Life As A Pro Surfer - As Told By Phil Macdonald | Surf Seek

Life as a professional surfer has got to be one of the most blessed lives you can live. I know because I was lucky enough to be a professional surfer for over 13 years.

My time on the pro circuit consisted of following the best waves around the world, meeting new people and experiencing new cultures- and getting paid to do it! I’ve been retired for 8 years now and looking back, it really does seem like a dream.


I started surfing when I was 5 years old with my identical twin brother, Anthony, and our older sister Rachael. Our Dad was a surfer and we lived a 3 minute walk from the beach so surfing became our passion from an early age. Even when we were little, we felt a pull to the ocean and spent most of our weekends and afternoons at the beach.

We grew up in Tomakin, a little country town on the South Coast of New South Wales in Australia, which had a population of about a thousand people. As our surfing improved, we begin to enter local surf events where Ant and I would often end up coming first and second. We became each other’s fiercest competition and pushed each other every single surf and as a result, our surfing outgrew local comps and we had to travel to compete at a higher level.

Life as a professional surfer
Catching one of my first waves on a fibreglass board at the age of 5.

Our Dad and Mum started shuttling us to regional comps and we’d travel up the cost for two hours and stay at a caravan park to compete against the Wollongong and Sydney kids. This was my first real taste of serious competition and I loved it. But it wasn’t just the competition that I loved, it was the new kids we met, the different waves we surfed and the new places we could explore. Not to mention, we were allowed to eat McDonald’s on the way home.

These early days really shaped who I am today. Surfing, traveling and competing become an obsession for me. I had realized that the better I got, the further I could travel and the more places I could explore. It was clear that surfing was going to be my gateway to the world.

My surfing progressed quite quickly and by the time I was fourteen, I was traveling all over Australia winning state and national titles. This got the attention of some surf companies and I started to receive free product and a small travel fund to pay for expenses. I was on my way to fulfilling my dreams of becoming a professional surfer and traveling the world.


My first trip overseas was to Bali in 1991 with Ant and some new friends we had met competing. The whole experience was surreal: checking in at the Sydney airport, receiving free meals on the plane, being able to watch movies in the air and then touching down, 6 hours later in super hot Bali. I just couldn’t believe that I was in a new country so quickly.

Bali was a lot different back then and it only took 5 minutes to get from the airport to our hotel near Kuta. I remember cruising Poppies Lane 2 on the first night, which at the time had the best places to eat. I was amazed by the different food and decided to try a traditional rice dish called Nasi Goreng. It was delicious and it’s still the first dish I order when I arrive back in Bali today.

We had seen all the surf movies on Bali and the only place we wanted to surf was Uluwatu. The drive from Kuta out to Uluwatu took about 40 minutes back then. We would park at the Uluwatu Temple and then trek down to the surf break.

Life As A Professional Surfer
Taking the shuttle from Kuta to Uluwatu on my first trip to Bali.

The walk down took about an hour along the dusty track and finished at the famous cliffs which looked over the break. Back then, the whole Bukit Peninsula was farm land and Ulu’s only had a few warungs. I remember walking down the hill for first time and I couldn’t believe my eyes. Perfect left-hand barrels one after the other, lines stack to the horizon. I couldn’t get out there quick enough.

The walk down the famous steps and the paddle out through the caves was magical. My first wave was by no means amazing but that feeling of surfing a new wave and being in a new country was so profound, it really planted a seed for the rest of my life. I wanted to travel and surf as many countries as I could. I wanted this feeling again and again. It would become my addiction.


That first trip made me more determined then ever to become a professional surfer. Over the next few years I become more and more obsessed with surfing and my results started to show. I was becoming one of the best junior surfers in Australia and soon I was being invited by surfing magazines to shoot in exotic destinations.

I had a breakout event win when I was 19, winning the famous Pro Junior at Narrabean beating future world champions like Andy Irons, Mick Fanning and Joel Parkinson. That win really put me on the world stage and came with some big endorsement deals. I was hungry to explore the world and now I had the funds to make it possible.

I started the World Qualifying Series (QS) when I was 19. The QS was a tour full of 200 young kids from all over the world surfing their way across the globe for 10 months of the year, hoping to secure a top fifteen position.

If you were in the top 15, you could progress to the World Championship Tour (WT) where they crown the world champions. The first full year I traveled to South Africa, Reunion Islands, France, Spain, Portugal, Tahiti , New Zealand , Argentina, Brazil, USA, Indonesia, UK, Japan and Hawaii.

On the QS we didn’t have huge budgets and relied on each event’s results to pay for the next month of travel. We would pile five people in one hire car, cram ourselves into hostels and live at the contest sites, eating the free food (and drinking all of the free beer).

