Lost at sea

Kristine Taylor
Talking Heads

Andy King was riding high in April 2004.

He'd just made history with the highest two-wave score in the world and after eight years of slugging it out with all the other wannabees in the qualifying series, he was finally on track to reach his dream — a spot on the World Tour where his mate Mick Fanning was dominating.

But it all came crashing down when King and his now-wife Nadene were walking home from a night out celebrating in Cronulla with his surfing mates.

(Australian Story: Anthony Sines)

It was 2:00am and across the street, a Saturday night drunk hollered out to them.

The couple can't recall the details of what was said. "It was just a silly comment", Nadene remembers.

One that should have been easy to ignore.

But for King, a switch flicked in his head and he crossed the street to confront the group of men.

It was a decision that almost ruined his life. For a while, it did.

Taming the temper

"Sometimes, the bigger man is the man that walks away, right?" says three-time world champion Mick Fanning. He looks affectionately at his mate as he talks.

Today, King has a relaxed approach to everything he does, from coaching Julian Wilson, to being a hands-on dad to Sunny, 7, and Florence, 2.

But as a young, up-and-comer, King was known as a hot-head and a risk-taker.

"He always had a short wick. We used to tease him about it," Fanning says.

King got his start as a five-year-old grommet with Cronulla Sharks Boardriders and surfing soon became his refuge, an escape from the menacing presence of his "deadbeat dad".

Nigel King was an alcoholic with violent tendencies for as long as Andy could remember.

From the age of 12, King slept with a knife under his pillow.

"As soon as I got big enough and strong enough I started attacking him when he would threaten my mum and my sisters," King says.

The first chance he got, King left home for the World Qualifying Series.

The love of competitive surfing and the brotherly friendships that went with it became his foundation. For the first time he felt free. But King would still turn to anger and fists in an instant if he or a mate was challenged.

"If you were ever threatened, it was always do a tackle," King says. "It was born and bred in me."

Plunged into silence

In April 2004, King, 27, had been on the QS for eight years when he made that fateful decision to take on the heckler on Cronulla's main street.

A group of men were yelling out comments about King's now-wife Nadene and for King it was the final straw.

He says he snapped and went into "fight mode".

"I got kicked, and I went down to the ground, and I got back up. There was a semi-circle of his friends around," King says of the main heckler.

"He jumped over Nadene's shoulder and hit me when I wasn't watching. Then I was unconscious."

The scuffle was brief and ended when King's head struck the pavement with a sickening crack.

By the time he came to, he was in "a really weird space".

"I had no perception of height or where my head was. You know those dreams where you're falling? I felt like I was suspended in space, but my whole head was spinning."

Nadene remembers the look on her boyfriend's face as he was placed on a stretcher and loaded into an ambulance. "I could just see from the fear in his eyes that something was wrong," she says.

King nearly died that night from a brain injury.

Later, a doctor would ask what he did for a living.

"Well you won't be doing that anymore," the doctor said when he discovered his patient was a pro surfer.

King had suffered catastrophic damage to his eardrums and cochlear, leaving him almost completely deaf and without equilibrium. He had to learn to stand and walk again.

He was devastated to learn surfing was out of the question. King tried to swim but without equilibrium swam down instead of up.

For a man whose nickname was 'Turtle' because of his affinity with the water and his clumsiness on land, it was devastating. Some doctors said he'd need to go on the pension, get a disability sticker, or even give up his driver's licence.

King lost much of his speech and was repeatedly embarrassed when he vocalised private thoughts aloud without realising.

"I was stripped of everything," he says.

King was determined to be back in the ocean (John Veage)

Now 42, King confesses he plotted revenge on the man who punched him. He learned he was a musician and King fantasised about paying him back with broken fingers to even the score.

The man who hit him was convicted of grievous bodily harm and given 500 hours of community service.

