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Riding giants: footy’s fearless surfer

When Phil Read’s AFL career ended in 2006, he went surfing. For five months.

The tough former West Coast and Melbourne midfielder packed his bags and headed for Indonesia’s Mentawai Islands, where he worked as a surf guide.

No phone, no TV, no worries. After a frustrating end to his 108-game AFL stint, it was just what he needed.

“I was just camping in the jungle, away from everything,” Read told this week.

“I loved playing AFL footy. I love footy. But towards the end I was a bit over it.

“It was a tough time at Melbourne with (then coach) Neale Daniher under some pressure and it was a pretty tough year for the club.

“There would be Aussie groups coming in and they were often talking about footy. That was when I would sneak off and grab a beer. It became a running joke among the other surf guides.” – Phil Read

“They had a whole heap of kids coming through and even though I was getting a fair bit of the footy in the VFL and playing pretty well I couldn’t crack it for a senior game.

“I went to Neale and asked what I had to do and he was stuck because the pressure was on him to play the young guys.

“It didn’t matter how well I played or how hard I trained, I wasn’t getting another go. That was hard to cop.

“When I got to the Mentawai Islands it was funny. There would be Aussie groups coming in and, as blokes do when they are together, they were often talking about footy. That was when I would sneak off and grab a beer. It became a running joke among the guides there.”

Read’s job was playing footy. And he did it well, first for the Eagles in 74 games, before his switch to the Demons. But his passion was surfing.

The West Australian grew up on a board and spent every spare moment during his AFL career searching for the best waves with a range of footy connections, including his former Melbourne teammate Brad Miller and 1988 Brownlow medallist Gerard Healy.

Read has since added a number of the world’s best and bravest to his list of the surfers he has paddled out with, including 11-time world champion Kelly Slater and big-wave specialist Mark Matthews.

It was Matthews who first convinced Read to take on Western Australia’s feared break, The Right, three years ago.

Those who know Read the footballer won’t be surprised to discover he tackled the dangerous break, even when you learn of the area’s high shark population and serious threat of hold-downs.

“When Mark rang the first time to invite me I had just checked and saw there was a seven-metre swell out there. The phone rang and straight away I thought ‘Not now, not today’.

“When you’re there you are either out on a wave or on the back of a jet ski. You can’t just sit on your board because of the sharks that are around. You can’t just paddle.

“The first time we went I sat on the back of the jet ski for about three hours. I was just trying to take it in, build up the courage to go for it. Mark kept coming by and checking if I was ready but it seriously took hours to be at a point to go for it.

“Eventually I did. And I have been a few times since. I don’t think you can get comfortable or used to doing that, though. Even now, every time he rings, I get that nervous feeling in my gut.

“You can’t compare the nerves of footy to the nerves of surfing at a place like The Right.

Phil Read 2

“With footy, you know what to expect, you’ve got 21 other guys running out with you, and it’s not as scary at all.”

Read, who currently works at Fremantle’s wharves as a crane operator, has his sights set on adding to his collection of big waves conquered. Teahupoo (Tahiti) and Jaws (Hawaii) are on the list.

He might tackle those breaks with confidence if his effort, in the video above, takes out the XXL Big Wave Awards.

“I don’t think I am any chance at all. I have watched a few of the other waves that are entered and they are pretty incredible.

“It’s nice to be nominated. I’ve been down to The Right a few times now and I considered that to be the first proper wave I’ve caught there.”

The XXL Big Wave Awards winners will be announced on May 1 at a gala event in California.

Photos courtesy of Bruno Smith and BlackPearlPhotography