Surfing WA Lifetime Member Mark Clift has dedicated his whole life to surfing. Having won major national surfing titles, developed the next wave of talent during his time as a coach, including Taj Burrows and Felicity Palmateer, Mark is now a highly regarded official and commentator and says he owes everything he has to the sport.
Surfing WA’s Raeley Jones caught up with the man himself to talk about his career highs, and what’s changed in the sport over the last 50 years.
When did you fall in love with surfing?
Back in the day, when I was 7 or 8 (years old), everyone started with the Scarborough Surf Club. We had foamies that we learned to paddle on, and we just used to stand on them. Then somewhere down the line we got a fibo, so that’s how it all started.
When did you realise surfing was the sport for you?
In my early teens, I made a surf comp final at City Beach and my dad came to pick me up to take me to football and I said “Dad, dad, dad, I’m in the final.” And he said, “But you’re the team captain, you’ve got to come and play football.” And I said “No, you’re not listening to me, I’m in the final!”, and Dad went “Oh well, make your own way home then.”, and just left me there. So that was the turning point I guess (laughs).
Photo: Raeley Jones / Surfing WA
You’ve had a lot of success throughout your surfing career, including representing WA at the national titles and being crowned WA State Open Champion in 1989 and 1994. What advice would you give to young surfers who want to follow that elite pathway?
You’ve just got to go for it. My mum and dad weren’t into it and people told me I’d be nothing, but I felt so strongly about it that I went, this is for me, and I didn’t listen to anyone else. If you feel that strongly about it, you’ve just got to do it.
You were a Surf Coach with the Surfing WA Surf School in the 80’s and coached the WA state junior team from 1989 until 2006. What did you enjoy most about the coaching aspect of the sport?
A massive change happened when I did my level 1 Surf Coaching course in 1989 and I just went “this is what I’m going to do”. It just gave me that feeling of seeing someone learn a skill that you’ve passed on. I then went on to do the very first Level 2 Surf Coaching course in Australia in 1993. Not long after I started coaching the State Junior team.
Who are some of the groms that you helped develop into elite surfers?
Freak’n anyone that’s come out of WA (laughs). Taj Burrows, Felicity Palmateer, Claire Bevilacqua, Melanie Redman-Carr, Yadin Nicol, Jay Davies, Tom Wimmer, Luke Campbell and David Delroy-Carr. And the highlights were many. I was there when Taj won an u18’s title at Newcastle and a young Brooke Farris took out the u16’s. And one of my proudest moments was seeing Tevita Gukilau win an Australian Junior Title when I was coaching him. He put in a massive physical effort in preparation for the titles but cut his hand and needed stitches during the weeklong event. He made the finals, but he was the clear underdog against a class field. With clear instructions and a solid game plan, against all odds the big fella won! It was truly rewarding to see all the hard work pay off.
And just when I finished all of that was when Jacob (Willcox) and Jack (Robinson) started. I see them quite a lot when we’re on the road, so we still always have time for each other.
Mark with Jack Robinson at the 2019 Margaret River Pro.
RJ: You were my surf coach too (laughs).
Well, you can add your name next to Felicity’s then (laughs).
What drew you to commentating?
It was about the early 1990’s and Lindsay Thompson, who was a good mate, was running the Margaret River Thriller, which was the equivalent of the Margaret River Pro. I think I was state champ at the time, and he must have seen something in me and just rung me up out of the blue and went “Hey listen, I want you to come down and do this job commentating.”. So, I did, and it was really good fun.
What have been some of your commentating highlights?
I remember one day at the Margaret River Pro having Kelly Slater coming in and ask if he could sit next to me and do a John John (Florence) heat with me. I said “I think that’s alright.” (laughs). So, he sat down, and we did John John’s heat. But I’ve worked with a lot of really good people over the years, from all over the world, and you learn something from everybody. We’ve also done some hard things to get to remote spots to run surf comps, which if people saw and realised what you went through, they’d be like you guys are crazy! Like I’ve done events in Indonesia where we’re floating on rafts because we’re on an outer reef and we’ve pulled it off. You even blow yourself away with some of these things!
Mark Clift & Taj Burrow commentating the 2014 Taj Small Fries. Photo: David Woolacott.
You’ve surfed at some amazing locations around the world including islands off Indonesia, South Africa, the Maldives, Philippines and Tahiti. Can you tell us about a special session you remember?
I think the best waves I’ve seen in the world happened a couple of years ago when I was at Super Suck in West Sumbawa because they were freak’n unbelievably perfect. Like the most perfect waves I’ve ever seen. Then there would be a hundred that would all be equal second because I’ve been spoilt rotten.
Who is/was your favourite board shaper?
I’d have to say Al Bean out of Yallingup. He was a big influence through those years when I was winning state titles, opens and seniors. And Dave Lewis was another one.
You would have seen a lot of changes in the sport throughout your career, can you talk us through some of the more meaningful ones to you?
Contests back in the day used to be 6-man heats and 4 waves per surfer, which got changed to 2 waves. That was the biggest and best change ever because now it’s quality over quantity. Another change was the priority system, so there’s no hassling. That’s why I used to do so well, I used to hassle the sh!t out of people (laughs). It was pretty brutal, it was dog eat dog, and you had to be a pr!ck. Now it’s more of a surf comp than a hassling affair. So those two things were the best innovations.
“I reckon the women deserve more spots on tour because there’s some pretty freak’n good girls out there now and their tour’s quite elite.”
What other changes would you like to see in the sport?
I reckon the women deserve more spots on tour because there’s some pretty freak’n good girls out there now and their tour’s quite elite. I reckon they might need a bit more breathing space because what I just saw at the last couple of events there’s a lot of really talented women surfers that need a bit more recognition.
Mark Clift interviewing Pro Surfer Tatiana Weston-Webb at the Margaret River Pro. Photo Justin Majeks / Surfing WA.
What life lessons has surfing taught you?
The best things in my life have happened because I’m a surfer. We’re the luckiest people in the world. The things we get to see, the people we get to meet and places we get to go. I don’t have a lot of money, but we’re rich in other ways, you know. I’ve seen a lot more and done a lot more things than people that drive to work their whole life. It’s basically given me everything.
What’s next on the horizon for you?
We’ve got an event next month up here in Indo at Padang Padang, which is the Rip Curl Cup. That’s a big event and then when I get home I’ll be working with Justin and the Surfing WA team again. But I’m going to come home in early September because my arm’s f!@$ed (laughs), so I’ll be straight into the operating table and then I’ll be recovering so I can get back here (Sumbawa) for next season.