But it was the "brother bonds" with Fanning and the Cronulla surf community that brought King back to what he loved. Every day, friends would help with his rehab, walking him up and down the Cronulla esplanade and over the rocks to improve his balance.

Others eased him back onto a board and onto the waves.

Without hearing and equilibrium, it was a completely new experience.

"It was purely now about vibrations and the feeling in the ocean," King remembers.

He describes his plunge into silence as a "forced meditation". "You just go over and re-run so many stories," he says.

King realised his own quick temper was partly responsible for his injury and that unless he changed course he was destined to keep repeating the patterns and behaviours of his life.

Fanning believes the incident that took his friend's hearing "woke a lot of people up" in the surfing fraternity.

"It changed a lot of people in our circle [about] not reacting to those sorts of things," he says. "Sometimes just letting go because you know it's going to be safer."

Back to the beach

Six months after his injury, King's mates and some of the world's best surfers, including Fanning, Mark Occhilupo, and Kelly Slater, helped raise money to pay for a cochlear implant to improve his hearing.

They donated their time and auctioned items such as their old boards, eventually pulling in $105,000. And they dragged King into a sufficiently optimistic headspace to proceed with the operation.

King tried to get his old life back.

He got an injury wildcard and returned to the QS, but it was tough. He couldn't wear his implant in the ocean so he couldn't hear the hooter, or the scores, or the commentators. He found it difficult to read the waves without hearing them.

Andy King in action in the surf (John Veage/ St George & Sutherland Shire Leader)

"I was stinking so bad I sold all my boards," King says. Defeated, he chucked it all in.

Fanning came to the rescue, connecting King to a job as a mentor for young surfers with Red Bull.

King spent seven years with Red Bull, five of them on and off in Los Angeles developing training programs for young surfers before taking on the role of national coach for Surfing Australia based at the Hurley High Performance Centre on the Gold Coast.

Kingy with Luke Hynd, Mikey Wright, and Mick Fanning

He worked as a support coach for Fanning.

As King found himself, he was then able to help his mate, Mick Fanning.

In 2009, Fanning had already won one world championship but was floundering under the pressure and weight of his own expectations.

Out on tour, King could see his friend was struggling.

"He was always ahead of himself, always looking for points. He was training like an Olympic athlete, but he wasn't enjoying himself," King says of Fanning.

"Surfing shouldn't be a chore."

King and some other trusted mates just had to pick the right time to sit Fanning down and remind him of the reason why they surfed. It was a love of nature and the sea.

Both King and Fanning credit their mateship for helping them through their toughest times (Australian Story: Anthony Sines)

"When you get successful there are plenty of 'yes' men around but that's not Andy," Fanning says.

After their sit-down, Fanning went on to win his second world championship.

Today, King works full time as a professional coach on the Championship Tour with Julian Wilson, who is one of three surfers battling it out for the world title in December in Hawaii.

Last year he was fitted with a waterproof housing for his cochlear implant. For the first time in 14 years, he took to the ocean and could hear the waves he was riding.

It was life-changing, returning him to feeling at one with the waves.

King is now coaching Julian Wilson (Instagram: Boskophoto)

King has taken years to shake off the anger and aggression of his father to become the man he wants to be.

In many ways, his friend Mick Fanning has been a better role model to him than his own father.

King has always admired Fanning's ability to come back from adversity, including serious injury, the loss of two brothers and, in 2015, an attack by a great white shark while competing in South Africa.

"The way he lives [has] shaped the way that I act and the things that I do," King says.

"Without that … I'm not sure where I'd be."

Andy and Nadene King with their children Sunny and Flo

// KRISTINE TAYLOR with additional writing by STEPHANIE WOOD
© Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.


simba's picture
simba's picture
simba commented Sunday, 4 Nov 2018 at 2:35pm

Awesome story....


redmondo's picture
redmondo's picture
redmondo commented Sunday, 4 Nov 2018 at 4:08pm

Good one. "Surfing should not be a chore." great quote. There are serious ones out there trying too hard and not enjoying themselves. Celebrations turning into nightmares. I recall getting smashed in the ear myself by a coward at a party.

