THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ZYE NORRIS
Words by Phil Jarratt | Photography by Harrison Mark
On the afternoon of October 5 in California – the morning of October 6 on the other side of the Pacific – while longboarding superstar Harrison Roach was streaking toward his first world title at Surfrider Beach, Malibu, his best surfing buddy and soul-brother was stomping around on a rough-as-guts building site on the outskirts of surf town Noosa, phone in hand, issuing orders to his site workers while watching the world title go down to the wire.
At one point, Zye Norris moved away from the guys pushing barrows and digging trenches and put the phone to his face as he watched Roach take off on a bomb. “Come on Harry, you got this!” He repeated the mantra until Roach kicked out in the shore break and was awarded another score in the excellent range. Yes, he had this!
If ever there were a testament to the power of transoceanic positive thinking, this was it. Not that Noosa’s Harry Roach needed positive affirmations from afar to win the world title he had been eyeing for years, but it spoke volumes about the kind of loyalty to his clan that Harry has always dished out, and the way it is reciprocated in kind. And from no one more than Zye Norris. There is also another element to this. Their places that October day could easily have been traded.
Both Harrison and Zye, three years his junior, are brilliant all-round surfers, and elegantly powerful longboarders. While it might be argued that Harrison has the edge in consistency and a better mindset for big events, he has also struggled for years to focus on the will to pull on a colored jersey and perform on demand, rather than jumping on a bike and riding through the night to surf a remote reef on the edge of a jungle. Happy-go-lucky Zye was just starting to regain his contest mojo when COVID intervened, but he had still done enough to qualify for the 2022 WSL Longboard Tour.
Sitting on a sofa overlooking the Noosa River and sipping a beer, still in his dirty work gear at the end of a hard day that began with watching the world title go down, Zye is philosophical. “Potentially I could have done the tour this year but getting the time off would have been very difficult. Then I thought about flying over just to be there for Harry. Watching it this morning, all I could think was, wish I’d gone! But no regrets, not about any of it really.”
Born in Noosa in 1994, Zye and older brother Ezra grew up surrounded by the strong surfing culture of Sunshine Beach, a now-stylish beachside Noosa precinct where most surfers have long been priced out of the market by sun-seeking billionaires. But back then it was affordable and family-oriented, and it was surf city. Just down from the Norris house were the Roach family and the Bidens, whose patriarch was local postman Peter “Biddo” Biden. As the neighborhood kids began to take an interest in surfing, Biddo became unofficial coach.
On days when there were likely to be waves on the Noosa points, Biddo would rouse his own boys, Fraser and Harrison (there were a lot of Harrisons going around at the time; must have been a “Raiders of the Lost Ark” thing), before dawn, then jump in his rusty old VW Transporter and do the rounds, knocking on bedroom windows at the Roach house and the Norris’ to gather up the gang. All manner of surfboards would be thrown in the back on top of Biddo’s 12-foot point enforcer, the kids would pile in on top of all that, and off they’d go.
Zye recalls: “The routine of us all going surfing together in Biddo’s van seems like it was every day when I look back on it. It wasn’t, of course, because we did go to school, mostly, but it stands out as the memory of my childhood. We’d go to First Point with as many different boards as we could fit in. We’d surf all day, trying out different boards and different stuff, and some nights we’d be sitting there wondering where the hell Biddo was, and then you’d see him paddling into the beach an hour after dark.”
He continues, “Our parents were always cool with it, though. They encouraged us and didn’t care if we played hooky from school to go surfing. In fact, I think that had something to do with me wanting to become a tradie [tradesman]. Every time we wagged school, the tradies would be the only other surfers out there. They’d say, ‘Why aren’t you at school?’ And we’d say, ‘Why aren’t you at work?’, and all have a laugh.”
But it wasn’t all about surfing. When Zye was about eight years old, his dad, Owen Norris, took him and Ezra down to the local bike shop and bought them a 1984 Yamaha YZ 60 to share. “To be honest, we were shit-scared of it at first. It was all Dad’s idea, and we just came home with this thing, and Mum looked at him like he was crazy.”
Owen Norris is a wild-eyed kind of guy who’s game for anything, but there is also a very gentle side to him. It’s the kind of yin and yang you often see in Zye. And sure enough, the bike was a good call. The boys learned how to ride it, and for Zye riding became a lifelong passion.
Although there were always plenty of shorties in the quiver in the back of Biddo’s van, it being Noosa, longboards were the usual craft of choice for the Sunshine Beach gang, with five long, tapering point breaks to choose from, each of them perfect for extended nose-rides. Biddo and other older locals introduced the boys to the delights of riding surfboards at least twice as old as they were, using such techniques of bygone eras as drop knee and soul arch turns, and walking rather than shuffling.
As his buddy Harrison Roach would write of Zye a few years later in The Yak: “He is 20 years old and revered as one of most stylish longboarders in the world, but before now he’s never had much of a rep for his achievements on the shorter sides of surfing … hell, he’d hardly even gone left at the start of this year.”
But the rounding of Zye Norris as a surfer was coming. At 14, he made his first overseas surf trip, going to Bali with the family of a schoolfriend. Here he did go left, on a shortboard at Bingin on the Bukit peninsula, almost got barreled, and has the photo to prove it. But you’ll never see it. “I’m sort of almost in the barrel, but I’m wearing booties and boardies! What a kook! I’ve never worn booties since,” Zye confesses.
