At the embarrassingly late age of 42, I fell into surfing slowly, then all at once. A friend with a serious “quiver” and a geriatric Honda Odyssey known as the Surf Wagon gave me my first fibreglass board, a hand-me-down with a fishtail base I named, with a child’s guileless love, Fishy. I swallowed litres of seawater. Occasionally I caught a wave. Or a fin in the armpit. Soon, I found myself thinking about surfing at odd moments during the day.
In the winter of 2020, as the ill winds of the pandemic chilled the already stalled economy, I lost the job I had loved for more than a decade, and surfing became a structure in an abruptly boneless existence. I was not alone. Alongside me in the coppery dawn water was a growing number of late starters. Some were making the most of extra hours when they’d ordinarily be commuting; others were cushioning the freefall from lost or furloughed jobs and vanishing casual hours. Longer boards — which are more buoyant and forgiving to learners — sold out in surf shops.
With proximity to others suddenly dangerous, fleeing the city to the vast, indifferent ocean had taken on a deeper urgency. Then travel restrictions made the beach, for me as for millions of others, as unreachable as the moon. Fishy stayed in the shed. And I, like many, found myself binge-watching a particular, newly released surfing film for surrogate stoke.
“Lost Track: Atlantic”, which wraps with a final instalment dropping online next week, is a four-part surf-travel odyssey shot at the end of 2019 before Covid went global. Each episode is 30–45 minutes long and free to view. The film’s slow-drip release from August last year has been like a long, cool drink of water for those mentally parched by lockdowns, those who love the ocean and can’t get to it, and those who worry that humanity has lost its humility and wonder.
The film follows two surfers from Byron Bay, Ishka Folkwell, the filmmaker, and Torren Martyn, who does almost all of the on-camera surfing, as they “follow their noses” down the Atlantic coast in search of waves. Along the way, they befriend locals in cultures and climates as diverse as Scotland and Senegal. Each night, they bunk on foam mattresses in the back of a customised Ford Transit van they call Donna, whose eccentricities include a dying clutch and, at high latitudes, icicles on the ceiling.
The pair endure lashing storms, breakdowns and police stops with Byronic levels of chill. In episode one, we watch Martyn, in a 5mm wetsuit and neoprene hood, gloves and booties, emerge from the gelid water at a lonely spot in Scotland where the locals presumably are all fireside in the pub. It had started to snow. His speech slurred through frozen lips, he marvels, “I got it all to myself!”
The journey’s holy grail is the “swell of the decade” rolling towards Morocco and which — spoiler alert — the pair nearly miss due to Spanish ferry cancellations amid the storm. When we finally see it, in episode three, it’s fearsome: a towering, almost mechanical right-hand point break (a wave that peels from right to left as we view it, forming off a finger of land). It quickly snaps one of Martyn’s precious few boards.
When the ocean is uncooperative and the location remote, there’s little to do but shelter inside Donna and thumb the guitar or improvise a game of ring toss. The friends gibe each other constantly — Martyn’s slow garlic peeling is a flashpoint — but they never fight. “Survivor”, it isn’t. But the film envelops, thanks in part to Folkwell’s eye for beauty in detail and the bittersweet score by the psychedelic-folk collective Headland, with contributions by Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu and the Tuareg band Tinariwen.
The film is an ode to the unlikeliness of nature as much as it is to Martyn’s surfing, which can be equally astonishing in its ease and economy. Sequences of Martyn lankily poised on his custom Morning of the Earth twin-fin boards are intercut with a seagull gulping down its catch or a curious camel. Other flashes of grace include a feast shared with a biblically bearded Moroccan bodyboarder named Omar in his cliffside fisherman’s hut. There are endless hours of YouTube surf footage that deal in adrenaline, but “Lost Track: Atlantic” offers something else: a pulse.
“It is a surf series. You can’t say it’s not,” Folkwell says when I call him at his mum’s place outside Byron Bay, where he’s stuck editing terabytes of footage on account of having a lively 15-month-old at home. “At the same time, there was always at the forefront of our minds that we wanted to make it watchable and enjoyable to a non-surfing audience as well.”
As for why more surf films haven’t hit on his formula, he admits he’s “bamboozled by that — there’s not much out there”. But then, not everyone making surf flicks would list Jim Jarmusch and Wes Anderson among their influences. I ask Folkwell what he hopes the takeaway is from “Lost Track: Atlantic”, and his answer is surprising: kindness. “We obviously didn’t make the film with the current situation in mind, but I guess it would be to be kind and appreciate the simple things in life,” he says.
Folkwell recognises the privilege inherent in being able to drop everything for a taste of #vanlife — particularly at this locked-down moment. “It is hard because a lot of us can’t travel and enjoy a lot of what the film is portraying,” he says, “but even in your everyday interactions, even if they are quite limited, just try to be kind to people and yourself, and appreciate that we do have it good compared to a lot of people — the majority of people in the world, to be honest.”
The filmmaker, who is 34, enjoyed a childhood defined by proximity to the ocean. “I can’t imagine it not being a part of my life. And it has definitely shaped my life to a huge extent,” he says. “The fact that I’m making surf films is entirely because of my childhood. There’s something about the water that’s calming.”
