By Lucy Galbraith
In this yarn, I was invited to sit with Larry Fisher (aka Lazza Fish), Teacher and Surf Coach at Raglan Surf Academy, and Luke Hughes from Hughes Surfboards as they went through the motions of designing a new custom board (or three). A fly on the wall with a fish on the couch, shall we say. While I may have omitted most of that in this first part – and a few other gruntings from Mike the Builder about a new paddle-tracking app on his Apple Watch – I did find out a bit about how the world’s biggest grommet became generations of grommets’ favourite role model.
In part two next week, we'll dive into Lazza's plethora of custom Hughesy's.
Lucy: You haven’t always lived in Raglan huh?
I’m originally from Kaitaia. When I was fifteen I moved to Piha, around twenty-three I did a bit of travelling and when I was about twenty-six I moved here.
How’d you get into surfing? Did your parents surf?
Nah. Once I got into it I taught mum to surf. She’d always veg out at the beach all day, I had nothing else to do but hang out with her, so naturally I got on the foamies, got on the boogie board, and got into surfing when I finally got my hands on a surfboard..
So what was your first “proper” board? It must have been kinda hard getting a board in Kaitaia?
Yeah, and we didn’t have much money. My mum was a single parent and struggled with alcohol until I was 10 when she had the determination to give it up.. My first board was a hand-me-down: a Weaver single fin that my step-brother surfed. He was eight years older than me. He was quite good, so I always thought I’d like to be like him and surf. At 19 he went off the rails a bit and got pretty sick and developed mental illness. After that I got a Supersession twin finn. I found once I got on that all of a sudden I could do turns. Or thought I could.
But my first proper thruster was a Fresh Squeezed board. It was shaped by legend Roly Stanely and sent up to Kaitaia. It was a bit long for me. I’d worked mowing lawns and a bit at the local surf shop “Aqua Pulse'' and saved up for my first custom board off a local shaper from Ohaewai the late Col McNeil.who shaped under the Hurley label. Col died of cancer at a relatively young age and was one of the nicest guys you would ever meet. It was 5’ 7”. That went sick.
And soon enough you found yourself not needing to work your ass off to buy boards?
I moved to Piha when I was 15 to start competing and I was just in the right place at the right time. I won three comps in a row. I won the Auckland Scholastics, then came third at the National Scholastics, and then won the Auckland Champs. Ratso had just moved back from Sydney to start Hot Buttered and was looking fora grommet to sponsor. He found me, offered me a great sponsorship and he also set me up a meeting with Rip Curl. So we went and talked to Rip Curl’s NZ CEO Paul Muir. I sat there nervous as. He told me Rip Curl had an A team, a B team, a C team… I was a grommet so I was expecting to be put in the D team… But Muir put me in the B team straight away. He then took me through the warehouse and said, “grab whatever you want”.
A little grom from Kaitaia – you must have lost it!
Shit yeah, I remember when I first joined the Auckland scholastic team, just after starting school in Piha, I turned up wearing this wetsuit that had a big hole up the arse. Carol Cranch who was running the scholastics even said, “we can’t have you representing Auckland like that”.
School in Piha must have been different than Kaitaia. Were you a good student?
Uh, actually I should show you my report card. Before Piha, my mum got a reference from Kaitaia School cos she wanted to send me away to Dilworth boarding school in Auckland. It didn’t work.
(School Report May 1988)
The pupil is of average to below academic ability. His results could be much better but unfortunately, he lacks self-control and self-discipline. His immaturity means that he must always be directed to his work. He also spends a great deal of time being the class fool. He has a poor attitude to school discipline and general school rules. This casual attitude translates itself to untidy school work and a general untidy, unkempt personal appearance.
His attendance (Lazza: that’s the only thing I was good at!) except for one instance of full-day truancy, has been very good. Let’s hope that this masonic grant will help permit schooling in a full-time boarding situation and will help him.”
But I was at that age when I was just getting into surfing.I’d already been busted at school for weed and at intermediate, I got stood down and got in a whole lotta trouble. That’s why Mum thought it would be better to send me off to Dilworth, a boarding school for troubled boys to keep me on the straight and narrow. Luckily they didn’t want to touch me, probably after reading my reports. If I was there I wouldn't have got any opportunities to surf and my life would have taken a different route..
You reckon that straightened you out?
A little bit. I was never a bad kid, I was just always pushing the boundaries. Just getting attention for being a dick. Then surfing, I found it was something I was actually good at and I met a bunch of older guys that took me under their wing. I just loved it; the escape of being out in the ocean and that freedom. And back then in the Far North, you could surf ‘around the reef and there’d be these perfect waves at Peaks and all the other breaks with hardly anyone out. I just got hooked.
So how the hell did you get into teaching?
