Mark Mathews – Life Beyond FearWhat was it like growing up in Maroubra?
As far as what I wanted to become – a professional big wave surfer – it was perfect. I got to grow up with some of the best big wave surfers in the world, like Koby Abberton and his brothers as well as a lot of the other locals here, and I guess it pushed me.
What’s changed for the better and what’s changed for the worse at Maroubra over the years?
The waves are more crowded and the property prices are ridiculous. For someone growing up here, unless your parents own a place and can hand it down to you, it’s really hard to get into the market. It’s going to be ridiculously hard for the next generation as well. For the better, it feels like we went through a phase where there was a lot of trouble down here and kids growing up took the media coverage of the area the wrong way. They wanted to become Bra Boys and thought it was all about getting in trouble, which was the opposite of what it was about. It feels like that has sort of passed now. The Bra Boys in Maroubra is about the community helping each other to be successful.
You travel a hell of a lot; do you still call Maroubra home?
Yeah, definitely. Probably more so now than I did in the past because I’ve got a spot where I’ve been living for over five years now. I’d struggle now to leave.
Do you surf Maroubra Beach much these days or are you usually surfing elsewhere when it’s firing?
I surf it pretty much every day, once or twice a day, but if it’s pumping I don’t usually surf it because one of the reef breaks elsewhere is going to be pumping when the beach is good.
What’s the biggest wave you’ve ever surfed?
It would be 50-foot, I reckon. It was at Jaws in Hawaii, towing in. Once the wave is over 20-foot or 25-foot, regardless of how much bigger it gets, it’s going to hammer. You stop counting when it’s over 20-foot.
What’s the scariest wave you’ve ever surfed?
Cyclops when I was younger, down in Western Australia. That is the scariest I’ve ever surfed, but it’s borderline not even a surfable wave. I’ve surfed it twice and the last wave I rode there was the scariest wave I’ve ridden, and I feel like I escaped certain death. I made this one wave that I reckon would have killed me on the reef if I’d wiped out and I vowed I’d never ever go there again.
You must have done yourself some pretty serious injuries over the years; what’s the worst you’ve done?
It was when I got knocked out at Shipstern Bluff and hurt my neck. I was sure that I’d broken my neck because of the nerve pain running down my hand, but it was just severe whiplash from hitting the reef. It compressed the nerves in my neck. To get back from Shipsterns to the hospital to get scans was an eight hour journey. I was lying in a neck brace for eight hours and it really scared me because I was sure I wasn’t going to be able to surf again.
Have you ever thought you were going to drown?
Yeah, there have been a handful of times where I’ve gotten to that stage where your lungs just burn so badly and it just creates this panic. There’s probably been probably four or five of those times. They’re pretty scary when they happen; they rattle you.
With the equipment that’s available these days (buoyancy vests, etc.), is it getting easier to surf big waves?
Definitely. The new Patagonia life vest they’ve created is the most amazing invention for big wave surfing ever, but the thing is that we’re starting to paddle way bigger waves now than what we ever were before. It’s night and day when you’re wearing those safety vests though; they’re unbelievable. It’s like jumping out a plane without a parachute compared to jumping with one.
Do you still hit the reef a fair bit?
Yeah, especially at Teahupoo. Even though you wear two life jackets there, you still hit the bottom. I can’t even imagine what it would be like if you didn’t wear one. You’d be dead, I reckon.
What mental processes do you use to recover from a serious wipe-out or a serious injury?
It’s the exact same process you use to get over any type of fear, because it’s just like a heightened level of fear after a bad wipe-out. The last 10 or 15 years I’ve tried to find every single way possible to get around fear without feeling it, but there’s just no way to do it. To get to somewhere special or do something amazing, you have to go through fear. There’s no other way, and for me it’s just about focusing on what’s on the other side of the fear. You create enough emotion to do it regardless of how scared you are. If I’m extra scared about surfing a swell, I spend more time focusing on why I want to surf it, what the rewards are going to be, how good it is going to feel to get barrelled and what it’s going to do for my career. You focus on that.
Do you fear death?
Yeah, for sure. I love life too much to not fear it.
Is it a genuine concern though? Is it something you think about?
Yeah, I think about it all the time. In the lead up to a big swell, about a hundred ways of how I’m going to die go through my head. It’s a natural instinct to focus on what can go wrong. That’s part of your survival mechanism. It’s just usually blown way out of proportion. You always think things are worse than what they actually are.
The Red Bull Cape Fear event is coming up soon; was that your brain child?