Life As A Professional surfer
Arriving in Bordeaux, France and loading up the rental car for the drive down to Hossegor

We often slept at airports and in hire cars. Our budget meant we only had enough for one around-the-world airline ticket so we had to carefully plan our year so we could compete in as many events as possible. This meant we were on the road for most of the year and being away from friends and family for so long was tough at a young age.

The first year on the QS was a huge eye opener. While I did ok and placed in the top 100, the travel experience and the people I meet really started to change the way I viewed things. Coming from a little country town I wasn’t exposed to a lot of new things or different ideas.

I quickly learned that I wasn’t right on every topic and that everything that happened in Tomakin didn’t exactly happen the same way in other countries. As I became good friends with people from all over the world and learned about their lives and views, they started to shape me and how I thought.

That year built a really great foundation for my 2nd year on tour but more importantly, it opened my eyes to appreciate different people and places; to accept different point of views, even if you don’t agree. That was a very powerful lesson to learn.

Over the next 3 years, I continued my travels around the world on the QS. Each year, I got closer and closer to the top 15. I watched many of my friends qualify which was becoming increasingly frustrating as I just couldn’t quite crack into it.

I was still spending about 10 months of the year outside of Australia and would only be back home for a week at a time; just enough time to recharge, pick up some new surfboards and eat some home cooking.

I was addicted to both traveling and competing. I visited about 25 counties each year, caught hundreds of flights and did a fair bit of partying between events. Sooner or later though, I needed to qualify to the WT or my dreams would come to an end.

I eventually qualified for the WT in 2001 after four years on the QS and the same year that future world champions Mick Fanning and Joel Parkinson qualified.

Life As A Professional Surfer
Having fun in Fiji on my first year on the WT with good friends Mick Fanning, Dean Morrison, Joel Parkinson and Nathan Hedge.

I was in the big league now surfing against all my heroes; Kelly Slater, Andy Irons, Shane Powell, Sunny Garcia and Mark Occhilupo. Qualifying to the WT also meant a large increase in endorsements so I could now afford to hire my own car, stay in nicer hotels and return home more frequently between events to see my family.

I continued on the WT for 8 years, making finals in France, USA, Hawaii, Spain and Reunion Island. I had some epic heats against my best friends and even beat Kelly Slater, Mick Fanning and Andy Irons a few times along the way. My highest world ranking was in 2005 where I finished 5th in the world.


I retired from competition in 2009. My last heat was at Pipeline in Hawaii against former world champion CJ Hobgood.

I remember sitting out the back after the final hooter looking towards the shore taking it all in, knowing this would be my very last heat; I looked at the mountains, the people, the waves, the sand, the sky and my contest jersey. I just took it all in for a minute.

I felt like I was supposed to be super sad but I felt weirdly happy. I knew it was time for me to try something different and I was ready to put some roots down. While I knew I wouldn’t be competing again, I knew that my travels wouldn’t end. All the lessons I learned, all of the the friendships I had made and all of the memories I’d created seemed to dwarf my surfing career at that moment.

Eight years later, I’ve recently moved to Los Angeles from New York where I shuttled between there and Sydney for a few years. I’m now working as the International Manager of a surfing company. I still get to travel with my job (though not as much) and have been to Europe, Japan, South Korea and Indonesia within the last year. A lot of my travel now is for business, but I still get to catch up with friends and get to the same towns and restaurants that I’ve now been visiting for 20 years.

life as a professional surfer
My back hand was always my strength. I think that was a result of the waves I grew up surfing. PC Dave Sparkes

My competitive days seem like a dream. I do feel extremely lucky that I was  able to do what I loved for so long and got paid well to do it. I’ve traveled around the world at least 30 times and I’ve  probably spent 10 years outside of Australia.

I’ve surfed the best waves in the world, beaten the best surfers in the world, created amazing friendships and experienced so many different cultures. Being a professional surfer was a dream but being able to travel as I have, was always the bigger dream. I’m super lucky that I can continue to travel and I still get that same feeling today when I surf a new wave as I did when I first surfed Uluwatu 26 years ago.


I started surfseek to share my passion of surf and travel with you all. If you’re just starting out or if you’ve been surfing your whole life, I hope this becomes a place where you can learn new things, meet new people and plan your perfect surf trip.


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My travels as a professional surfer have taken me from my little home on the South Coast of N.S.W, Australia to over 40+ countries worldwide and counting. Surfing some of the most famous and remote waves in the world. I have had many highlights in my career, winning Australian titles, coming 5th on the ASP ( now known as the WSL) World Tour in 2005, numerous wins and finals, and beating some of the best surfers in the world including Kelly Slater, Mick Fanning and Andy Irons. Surfing and traveling is all I have known since I was 13 years old.

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