Folkwell’s mum is a photographer, and he would accompany her on shoot trips, where he quickly realised his choices were: “sit around, bored, while Mum took photos, or take a camera and take my own photos”. Digital photography was in its nascency and he started capturing high-school friends surfing — including Martyn, who by that point had sponsorship deals. He has tried living away from the surf, spending a year in Melbourne, but was drawn back to settle in the Byron hills, where he lives with his partner, Sarica, a Californian.
Martyn is likewise bound to the life aquatic. “I’ve lived my whole life by the ocean and my life has revolved around it, even before surfing,” he tells me from Western Australia, where he is on the road again. “It has always been the glue.” Now 31, he often ruminates on a two-year period from the age of five when he adventured around Australia with his mum and her partner at the time, a skilled fisherman and surfer. “Max taught me my first fishing knots and pushed me onto my first wave and kind of got me hooked,” Martyn says. “They’re the years I’m most grateful for.” He suspects he’s still chasing that first thrill of discovery. “A lot of these recent years I’ve been on the move,” he says. “I think it’ll be like that forever.”
Martyn nevertheless keeps a “nest” in the Byron hinterland, a simply furnished 1983 Millard caravan he admits occasionally loses the battle to winter weather, ensconced in tropical foliage on a friend’s land south of town. It’s the archetypal surfer life of treading lightly, which can sometimes border on the ascetic. “You don’t need a lot to be happy,” he tells me. “The more you have, the more complicated things can get. There’s a balance to it all.”
If “Lost Track: Atlantic” feels authentic, he says, it’s because it is. There was no crew, no honey wagon. The shot list was sketched on the fly. What happens onscreen occurred that way. “It’s basically just two best mates planning a surf trip, and then documenting it,” Martyn says. “Neither of us are rolling in money, that’s for sure, to start with,” he continues in his gentle drawl. “You have a few months, you budget it out and every now and then you might spoil yourself and eat out or get a hotel and wash, but for most of it, the best things happen when you’re vulnerable and just going with the flow. It’s not too different to how we live at home.”
The films are bankrolled and released by the wetsuit company Needsessentials, the “accidental” project of Martyn and Folkwell’s surfing buddy Ryan Scanlon. In 2013, Scanlon started sewing wetsuits for friends from his 36-foot sailboat home for grocery money. Despite its success, his venture retains a purism born of the austerity of cramped boat life and a revulsion at environmental waste and mass consumerism.
“Personally, I have a real aversion to advertising,” Scanlon tells me from his home — now an actual house — amid bushland on the north coast of New South Wales. The idea for “Lost Track” evolved organically out of a mutual enthusiasm for low-key road-trips to surf obscure waves, while field-testing new gear. It’s marketing only as far as Martyn wears Needessentials wetsuits in the films and each instalment premieres on its website. To call it a sponsorship would be to impose too much structure on a baggier arrangement.
“None of us want to be businesspeople — we want to be surfers,” Scanlon says. “With the film, the real endeavour is to try to make something that’s enriching to someone, not trying to force something on them or getting them to buy something they don’t need. It’s a genuine story that hopefully people can take something away from and be inspired by.”
As a pastime, surfing is different to pottery or yoga or basketball, in that these other things don’t dictate where — or, often, how — you live. (Also, basketballers never have to wait for the court to be optimally flat or wonder if it might one day kill them.) Folkwell, whose first name is a homophone of the Gaelic word for water, has made peace with the fact that his destiny is a never-fully-dry wetsuit. “I don’t think I could spend longer than a year away from the ocean and be particularly happy,” he says. “You can just slow things down when you’re sitting, waiting for a wave. You’ve got thoughts coming through, but when you’re actually riding a wave, there’s nothing going on. It’s a pretty clichéd thing that we’re talking about, but it’s so true.”
Martyn surfing in “Lost Track” embodies this idea of immersion in the moment, and in nature. “The way he approaches a wave is pretty artful — more like a dance than a sport,” Scanlon says. “I think it’s heavily based on a feeling rather than how it looks, but it ends up looking graceful because it feels graceful. He’s having fun and you can see it.”
Is there such a thing as too much escapism? “It has been a real tricky year for so many people,” Scanlon says softly. Yet surfing might provide wisdom for this challenging moment as much as a distraction from it. “One of the best things you can do when a huge wave or a big set comes through is stay calm, go underwater and get into a meditative state. You can take that into your life,” Scanlon continues. “When things get tough you can go into that state. Then, when you’re ready, you can pop up in a good frame of mind.”
Says Martyn, “With our films, the aim is to always have them be one, relatable, and two, inspire people to travel — when they can, obviously. If you go out with an open mind and experience the world as it is, there’s so much beauty out there. So much to see and so much to learn from others.”
Health restrictions will eventually ease. Fishy will come back out of the shed. Meanwhile, globally, travel is now a possibility again. Considering the crowds who discovered surfing during lockdowns and the intensity of pent-up wanderlust, 2022 could be a new golden age of surf trips. I tell Martyn that a Canadian has emailed Folkwell intending to replicate the exact journey in the film, right down to the Transit van and, who knows, maybe dinner at Omar’s cliff. Martyn laughs in surprise and joy. “If the film inspires people to go out and chase something of their own, then that’s epic.”