Stefhan Brown

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YOB: 1972
Experience: Surfing, Surf Life Saving
Regions: Otago, South Island, North Island
Interview Location: Dunedin, NZ
Interview Date: 02 December 2015
Post Date: 14 September 2017; Copyright © 2017 Stefhan Brown and Steve Crawford

Click on left index for transcript (COMPLETE or SECTION)

1. EXPERIENCE IN AOTEAROA/NZ COASTAL ENVIRONMENTS

CRAWFORD: Where and when were you born, Stefhan?

BROWN: Born in Dunedin, 1972. 

CRAWFORD: When did you start spending significant amount of time on or around the ocean? At what age?

BROWN: 2 or 3. 

CRAWFORD: Were your earliest experiences based mostly out the Dunedin region?

BROWN: We had a little holiday home down at Cape Saunders. My family loved fishing - all the local fishing spots up and down the coast. 

CRAWFORD: During these early days, what were your typical on- or near-water activities? Swimming? Boating?

BROWN: Swimming all around the [Otago] Harbour. Normally, we'd go on the Southern side to pack up, and we’d swim over to Quarantine Island. Swimming and snorkeling, even at a very young age. Also in the estuary of Wickliffe Bay, which is an open estuary out to the sea. And tobogganing - so you tie the boat with water skis and spin around, even at Aramoana. And then down to Pounawea in the Catlins. Yeah, there and down at Invercargill and moving around all the time. 

CRAWFORD: Every breathing moment on or around the water?

BROWN: Yeah. We had a boat shed down there with kayaks. You’d be down there, paddle out to the sandbars, and gather cockles and all that kind of stuff, and put the Flounder nets out, and yep. 

CRAWFORD: At what age did you start spending time around the ocean, other than the young family days and fishing trips?

BROWN: At 8 I started surfing down at St. Clair. Well trying to surf. I just couldn’t figure it out for a couple of years. I got there in the end, and then from there I would ... because our house was at St. Clair, I would just walk out and surfboard at St. Clair or St. Kilda. Just that stretch of beach, because that's all I knew. My Mom wouldn’t let me range too far away. I had to stay where the surf clubs were. And still doing all the fishing all the other stuff too, through those years.

CRAWFORD: In the early days, what was the relative split between swimming, and let’s say kayaking and fishing? Was it kind of an even split, or was there one thing you did more?

BROWN: Mostly swimming, because I also swam up at Moana Pool. I was training for swimming. I’d swim distances all the time. My Mom almost drowned at Aramoana when she was younger, and she was determined that was never going to happen to me. So, as a little kid I can remember Duncan Laing, who was a swim coach here, with his big stick, smacking us to make us swim in the legs. Mom was determined, because she used to say "You are never going to die in the ocean."

CRAWFORD: Ok. 

BROWN: She tried to get me to the surf life saving club at 14, but I didn’t see the surf club as being cool. I like surfing, and back then surfers and surf life savers didn’t like each other. 

CRAWFORD: So you chose the dark side first ... 

BROWN: Yeah, there was the evil, pot-smoking, sort of surfing image there. And then there was the surf life saving club.

CRAWFORD: The regimentation, the order, and the protocol, and the life saving?

BROWN: Yep. I wasn’t allowed to surf at Aramoana, because that’s where she almost drowned. And she saw that beach as a danger beach - but it’s a great surf beach. But she saw it as a danger, so when I finally had my car and could go places I said "One day I’m gonna go to Aramoana." And she screamed. She lost it.

CRAWFORD: Ok. So from 2 until 8, what was the split between swimming and kayaking, things like that?

BROWN: We’d only kayak on the weekends through summer. We’d go primarily down to the holiday bach down at Cape Saunders, and then you'd just stay till Sunday down there. You’re either pulling in a net trying to catch Flounder, or lifting up rocks. I can remember trying to grab the Crabs or whatever.

CRAWFORD: Then surfing close to home is the main focus from 8 until ... when you get the keys to the car?

BROWN: Yes. So 15 was when, back then, was the age you could get your license. 

CRAWFORD: And at age 15 you’re still doing all the boating and the fishing, and netting and everything? How much of your time would surfing take, in that period?

BROWN: At 3 o'clock, when school finished, I had to literally walk past the beach to get to my house. I would walk past and see if the surf was good, and when it was I'd go surfing - and maybe do my homework at night. Every day Monday to Friday. But the parents would still try and drag me to the crib, but I didn't like go there anymore, because I wanted to go surfing.

CRAWFORD: Surfing during that period definitely increased?

BROWN: Yes. Absolutely. 

CRAWFORD: What percent of your time was surfing?

BROWN: Maybe 80-90%. The swimming was still there, because I realized the swimming was important to the surfing. And I started to figure out that the fitness was important. 

