by CHRIS TAYLOR
Riding the waves of the surfing world for more than 50 years, Noosa local Phil Jarratt is regarded as one of the foremost global authorities on the sport. His journey from growing up in 1960s Wollongong then moving north to Noosaville several years later has been an epic globetrotting adventure for the keen surfer-come-award-winning writer and filmmaker.
Well known for his ability to produce a best-selling page-turner, Phil recently celebrated his 70th birthday by launching Place of Shadows, his 42nd book. “But who’s counting!” he says. It’s a detailed delve into Noosa’s somewhat dark past. It’s his latest handiwork on a long list of creative exploits that began many years ago.
Phil showed great writing promise from an early age, submitting an article on Australian ocean pollution to California Surfer magazine in 1968. To his elation the story was published internationally and the $25 cheque he received more than a year later more than made up for the disappointment of two previous articles going unacknowledged by a local surfing magazine.
This inspirational moment of global recognition convinced a teenage Phil that his future lay in journalism. After all, he believed at the time that journalists pretty much got to go wherever they wanted, filing front-page stories from exotic places, making huge bucks and getting plenty of time off to surf.
Incredibly for Phil, his adolescent musing wasn’t too far off the mark for most of the ensuing years of his adult working life. Making waves all through his Sydney Morning Herald journalism cadetship, he then ran a two-man beachside Newcastle bureau. But then a Canberra political post during an incoming 1972 Gough Whitlam government dragged him just about as far away from the ocean as he could get, leaving his single-fin surfboard behind to gather dust.
“It was exciting times,” he says. “I got a bit of a taste for the political world and made a lot of friends.”
Wanderlust then lured a 22-year-old Phil on a grand surfing trip through the UK, France, Spain and Portugal with a newspaper mate before they ran out of cash en route to Morocco. The nomadic lifestyle was much more aligned with his gonzo journalistic aspirations, filing bits and pieces from wherever he was back to leading Sydney-based surfing magazine Tracks.
After returning broke to Australia, Phil found himself monotonously slogging it out at the Sunday Telegraph, until Tracks’ Albe Falzon came calling. Liking how he wrote, the publisher offered the affable young man from Wollongong a job as editor. However, after quitting at the paper, breaking his rental lease and relocating to Whale Beach where they were based, Phil then suddenly found the job offer no longer on the table. Unbeknown to him, a former Rolling Stone magazine writer Albe previously offered the role to in San Diego a year earlier had finally shown up. The back-pedalling publisher then offered Phil an editor offsider job – before he finally stepped up to the editorship from 1974-78 – making a name for himself in the not-so-small world of surfing. At the same time, Phil’s first book, 1977’s The Wave Game, inadvertently became the first ever written on professional surfing.
“Although I have been associated with Tracks for just about all its 50-year history, I was only the editor for about four years, but they were very eventful years,” Phil says. “I tried too hard to be funny at times, and some of the stuff I published was borderline offensive, but s— we had fun!”
Phil says his greatest contribution was to entertain readers and give them insightful glimpses into the personalities of surfing.
“But what I’m probably remembered for most is moving Tracks away from the hippie country soul ethos a little and embracing a new thing called professional surfing,” he says.
While initially working as associate editor, Phil also scored himself a trip to Bali with Rip Curl following a successful sideline promotional stint “road-showing” surf movies. And after befriending Brian Singer, founder of the surf brand, he later worked as a consultant during Rip Curl’s expansion into the US market in the early 1980s.
Phil freelanced his way through the remaining decade, and worked in the tawdry men’s magazine “skin trade” after losing money in a failed Sports Illustrated-style tabloid modelled on Tracks in his first business wipe-out.
“It failed miserably,” he says. “Lost all the money I threw at it, along with five grand from my father. Then I had to get a job.”
Phil says he was asked to join Playboy through an old newspaper friend, who then had a fight with owner Kerry Packer and they both left to establish Australian Penthouse. Phil later returned to the Hugh Hefner publication known for its “quality long-form journalism” as editor under new management.
If Phil’s failed magazine had been a roaring success Phil may have never ended up in Noosa.
He had visited its shores since his childhood on camping and surf trips, and had dreamed of one day moving to the seaside town. He finally did that in 1990 as a Queensland correspondent for Bulletin Magazine – the nation’s leading weekly current affairs magazine of the time.
Always with an eye on his next project, he then also juggled his own publishing house Noosa Blue and TV producing with Channel Nine under the Bulletin’s Consolidated Press banner, something he’s continued to do over the years as a Nine sports writer and producer as recently as the 2018 Commonwealth Games. He’s at times unglamorously crawled under desks handing fresh results to presenters.
This was the beginning of Phil’s long association with Noosa, as both communicator and protagonist. Known locally as a founder of the Noosa Festival of Surfing in 1992, the long-running event was a major career and family highlight, with up to three generations helping him run it up to their last one a few years ago.
