by Vivien Luu
Barney Quinlan stands at the edge of the beach. Wetsuit zipped up, surfboard in tow; he scans the rolling waves, watching his surf squad vigilantly.
today the waves at North Bondi are glassy and clean. The sets break fast, skittering and splintering into white frothy foam. In the autumn sea, Barney’s boys are ducking under waves and gliding effortlessly in with the tide. They scramble onto the sand and grab kickboards, body boards, even chopping boards (yes, the ones you cut vegies on) before heading back into the surf. Chopping boards?
“I’ve rescued somebody on a chopping board before,” Barney says. “It works well as a kickboard, plus it’s fun.” It’s an off-handed comment that strikes at the heart of Barney’s surf philosophy. For the 31-year-old, it’s “not about the board you’re riding, it’s about having fun and being at one with the ocean”.
This mantra and a love for experimenting with boards is the reason why Barney Quinlan was named Australia’s first ever alaia surf champion at the Australian Surf Festival at Port Macquarie in 2011. That, and the fact that he’s a damn good surfer. Alaias (pronounced ah-lie-yuh) are rooted deep in surf history, considered by many as the first surfboards to be ridden by Hawaiians in the 19th century.
Unlike modern boards, the alaia is shaped entirely from a piece of wood and has no fins, features that make it a difficult ride even for the most experienced surfer. Despite this, the Bondi local is unfailingly humble about his title and success with the ancient board.
“I’m really proud of the alaia thing but it was very much an inaugural contest,” Barney says. “A lot of guys who are as good as me, if not better, weren’t there. I just happened to show up.” But don’t be fooled by Barney’s modesty.
Phrases like “absolute freak”, “amazing style” and “I don’t know how he does it” are often thrown around by the surf community when Barney’s name is mentioned. And since becoming the alaia surf champ, he has featured in Tracks magazine and been named The Beast’s Frother of the Month.
With a scruffy beard, sun-bleached hair and a broad easy smile, Barney Quinlan is the quintessential Aussie surfer. He’s always got zinc on his face because he’s either just back from the surf or heading there soon. And more than two decades of surfing have made his body slender and hard, his movements lithe and graceful. If he’s not in a wetsuit and beanie, he’s wearing shorts and a T-shirt. Barney is entirely unassuming and unpretentious.