Red Clement

gazzee's picture
gazzee's picture
gazzee commented Sunday, 4 Nov 2018 at 5:00pm

a moment of madness on the piss can change a lot of lives forever...nice to see that Andy has got over it and is living a full and happy life.good to read a positive story.

summerofstav's picture
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summerofstav commented Sunday, 4 Nov 2018 at 5:41pm

Great story. Thanks!

Westofthelake's picture
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Westofthelake commented Sunday, 4 Nov 2018 at 5:54pm

A real good news day type of read! Even more reason to get behind Julian as he heads into Hawaii.

billie's picture
billie's picture
billie commented Sunday, 4 Nov 2018 at 7:02pm

Wow. So nice to read of his vulnerability pre attack (accident?). Refreshingly honest and sincere.


Optimist's picture
Optimist's picture
Optimist commented Monday, 5 Nov 2018 at 4:07am

Great story. Keep an eye out for your friends. Especially if they disappear all of a sudden. Mateship and support will get you through. Love washes away hate. Go Julian!

Island Bay's picture
Island Bay's picture
Island Bay commented Monday, 5 Nov 2018 at 4:40am

A very good read.

Well done, and congratulations, Mr King. You've come a long way and learnt a lot.

PS! Mick Fanning is just a good human, isn't he.

Clam's picture
Clam's picture
Clam commented Monday, 5 Nov 2018 at 1:50pm

Well done andy

50young's picture
50young's picture
50young commented Monday, 5 Nov 2018 at 2:58pm

Great read and a great example how one rash decision can change a life

MRsinglefin's picture
MRsinglefin's picture
MRsinglefin commented Tuesday, 6 Nov 2018 at 7:28am

Julian and Andy can do this. Another Aussie World Champ in 2018

Mathew Colivas's picture
Mathew Colivas's picture
Mathew Colivas commented Tuesday, 6 Nov 2018 at 11:13am

Wow this brought back memories of a few years ago in fiji surfing cloudbreak. I saw him (andy in the water ripping with mates, then as i took came out of a dream wave to to just get clipped on the end section I popped up to watch him slide under the hood of the next wave getting shacked, It was then I realised that this bomb wave he was on was about to give the shellacking of my life (and two pieces of surfboard)


memlasurf's picture
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memlasurf commented Wednesday, 7 Nov 2018 at 2:46pm

Community service for a gutless punch hmmmm.

gregstock's picture
gregstock's picture
gregstock commented Wednesday, 7 Nov 2018 at 3:23pm

good story

eastcoastbuoy's picture
eastcoastbuoy's picture
eastcoastbuoy commented Wednesday, 7 Nov 2018 at 4:34pm

love the honesty Andy and hope a few young and old people read this article as the aggro/attitude in and out of the water is down right scary and sad. Throw in a few beers or drugs to the mix and its downright dangerous and deadly as we read about on a weekly basis. A lot of people have to start calming down and having some respect for themselves and others who share this planet with them. Treat others as you expect to be treated. No respect for yourself = a problem for the community.


slowman's picture
slowman's picture
slowman commented Saturday, 10 Nov 2018 at 10:39am

Life teaches us some hard lessons at times. I'm glad you pulled through this Andy. I met you not so long ago with a local coach and mutual friend, and had a surf with you at the wall, no sign of a hot head then. We all grow. He's all the work to do and needs Gabriel to falter but Julian for the title!

pcrisp's picture
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pcrisp commented Wednesday, 14 Nov 2018 at 10:28am

the whole of Cronulla has been a part of this journey with you for many years, we get to celebrate with you for all the obstacles you have overcome but also thankfulness for all that you have given to many we know (which obviously cannot be included in a short article)- congrats on who you are