Epoch-defining regularfooter from Sydney, Australia; winner of the 1966 World Surfing Championships; in the vanguard of both the shortboard revolution and the longboard revival; winner of the Longboard World Championships in 1986, 1988, 1989, and 1990. Young was arguably the most influential surfer in the second half of the 20th century. “He was an overwhelming presence,” surf journalist Paul Holmes wrote, “and accorded almost messianic awe.”
Robert Young was born (1947) in Sydney, the son of a truck driver father and schoolteacher mother, raised in the beachfront suburb of Collaroy, and began surfing at age 10. Six years later, the gangly teenager won the open division of the 1963 Australian Invitational Surfing Championships, as well as the juniors division of the Australian National Titles, and was filmed for a sequence in Bruce Brown’s crossover hit The Endless Summer. (He was then still known as “Gnat,” a nickname picked up years earlier when he’d been the smallest surfer on the beach; “Nat” came after an adolescent growth spurt.)
When fellow Sydney surfer Midget Farrelly won the first World Surfing Championships in 1964, he was Young’s friend, mentor, and boardmaker. The friendship became a lifetime rivalry the following year, as Young dropped out of high school, moved up to the men’s division, placed runner-up to Farrelly in the Australian National Titles, then beat the older surfer to take second in the 1965 World Championships. Still sniping at each other more than 30 years later, Farrelly described Young in a 1997 surf magazine article as a “ruthless megalomaniac,” not long after Young called Farrelly a “whinging pom.”
Young made himself a board he called “Magic Sam” in 1966: a thin 9′ 4″ squaretail with a swept-back fin designed by California kneerider George Greenough. Young rode Sam to victory in the Australian National Titles, then took it to San Diego, California, for the World Championships. David Nuuhiwa of Huntington Beach entered the contest as the American favorite; he was by far the sport’s best noserider, able to perch on the tip for 10 seconds or more at a time. Young, along with Greenough and fellow Australian Bob McTavish, had meanwhile been working on what was called “involvement” surfing, based on powerful turns in and around the curl. Young was regarded as the heir to original power surfers Phil Edwards and Mike Doyle, both from California; he rode in a medium-narrow stance, with a slightly hunched back, and used his well-muscled frame (6′ 3″, 185 pounds) to leverage deep, well-defined turns. The power-storing crouch Young assumed while trimming across the wave’s upper reaches was as beautiful as it was functional.
Young stumbled in the first round of the 1966 Championships, but quickly regained form and rode to the title virtually unchallenged. His natural by that time was shading at time into arrogance. When a Newsweek reporter at the 1966 World Championships relayed to him that Nuuhiwa had described good surfing as “blending” with the wave, Young curtly replied that he “didn’t want to blend in with anything.” Over the next few years, he had run-ins—some of them physical—with a few of the sport’s greatest figures, including big-wave pioneer George Downing and surfboard shaper Dick Brewer, both from Hawaii. “He was a terror in the lineup,” surf journalist John Grissim later wrote, “stealing waves left and right, and pounding his board with his fist when things didn’t go his way.” Grissim said Young was “Australia’s answer to Otto von Bismarck.” But he was also charming when he wanted to be, honest and loquacious, with a probing mind.
Young and McTavish traveled to Hawaii in late 1967 with their wide-backed McTavish-designed “vee bottom boards,” the first model in what was soon being called the “shortboard revolution.” At Maui’s Honolua Bay, the two Australians turned easily and repeatedly from trough to crest in a high-performance style that set a precedent for virtually all surfing that followed; The Hot Generation, an Aussie-made surf film that closed with a sequence of Young and McTavish at Honolua, gave mainland American surfers their first look at the sport’s future. Young followed up by costarring with teenage phenomenon Wayne Lynch in 1969’s landmark surf movie Evolution.
Young, nicknamed “the Animal,” kept his hand in competition, winning the Australian Titles in 1967 and 1969 and the Bells Beach event in 1966 and 1970, as well as the 1970 Smirnoff Pro. He then quit competition and turned up the rhetoric against the “establishment,” telling Tracks magazine in a typically well-crafted and theatrical comment that “just by going surfing we’re supporting the revolution.” He spent the early ’70s farming, surfing, and getting stoned in the pastoral Byron Bay area of New South Wales; the era is beautifully captured in the marijuana-hazed surf film classic Morning of the Earth.
Returning to competition in 1974, Young finished third in the Coca-Cola Surfabout in Sydney, and donated his $750 check to the Australian Labour Party. (A part-time environmental crusader, Young later ran unsuccessfully for a state parliament seat.) He began riding longboards regularly in the early ’80s, and was all but unbeatable in the early years of professional longboarding, taking the world title in 1986, 1988, 1989, and 1990, and finishing second in 1987 and fourth in 1991 before making a second, and permanent, retirement from full-time competition. Twenty years earlier, Young’s shortboard surfing had been a huge influence on the upcoming generation of Australian surfers, particularly Michael Peterson, Ian Cairns, and Simon Anderson. In the early ’90s, he mentored California’s adolescent longboard savant Joel Tudor.
Young by then had branched into surf media. A writer since the mid-’60s, when he had a weekly surfing column in the Sunday Telegraph, Young published The Book of Surfing in 1979, followed by Surfing Australia’s East Coast (1980), The History of Surfing (1983; revised in 1994), Surfing Fundamentals (1985), and The Surfing and Sailboard Guide to Australia (1986). He also produced two documentaries: the short-subject Fall Line (1979), on surfing, skiing, and hang gliding; and the 90-minute History of Australian Surfing (1985). Curly-haired and ruggedly handsome, Young also worked as a model in the ’80s and ’90s, appearing on the cover of Men’s Vogue in 1989.
One of surfing’s most photogenic riders, Young appeared in more than 75 surf movies, videos, and documentaries, including Surfing the Southern Cross (1963), A Life in the Sun (1966), Fantastic Plastic Machine (1969), Waves of Change (1970), A Winter’s Tale (1974), A Day in the Life of Wayne Lynch (1978), Surfers: The Movie (1990), Endless Summer II (1994), Adrift (1996), Biographies (2000), Shelter (2001), and Under the Sun (2011). In 1967, Young starred in Let’s Go Surfing, a 13-part instructional series airing on Australia’s ABC-TV. Nat’s Nat and That’s That: A Surfing Legend, Young’s modestly titled autobiography, was published in 1998.
In 2000, the still-aggressive Young slapped a teenage surfer who had gotten in his way while surfing at Angourie, and subsequently was beaten by the teenager’s father. Young’s eye sockets and the cheekbones on both sides of his face were broken; the experience led him to write Surf Rage: A Surfer’s Guide to Turning Negatives into Positives (2000), a book of essays on surfing violence.
In 1967, Young won the Surfer Magazine Readers Poll Award, and was the top Australian vote-getter in the International Surfing Hall of Fame Awards. He was inducted into the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame in 1986, the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1987, the International Surfing Hall of Fame in 1991, and the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame in 1996. He was included in Surfing magazine’s 2004 list of the best 16 surfers in history; Surfer also listed him at 10th in their “Greatest Surfers of All Time” feature in 2009.
Young has been married twice and has four children; Beau Young, his oldest boy, won the 2000 and 2003 World Longboard Championships. Bryce Young, Nat’s youngest, is also a competitive longboarder.