The Way Of Taj

Australian Taj Burrow is running out of time.

By Sam McIntosh

Taj is the Danny Way of surfing: wavepools, solo chopper sessions, big-budget bio flicks. It’s the sort of surfing that excites and inspires and motivates every filthy little punk with a DVD and a modicum of skill to practice over and over and over again in his own beachbreak. And now this, a world first. Taj was going to jump five meters out of a chopper, stomp a landing on a six-foot wave, and ride out to glory. But after a handful of radical, but unsuccessful, attempts he called it quits while he still had a spine and legs to carry him home.

Taj is no kid anymore. He just turned 27 and with it has come a sort of wisdom. He’s a smart operator. He knows that time doesn’t stand still. He knows he won’t always be the “fresh kid.” And he knows, more than ever, that his chances of winning a world title are beginning to fade. Fact: there isn’t an editor from here to Sao Paulo who’d risk their money at Centrebet on Burrow for the world title over KS or Andy. Yeah, he’s an amazing talent, but right now, feeling the most unfit he has in his career, I know, he knows, that in this shape, he’s nowhere near a contender. Over two 30-minute interviews in Bali and in Western Australia TB talks candidly about his own performance, his failings as a surfer, his inspiration for success, and his chopper jump in Bali.-Sam, Sydney, September 2005

TWS: What led you to jump from the chopper?

TB: I just like the idea of trying something that no one’s ever tried before, and I really wanted to know if it was possible.

What do you think needs to happen for it to come together?

We had all the ingredients, it’s just the chopper pilot needed to be a little bit more cluey on how swells work.

Describe the feeling up there.

I was scared at the start. I put my seat belt on and had my board wedged between us on the floor. When the blades started flaring, I was like, “Whoa, this is really windy,” and my board felt like it was just ready to go. We circled the break and found a sweet spot. I took my belt off, board in one arm, and moved out onto the ledge. I hung one leg out, then the next was just hanging out. The pilot had said don’t point it up into the blades. At times we were really high, like more than 50 or 60 feet. It was a bit freaky. We were doing these banking turns, and Hump (Dustin Humphrey) was hanging on to me, because he thought I was gonna go a couple of times. After a while, I got more comfortable, and I worked out the right spots to hang on to, and where to put my feet. I was on the side of the chopper where you couldn’t see the swells coming, looking straight at the water, and they started following the swell in, and I was thinking, “This is way too high. What am I thinking?” We were 25 feet up, but by the time the swell moved under us, it was twelve or fifteen feet high. It looked a little more do-able when the swell finally rose up to the chopper.

What’s the highest you’ve ever been above the lip-made or not made? Chest-high?

What, like five feet above the lip? Not made? Pfft … f-k yeah! Easy!

What, more than eight foot above the lip?

Yeah! I’ve definitely been that high. When you get slung into a ramp with the right section, you can go into orbit. Even though you don’t always make ’em. It’s hard to measure, but when you get a good ramp you can get right up there.

How bad was the downwind up there?

It was worse when the chopper was turning, and when we were positioning ourselves. Once we were tracking flat, it wasn’t that bad. I’m pretty sure the only way to grab is the double grab. If I was on the other side of the chopper, I think I could just do a normal frontside grab. That’s my strongest grab.

What would you do differently if you did it again?

You know how you watch a windsurfer or a kiteboarder, and when they do huge, huge flips, they either land nose first or tail first just to break the fall? I think yoneed to acid drop tail-first, let your tail sink in, and then fall forward.

Never with straps?

Nah. My dad always talks about how there’s no rules about using straps in competition, so you could do anything. But it defeats the purpose of doing cool stuff without them. It’s not recognized. I mean, I don’t know how many years ago it was when that movie Strapped came out, and it had guys like Rush Randall doing the most mind-blowing flips you could ever imagine. They went so unrecognized because they had straps. The same thing would happen now.

You rode your normal lightweight 5’11” for the heli jump. Why?

