Hailing from the Sunshine Coast, Harrison Roach rose to prominence as a stylish ambassador of classical longboarding and ride-everything mastery.
Over the last two decades, his free surf career has taken him around the globe, from Noosa’s small crystal peelers through big Indonesian tubes to the Aleutian Islands and beyond. In 2019, after the WSL shifted its judging from high-performance to more traditional criteria, Harrison re-entered the competitive sphere, taking home his maiden World Title in 2022.
Hot on the heels of last month’s Vans Duct Tape event held in Rio De Janeiro, Harrison headed south for a Chilean strike mission with the Roark crew. As he sat in departures ahead of a long journey home, we caught up with him for a far-ranging conversation spanning his upbringing, the evolution of his craft and the state of contemporary longboarding.
LG: Let’s start with the Duct Tape. You’ve done a lot of those events over the years. How did this one compare?
HR: It’s changed a lot but the essence has stayed the same. It’s still an opportunity for like-minded surfers to get together for a pretty unique logging event, although the format is more popular than ever these days. But a lot’s changed… I’m a lot older! It was cool to see the youth coming up, particularly the Brazilians. It was my first time there and it was pretty mind-blowing to witness the whole new generation of traditional longboarders. Especially because Brazil has such a strong high-performance culture like Australia did back in the day. The highlight for me was probably the trials event, 16 men and 16 women, but they were all pretty much teenagers, just charging huge waves on their logs.
LG: The waves looked pretty solid…
HR: They were! The footage didn’t really do it justice. It was a big fat beach break that broke 500m out to sea. I think when it’s smaller, that location is pretty manageable and fun on a longboard, but in the conditions we had, there would definitely have been a better board to ride. In saying that, there were moments that were pretty cool, because people were pushing it and trying something new. Just watching everyone trying to hold on to their 9’6s while paddling out through walls of white water was a thrill in itself.
LG: Are you struck when you travel around just how popular traditional longboarding has become?
HR: Yeh, it’s super weird! In some circumstances, I’m bummed, because I’m now I’ve got to compete with all these people for these waves I used to surf by myself. But Brazil was probably one of the coolest ones for me. I was really psyched that they’re building their own shaping bays and making their own boards using whatever they have available to them. In Australia, you have access to everything all the time, as long as you have rich parents. But these kids are sort of hustling and to me that’s what makes longboarding a creative, cool scene. They have that kind of enthusiasm you only see it when people don’t have everything readily available. It forces you to get more creative.
LG: Growing up in Noosa, what do you feel most influenced your path?
HR: I was like a sponge when I was a young surfer and was influenced by a wide range of people. I think the most influential at that point were the old guys at my local surf spots. And in particular, the longboarders, who made sure I had access to and encouraged me to ride all kinds of equipment. There was a hardcore shortboard mentality through the ‘90s. I was lucky to have an older crew who weren’t so narrow-minded to guide me through.
They gave me access to what we call Old Mals, which are pre-1968 longboards. Australian longboards were the peak of performance design during the late ’60s, and the old blokes in my town were collectors. As a kid I rode boards made by Nat [Young], Bob [McTavish], [Midget] Farrelly, Peter Clarke and Keough, Bill Wallace – pretty much all of the best shapers of the era. I never understood the significance at the time, but on reflection, it’s obvious how important that was for me.
LG: How close are those boards to what you’re riding now?
HR: Really similar. Thomas Bexon’s surfboards are basically classic Australian Old Mal designs. There are some slight updates to the bottom contours, some of my boards will have a bit of concave, but the outlines are exactly the same. They’re also probably a little lighter and a little easier to ride, which I don’t necessarily think makes them better. We make adjustments based on what I’m doing – like if I’m going to go surf a junky beach break in Brazil. But for the most part, they’re the same.
LG: So if Midget had picked up the board you won the world title on last year in 1967, would he have said ‘Yep, this feels really familiar’?
HR: That one is a little different because it’s a scoop tail. It had a little bit of foam taken out of the deck right in the tail and the template and outline of that board is more Californian style – which is wider in the nose with a square tail. I rode that because I’d done the contest a few years before and I knew that the judges just wanted to see hang tens. My normal style of nose riding is more of a tight hang five, really high in the pocket so I changed my equipment to be a bit more like a modern nose rider. But if Midget picked up my normal daily rider at home he’d say ‘Yep, this is not so different to where we got to.’ I guess Thomas’ whole programme is pushing longboards in the way that they would have gone, had they not started making shortboards in the early 70s. Because if you look back at the footage from then, some of the swiping done by Nat is still some of the best ever.
LG: As a teenager, you won both longboarding and shortboarding state titles. Presumably, pursuing competition seemed like a natural next step. What steered you off that and towards building a career travelling the world, seeking out different kinds of waves on a variety of craft?
HR: I surfed a lot of contests as a kid, they were little getaways for our family. We’d go to Lennox and Crescent Head, and pretty much everywhere up and down the east coast every year. I guess when I went and competed in the longboard tour at 17 in Anglet, I realised that I didn’t identify with it anymore. I was fortunate to live in Noosa, where a lot of Californians had come and visited, guys like Dane Peterson and Tom Wegener, Joel [Tudor] and CJ [Nelson], who were repping that 60s style of surfing that I was accustomed to, but doing it with a modern flare. It kind of blew my mind when I first saw that. When I went to France and saw what the competition scene was like in comparison, it was a no-brainer for me, I was done with it. I’d rather spend my summer job money visiting places like Baja and Sri Lanka and Indonesia.
LG: Can you tell me about your decision to begin competing on the World Tour back in 2019?
HR: I entered the WLT because I wanted to see longboarding represented on the world stage in a way that I could get behind. I was under no illusion that I could change anything but I guess I was keen to test how honest they were with their new approach. I wanted other people to be able to watch longboarding and get an insight into the style of it that I love. I’ve worked pretty hard outside of the WSL scene to promote the same idea for the last decade and a half. I don’t want kids to be written off for riding longboards like I was during the ‘90s – I want them to be celebrated for it. Surfing pumping Malibu to win the title was the personal justification I needed for my involvement in the sport. I’m not going to lie, I was conflicted about competing on the tour, but in the end I did it the way I wanted to do it, and I guess that means the WSL has made some positive changes.
LG: It feels like high-performance longboarding has largely disappeared. Is there anything from that approach that you feel is worth saving?
HR: I think on a world stage, competitively, it’s been fully dropped, at least for now. But people still do it heaps in Australia and Hawaii. It’s a fun way to surf. If you want to ride a big fat wave, there’s maybe no better craft. But for getting barrelled on a perfect little point break, Id certainly choose something else to ride.
I would almost put money on it that we’ll see a resurgence of high-performance longboarding and people will be doing it in a way that both of us see and think ‘Woah, that’s fucking sick.’ Because if there was no high-performance longboarding then there would have been no traditional longboarding revival. That was how the Duct Tape and everything thrived. They were an answer to this other form of surfing that the youth weren’t necessarily into. And I reckon that’ll happen again. Now that the WSL and all the invitational events around the world are full on single fin vibe, you imagine at some point somebody’s going to be like “oh, let’s do something else.”
LG: Tudor has been outspoken about the fact for him, logging is a head high and under trip. But, I always thought the footage of you guys riding bigger waves on your logs at the Deus Nine Foot and Single comps was super entertaining. Would you like to see more events being held in waves like that?
HR: The ones held at the river mouth [in Cangu] were hands down the best longboard events I’ve ever been involved in, just purely based on that wave. Because it was big enough that it was pretty radical but it still promoted the good aspects of longboarding. You could nose ride in a really critical section, you could do a nice smooth carve and big end turn. And there was something so unique about that event too because the wave broke so close to the shore.
So yeh, I would love to see more of that. I know they’re going to do a WSL longboard event at Bells this year as part of the tour. That’s a wave that I’ve always wanted to longboard because they had the World Championships there back in the day, it’s a good slopey overhead wave that peels. I think that might be something to watch this year.
LG: There was that crazy footage of Shyama Buttonshaw doing a stretch 5 on a big Bells wall. Would you get scored for that in the WSL event?
HR: I mean, you should if it’s critical. We always say at home, my friend Zye Norris is a classic for it, only stretch 5 if you’re in the barrel, because otherwise, you should be standing up. But if you’re deep on the peak in a really critical position going really fast, it’s an awesome manoeuvre. I think you’d have to be naive to discredit a stretch 5 like Shyama’s.
LG: It was kind of reminiscent of what they were doing in Hawaii back in the day.
HR: There’s a lot of really cool footage of 60s longboarders at Sunset. I actually went over a few years ago and I asked Bob McTavish to hook me up with a shaper to make me a 60s-style log to surf Sunset. It was Randy Rarrick and in the end and he just made me a 9’6 single-fin gun. He was like ‘logs don’t work here man.’ I’d already paid for the board and I’ve only ridden it once. I was like, “I don’t need a 9’6 triple stringer gun!” [laughs] I got my attempt at logging Sunset thwarted! But that would be a cool place to see an event as well. You just need people who can handle it. There’s only a few people in the world who could make the most of a wave like that and it remains to be seen if I’m one of them, because I haven’t had a go at it yet, but I’d like to try.
LG: Are you going to do the WSL tour again this year?
HR: No, at this point I don’t think I am. But I don’t really know what I’m doing. I’m as conflicted as ever. I’m a little less motivated because I just won and achieved the goal that I set out to achieve, so from here I don’t really know what else the WSL is really offering me, apart from a hole in my back pocket. If somebody wanted to cover my expenses, I’d probably do it. But it’s a big commitment.
LG: What’s the thing in surfing that’s exciting you most right now?
HR: Ah man, fucking everything all the time. I’m still such a little kid when it comes to surfing. I’ve been riding a lot of thrusters and single fins. Bodysurfing a lot. Overall, I just like getting in the ocean because it makes me feel like a kid. The more I do it the happier I am.