CRAWFORD: Ok. That takes us up to 15, and then what changes?

BROWN: The car. 

CRAWFORD: Right. The car adds flexibility and range?

BROWN: Yes. 

CRAWFORD: How did you expand your range? I’m presuming the activities pretty much stayed the same, because I think you said you didn’t join surf life saving until 18? 

BROWN: Correct. With the surfing, I’d come to the beach and be like "It looks okay, but not very good. There must be somewhere better." My very first sneaky little trip, I followed these guys with surf boards thinking "Where do they go?” Because it never occurred to me that there were these other beaches that you could surf. The pin never really dropped, because back then it was very guarded. Like knowing where was a big secret, you know? They didn’t want people to know. You’d follow them and think "Where are they going?" and then be "Holy shit!" There’s this beach, and the waves are clean, and it was just pumping, and you used to be just “Awh.” And then you’d go back the next day thinking that was amazing, and it was absolutely shit. I couldn’t think of any reason why that was, and I really wanted to learn why. 

CRAWFORD: You mean the tides, the winds, the currents?

BROWN: The wind would change, yeah. The tide was wrong. All that stuff. I started to realize that I had to learn about it, which is what shaped me at school. I started studying geography and wave dynamics and all the rest of that. I literally changed my classes at school, because I wanted to find out why I couldn't find a good bit of wave. That was my motive. I realized that I had to learn, because no one would tell you at the beach. You’d go up to some of the old guys, and they wouldn’t tell you shit. 

CRAWFORD: I think I understand the intensity deepening. In terms of geographical region, were you still pretty much based around the Otago Peninsula?

BROWN: No. By 16 or 17 we had got it pretty much dialed in. I was now going down to the Catlins, Purakaunui Bay, Long Point, down to Invercargill. Haldane up to Christchurch a lot. By 18 I’d already done my round the South Island trip. 

CRAWFORD: You had been around, sampling for new waves, because that was still in your exploratory phase?

BROWN: Yep. We just went. Because Google Earth, and all that wasn't around. We just looked at a map, and went "Well, if there are waves here, there's gotta be waves there." And I started to understand push and all that. And because surfing had competitions in Greymouth, we knew therefore there must be good surfing in Greymouth. Because you don’t hold a surfing competition in Greymouth unless there’s surf. You don’t hold a surf competition anywhere unless there’s surf. 

CRAWFORD: Yeah. 

BROWN: By that logic, we just went "Well, there are surf comps held in Kaikoura and all that, so we just started looking there for the surf."

CRAWFORD: Come 18, you were all over the South Island? 

BROWN: Yeah. 

CRAWFORD: Ok, that's 15 to 18. That’s the surfing expansion to the whole of the South Island. And that’s very intensive. When you’re out on or around the water, maybe 80% of the time was surfing?

BROWN: Well that’d be a little unfair, because I still loved boating and fishing. And by that time Dad had bought a new boat, so we’d go out on that a lot together. And we would go regularly to Surfers Paradise in Australia. By 18 I’d already been to Aussie 8-9 times, and surfed Burleigh Heads, Kirra, Snapper and all that.

CRAWFORD: Ok, that’s good to know. At that point, your exploration phase, you were listing places I don’t know - but around Australia is this like the north-western shore of the country or what?

BROWN: Oh, the Gold Coast. At the start, it was pretty much all the Gold Coast. Brisbane down to Coolangatta. Down towards Sydney up to New South Wales, we’d just go three times a year to Australia. 

CRAWFORD: For a week at a time?

BROWN: No, it was two weeks of school holidays, so normally we’d go for the two weeks. We’d do that when we were younger as well, but the difference was now because all the famous surfers were from there - you know Tom Caroll, all the legends. So at 15-16 I used to go there, but now it was like "I want to meet one of these legends." I even got to surf with Occy [Mark Occhilupo], well he surfed past me. I was just like "It’s Occy! Holy shit!" It was cool. 

CRAWFORD: So the region that you were developing at the time was Australia's Gold Coast? 

BROWN: Yeah.

CRAWFORD: You’re expanding your range. It’s still surf, surf, surf with some other things too. Massive number of hours on the water, lots of coverage. Then at 18, things change?

BROWN: Yep. 

CRAWFORD: What happened?

BROWN: A girl. 

CRAWFORD: [laughs].

BROWN: A particular girl. There was a girl in St. Kilda, she was hanging out at the surf club, and she’d come down to St. Kilda and all that. I kind of liked her quite a lot, and she walked into the surf club up there. Jeremy, he lives over in Western Australia now, he’s one of my best mates - he knew of her. He said, "Oh just come in for a shower." And I just hosed the sand off myself at the surf club, and just got talking to her. Anyway, that was my first taste of the surf club - literally hand on heart - the only reason why I joined the surf club is I just looked around and realized there were a lot of girls in this club.