“More than anything else, for me it was a gathering of like-minded souls, people who shared a passion I’d had all my life and continue to have,” he says. “Some of the surfers who came every year were people I’d surfed with and against in competition as a kid, and some of them went on to become champions, unlike me. But also, it brought together surfers from around the world that I would otherwise never have met, and they became friends that I still visit – when Covid allows.”
Phil ran the festival a couple of times before a major move to France as head of marketing for Quicksilver Europe. He then jetted into California to run the brand’s special projects division. His brief: to launch a series of books, coming up with the idea to a write a title with the greatest surfer of all time, Kelly Slater. The only problem? Getting the “GOAT” – eyeing his eighth world title – to sit down long enough to interview him.
To get the job done, his good friend (and the world’s first champion professional surfer) Pete Townend suggested to Phil just to follow Slater around on the pro-tour with a tape recorder and get his thoughts. For most of 2007 Phil did just that, chasing Slater around the world thanks to an open cheque book. Eventually he was left with the monumental task of editing down over 50 hours of Slater on tape. The successful end product was Kelly Slater: For the Love.
On working with the world’s greatest surfer for the book, Phil says: “While I didn’t always agree with Kelly’s line of thinking – he’s a bit of a conspiracy theorist, for example – I was always impressed by his intelligence and presentation of an argument. Whether he was the best surfer in history or just another bloke on the beach, once you got to know him a bit, he was always a guy you could talk to all night about any subject.”
As a quirky celebrity sideline to writing For the Love, Phil also met with the surfer’s former girlfriend and Baywatch star Pamela Anderson.
“She cooked me a superb breakfast at her Malibu beach house while we talked about Kelly Slater,” he says. “A much under-rated woman.”
On his travels, Phil also had a memorable night of excess in San Francisco with his idol Hunter S. Thompson, the writer best known for starting the gonzo journalism movement after spending a year with infamous motorcycle gang Hell’s Angels to write a first-hand account of their experiences. It was something Phil also aspired to and accomplished over his own career, which was and well documented in his warts-and-all surfing 2017 autobiographical bestseller Life of Brine.
Phil’s talents also crossed the political divide, working for a spell with former prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott, having shared an office with the latter Liberal leader at the Bulletin. He also worked with the late former Queensland premier Wayne Goss and former Labour treasurer Wayne Swan, a fellow keen surfer.
Having so many creative endeavours in and out of the surfing world to his credit, it’s difficult for Phil to select one or two of his stand-outs but he counts his early association working with Aussie tennis legend Evonne Goolagong on her best-selling biography Home! in 1993 as a special moment in his writing career. He says it was a fascinating experience for them both going bush and seeking out her family for the story. It’s still getting interest, Phil says, with a potential TV dramatization and play based on the book in the works.
Another work close to Phil’s heart is his 2014 bestseller Bali: Heaven and Hell, now in its fourth reprint. After 50 years of visiting the resort island, he initially went from writing a surfing story to a cultural story with a secondary surf angle after becoming so engrossed with Bali’s chequered and often bloody history.
Phil says although he left his filmmaking run a little late in life, he has so far produced half a dozen films with his Tewantin-based filming partner Shaun Cairns. His well-regarded Men of Wood and Foam, about the pioneers of surfing, is Phil’s proudest screen accomplishment. Produced for Foxtel’s History Channel, the film features legendary surfboard manufacturers Bill Wallace and Gordon Woods, who Phil had written about in the past.
“Their real stories hadn’t been told and they were such colourful characters – a couple of them a bit crazy, but sweet guys,” he says. “I just wanted to tell the full story before they passed on. I feel quite proud about that.”
The documentary was selected for the 2018 Santa Barbara International Film Festival and won the Australian Media Hall of Fame Award for 2016, an accolade Phil has now collected five times.
Today, in true board-riding fashion, Phil remains a down-to-earth guy, happy to talk about his illustrious career openly and humbly without pretentiousness. He’s currently dreaming of getting back to a regular Bali family holiday and continuing to write a few stories a week with a local newspaper in the meantime, taking up the gig after his surf freelance work dried up following the global pandemic.
Aside from still surfing and cruising on a SUP or his one-man inflatable boat around the Noosa River, Phil’s still diligently leading the stewardship of the Noosa World Surfing Reserve, after instigating the campaign for its international recognition as the world’s 10th surfing reserve in 2020. He also has another film work in progress, Generation 99, a feature-length documentary about the music and culture of Timor-Leste’s children born of war.
After a monumental career, Phil says he didn’t intentionally set out to “live life to the fullest” but has always had a very positive outlook.
“I’ve seen opportunities rather than obstacles most places I’ve looked. But I’ve also stumbled along the way,” he says.
He says drugs became a problem in his 30s, and he lost a lot of money on the stockmarket in the GFC and his failed magazine venture. But he has never let the falls define him.
“I just got up, dusted myself down and moved on to the next thing,” he says.
And although Phil doesn’t have any immediate plans to publish another book, he says “what else am I going to do?”.