I can’t see what else you’d want to ride. A front deck pad would’ve been a good idea for some cushioning, because I pretty much put my heel through my board and buckled it when I tried landing.

Were you scared of breaking your legs?

Yeah. On my first jump, I tried to stick it, and by the time I landed, my arms were fully extended above my head and my legs were stretched out. My feet were pretty much together when I hit the board. It looked ridiculous. I don’t know whether you should try and hold the double grab right ’til the end or not. And you need some cushioning-a washy lip on the top of the wave, not the flats.

How would you have gone if you had Joe Driver (the pilot from Taj’s Fair Bits chopper shoot in 2003)?

I reckon we would’ve stuck one, for sure. I would’ve kept trying and had more confidence of him being able to read the ocean.

And no leash?

I did it leashless because it didn’t feel right. There were a couple things it could’ve got caught on, and I fully thought I was gonna be hanging upside down from the chopper a couple times (laughs).

Do you reckon you’ll do the chopper jump again? Will you be bummed if someone beats you to it?

I don’t mind, but now that I’ve instigated it, I’d like to stick it. I’d definitely love to do it again.

Does it feel like you’ve been put on Earth to push surfing in these new directions?

Nah, you probably want me to say yes, but I’m not sure.

How will you be remembered? Untouchable in small waves? Innovative stuff? Biggest airs?

I’m not sure. I don’t think I’ve decided yet. I always like to do everything. The Tour, trips-I don’t like missing out. I especially like getting amazing photos and video sections people are gonna be entertained by. I definitely like blowing people away.

Do you think Fair Bits made people realize you were into different stuff? It was a left-field surf vid …

Well, for sure, doing stuff in the wavepool and the helicopter stuff at the time was enough to show I want to do new stuff. That’s what I’m after. Always looking for something new …

Do you ever get bad feedback on anything?

I probably only hear the positive stuff, but there’s definitely some bad raps.

When we watched a preview of Campaign 2 at Taylor Steele’s house, describe the feeling when the Dane Reynolds and Jamie O’Brien sections came on?

I felt really frustrated, just because I want to be one of the guys with the crazy section, and I haven’t had time to do it. I just feel like it’s a hard one, between freesurfing and the Tour, to get a section like that and to work on amazing maneuvers, and to bring it all together with different stuff. It’s always been this way, but whatever section I get is just from a couple sessions getting filmed. It’s not like I’ve been able to work on it. It definitely spooks me. I don’t even want to be in the vid if I don’t have a section that’s on par or the best. I hate to think I’d have a section people aren’t talking about, and I can’t even begin to imagine if I had a section people wanted to skip.

What about when Matt George labeled you a sex addict a few years ago.

Yeah, can you believe that shit? It’s like this old, bald dude who can’t get laid sees a guy hanging out with girls, gets rattled, and calls him a sex maniac or some shit.

Describe how you felt on tour the past few years. When it comes to world titles, it seems like it’s just AI and KS with some Parko thrown in.

I definitely haven’t put enough effort in, and I change my mind all the time as to whether to be a contender or just be lazy and do fun stuff, so I’m always torn. I’ve been so negative with my injuries, and I feel like I’m on a downhill spiral. I get such sore lower backs, and my body’s not physically fit enough to do what I want to. I want to get myself feeling a hundred-percent perfect again, like when I was a couple years younger. I should do everything I can to maximize my potential while I still can. It’s only a real small window to be able to do what I want. And I’m really waking up to that now.

Reckon you’re disciplined enough to do it? You’re a good-time kid. If you’re hungry, you’ll pull into the golden arches rather than look for grits.

You’re right, that’s definitely my problem.

You suck a lot of marrow to have a good time, though. If you’ve got a small window, you’ll bolt on a surf trip …

But I think I’ll be bummed if I don’t fulfill my potential.

Fitness-wise, how do you feel?

I feel like the unfittest guy on tour. I mean, I can do everything I need to on tour, but I could do it so much better.