I left school at the end of year thirteen and was like “shit, what am I going to do?" I was gonna go to Aussie cos my main sponsor encouraged me to go down the comp route. He was going to set me up in Sydney so I could do the Pro Juniors. I was at a crossroads, I knew I was good at surfing but I never really had the belief I could go out there and make an impact. I didn’t believe in myself as much as I could have. I’m not sure that was a bad thing or if I was just being realistic. The other option was to get something behind me, a qualification. Then my mate Steve Roberts from Gisborne said, “Mate I’m gonna go train to be a teacher, you get wicked holidays, I’ve sussed out the timetable for uni. You’d only need to go from Monday through to Wednesday morning, we can surf, we can get holidays…”
At school, you were a bit of a shit. Surely there was something more that intrigued you about teaching other than your timetable fitting in with surfing?
I’d like to say I had a passion for teaching but I didn’t at that stage. I was eighteen and didn’t know what to do, Steve was talking me into it. I kinda thought it’d be cool to work with kids and all that, but it wasn’t like, “oh i want to give back to kids”. But I did know what I went through at school and knew I didn’t want to be a teacher like that. It was really just about getting something behind me. I wanted to get through training college so I could just travel and surf, then just see what happened. It was three years for a diploma or four years to get a degree. We ended up doing a degree. We had a great time and we still managed to go to Indo for four weeks every year during the holidays. I did more surfing at uni then I’ve probably ever done.
And after all that you landed yourself teaching at the only Surf Academy in New Zealand? How’d you manage that?
After travelling, my girlfriend (now wife) Donna and I went back to living in Piha for a few months but she wanted a change. I didn’t really, I liked it there. So she asked where else I’d want to go? Up north was too isolated, I loved Raglan, maybe Taranaki. She liked the idea of Raglan, then this job came up. I didn’t actually know Deane, I’d heard of him and the Surf Academy he had started up. He’d just got married and was wanting someone to look after his job for a year or two while they did their OE. He’d heard of me and long story short I got the job. After a couple of years, Deane came back, and after a bit of back and forth we worked it out so there were positions for the two of us.
And I understand a few of these kids would have backgrounds like yours and their outlet is surfing. You’d have a much more holistic view of why kids might be acting up. At my school, “naughty” kids were often quickly dismissed. Only a few teachers stopped to think, “Hey, maybe there’s something going on at home”.
You’ve got to. It all comes down understanding. To impact kids you’ve gotta have a relationship based on respect. If they’re being a dick they’ll get pulled up if they’re mucking around in class. You have to be firm and have clear boundaries, But I also try to be empathetic with kids and see where they’re coming from. They all come from different backgrounds. You can have a kid be a little shit but if you sit down and talk to them you end up realising that sometimes they’ve got shit going on at home. The academy teaches surfing, psychology and fitness, expending your energy – it’s a pretty good life tool for kids that need it. It’s not just about becoming a pro surfer, although a lot of them come in with that idea. You don’t want to squash their dreams and some of them have the ability to do it for sure, but I just want to teach kids to be good people who are going to be successful in life, happy and surfing.
Speaking of being a dick, part of your job is throwing a busload of groms into the surf in a place where some people get a little, uh, cagey towards a crowded lineup - do you get any sort of aggression from other surfers?
I’ve never had aggression but I have had people come up and go, “Lazza! What’s going on you’ve got fourteen grommets out there!”, and they’ll have a bit of a laugh but at the same time you can see they’re pissed off.
How do you get away with it? With that many kids?
We’ve been lucky that most of the community is pretty supportive. And most surfers know what time we’re going out. If we were out all day or just dropped the grommets off at Indy’s when it's pumping, people would get really pissed off. Most people know we paddle out at about two, and leave about four or five, and we only hit the beaches or Manu Bay.
What about the kids - have they copped a bit of flack out there?
Nah, they get dropped in on and that but I tell them to suck it up, especially new kids. I tell them they’re gonna get dropped in on, but over the course of a term or two they always get respect if they give it. The worst thing you can do if some local drops in on you is to tell them to fuck off or whatever. The kids all wanna know who the local guys are, and when they figure out the local guys they can start sussing their place out in the lineup. But every year’s different, you’re always gonna get one or two kids that come with a bit of an ego or are trying to prove themselves.
Luke popped his head out from the depths of designing Larry’s new board and asks…
Some of the kids are getting sponsored or are ambassadors for brands, is there a side to the academy that tries to teach or give insight to the professional side of things?
Yeah, part of that is the social media thing too. They all have Instagram. Most also have two profiles, one that’s private. On their private one they’re sending heaps of bullshit to their mates, but on there other one I always say, “don’t post anything that you don’t want your grandmother to see”, especially if they’re sponsored surfers and trying to create a profile for themselves. Some of them have no idea about that. They post photos of themselves at parties sculling beers and that. There was even this one kid who kept putting stories of himself pulling bongs all the time. It’s like, “what you do in your own time”. Well, they shouldn’t really be doing that, it’s up to you, but don’t portray that. That’s a big one, social media. I went to Gizzy and one of my mates was like, “oh how’s that kid who’s pulling bongs on his Snapchat and Instagram?” He didn’t last long at the academy.