Yeah, mine and fellow big wave surfer Ryan Hipwood’s. We were travelling and surfing all the time and seeing other events that were going on, especially big wave events, and the type of waves that they were being run in – it was pretty boring. We were influenced by the way UFC and boxing are run and how well they draw audiences in. The aim is to mesh the two, the format of UFC and the waves of Cape Fear, and create an event around that.
Can you tell us a little bit about the format of the event, because it’s obviously run differently to your standard ASP event?
It’s a fight card format like boxing or the UFC where you pit the best surfers who you want to see do battle up against each other. Sometimes in other formats like the ASP, you don’t see the two guys you want to see do battle. There were only a handful of times when we saw Kelly [Slater] and Andy [Irons] do battle, but if you can make that moment happen, I feel like it makes for a better competition. So basically it’s eight battles like that.
I believe it will be live on Fuel TV, but spectators can’t actually attend the event itself; is that right?
Yeah. They can’t get the insurance to have the crowd down on the rocks; it’s really difficult with the National Parks. Hopefully in the future, maybe at the next event or the one after, we could build a big grandstand there for it.
Can you explain to us the dangers associated with surfing Cape Fear? Why is it such a gnarly wave?
It’s really powerful because it’s super deep water off the back of the shelf, and then it jacks up on to this really shallow slab of reef. The slab of reef right in front of the take-off zone is so sharp with barnacles, and then on from that there is a cliff face just ten metres in front you. If you fall on the take-off and you don’t get lucky, you’re in real trouble.
Were you at all disappointed that you didn’t get a call up for the ASP’s new big wave tour?
No, I actually spoke to the organisers a little bit and explained to them that I wasn’t that interested in doing the entire tour. I’d love more than anything to get a shot at the Jaws event, just because that’s the wave that is most amazing on that tour.
I heard as a child you were scared of the ocean; do you still get genuinely scared these days?
I was scared as a kid. People just figure that I must be crazy or born with some kind of brain defect that stops me feeling fear. When they see footage or photos of what I do, they just think I’m mad. It’s funny when I explain that I feel fear exactly the same way as everyone else and I still fear the ocean. When we were young I wasn’t the kid that was surfing the big waves. When I was really young, I went down the coast with a bunch of families and I was the kid that was on the beach, too scared to go out.
When was it that you started really charging some serious swells?
Shipsterns was the changing point. That was my first-ever trip there and it started my career as a professional surfer. I went from having never surfed barrels bigger than six or eight-foot, to riding what were some of the biggest paddle-in barrels that had ever been surfed at the time. It was then that I was like, “Maybe I can be a professional big wave surfer.” All the sponsors started coming in off the back of that one trip.
What drove you to surf those big waves at first?
I was working in a bar at Circular Quay every night, had no money to travel and surf, and wasn’t a professional surfer. I was offered a trip by one of the surf mags and they were like, “We want you to come surf this wave down at Shipsterns.” I didn’t want to go, but you don’t say no to a surfing magazine when you don’t have a career as a professional surfer – that’s the end of your career or your aspirations to have a career. At the time we had no idea what we were surfing really until the photos and the film got published. Once the film negatives were done and we got to see them two days later, we were like, “What the f***?” – I’d never seen anything like it.
A lot of big wave surfers aren’t necessarily that handy on smaller waves, but you finished quite high on the WQS a few years ago, didn’t you?
Yeah, at one stage I was ranked in the fifties, but I never had the talent. I reckon I could have, if I put more time into it, figured a way to qualify for the WCT, but I knew I was never going to be a world title chance or a top-ten surfer. At the time when I was competing on the WQS, I was surfing big waves as well and I just liked everything about surfing big waves, and my sponsors loved it too. They were just hammering at me to keep surfing big waves.
Do you have any phobias?
No phobias, but I’m a little bit scared of heights. Public speaking is my biggest fear ever though. That’s the biggest fear I’ve ever overcome. I vividly remember having to read in front of a classroom at school when I was young and just being a stuttering mess. The kids were laughing and it was the most embarrassing thing to happen to a kid. I never spoke in front of people again until I was probably 26 or 27. It took that long for me to figure it out. For about three years I was getting offered speaking jobs over and over again and I was knocking them back. It took me about three years to work up the courage to actually do one.
How does it feel to have your public speaking recommended by respected people like Wayne Bennett?
Mate, it’s mind blowing. My parents are just as baffled because I wouldn’t say boo as a kid or growing up or at social occasions. I was highly introverted. To have guys like that saying that they enjoyed the talk that much is pretty special. That’s the thing though; if I never pushed myself to do it, I wouldn’t know that I’m actually good at it.
Where is your favourite place in the world to surf?