Does that mentally beat you in heats?

Probably. I don’t put that much effort in, and I’m like, “F-k, all I had to do was paddle a bit harder or catch one more wave or something stupid.” That eats you up when you realize it’s something that simple. I just feel like I don’t surf nearly as good as I could. I feel like surfing has become so familiar, it’s desensitized the excitement, so I don’t put the effort in like when I was seventeen.

You still surf so much, what makes you feel unfit?

I don’t feel really unfit-I just know guys are training, and I’m not.

How does it feel when you know people are training and you’re not? Do ever think, “Do all the training you like, I’m still gonna smoke you”?

I try to think that surfing’s all you need to do, but I definitely feel guilty.

What do you think Andy and Kelly have that you don’t?

Good question.

What do you have that those guys don’t?

Not much. I guess they’ve got determination. Hard question.

But I’ve spoken to you before you’ve had to surf against say Kelly in Brazil-you said you were gonna smoke him, and you did. Explain.

I feel invincible sometimes. That’s what I need to work on. It’s really frickin’ hard to surf good every day of your life, and that’s what I want to do. I get bummed when I don’t.

But I’ve seen you flaring and so down … it’s as if you see everyone else’s surfing through rose-colored goggles.

When you’re younger, you improve at such a fast rate that every surf you go for, you’re doing something bigger and better and newer. And now, my improvement every session isn’t as great. If I’m not improving, it freaks me out. I might be surfing good, but if I don’t feel like what I’m doing is amazing, it shits me.

Did it feel like you were at the top and people caught up?

I just want to keep pushing it, and if I don’t, it’s the most frustrating thing in the world.

Where do Andy and Kelly push it?

Big waves. They surf ten-foot waves like they’re three-foot waves.

What about in the air?

Air-wise, they’re not as good as they could be.

When did you most feel like a world-title threat?

I felt good a couple years ago in Brazil, when I got sick right before we did the chopper thing (West Oz, October 2003). I was getting on a roll, second to Kelly at Mundaka, third in France-it pretty much feels like I’ve won Brazil every year except for that year (laughs)! And the sickness fucked me up.

What is the most fulfilled you’ve ever been? On tour or off?

Nailing some of my best maneuvers in front of a chopper those days. I get goose bumps when I watch that shit (closing section, Fair Bits). It was one of my best days ever, if not the best. The waves were pert few years. When it comes to world titles, it seems like it’s just AI and KS with some Parko thrown in.

I definitely haven’t put enough effort in, and I change my mind all the time as to whether to be a contender or just be lazy and do fun stuff, so I’m always torn. I’ve been so negative with my injuries, and I feel like I’m on a downhill spiral. I get such sore lower backs, and my body’s not physically fit enough to do what I want to. I want to get myself feeling a hundred-percent perfect again, like when I was a couple years younger. I should do everything I can to maximize my potential while I still can. It’s only a real small window to be able to do what I want. And I’m really waking up to that now.

Reckon you’re disciplined enough to do it? You’re a good-time kid. If you’re hungry, you’ll pull into the golden arches rather than look for grits.

You’re right, that’s definitely my problem.

You suck a lot of marrow to have a good time, though. If you’ve got a small window, you’ll bolt on a surf trip …

But I think I’ll be bummed if I don’t fulfill my potential.

Fitness-wise, how do you feel?

I feel like the unfittest guy on tour. I mean, I can do everything I need to on tour, but I could do it so much better.

Does that mentally beat you in heats?

Probably. I don’t put that much effort in, and I’m like, “F-k, all I had to do was paddle a bit harder or catch one more wave or something stupid.” That eats you up when you realize it’s something that simple. I just feel like I don’t surf nearly as good as I could. I feel like surfing has become so familiar, it’s desensitized the excitement, so I don’t put the effort in like when I was seventeen.

You still surf so much, what makes you feel unfit?

I don’t feel really unfit-I just know guys are training, and I’m not.

