On an enclosed porch crammed with books, instruments, fabric scraps and vintage cameras, on their idyllic 20-acre property in Byron Bay, Australia, Lauren Hill and Dave Rastovich have to speak in hushed tones.
They’re recording an episode of Waterpeople, their recently launched podcast, while their 2-year-old son, Minoa (nicknamed “Minnow”), sleeps in the room next door.
The recording schedule is attached to Minnow’s nap schedule, and often takes priority over catching up on sleep themselves. “We’re going on like 700 nights of interrupted sleep,” quips Rastovich in the introductory episode, a 30-minute conversation between the two about why, on top of raising a toddler, traveling around the world and managing a sprawling permaculture oasis, they’re starting a podcast.
To Hill and Rastovich – neither of whom are digitally inclined (Dave went seven years without a cell phone until Patagonia supplied him one as part of his ambassadorship) – producing Waterpeople is about making a meaningful contribution to the community and culture with which they identify.
They both have been professional free surfers since a young age, have had varying relationships with mainstream sponsors, and have struggled with what it means to be a “surf activist.” These experiences have informed mutual misgivings about mainstream surf culture.
“There was a long-term motivation sprouting in me for 15 years or so since I started blogging and writing,” Hill told ASN. “A frustration of not feeling like my experience was reflected in endemic surf media.”
Hill, 33, from St. Augustine, Florida, was a sponsored longboarder in high school, but forewent the world tour to go to college. She studied environmental and social science, and began writing about the intersections of environmentalism, feminism and surf culture after graduating, trying to create an identity for herself as a “feminist surfer” while renavigating the surf industry.
Rastovich, 39, who was born in New Zealand but grew up on the Gold Coast of Australia, was a short-lived WSL Qualifying Series surfer who quickly became disenchanted with the role of competition in surfing. He created an identity for himself as one of the early professional free surfers, as well as an outspoken environmental activist affiliated with causes like Sea Shepherd and Surfers for Cetaceans, of which he was a founder.
Both still keep busy as professional free surfers, but for 10 years, they have also lived quietly and abundantly on their secluded property, where they’ve planted more than 7,000 native trees and have been able to live mostly off their own land.
Their schedules revolve around raising their first child, but are still largely dictated by the swell, wind and tide. They are self-declared “surf rats,” who share a belief that surfing can’t be reduced to a self-indulgent hobby; it’s a foundation worthy of building a life on.
“I can honestly say that almost all of the best things in my life have come from staying committed to that calling of sticking close to the ocean and to surfing,” says Hill.
But that commitment didn’t come without friction. Hill’s parents wondered when she would give up this “silly, superfluous thing” and get a real job. And even when she could make a living from surfing, there were times when Hill wondered how much she fit into the industry.
“I grew up in a time that was really rich with surfing media, especially women’s surf media. Then those kind of fell away into the middle 2000s,” says Hill. “I’d always hoped that the staple magazines would catch on and start depicting more women and more elders and really depicting the diverse facets of our culture, but it’s happening much more slowly than I would have expected.”
While Rastovich rebelled against competitive surfing from an early age, he acknowledges that surf culture is mostly a mirror into which he has always been able to see his own reflection: “It’s easy for someone like me, a white male who’s athletic enough and can surf well enough to see myself and people like me and to feel like part of the community.”
“There’s lots of people in surfing that don’t feel like they’re part of the culture,” continues Rastovich. “That’s really at the core of my desire to do this podcast, just wanting to acknowledge all the different facets of the surf organism.”
The modern surf community is as diverse as it’s ever been, its members strung together by a common, unflagging commitment to the sea. And so through Waterpeople, Hill and Rastovich ask: What is it about the ocean that compels people to revolve their entire life around it?
The podcast seeks out the root of the collective obsession with “this watery life,” to redefine surf culture and amplify unheard voices, and to reconnect a community that is at risk of splintering in the face of a shrinking surf-media landscape and a digitized world that has deprioritized face-to-face conversation and deep storytelling.
Inside Waterpeople, Season 1
The first season, which will be 13 episodes long and features almost equal numbers of men and women, has so far included conversations with freediver and spearfisherwoman Kimi Werner, free surfer Leah Dawson, Iranian exile Zara Noruzi, Australian Senator Peter Whish-Wilson and big-wave surfer Mark Healey.
“We always record the interviews in person, and I just ask what I’m genuinely curious about,” says Hill. “We wanted to create that same feeling as sitting around a campfire.”
They both have a quality that puts an interviewee at ease. “I can’t not be 100% honest with those two,” Kimi Werner told ASN. In Episode 2, Werner (pictured above, between Hill and Rastovich) reveals a deeply personal story about a time of shame and self-doubt that challenged and redeemed her relationship not only with the ocean, but also with herself. Hill calls moments like this “body-tingling storytelling experiences,” a lost art that Werner resurrects through her disarming candor.
Rastovich inspires a similar honesty in Mark Healey (pictured below), who recounts how the losses of friends like Sion Milosky at Mavericks and Malik Joyeux at Pipeline forced him to question why he was risking his life to surf big waves.
“I had to ask myself, what is your actual, true motivation for doing what you’re doing? Is it an ego thing? Is it because that’s what you’re celebrated for? I had to honestly look at what my true motivations were.”
In questioning his relationship with the ocean after losing his friends, Healey reveals his answer to Waterpeople’s question of why surfers are pulled to the ocean. “It made me realize how deep that need was for me, despite everything that was happening,” Healey says. “I’m doing it as an expression. I’m not an artist, I’m not a singer. This is a physical manifestation of how you feel and who you are at that time.”
In Episode 4, Hill and Leah Dawson look at surfing through the female lens, and share experiences of growing up at a time when surfing as a girl meant trying to fit into male metrics of what “good” surfing was. It wasn’t until she was older that Dawson found true expression through surfing.
“When I started riding single fins and these boards that made you use your hips more, I was falling in love with my femininity,” Dawson tells Hill. “For the first time in my life I felt beautiful. I saw a deeper side of myself, not caring what I looked like in the mirror but looking straight through the mirror into my soul, and my soul felt happy and that felt beautiful.”
While celebrating women’s voices is one of Waterpeople’s goals, so is pushing media beyond concepts of men’s surfing and women’s surfing. Hill and Dawson illuminate the female surf experience, but they also explore topics of board design and surf style, not in the specialized context of being women surfers, but just surfers. “Our culture still segregates male and female surfing, it’s not naturally integrated,” Hill told ASN. “We’re trying to naturalize all different kinds of experiences.”
Across episodes, answers to the question of why the ocean is so important reveal themselves, and themes emerge. The physical sensation of being in the water is a common draw, even if it is experienced in different ways. For Werner, diving is “feeling the ocean hugging me.” For Healey, big-wave surfing inserts him into “that energy at one of its most explosive and final moments.”
The water is also meditative. It demands full mental and physical presence, and leaves no room for self-defeating thought. For political exile Noruzi, catching a wave was the first time she found mental stillness after being exiled from her home country of Iran. “For the duration of that wave, I forgot about everything … none of the traumas existed anymore, it didn’t matter, because there was a force much greater than me and what happened to me.”
Waterpeople strings together stories of transcendence in the ocean. The sea takes and the sea gives. It builds relationships with fear. It forces one to ask who they really are and why they do what they do. And in moments of lost identity, one can always return to being a waterperson, and to the community that Hill and Rastovich seek to strengthen.
“That’s the magic,” says Rastovich. “[As surfers], we never have a moment of being directionless in life. We know where we are at all times.”
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