Otis Carey, Soli Bailey and a new generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander surfers are challenging for the top and embracing country traditions
Otis Carey cant really tell you when he started surfing but his connection to the sea is clearly ingrained. I was two days old when I first touched saltwater, he says. Recently signed to Billabong on a deal that combines his love of surfing with his passion for contemporary Aboriginal art, he is part of a new generation of Indigenous Australians who have taken to the water to celebrate connections to country and culture, and to stake a claim to Indigenous lands and survival.
Exciting and unpredictable in the water, Carey is a great surfer by any standard. But with every session, he is conscious of the fact that he represents his people and culture. On each of his boards, he paints an Aboriginal flag as a small homage to his heritage. And when he scored the March cover of Tracks magazine, that flag, roughly drawn on the underside of his board, was front and centre.
With roots in the Gumbaynggirr and Bundjalung clans of present-day New South Wales, Careys connection to the sea runs deep. My peoples totem is the ocean, so its a very spiritual place for me, he says.
As a child, surfing helped Carey cope with the harsh realities of racism in Australia. Its really easy to get into trouble as an Indigenous kid. Youre surrounded by a lot of non-Indigenous people who say a lot of mean things to you because youre different, Carey says. Surfing kept me out of trouble and away from negative things. The ocean is so positive and has a lot of healing elements.
Indeed, while Indigenous communities continue to bear the burden of Australias legacy of colonialism and the continued pressures of racial inequality, surfing has emerged as a way to empower Indigenous youth along Australias coastlines.
I think a lot of people can relate to the cleansing feeling that you get as soon as you jump in the water, says Yorta Yorta surfer Cormach Evans. Still in his wetsuit, Evans dries off after his heat at the Woorrangalook Victorian Koorie Surf Titles, a family-oriented competition run by Surfing Victoria.
Evans learned to surf as a 12-year-old, through Surfing Victorias Indigenous Aquatics program. At the time, the program was run by volunteers, but these days, Surfing Victoria employs two full-time Aboriginal staff members and Evans has grown into a regular on the Indigenous competition circuit. Throughout the year, he participates in events such as Woorrangalook, as well as higher-performance competitions such as Wandiyali in Newcastle and the Australian Indigenous Surfing Titles at Bells Beach.
Now, Evans is a health worker at the Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative. Passionate about confronting the intergenerational trauma that contributes to Indigenous health issues, Evans incorporates surfing as a tool in his counselling work. Looking out at the water, he says, I think for Indigenous people, when they jump into the ocean, its a feeling of being connected to culture and feeling a sense of belonging when that first wave washes over you.