How does it feel when you know people are training and you’re not? Do ever think, “Do all the training you like, I’m still gonna smoke you”?

I try to think that surfing’s all you need to do, but I definitely feel guilty.

What do you think Andy and Kelly have that you don’t?

Good question.

What do you have that those guys don’t?

Not much. I guess they’ve got determination. Hard question.

But I’ve spoken to you before you’ve had to surf against say Kelly in Brazil-you said you were gonna smoke him, and you did. Explain.

I feel invincible sometimes. That’s what I need to work on. It’s really frickin’ hard to surf good every day of your life, and that’s what I want to do. I get bummed when I don’t.

But I’ve seen you flaring and so down … it’s as if you see everyone else’s surfing through rose-colored goggles.

When you’re younger, you improve at such a fast rate that every surf you go for, you’re doing something bigger and better and newer. And now, my improvement every session isn’t as great. If I’m not improving, it freaks me out. I might be surfing good, but if I don’t feel like what I’m doing is amazing, it shits me.

Did it feel like you were at the top and people caught up?

I just want to keep pushing it, and if I don’t, it’s the most frustrating thing in the world.

Where do Andy and Kelly push it?

Big waves. They surf ten-foot waves like they’re three-foot waves.

What about in the air?

Air-wise, they’re not as good as they could be.

When did you most feel like a world-title threat?

I felt good a couple years ago in Brazil, when I got sick right before we did the chopper thing (West Oz, October 2003). I was getting on a roll, second to Kelly at Mundaka, third in France-it pretty much feels like I’ve won Brazil every year except for that year (laughs)! And the sickness fucked me up.

What is the most fulfilled you’ve ever been? On tour or off?

Nailing some of my best maneuvers in front of a chopper those days. I get goose bumps when I watch that shit (closing section, Fair Bits). It was one of my best days ever, if not the best. The waves were perfect-I’d let go of the rope with so much anticipation. When I’d leave those perfect ramps and make stuff, my confidence would grow and I’d feel ten feet tall and bulletproof. I’m sure winning a world title would be better, and competing is what I’ve been doing since day one. I can’t deny the fact that I f-kin’ love to win.

PART TWO:

We find Taj and Jake Paterson en route to Perth International Airport on the Busselton Highway before flying to Japan for the WCT event. With the radio in the background, Taj speaks as if Jake’s listening in. He doesn’t have the same spark as the previous interview and gets embarrassed with some questions.

How would you define Jet Ski use in your life?

It’s a pretty big part in recent years. I don’t like having the reputation of using Skis to do airs. It doesn’t help. We’re not using the speed to get high or anything, it’s more about positioning and wave count. You get a lot more waves and a lot more opportunities to do airs. I mean, sometimes you do, if you want to f-k around and see how high you can go, but you usually get dropped onto the wave, you wash off your speed and look for the ramp. It’s more about positioning and getting a lot more waves.

Do you reckon you could sustain a world title campaign for a year or eighteen months?

Yeah, I’m sure I could. I’ve said it so many times, and I know now I don’t have much time left to try and take advantage of it. And like I was talking about before, I think that’s one of the reasons I don’t surf as well as I could. I’m now realizing that it’s now or never. Next year, uh, well, I feel weird saying it, because I say it every year … but I know that it’s now or never.

Who gives you negative feedback? Among any star athlete’s friends, it’s rare to find anyone who’ll put their hand up and tell ’em the hard truths.

My dad’s the only one, really. My dad reckons I stand too far forward on my board. He tells me all the time, “What the hell are you doing? You’re just making it difficult for yourself. It’s so much easier to do a top turn when you’re standing on the tail.” And he reckons he talked to Perry Hatchett (ASP head judge) about it, and Perry agreed with him. Perry was saying I need to move my stance back, and it pisses me off talking about it to my dad. He’s just so concerned why I keep losing. It annoys me, but he’s probably right.

In what area of your surfing do you feel you lack?

Big-wave stuff, being more confident. Surfing ten-foot waves like they’re four-foot waves-like Kelly and Andy do.