I couldn’t give you one. It depends on what I feel like doing. If I’m dying to surf some big waves it’s Tasmania, Western Australia, Tahiti or Hawaii – that’s where I am dying to surf. But then the motivation changes when you surf back to back big waves and you then want to surf something really fun. Anywhere on the east coast of Australia, like a perfect beach break with no one around or one of the point breaks, is unreal too.
You feature in a television show, ‘The Crew’, with fellow Bra Boys Richie ‘Vas’ Vaculik and Macario ‘Kid Mac’ De Souza; how is that going?
Yeah, the TV show’s going amazingly well. It’s surprising to me; you never think that what you’re doing is going to be that interesting. We got really good ratings across Fuel and Go! for season one, and the first three or four episodes of season two have been on Fuel and the ratings have been really good again. The guys at Channel Nine have watched the majority of season two and they’re psyched on it. They want season three.
How many big wave awards have you won?
I’ve won three Oakley Big Wave Awards – three years in a row. It was pretty sick. I thought at that time it was easy to win them, but realised that so much goes into it and so much luck goes into it. You’ve kind of got to be on every single big swell that happens that year and you’ve got to be so lucky to be the one on the biggest wave during that swell. Looking back, I get more and more stoked with that achievement of winning three of them.
Do you think the Bra Boys cop a bad rap from some of the members of the public? How do you think the gang is perceived?
They do, but deservedly so. There’s been that much bad media attention and some of it was warranted. If you pick 150 to 200 teenagers in their early 20s from any beach or any suburb and then follow exactly what they’re doing, you’re going to get bad eggs and there’s going to be trouble. It’s just the way it is and I think it was just magnified at Maroubra. The media had found a name and something that people wanted to hear about, so they’d just drum every story up and make it seem worse than it was. That created something worse, because then all of a sudden kids wanted to be part of the group and thought they had to get into trouble to be part of the group. That’s what made it spiral out of control.
You got into a bit of trouble when you were younger; how did it feel to be thought of as a ‘bad egg’ all of a sudden? How did your family react?
At the time when you’re just an idiot kid, you’re stoked. Any media attention when you’re young is good; you don’t give a shit. But looking back on it, it’s bad. It’s bad to do that to your family. Your parents know you’re not actually like that, but when you make bad choices it reflects upon them, which sucks. I was lucky in a lot of situations to not end up in jail or end up seriously hurt, whereas a lot of kids aren’t so lucky.
Do you think the Bra Boys film was a good thing or a bad thing for the Maroubra area?
On a whole, for the next generation of kids growing up, I don’t think it was good. It was bad for them because the outcome shows that a lot of kids got in trouble. After all that, it was just perceived to be something that it wasn’t. There were also a lot of really good things in it though, especially towards the end of the documentary where you see how interconnected the community is and how culturally diverse it is – that’s a pretty powerful thing. People like to think we’re some kind of white pride group. I get white pride activists groups writing to me thinking that’s what we’re about, especially when the race riots went on, and it’s like, “Where does that come from?” I have best friends who are Bra Boys who are Lebanese or Aboriginal or Islanders.
You’ve launched an app called Life Beyond Fear; can you tell us a bit about that?
People ask me all the time: how do you do it? How do you surf big waves? How do you overcome any type of fear? If you want to know and you want help doing it, just get the app. It’s basically just a motivation tool, because that’s the only way to get through fear – to be motivated enough to take it on. It’s the only way. I used to put photos over my bed so I’d see them every day. I’d wake up and it would make me get up and train harder and chase swells, surf bigger waves. The app basically allows me to carry that inspiration around with me to look at whenever I’m faced with something scary. That’s what the app is. I want to wake people up with a different frame of mind every morning.
Do you have any other skills besides surfing?
I like to think I was a good footy player. I played in a prep first team at Waverley. I played union and there were three or four other kids I played with that went on to play Super Rugby and for the Wallabies. I also played a little bit of league with Reni Maitua and those guys.
What’s next for Mark Mathews? Do you have anything else in the pipeline besides the Cape Fear event?
I’m just about to launch the app over the next couple of months. I’ll do as much press as I can for that, as well as the public speaking jobs, and then I’ll just be waiting for swell.
Do you support any charities?
I get behind PPP4SPA, which raises mental health awareness and funds for Suicide Prevention Australia. That’s the specific one that’s pretty close to me, having had so many mates who have been affected by depression or suicide. You can find out more about it at www.ppp4spa.com.au.
And in an ideal world, what does the future hold for Mark Mathews?
Plenty of really big barrels in the near future would be unreal.