CRAWFORD: [laughs] But once you got in, it became more than a casual kind of thing?

BROWN: What happened one day was - it quite fixated in my mind - I was just walking along the beach, just looking for a wave, and I got to St. Kilda and there was this dune, it's no longer there just because of erosion, and we always used to stand on this same dune to check up and down the beach. I was up there, and there was no one around, and the waves were ok they weren’t great, and I just happened to look down and I saw this guy in a rip [current]. I knew it was a rip, but I’d never cared before because, you know - when there’s someone in trouble, someone else will save them, or a life guard will rescue them, or something like that. I was looking around, and there’s just no-one there, because there were no life guards on. It was through the week and after school. And I was like "Oh, he’s in trouble." And I just literally paddled out there grabbed him, pulled him on the board, and pulled him in. Back then, cell phones weren’t as common as they are now, so someone would have to run to a house to ring for help, so when the police came down and all that sort of stuff ... He was in a bad way, but he survived. And that’s when the pin dropped for me that there is something more to this. They were a bit surprised I managed to get out there. I was like "Well, I just swam out and got him. It wasn’t hard. It was just water."

CRAWFORD: But you had all of that water background. Your Mother’s focus, and all of the training and time that you spent on the water. You were a good swimmer.

BROWN: Well, yeah, and I was comfortable with the water. Wasn’t afraid of it in any form. 

CRAWFORD: In a rip, as well?

BROWN: Yeah. 

CRAWFORD: Alright. So that was kind of an amalgamating event?

BROWN: Yeah. It was all the pieces falling into place. I’d never ever looked at it like that before. But from then on, it was just all on. Ultimately, I became captain lifeguard. 

CRAWFORD: But you still had at least a split-reality, because you were still surfing as well as surf life saving?

BROWN: Surfing was still 80% of my commitment. Because you only have to do 24 hours on patrols, which is four 6-hour patrols a year to be ...

CRAWFORD: Per year?

BROWN: Yeah. It’s not an onerous task at all. 

CRAWFORD: Ok. That’s your commitment to the club for service. When did the surf life saving competitions start?

BROWN: Competitions started for me quite a lot later. There’s canoe racing, but all that stuff was only because the pretty girls were also in racing comps. 

CRAWFORD: Ok. We’re at around age 18-19 years. It’s still an 80-20 split between surfing and surf life saving?

BROWN: Very much. 

CRAWFORD: And geographically, still all over the country for surfing?

BROWN: Yeah and at about 20 it was Australia too. Me and the boys, no longer just the family, would go on trips to Australia. We went to Bali, and then we started looking at the little islands in the Pacific, going "How are we going to get to that island?" We went to Aitutaki off Rarotonga because it just looked like there could be a wave there. We were just looking for a quick gamble.

CRAWFORD: Approximately how many weeks per year surfing out of country?

BROWN: Probably still six to eight weeks. 

CRAWFORD: Plus the other things. But your range was expanding globally as well?

BROWN: Yes. 

CRAWFORD: Ok, that's till approximately 20. What changed next? 

BROWN: Yeah. Meeting my future wife was a big change, stability there. Instead of being just a free agent "Let’s go to this competition, let’s do this, let’s do that." So that pulled things into alignment. Then I became part of Search & Rescue, because Jeremy was in it when I first met him. His pager would go off, and he’d run off and go and do a job.

CRAWFORD: Ok. That lasted until approximately when? 30?

BROWN: No. That would have been until 26-27. And then I’d be racing - competition with surf life saving, the little orange boats [inflatable rescue boats]. There are competitions for that. That really kicked in for me then. I did do it earlier, but I sort of stopped. Then I got that hunger and that was through Peter Gibbons, because I drove the boat for rescue stuff and all that, and I just was good at driving a boat. So I entered in IRB competitions.

CRAWFORD: Were these IRB competitions cutting into your surfing time?

BROWN: Yes, it did a lot. But, in different ways because your trainings were only short, because it’s all about technique and the fitness - the surfing was perfect fitness for it. But the technical side of it was just time in the water. We would be snapping boats, flipping them, having to swim in from them. Well, we broke down one time badly, out near White Island. And that was big, we were in real trouble because that was a big swim in. You just had to get experience in the boat. When the surf was no good, we were out in the IRB, exploring the coast. And we were also using it to look around corners, peering around corners where we could never see before, using the IRB to see if there were waves there.

CRAWFORD: So, it fed back on the surfing stuff?

BROWN: Yeah, yeah. 

CRAWFORD: Alright. That’s 27? What's the next natural break, in terms of activity or region or amount of time?

BROWN: Kids probably would be the real game changer. 

CRAWFORD: How old were you?

BROWN: I would have been 33.

