Opening image: Yvon with a quick cast between surfs on an empty stretch of Victorian coastline. Photo Tim Davis

FAR FROM MARS: A weekend down the Great Ocean Road with Yvon Chouinard

It was 2008, a cold January in California and the Topa Topa Mountains behind Ventura were snow-capped. The mustard yellow head office of Patagonia sat amongst some old warehouses on Santa Clara Street, and there was a stream of people outside in mountain jackets, heads down in their laptops, sitting under pergolas with solar panels for roof cover. Even back then, the carpark was full of electric cars and outside the building was a long line of pushbikes. As I walked past, they all remained in a Zen-like state with their work. It was a bit like entering a Buddhist temple.


This was my big moment, my first meeting with Yvon Chouinard. I was greeted at reception by a guy known only as “Chipper Bro” who walked me up to Yvon’s office. I met his PA, Mike who was well into his seventies. Yvon was on his way. I learned that Yvon didn’t have a mobile, or email and the only contact for him was Mike. I turned around and there was Yvon. He sidestepped a formal intro and relaxed the moment with a joke. I’d shaved my head the week before and Yvon quipped, “Mike, I thought we were meeting the Aussie guy… this bloke looks like a US Navy Seal.” We shook hands and talked.


A few days went by and Yvon walked over to me one morning in the company café. He whispered, “Hey, you wanna come for a surf?” I jumped at the chance. Outside, his old Subaru pulled up. “We’re going up to Hollister.” I’d read about the incredible uncrowded waves up there and here I was, Yvon’s wingman for the day.


We pulled up at the surf; a chunky six-foot righthander called Razors. It looked a bit like my home break of Winkipop, but with only two guys out. Yvon told me it’s like time has stopped in the ‘70s around there. We quickly whipped the wetsuits on and walked to the jump rock. Yvon goes, “Be careful here. This place will work you over.” I just made it off the rocks between sets and looked back around. No Yvon. I sat up and eventually spotted him; he was getting pinballed through these big rocks. I panicked, before I saw that he’d picked his 70-year-old body off the reef and walked back up to the jump rock for another go.


He was smiling like a kid as he paddled over. I noticed blood on the bridge of his nose and spilling down his cheeks. “I think you’ve cut yourself,” I said. He looked at me dismissively. “It’s all good. It's just a scratch.” We paddled out to the take-off where we were met by Yvon’s son, Fletcher and his best mate, Jason. Fletch quickly paddled over to his dad, concerned. “Hey, your face is cut bad. You’re gunna need stitches.” Yvon told him not to worry about it. “The waves are pumping. Let’s surf.” Yvon had climbed and surfed and adventured all around the world. He wasn’t going to get stitches. He swung and took a wave, and we surfed for the next couple of hours.


We hit it to Yvon’s Ranch house after the surf for a bite of lunch and a patch-up job on his nose. We turned off the road toward a humble, old grey farmhouse. Nearly everything in the house was made from recycled materials. The beams and windows were all repurposed. The grey, rock walls were actually concrete footpaths that had been broken up in a big Californian earthquake in the ‘80s. Yvon got it trucked to The Ranch and a stonemason friend built the house from it. Yvon wandered off for a beach walk and returned with a bucket full of seaweed. He then headed out the back and pulled a lettuce from the veggie garden to make us his favourite salad. Yvon spoiled me that day, and on the way home I invited him to come to Australia sometime and I’d try and repay the hospitality. 

Wayne Lynch walked Yvon and the group into a couple of his secret local surfing corners. Photo Tim Davis

Surfing a Bonzer design shaped by his son Fletcher, Yvon found plenty of speed for a guy who’d just turned 70. Photo Tim Davis

A year later and I was making plans to open the first Patagonia store in Australia, in Torquay. Jason, who was running the surf division, emailed me. “Hey Case, I’ve got a full crew coming over – Fletcher, Dan and Keith Malloy, Belinda Baggs… and Yvon.” I couldn’t believe it, I’d heard it’s pretty rare to get him on a plane to another country unless he’s going fishing or surfing, but a month later he turned up in Torquay.

I booked him into the best hotel in town, right on the beach. I walked him up to his room, which overlooked Zeally Bay with a king-sized bed, a big TV, the works. I was standing there admiring the view when I turned around and Yvon was pushing his bag back out the door. I asked, “Everything okay, Yvon?” He replied gruffly, “That room’s too good for me. Just find me a cheap one out the back. This is a waste of money.” He was deadly serious. We dragged everything back down to the hotel reception and they found him a cheap room in the back of the building. I walked him up there and he opened his old duffel bag and pulled out a thermal mattress and sleeping bag. He was sleeping on the floor. He smiled and apologised for the drama. “I have a pet hate for hotels and their fluffy soft beds,” he explained. He pointed over towards the balcony. “I’ll be out there tonight, under the stars.”