But you’ve grown up surfing North Point, The Womb, Gnaraloo, and you’re floating and doing wild stuff on serious waves. It’s not like you’re lacking experience.

That’s at home, and I can do it easier there, but I don’t have the confidence to do it at Hawai’i.

Is it because you’ve been bounced on the reef at Pipe? Or do you think about the time you pulled the guy out as a paraplegic?

That definitely spooked me. It’s just because everyone’s confident at their home break. When Snake (Jake Paterson) and I are surfing serious Rabbits, we feel like we can airdrop into just about anything and make it. But you get the same-looking wave at Backdoor or something, it’s such a different story-you just don’t know it as well. You don’t do it every day.

Okay, same question again: What do you think Andy and Kelly have that you don’t have?

The ability to surf good every day. I can’t surf good every day, but those guys can, and I know they can. I very rarely see them have a bad surf. I surf bad all the time; everything’s gotta be just right for me to surf good. They hardly fall off, and I do. That’s the big thing.

Okay, you’ve got the opportunity to surf like Andy or Kelly, who are you going with?

I could pick a few aspects of their surfing to take on but not everything.

Like what?

Tube-riding and bigger waves.

You wouldn’t take their airs, though, would you?

Nah. (Laughs) You’re a wanker.

Annd the tough one again: What do you have that those guys don’t?

Ah, f-k, I can’t say. I reckon I do better airs. That’s about it.

What about trim, style, flow, small waves?

Yeah, I mean I can surf small waves better than ’em sometimes.

If you’re gonna beat Kelly and Andy next year, what’s gonna be the difference?

Put a lot more effort in, as well as being comfortable in really big tubes.

Okay, you’ve got Kelly in the semi at J-Bay next year, why and how are you gonna beat him?

I just think I’ll be surfing better. Well, not better than him, but better than I am at the moment. After watching all my heats on film, I make so many mistakes-I freak out too much on a wave, panicking, looking for turns. I should just chill and nail ’em. I’m finally getting it straight in my head what I have to do, and I won’t be rattled against him.

Do you reckon you have more control above or out of the lip?

I can’t answer these questions. It’s not my nature to talk shit up. It doesn’t feel right.

Okay, in twelve months time, where do you see yourself being?

At the top of the ratings (laughs). You love that, don’t ya? See, there’s your talk up.

t-I’d let go of the rope with so much anticipation. When I’d leave those perfect ramps and make stuff, my confidence would grow and I’d feel ten feet tall and bulletproof. I’m sure winning a world title would be better, and competing is what I’ve been doing since day one. I can’t deny the fact that I f-kin’ love to win.

PART TWO:

We find Taj and Jake Paterson en route to Perth International Airport on the Busselton Highway before flying to Japan for the WCT event. With the radio in the background, Taj speaks as if Jake’s listening in. He doesn’t have the same spark as the previous interview and gets embarrassed with some questions.

How would you define Jet Ski use in your life?

It’s a pretty big part in recent years. I don’t like having the reputation of using Skis to do airs. It doesn’t help. We’re not using the speed to get high or anything, it’s more about positioning and wave count. You get a lot more waves and a lot more opportunities to do airs. I mean, sometimes you do, if you want to f-k around and see how high you can go, but you usually get dropped onto the wave, you wash off your speed and look for the ramp. It’s more about positioning and getting a lot more waves.

Do you reckon you could sustain a world title campaign for a year or eighteen months?

Yeah, I’m sure I could. I’ve said it so many times, and I know now I don’t have much time left to try and take advantage of it. And like I was talking about before, I think that’s one of the reasons I don’t surf as well as I could. I’m now realizing that it’s now or never. Next year, uh, well, I feel weird saying it, because I say it every year … but I know that it’s now or never.

Who gives you negative feedback? Among any star athlete’s friends, it’s rare to find anyone who’ll put their hand up and tell ’em the hard truths.