CRAWFORD: Did it affect the distribution of your time in those different activities? Or just the total amount of time? 

BROWN: Something had to give. The surf life saving competitions, I was starting to become quite good at them. I was winning a bit more than not winning, and I had a competitive streak in me that I never really had before. Surfing, even surf comps, I never really gave a damn, so to speak. But for some reason there was a hunger there to beat people. I think that was because driving the IRB while racing was a lot like practicing for rescues, because you have to go fast, you have to be ready, you have to be able to drive in any conditions. That’s why I liked it.

CRAWFORD: The Search & Rescue?

BROWN: Yeah. They even got called out just today. Happens all the time. A boat flipped at Taieri Mouth. Two guys in the water. Anyway, something had to give. And I chose to give up surfing. Not give it up completely, but it got reduced dramatically. 

CRAWFORD: So you could maintain ...

BROWN: [IRB] boat racing and the Search & Rescue. But still surfing probably 2-3 times a week, which wasn't much because it was only for about 2-3 hours at a time. 

CRAWFORD: Ok. That’s with kids. Does it kind of stay that way for a while?

BROWN: When #2 came along in 2007, I actually started doing a lot more - I was surfing a lot. I had a lot more free time. It was interesting, I suppose you get better at it. Time, you can manage things better, and you get some experience, and go "These things aren't actually so hard you know?" [laughs]

CRAWFORD: Yeah. 

BROWN: I found I could go surfing quite a lot, and went to Roratonga for a big surf trip.  Where else did I go? Back to Western Australia, so I went to Perth for three months for surfing. 

BROWN: But it was back in 2005 when I started working with the sporting company ... Because my whole life revolves around surfing and that, so I even work in the industry of surfing - I used to buy the wetsuits and the surfboards, I still do, have a lot to do with that. I got to meet all the famous surfers, because they were the investors for Ambassador, so that actually became my job. It’s ironic in that I was being paid to do this. I had been running around for ages trying to meet these guys, and now they’re literally just walking into the shop to come and meet me for word. So it’s quite funny. They gave me boards and stuff like that, so surfing was part of my job. Because if you’re out there seen to be doing it, they believed that it would increase your sales, because you knew what you were talking about.

CRAWFORD: Ok. So, does that then put you into a period that takes you up to the present, or did something else change?

BROWN: No, it was pretty consistent from there on. It changed a bit with the second and third child. 

CRAWFORD: In the most recent period, roughly how many days a week would you be spending on or around the water?

BROWN: Until last year, because of my decision to pull back on everything, for deliberate reasons, change of focus, I would still be at the beach almost every day - in the water in some way or form. Either diving, going for Pāua or just exploring, having adventures or surfing or doing something with the IRBs. That said, in the case of the summer before work I’d go for a surf.  Then come back home - because it gets light at 5 in the morning, so you go for a surf, come home, the kids would wake up, get them dressed, get them ready for school, then you go to work, and then leave work, kids would be in bed by 7:30 pm - like this evening. And as you can tell, it’s still warm and sunny enough that you could go out surfing right now. The surf’s pumping, right now. 

CRAWFORD: We’re going to get back to that very specific observation about time of day, but that bring us up to about a year ago. You made a decision to take a different route with allocation of time?

BROWN: Yeah, because it became very apparent with three children that it just wasn’t going to be possible. 

CRAWFORD: Too many balls in the air?

BROWN: Correct. But also a shift. I now take the two older kids, they're 7 and 9 so they’re a little bit older than the 2-year-old, of course. They come out to the pool, they come out to the beach. We still go to the beach, but they’re in the water. I don’t count that as me doing that ...

CRAWFORD: But for my purposes, you’re still around the water while they’re in the water. 

BROWN: Oh, absolutely. I’m with them at the beach. 

CRAWFORD: And that’s why I was asking about time on, in or around the water. 

BROWN: Yeah, ok. Fair enough. Believe it or not I don’t actually count that as ... but you’re correct. 

CRAWFORD: You are there around the water. 

BROWN: Yeah, yeah.

CRAWFORD: If something happens, you’re going to see it or hear it.

BROWN: Oh, totally. Well, if that’s the case then nothing’s changed then. I'm still around the water a lot.

CRAWFORD: It’s an allocation of time to your next generation, and you’re there in support for them. They’re going through the cycle.

BROWN: I’m doing what my Mom did for me. 

CRAWFORD: But without the stick. 

BROWN: Oh, that was Duncan Laing. Yeah. [laughs] He was famous for his stick. 

CRAWFORD: But she took you to learn from Duncan, right?

BROWN: Yeah, that’s correct [laughs]. 

CRAWFORD: So, it was still her stick. 

BROWN: Yeah, that's true. 

Copyright © 2017 Stefhan Brown and Steve Crawford