Chayne Simpson, World Champion
Australia has a new surfing world champion.
Last month, just before international travel shut down, Chayne Simpson beat Californian Sam Coyne to win the World Kneeboard Surfing Championship in Dunedin, New Zealand.
Conditions were varied throughout the event with the final surfed in small waves on a high tide that effectively saw competition reduced to a game of strategy and patience. This is particularly ironic: In 1999, when Chayne first entered this event, he was knocked out in controversial circumstances - more on that later.
Chayne's been runner up a number of times, but he's never won. Always the bridesmaid, now at last, the bride.
(All photos by Steen Barnes except where noted)
Chayne’s been riding kneeboards since the age of fifteen. Growing up a mad bodyboarder on the NSW south coast, he recalls after school trips with his brother Troy and Mark Slater, whose dad Rob would ferry them around to surf the pick of the local breaks. Wollongong has a healthy kneelo underground so it was inevitable that Chayne would see the possibilities offered by increased speed and turning power. It wasn’t long before Rob Slater had the boys on kneeboards and surfing regular club competitions with the Wollongong Area Kneeboard Association (WAKA).
This is amateur surfing, the kind where people turn up month after month, year after year, because they’re dedicated to their sport, not because there’s any financial gain down the track. Kneeboard comps are as much about fraternising with the far-flung and sometimes isolated kneelo communities as they are about winning. The bulk of the field tends to be pretty flat, but the top level are as far beyond the ability of the average kneelo as the top 44 footboarders are above the average surfer.
At that level, competition can become intense: a World Title is at stake after all.
Chayne found that out back in 1999 - before the contest used a priority system - when during the quarter-finals a wave popped up where Chayne and another competitor ("a ruthless American") were sitting.
"He was sitting inside me," recalls Chayne, "so I asked him if he was gonna go, and he said, 'No, I’m not going, you go.' I went, then I turned around and he was behind me on the wave. I got an interference. One of the dirtiest tricks you’re ever gonna get, I reckon."
Chayne lives less than a kilometre from Albert Munoz, a Puerto Rican transplant now residing in Wollongong, also a two-time kneeboard world champion and one of Chayne’s best mates. The two haven't surfed together much lately because they have young families and wildly different day jobs - Albert holds a PhD and is a university professor, Chayne is a fireman and a qualified signwriter. Chayne reckons he has the pick of the surf because his work allows more flexibility around the forecasts, while Albert’s job dictates when he’s able to surf.
When they do surf together, there’s surprisngly little competition. Says Chayne, "We don’t compete at all when we’re freesurfing. At least I don’t. I like watching what he’s doing, but that old cliché of trying to do better, you know, 'he’s done a turn, I want to do one better', I think we’re getting a bit old for that."
Albert and Chayne first met at the World Titles on the Sunshine Coast in the early 2000s. Chayne remembers Albert as an annoying little bastard in the water who just wanted every single wave that came in.
"He was annoying the hell out of me," admits Chayne. "I think I had a bit of a go at him, told him he can’t have every wave and to just calm down. He just ignored me and paddled away."
After Albert moved to the South Coast and joined the WAKAs, the two ended up mates. It’s a solid friendship that’s endured sixteen years now, with the pair often travelling to competitions together as well as working on Legless.TV.
Talented on many craft, Chayne focusses on kneeboards because he likes the point of difference it brings to a lineup, as well as the pure camaraderie that pervades this tiny branch of surfing’s family tree. That said, Chayne doesn’t push the contest side of things at all.
"I’m definitely more into freesurfing," says Chayne. "I could never go in a contest again and I‘d be fine. Some people train for it, study opponents and all that sort of thing. Yeah...I just go surfing."
But why then do the contest at all? Was he motivated by all past close-calls?
"That was my full motivation," admits Chayne. "When Albert asked me if I was going, I was probably 90% not going, but once I was there, and once I got to the quarters, I thought, 'I’m not going to let another one go, I’ve got to get this one.'"
So is the pressure off now that Chayne's won a World Title?
"It will take the pressure off in a way," says Chayne, "but…I don’t know how I’m going to word this without offending people, but I don’t want another fifty-year old to win the title. My motivation going into the next one is to make sure we don’t get someone old. You know, I'd like to see some of the kids go through instead of those really old blokes."
Kneeboarding’s regularly criticised for the age of the people who do it. With a perceived heyday in the late 70s, kneeboarding has produced several world champions over the age of 40. Past winners have expressed a desire to see the world title go to new, younger surfers, but this is a branch of surfing into which few younger surfers care to venture. The event this year was remarkable in that both finalists were under forty. Chayne is as keen as anyone to see new blood in the sport.
"The talent pool in that younger age range isn’t deep," says Chayne, "but there are some guys. Tom Novakov [son of past World Champ Michael Novakov] came through the harder side of the draw and took down a couple of guys...he had me on the ropes in the quarters. There’s a young kid from Dee Why, Charlie Mowbray...he surfs really well. Owen Fairweather from Victoria. His surfing is so much better than any of us were at his age. I wasn’t even kneeboarding at his age - he’s 14, I think. He’s ripping, he’s going to be one to watch, for sure."
Chayne’s now back home in Wollongong and he's keen to get back on the road making videos with the crew from Zion wetsuits. He'd already surfed twice the day we spoke and was pretty pumped.
“The guys I travel and surf with, I don’t ever get the feeling that they’re like, 'why have we got this kneeboarder with us'. They’re just stoked on what I’m doing, that I’m doing something different. They’re happy to tell me that I got a good wave, or did a good turn."
"When you’ve got people like Taj Burrow or Dane Reynolds commenting on your clip, that sort of blows my mind. That’s pretty big.”