My dad’s the only one, really. My dad reckons I stand too far forward on my board. He tells me all the time, “What the hell are you doing? You’re just making it difficult for yourself. It’s so much easier to do a top turn when you’re standing on the tail.” And he reckons he talked to Perry Hatchett (ASP head judge) about it, and Perry agreed with him. Perry was saying I need to move my stance back, and it pisses me off talking about it to my dad. He’s just so concerned why I keep losing. It annoys me, but he’s probably right.

In what area of your surfing do you feel you lack?

Big-wave stuff, being more confident. Surfing ten-foot waves like they’re four-foot waves-like Kelly and Andy do.

But you’ve grown up surfing North Point, The Womb, Gnaraloo, and you’re floating and doing wild stuff on serious waves. It’s not like you’re lacking experience.

That’s at home, and I can do it easier there, but I don’t have the confidence to do it at Hawai’i.

Is it because you’ve been bounced on the reef at Pipe? Or do you think about the time you pulled the guy out as a paraplegic?

That definitely spooked me. It’s just because everyone’s confident at their home break. When Snake (Jake Paterson) and I are surfing serious Rabbits, we feel like we can airdrop into just about anything and make it. But you get the same-looking wave at Backdoor or something, it’s such a different story-you just don’t know it as well. You don’t do it every day.

Okay, same question again: What do you think Andy and Kelly have that you don’t have?

The ability to surf good every day. I can’t surf good every day, but those guys can, and I know they can. I very rarely see them have a bad surf. I surf bad all the time; everything’s gotta be just right for me to surf good. They hardly fall off, and I do. That’s the big thing.

Okay, you’ve got the opportunity to surf like Andy or Kelly, who are you going with?

I could pick a few aspects of their surfing to take on but not everything.

Like what?

Tube-riding and bigger waves.

You wouldn’t take their airs, though, would you?

Nah. (Laughs) You’re a wanker.

And the tough one again: What do you have that those guys don’t?

Ah, f-k, I can’t say. I reckon I do better airs. That’s about it.

What about trim, style, flow, small waves?

Yeah, I mean I can surf small waves better than ’em sometimes.

If you’re gonna beat Kelly and Andy next year, what’s gonna be the difference?

Put a lot more effort in, as well as being comfortable in really big tubes.

Okay, you’ve got Kelly in the semi at J-Bay next year, why and how are you gonna beat him?

I just think I’ll be surfing better. Well, not better than him, but better than I am at the moment. After watching all my heats on film, I make so many mistakes-I freak out too much on a wave, panicking, looking for turns. I should just chill and nail ’em. I’m finally getting it straight in my head what I have to do, and I won’t be rattled against him.

Do you reckon you have more control above or out of the lip?

I can’t answer these questions. It’s not my nature to talk shit up. It doesn’t feel right.

Okay, in twelve months time, where do you see yourself being?

At the top of the ratings (laughs). You love that, don’t ya? See, there’s your talk up.

And the tough one again: What do you have that those guys don’t?

Ah, f-k, I can’t say. I reckon I do better airs. That’s about it.

What about trim, style, flow, small waves?

Yeah, I mean I can surf small waves better than ’em sometimes.

If you’re gonna beat Kelly and Andy next year, what’s gonna be the difference?

Put a lot more effort in, as well as being comfortable in really big tubes.

Okay, you’ve got Kelly in the semi at J-Bay next year, why and how are you gonna beat him?

I just think I’ll be surfing better. Well, not better than him, but better than I am at the moment. After watching all my heats on film, I make so many mistakes-I freak out too much on a wave, panicking, looking for turns. I should just chill and nail ’em. I’m finally getting it straight in my head what I have to do, and I won’t be rattled against him.

Do you reckon you have more control above or out of the lip?

I can’t answer these questions. It’s not my nature to talk shit up. It doesn’t feel right.

Okay, in twelve months time, where do you see yourself being?

At the top of the ratings (laughs). You love that, don’t ya? See, there’s your talk up.