Parko: from beach to brewery

Originally published in Platform Magazine

It’s the day before the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast and 2012 World Champ Joel Parkinson – arguably the world’s most laidback surfer – is nervous.

“I was thinking this morning going, ‘It’s been 17 years [since joining the World Tour] – why am I still nervous, like I’m going into the unknown’?” he says after a warm-up surf at Duranbah Beach, a few clicks from his home.

“Parko” rocketed into the spotlight in 1999 when, as an 18-year-old wildcard, he beat the best surfers on the planet to win the Billabong Pro at Jeffreys Bay, South Africa.

Since then he’s forged one of Australia’s greatest surfing careers, notching 12 World Tour event wins, nine Top 5 tour finishes and countless starring surf film roles – all with an effortless style some say is unmatched in surfing.

Now 35, Parko – who finished ninth in 2016 – admits to being in the twilight of his career.

“I’m not saying it’s [retirement] coming this year, but I’ve probably only got another one or two years,” he says.

“I’m still nervous and excited the day before the comp… the year I don’t feel like that and it starts feeling like a grind, that’ll be when I call it a day.”

While the life of a globetrotting pro surfer might seem the antithesis of a grind, the World Surf League schedule can be gruelling, particularly for surfers like Parko with young families.

After the Australian leg – featuring Gold Coast, Margaret River (WA) and Victoria’s Bells Beach, with only a few days between events – the tour pinballs around the globe, stopping in Brazil, Fiji, South Africa, Tahiti, USA, France, Portugal and Hawaii.

Hotel rooms, living out of a suitcase, media commitments and sponsor photo shoots take some of the gloss off what the surfing fraternity often calls the “dream tour”.

But Parko knows he’s got it way too good to complain. His wife, Monica, daughters Evie and Macy and son Mahli travel with him regularly.

“The hardest part was when they were babies – when you’re trying to get on the move and there’s car seats, prams, all that,” he explains.

“But now they’re all in school and a lot more self-sufficient – I really enjoy travelling with them.

“I can’t wait, this year we’re doing America, Europe, Africa… and they get those cultural experiences now that they’re not babies who just sleep, feed and eat.

“Taking a baby on an African safari doesn’t really do it justice, you know?

“Now they’re researching places before we go and getting really involved.”

Parko seems to have found the perfect travel rhythm in 2017, but it hasn’t all been smooth sailing.

Trips with family can present the odd dilemma, as he found out on his Tahitian honeymoon.

“Oh, I’m still paying for that,” he chuckles.

“We went for five days on Moorea – one of the most beautiful islands in the world and I said to my wife, I guess I’ll take my board? And she said, yeah, you might as well.

“I thought maybe one day we’d go down the beach for a surf and she’d read a book – but I wasn’t fazed.

“There’s one of the most unbelievable waves in the world there, and it just happened that the day we arrived this huge south swell came and it just pumped.

“I surfed three days straight [laughs]. I had to take my wife there on the second day and just go, look at this wave! She went, wow, this is one of the best waves I’ve seen. You can surf, but… And we’re both looking at this sharp reef.

“I remember thinking, this end section’s so shallow… imagine not being able to move on your honeymoon because you’re all cut up from surfing?

“On the third morning this storm turned the surf to crap, and I just went, yes, thank you!

“Maybe, looking back, I should’ve gone to Thailand – somewhere beautiful where there’s no waves.”

When your job involves travelling to all four corners of the globe, you’d be forgiven for thinking Parko’s favourite beaches might similarly be found in far-flung atolls and boasting life-threatening reefs, but his picks are surprising.

Waikiki, on the south shore of Oahu, Hawaii, isn’t noted for its world-class surf. The beach is fringed by high-rises, resorts and malls, and it’s swarming with tourists 365 days a year.

But with the masses come creature comforts, which can be a godsend for family travel.

“Sitting there with that view, where you can order a Mai Tai on the sand before you take the kids out for a longboard… it’s hard to beat for best in the world,” he says.

Closer to home, Parko rates Queensland’s spellbinding Rainbow Beach and Double Island Point – about 240 kilometres north of Brisbane – as another favourite.

“It’s one of the most spectacular beaches on the planet,” he says.

“Fraser Island’s right there too and it’s World Heritage listed.

“Probably the most incredible place I’ve been to in Australia is there – Lake McKenzie, which is this mirage of sand dunes that’s actually a big freshwater lake.

“It’s got the bluest water you’ve ever seen and you can swim right up to the dunes, it’s amazing.”

It’s hard to imagine how Parko’s life could possibly get any sweeter – the endless travel, a World Title, the beautiful family.

But in 2015 he – along with great mates and Gold Coast surfing royalty Mick Fanning, Josh Kerr and Bede Durbidge – put icing on the cake when they started their own brewery, Balter Brewing Company.

“We really wanted to do something together and Bede had this idea of building a small brewery,” Parko recalls.

“We thought about it some more and said, maybe we could do something bigger?

“Next thing you know we’re steamrolling into today and we’ve been making beer for just over a year now.

“It’s been an amazing experience to start a company and see it really start to make an impact.”

Under the watchful eye of multi-award winning brewer Scott Hargrave, Balter’s XPA (Extra Pale Ale) won gold medals in both draught and packaged form at the 2016 Craft Beer Awards, and reached fourth place on the Great Australasian Beer Spectacular’s annual Hottest 100 list.

It’s not a bad start for a few old mates from the Gold Coast who spend almost as much time in the ocean as they do on dry land.

“I never would’ve thought you’d see us where we are today, having done so well for ourselves, with this great brand and everyone enjoying this beer we’re making” Parko says.

“It’s entertaining working with the boys, for sure – we have tasting nights and hostings, which have been such a fun experience.

“It’s challenging too, but our manager, he’s been amazing and takes a lot of stress away from everyone else to get the whole thing working right and making it a success.”

With the afternoon sun dipping, talk turns back to the Quiksilver Pro – which could kick off in less than 24 hours, wind and swell permitting – and his goals for 2017 and beyond.

Would another Top 5 finish come December be a pass mark for the evergreen Parko, in what might be his last hurrah? Top 10?

It’s clear the man’s not on tour to make up the numbers.

“I’m on it to win it [the World Title],” he says.

“After that? Who knows – I might be selling beer around Australia!

“As long as what I’m doing [after pro surfing] keeps me in the water as much as I can, I’ll be happy.”

For a man with his own brewery and a house just a stone’s throw from some of the world’s finest point breaks, you’d have to say whatever Parko chooses to do, he’ll land on his feet – and in fine style.