Tim Baker | REVIEW: KONG
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The Life and Times of a Surfing Legend

Gary Elkerton with Peter McGuinness

About halfway through this brutally candid expose of the debauchery of pro surfing in the ‘80s, Gary “Kong” Elkerton lets fly with a stinging denunciation of the culture of silence around drug use. Having worn his own vices on his sleeve – the booze, mull, coke and sex that fuelled his barnstorming surfing – Kong declares it time to talk openly about drugs.

“The world of surfing brims with people coping privately with a multitude of emotional, physical and financial miseries caused by the sport’s entwinement with drugs,” he writes. “From the old shaper so beset by paranoia that he can barely function without a morning joint, to the clothing-company executive with a $100K cocaine habit, to the pro surfer who rewards himself with oxycodone binges, to the kid who takes pills before waxing up his board. To the semi-retired champion who still struggles to contain his compulsions. Like me.”

From the very beginnings of pro surfing in the ‘70s there was an unspoken pact among surfers not to mention drugs in public. The fear was that any reminder of surfing’s pervasive drug culture would send the mainstream sponsors and media running for the hills. But the conspiracy of silence, Kong argues, has allowed generations of surfers to make the same mistakes as their forebears. We’re all complicit.

“Had compulsory WADA – World Anti-Doping Agency – testing in line with global benchmarking been enforced when I entered the sport of surfing I would have had to choose between a drug-addled lifestyle and a professional career; an easy combination of both wouldn’t have been possible. I’m sure I’d have chosen surfing. I’m also sure I would’ve made mistakes and caved into bad habits along the way. But they wouldn’t have been ignored or – worse – celebrated.”

They’re sobering words that set the tone of an extraordinarily honest memoir. As someone who’s co-authored a few surfing biographies myself,  I know something of the perils of setting out the darker elements of a life story so baldly. Kong and co-author McGuinness have been admirably fearless in censoring nothing. Perhaps only Jeff Hakman and Phil Jarratt in Mr Sunset have tackled the nexus between surfing and drug so head-on.

For all the wild, pro tour decadence, it’s the portrayal of Kong’s early family life – his tough as nails prawn trawler-man father Bully and their hair-raising adventures of the high seas – that I found most compelling. Having your own, open-ocean, surfing wonderland to yourself as a teenage deckhand on your dad’s prawn trawler is a pedigree few watermen can match. No wonder the North Shore clicked with Kong so naturally.

This is a wild, rollicking, un-put-downable read that I reckon will usher in a new era of candid, no-holds-barred surf biographies. Maybe enough time has passed now for surfing to honestly examine its past. Kong and McGuinness have set the bar high.



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