Luke: I know, I was really lucky from a young age to get a sponsorship. At the time it was fucking awesome but I do think - and I don’t want to sound ungrateful - that looking back, I’m not sure it was such a beneficial thing at that age.
I totally agree. Most kids get picked up at 13 or 15 and get dropped when they turn 18. I think for a kid’s development it’s terrible. All of a sudden they feel the pressure of being sponsored by Billabong or Quiksilver and instead of surfing for themselves they almost become a different person. Like, “Oh I’m sponsored, this is me!” and people look up to you in a false way – like other grommets – and it puts a lot of pressure on. The whole thing is quite false, and not good for development. Then when they get dropped they feel like a failure or they’re going backwards when they haven’t. It’s just companies give a lot of product to kids but pull back when they get older in case they want too much, so they just get the next grommet and give them less.
Luke: The industry’s also changed a lot hasn’t it?
Yeah when I was a kid everyone was getting free boards, everyone was sponsored even if they weren’t that good. I was getting paid in products from Hot Buttered, Rip Curl and a few other little ones. I was even getting a little wage from Hot Buttered and thought it was crazy! But not many people get something for nothing now, it’s a lot harder to get sponsored.
Luke: When I was sponsored there were certain requirements. I was very lucky, Billabong would fly us to locations but I started noticing there was pressure to surf for the camera. Again, not saying I’m unappreciative but I’ve learnt now that’s definitely not me. If I want to go for a surf I want to go for enjoyment.
Yeah like forcing turns right where the camera is and hassling for waves… it’s not natural. I’ve been on a lot of shoots like that, especially when there’s a water camera and you’re try’na line up a manoeuvre right where they are. Surfing is all about flow and timing and for you to miss all those turns to line up one turn in front of the cameraman you normally kook it. Cos you’re not surfing with flow or enjoyment, it’s not like, “yeah boys just go surfing and we’ll try get a few clips”. It’s all kind of manufactured to get the shot, it’s almost scientific.
It’s exciting when you’re a grommet but as you grow older and wiser and learn from your experiences you can see it for what it is.
Luke: I think a lot could be said for that learning stage, and at times eating a bit of the humble pie like you said you’re trying to ingrain in your students – being a good person. That’s a much bigger priority in life rather than winning a surf contest or being the best surfer. If you wanna have your name in lights and be another Jordy Smith or something that’s awesome, but at the same time don’t forget to be a good human and respect and look after people. And that can go a long way too with respect to endorsements and sponsorships. I mean look at yourself, you’re still loyal to a company. How many years have you been with Rip Curl now?
Since I was fifteen.
Luke: See that’s amazing, and they’re still looking after ya!
I scratch my head sometimes when I get another contract or whatever. I’m like, whoa they must have forgotten how old I am. I remember thinking at 30, “Ok I’ve had a good surf career, I’m 30 now I’m sure they’re gonna say look Lazza, you’re a senior now”.
Luke: Being a good human, fundamentally, and being a role model. Obviously Laz, you’re in that position in the academy and generally when you’re in the surf line up. You’re a role model, people respect that. Obviously those brands and people see positivity in you which is something outside of a competition result in a sponsored sense. It can go a lot further.
Lucy: Aside from comps, it seems to me there are quite a few sponsored free surfers that don’t touch competitions. Is that more of a new thing?
When I was a grommet there were no free surfers that were picking up a sponsorship, you had to compete for sure. It has changed a bit, a lot of the grommets now will look at the free surfers – the Chippa Wilsons and those guys that don’t compete, and they’re just as influenced by them as the competitors.
I personally find them more interesting to watch…
Yeah. My son would rather watch those guys. He does like watching the very top guys, like Italo Ferreira, but he does like looking at the guys that are just doing their own thing. They’re not subscribed to fit the criteria to win a world title. It’s a career option if you’re good enough.
Have you noticed any other changes in how kids are surfing over the years, working at the academy?
Yeah, I think about that often, y’know whether they’ve improved or not. Cos you know surfing internationally has improved a lot. I think the general standard has gone up.
There’s no chance of the academy growing, is there?
It’s possible, we’ve got a lot of demand. It could get huge but we actually don’t want it to. Personally, from a coach’s point of view, I don’t want it to get big. We’d make more money but I don’t want it to be like that. If I had it my way we’d have eight surfers where you can work one on one with them, have a small group. We’ve made it 16 cos that’s the minimum you can have to have two teachers in a class. I’d like it to get better, so it’s a better programme for the kids and they enjoy it more and they feel like there’s more offered to them. But not bigger.
Keep an eye out for part two, where we chat surfboards and Lazza's lineup of custom Hughes, including the new custom orders Luke is currently making for Lazza and his son Kaleb, including two SB19's and a Gherkin2.