In 2010, Zye, Ezra and Owen were all members of a Noosa Malibu Club team trip to the Malibu Surfing Association annual clubs contest at First Point, Malibu. This was Zye’s first taste of California and of traveling to compete. He instantly loved both, but moreover, he suddenly realized that he had friends all over the longboarding world. For several years both he and Ezra had been competing in the junior boys’ divisions at the Noosa Festival of Surfing, befriending kids from California, Hawaii and even Europe, who would sometimes stay with the Norris family. What he hadn’t realized was that this was a reciprocal deal, that he was equally welcome in his friends’ homes. That sense of a global surfing family has never left him.
At the end of 2011, Zye left school and began a carpentry apprenticeship under builder Paul Winter, another Noosa Mal Club member. This was a fortunate turn of events because, although Zye had to toe the line, his boss well understood the importance of a Coral Sea swell and would make appropriate allowances. Just a few months into the apprenticeship, Zye, just 17, won the open noserider event at the Noosa Festival. Up against the best in the world, Zye, built like a stick, just walked casually to the nose every wave, hung ten toes over it and stayed there for an unbelievably long time. It was the performance of the festival, and won him a trophy, some cash and his first sponsorship, from the Deus Ex Machina operation in Bali.
In 2013 he went back to Bali to do some promotional work for Deus and to compete in their Nine Foot and Single contest. The Deus ethos, then and now, is all about boards and bikes, in no particular order, so it was to be expected that at some point Zye would be asked: “Can you ride a motorcycle?” His response, “Been riding them all my life,” may have been taken initially with a grain of salt, but he soon proved himself, thrashing through the jungle at speed or taking on Bali’s numerous motocross tracks. Deus fit Zye Norris like a glove.
When he finished his apprenticeship in 2014, he accepted a Deus offer to live and work in Bali for the season, appearing in the brand’s promo videos. Thus began what seemed to Zye the perfect lifestyle, living in Canggu, hanging out with Noosa and other California friends, riding dirt bikes and surfing perfect waves in what turned out to be an epic first full season in Indo.
Zye’s first assignment was to accompany Harry Roach and Deus boss and filmmaker Dustin Humphrey on a bike and surf trip across the western end of the Indonesian archipelago. The product of the journey was called “South to Sian” and it was the adventure of a lifetime, with Harrison and Zye biking around crater lakes and surfing giant unknown pits on remote coasts. But it ended prematurely when Harrison dislocated his shoulder in the most painful way in South Sumatra, a seven-hour drive on rough tracks from help.
Back in Bali, Dustin Humphrey was encouraging his young son to participate in the local motocross tour and invited Zye to tag along. He recalls: “We met a bunch of local guys and started traveling with them and doing all these races. It’s all over Bali and Java, and it’s big. The best one was at a private compound with a world-class track that professional racer Agi Agassi had in Java. Competing was just for fun, like I was in the B or C class or something. But you’d go very, very fast, and that was when I had my biggest crash.
“It was a place about three hours up the West Coast of Bali in the hills,” he continues. “The course was built for small bikes, and the jumps were very short. I was on a full-sized bike, and after the first race Dustin and I agreed the track was too crazy. I didn’t want to get hurt, so I decided I wouldn’t race again that day, then they called me up and guess what, I just forgot all that and went for it. I was about second-to-last, and I came around a corner inside a guy, gave it a fistful and didn’t make the jump. I went to get up and couldn’t.”
Zye had broken his arm and smacked a big hematoma into his leg. After getting a splint on the leg and getting chucked into a van to head to the local hospital, he recalls being wheeled out onto the street and down the road to get an X-ray. “I stayed there overnight and these scooter accident victims were coming in with half a face, just horrible,” he remembers. “I rang Dustin and told him he had to get me out. The surgery I needed was going to cost $10,000 or more so I flew home, had it done, spent Christmas with the family and went back. But I never raced again.”
The job at Deus stretched from three months to six months to two years, with Zye working on about a half-dozen hit branded videos. He loved it, but there was just one thing wrong: His best pal Harrison was the Deus star team rider whose brand assets matched Zye’s in almost every respect – all boarding, all biking, adventure-loving guys that the camera just loved. In other words, there was not much room for Zye to advance. He recalls: “It was great fun, but I wasn’t making much money, and every time I brought up the subject of a career path, the conversation would veer off somewhere else. So, I came home and started working as a carpenter.” In fact, in the years since, he completed his builder’s certificate.
The Noosa Festival of Surfing had already given Zye many blessings, but perhaps the biggest was in 2015, when he noticed a beautiful woman out on the town in Noosa with Hawaii’s junior star Honolua Blomfield. Zye edged closer, but she backed away and started walking briskly toward her rented apartment. At the next festival, Zye did better with Sierra Lerback, a stylish longboarder from Maui. In fact, by the time it ended, they were an item.
For the next couple of years, it was a long-distance love affair, meeting up every few months on Maui or Bali or in Noosa. Nice work if you can get it, but finally they realized it wasn’t financially sustainable. Zye says, “We kinda went, what do we do now?” They were married in Noosa in 2019, and made their home in the hinterland, where this year they bought their first house, surrounded by parks and forestry and less than an hour to the surf.
Sierra comes from a motorcycling family, so tucked away in Zye’s garage full of boards and bikes is her Husqvarna 250, a step up from the 1980s XT 250 he bought her when she arrived. Surrounded by trails, they both take advantage of where they live, but surfing is still a major part of the equation, with Sierra now sponsored by Deus and taking out the men in mixed-gender events in Noosa and Byron Bay this year.
And while Zye is pretty serious about his career as a master builder, he’s also signed a new sponsorship deal this year with Noosa-born surf champ Julian Wilson’s new brand, Rivvia Projects, with its focus on motorcycle and surf lifestyle, adding that to his Triumph Australia ambassadorship, inked in 2021.
And so the adventure continues.