our minds.

On the last day it turned on and we woke up to incredible waves. I’m sure there’s other bits and pieces out there. You just need the resources to be able to make a lot of this shit happen. I think that’s what’s gonna protect the place in a lot of ways.”

KAS 06

The Craike family’s livelihood was killed off in one fell swoop when a freakish hot current poured down the coast of Kalbarri, killing off the entire abalone population. Craikey is back to old fashioned wet-lining with his father to pay the mortgage now – also one of the most dangerous jobs going in the giant swells and storms that batter this coast.

It was out there that Craikey managed the now immortal feat of towing his 62-year-old father into the wave of his life – a 10 foot draining reef barrel that ended, miraculously, with him kicking out and high-fiving Ry on the back of the ski (you can see it in Craikey’s TV Show, A Fish Out Of Water). But it doesn’t always end like this.

“A lot of the time I’m towing him in thinking ‘fuck, I hope I haven’t killed the old bastard,’ whipping him into a slab or something. Fuck, sorry, daddy! But he’ll just come out frothin,” he laughs.

With his abalone gig cooked, Ry will be now fishing these waters for a living. Sheer hundred-metre cliffs that attract six feet of swell on a flat day, sending giant lumps of backwash back at the boat, are just some of the perils he will face. He’s still learning the ropes, in particular boat mechanics, which he will need to master if he’s to survive the next few years at sea.

“You’re up there and if the old boy’s not on and something fucks up with the boat, you need to have a pretty good idea of how you’re gonna fix it and get yourself out of the situation,” he says.

Still, there’s nowhere else he’d rather be. “The plan from hereon in is fucken just keep surfing, fishing, having a hell time, y’know,” he says. “Basically, if I’m on the ocean, I’m happy.”

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