We got the opening night of the store all wrapped up. Wayne Lynch brought the house down with an old school slide show, before Yvon got up and gave the surf industry a gentle kick in the nuts. He talked about greedy business models and warned them that these destructive practices would eventually sink the ship… which a few years later is pretty much what happened.

The next day we all rolled south along the Great Ocean Road to Apollo Bay, where Wayne’s 52-foot catamaran Nalukai was moored. Most of the crew jumped aboard for a day’s sail out around Cape Otway and the Shipwreck Coast. Then it was back to my yurt, deep in the Otway forest where we’d stay for the night. As Wayne dropped us off on the dock, his parting words were, “I’ll find the best bank in the morning and call you.”

I’d built the yurt in 1990. It was an octagonal design, surrounded by 200-year-old eucalypts, with no neighbours for a couple of kilometres. When I first built it we used oil lanterns for lights and cooked off the fire, until the solar was installed 10 years later. Yvon jumped out of the car and let out a big, “Wowwww.” His head was spinning. “How the hell did they let you build this so deep in the forest? She’s a beauty.”

Left: Buried deep in the Otway forest, Glen Casey’s yurt is part surf camp, part spiritual retreat. Right: Most of the beaches along this coast require a bit of legwork to access them. Yvon on the march back up the hill… watch out for the tiger snakes. Photos Tim Davis

That night after the fire we retired. I looked over at Yvon and he’s again pulling out the thermal mattress and the sleeping bag. He wanders out the door to sleep on the front deck under the stars. I chase him out and warn him about our angry Otway mosquitoes, and he gives me a classic Yvon reply. “We’ll see how tough they are. They’ll need a jack hammer to get through my leathery old skin.” We laughed and I wish him good luck. About 2am, in complete darkness and half asleep, I jumped up to take a leak and kicked something hard. It was Yvon, who’d retreated from the mosquito deck to the safety of yurt. He was sleeping in the hallway, right in front of the toilet door. He mumbled something as I kicked him, rolled over and kept sleeping. Next morning I’m making coffee and here comes Yvon with mozzie bites all over his face. I apologised for kicking him in the ribs in the dark, but he didn’t remember it happening.

Not long after first light, Wayne was already calling. He’d slept on the boat overnight in one of the few safe anchorages along that coast, and the bay had a nice little left bank. It was a long walk into the beach, so I rode my quadbike over just in case Yvon needed a lift. It’s the most gruelling track in the Otways and most people avoid it; 45 minutes in and full hour leg burner to get back out. We ended up surfing some really fun waves to ourselves, just us and Wayne’s catamaran sitting offshore like a picture postcard. We surfed all day and paddled over to the boat and had a beer.

We jumped in Wayne’s Zodiac back to the beach as the sun was setting, Wayne warning, “Best get going fast up that hill. It’s full of tiger snakes in the dark.” Wayne whipped us all back on the beach and I cranked up the quad bike. Yvon had developed a chest cough that afternoon and looked really tired. I offered him a lift, but he replied, “No thanks, I’m all good.” I sat and waited for a good hour at the top for Yvon. I could hear him wheezing a few hundred metres away in the fading light, but he had enough breath to yell out, joking, “Don’t worry, I’m alive!” It turns out he’d just come back from Patagonia – the region at the bottom of South America – and had brought the chest infection back from climbing in the mountains.

Yvon arrived back home to California with a good dose of pneumonia. “It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong,” is his famous saying. Well, we had a lot of things go wrong on that trip, and it was a fine adventure.

Spending that time with Yvon, you felt a calm around him. You know he’s faced death hundreds of feet up vertical rock faces, working out his next do-or-die move, in a place where a destructive ego has no use. Over thousands of climbs you find out who you are, I suppose. You sit in the reverence of the now, free of fear and the judgement of others. My guess is this is why Yvon has found peace. Every day remains one big adventure, and he doesn’t care what people think. He refuses to be a part of the spiritually depleting games that most companies play. He’s happy to be wrong, in the process of finding out what’s right.

I love that old Native American quote, “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” Our children deserve to play in the same natural wonderland we did, and we need more fearless leaders standing up and protecting it. Yvon has shown us how one man’s intuitive force can change the world for the better. Long live Yvon, just watch out for the mozzies.

Yvon, Glen Casey and Dave Parmenter (who just happened to be in town) with a quick surf check and some board talk at Point Roadknight. Photo Tim Davis

Opening image: Yvon with a quick cast between surfs on an empty stretch of Victorian coastline. Photo Tim Davis


God Creates Dinosaurs. God Destroys Dinosaurs. God Creates Man. Man Destroys God. We Create Roaring Journals.

Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories
Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories