Rabbit: the Afterlife

Rabbit now boss of carbon capture company GreenCell. Photo: John Hatwell

He was pro surfing’s founding father, the hungriest competitor of his era, and then master and commander of the ASP for a brilliantly successful decade. Now meet Wayne ‘Rabbit’ Bartholomew, chairman of a bio-sequestration company whose humble aim is to help save the world.

Upon learning that Wayne ‘Rabbit’ Bartholomew was leaving his post as CEO of the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) to take a position in a very active initiative within the global environmental movement as Chairman and Managing Director of GreenCell, we thought it opportune and incumbent to contact ‘Bugs’ and debrief him on his 10 years at pro surfing’s helm and his transition into a new career. So we sent a dozen questions off to the 1978 World Champ, and his first response was: “Wow, big questions.”– DK

1) You started surfing and competing in the days before pro surfing, rode it to the top, ran the ASP for 10 years up until your recent retirement, and now you’re heading into the world of environmental work. In brief, what did you come to understand about the nature of professional surfing over the past 35 years?

When I had my own dream of pro surfing it was very far from reality. Surfers were pretty much on the bottom rung of society and loving every minute of it. In fact, they wore this subversive image as a badge of honour. As a 13-year-old I witnessed and observed the ’60s, the music, the youth breakout, watched surfing run a parallel course with popular culture. I formed a perception that the youth revolution meant changing the world for the better. That perception evolved into a vision. While pro surfing was self-serving, it was always, for me, a platform from which to propel myself into the world. Pro surfing itself developed as a patchwork quilt – a layer here, a layer there – perpetually on the brink, always pulling it off with a miracle save at the exact right time. It was as though its destiny was preordained – definitely not surviving by chance, maybe more so by a classic set of coincidences – until the surf industry clicked into top gear. Look, I could write a book on this one question, however, in a nutshell, pro surfing represents the advancement of surfing excellence, generationally.

Hall-of-fame Duranbah fluoro.1986. Photo: Wayne Bartholomew Collection

2) What is your understanding of the relationship of riding waves to competition?

I have basically been a recreational surfer since retiring from the tour in 1987. Riding waves is a very soulful activity, a perfect interaction, a cleansing experience that never loses its lustre. Remembering my first rides, watching my eight-year-old gliding across blue walls, riding a few this morning, it’s like a thread running through my life. Competition is what men do; it is a passage, whether it’s taking off at Pipe or surfing in a heat at Lowers. At a specific time in one’s life, one may choose to take up an aquatic challenge, whether it be to ride a particular surfboard at Waimea Bay or surf in the trials at Teahupoo. People like to test their skills; the ocean provides plenty of challenge. With or without structured competition, these challenges would be risen to. But competition is also a means to justify an existence; it may pay the bills to sustain a lifestyle based around riding waves. The two experiences are separate; they can coexist or the trains may never meet. It’s a very individual thing, and it’s a temporary state. I find that pro surfers are in admiration of soul surfers, especially the ones accepting salary, but soul surfers are very judgmental of pro surfers.

Sydney 1988 – as frontman for ‘The Firewalkers’, so named after Bugs did just that at an infamous birthday party at Kirra. Photo: Wayne Bartholomew Collection

3) Professional surfing and the engines of commerce that sustain it contribute to the problems of fossil-fuel consumption – is there a way out of this apparent contradiction?

That’s a tough question. I don’t think there is a way out without outside help. Shutting down the tour would not necessarily stop surfers jumping on jumbo jets for surfing destinations. It would curtail movements of pro surfers attending foreign events, but in relation to the entire global surfing population’s thirst for waves beyond their hometowns, would it make such a difference to disband the tour to save fossil fuel consumption? Would those flights be cancelled or would they depart on schedule without the handful of pro surfers aboard? The industry puts a lot more CO2 in the atmosphere and should definitely be working towards minimising – and one day neutralising – its carbon footprint. As far as a contradiction is concerned, it’s been there since the first foam/fibreglass board was made, I don’t think it’s fair to lump this whole burden on pro surfing.

4)Why aren’t surfers by and large more environmentally radical or even motivated? Or are they?

I have been perplexed and disappointed time and time again by the general apathy of surfers. Personally, I think it is because life is very good for surfers and they have little to agitate about. That being said, they have very strong opinions, are often self-appointed experts, but are extremely reluctant to get off their butts and do anything proactive. It is always left to a very few, and those wretched souls just cop abuse layered on criticism for their efforts. A lot of pro surfers could be so much more influential, they could so easily take leadership roles and even have others doing the hard yards, but too often they’ll blow off the meeting and not pitch up. I’m not singling out the current Top 45, there has just been an underwhelming response to environmental issues for 35 years. Most of the pros do indeed care and they lend their name to causes. They are also brilliant when it comes to humanitarian issues like charities and benefits. I would just like to see more of a leading role in environmental issues and protecting surf spots.

May ’08, Snapper Rocks, concluding another successful dawn raid.Photo: Wayne Bartholomew Collection

You can read the full version of this story in the upcoming Issue 74 of The Surfer's Path - on the printer now.