Sport

Ecuadorian–Australian surfer Pacha Light was poised for a promising career on the professional circuit. Instead, because of her passion for the environment, she chose to step away from corporate sponsorship. By Pilar Paredes.

Surfer and environmentalist Pacha Light

Surfer and eco warrior Pacha Light off Bicheno on Tasmania’s east coast.
Credit: Supplied

In November last year Australian surfer Pacha Light did something almost unheard of in professional sport. Despite having earned the No. 4 spot in the Australia/Oceania division of the 2019 World Surf League’s Pro Junior rankings, she decided to walk away from a long-term sponsorship contract and the rigours of the tour to seek a simpler life and a more meaningful connection to the ocean.

Light recalls how her “true love” of surfing returned once the pressure lifted. “It was one of the most amazing experiences,” the 20-year-old says, smiling at a memory of sitting on her board off the coast of Tasmania. “A dreamy afternoon, waves were breaking, the sunlight and sunset catching them, turning them green as they break, it makes you feel insignificant… It will never get old.”

¡Hola!” Light has joined our Zoom call from Anglesea on Victoria’s Surf Coast, a 15-minute drive along the Great Ocean Road from Torquay. Behind her, surfboards are lined up against the wall. Our conversation naturally gravitates to the global pandemic and our shared cultural background as Ecuadorian Australians.

Light, who is based in the beachside town while filming scenes for the upcoming Netflix teen surfing drama Surviving Summer, is thrilled with combining her love of the sea with the small screen. “It is an amazing experience – yeah, super excited,” she says about the series and her role as an extra and surfer named Lily Tran.

The role adds yet another layer to the résumé of the world-class surfer, environmental activist and natural storyteller who was born in the majestic cloud forest of the Andes Mountains and raised in northern New South Wales and Queensland.

It was during the pandemic pause last year, while hunkered down at her family home, an eco-house nestled in nature in Woombah, NSW, that Light made the difficult decision not to renew her contract with her corporate sponsor, Billabong.

It was a brave move. She had been with the company for five years. “I still remember that day I got the call from Billabong that changed my life,” Light says. “I was 14.

“I’m so grateful for everything that they had given me and helped me with. It was a lot of kind of pulling of the heartstrings … they were [like] my family and supported everything I wanted to do.”

But Light is on a personal journey of exploration. She is open and honest, wise beyond her years.

“I just wanted to believe completely, entirely with no contradictions and no obligations in what I wanted to do,” she explains. “And that comes with advocating for the planet and being involved in initiatives authentically, without feeling, ‘Is this what the sponsors want, would this be okay for them?’ ”

“It looms on you … and I found myself comparing a lot to the other athletes – the score and position and ranking – and I just kind of hit burnout, especially towards the end of the trip to Ecuador.”

Just before Covid-19 hit, Light took an adventure trip to her country of birth for Billabong’s Home series, which explores the unique stories of surfers around the world.

As a rising star of the sport, she had spent the years leading up to the pandemic lockdown travelling the globe competing, modelling and shooting advertising campaigns as the face of the surf brand.

But her pathway to surfing was not without its challenges. It all began with nine-year-old Pacha wanting a surfboard.

“My mum couldn’t afford it at the time,” she says. So, Pacha took matters into her own hands and decided to busk at a surf competition. Armed with her grandmother’s CD player, a little hat and a sign saying, “Busking for a board”, not only did she raise money, she also attracted the attention and generosity of Australian pro surfer Laura Enever, who was competing on the Gold Coast at the time.

Enever gave Light one of her boards and they stayed in touch. Throughout the years the pair have travelled the world together, both sponsored by Billabong.

“Every single day [I was learning] on that board,” says Light. Still a treasured possession, “it is actually at the house up on the Gold Coast”.

Now free of tour and corporate obligations, Light has embarked on a road trip around Australia with her partner, Nash (also a surfer), and their four-legged companion, Taka, who during our video chat is sleeping at Light’s feet. Light turns her laptop to introduce me.

“Our intentions of going on this trip was to reconnect with the land we currently call home, paying respect to the First Nations traditional owners and lending a hand to any environmental initiatives along the way,” she says.

In March, just days before we speak, Light ran the Bob Brown Foundation’s takayna ultra-marathon in the Tarkine wilderness region of north-western Tasmania.

The event is held to raise funds and awareness to protect the largely undisturbed World Heritage Gondwanan rainforest from logging and mining. It is one of the most primitive vegetation formations on Earth, providing a unique window into the planet’s past.

“It is an amazing biodiversity hotspot,” says Light. “[There are] prehistoric ferns that survived the Ice Age, there are 300-year-old trees with huge trunks covered in moss … The whole time we were in Tasmania it felt like Ecuador.”

The connection with the country of her birth remains strong. “I need to spend way more time in Ecuador with my family,” she tells me, occasionally slipping some Spanish into our conversation.

“I’ll always have the connection, roots and that pull to go there. My blood is Latina,” says Light, raising a hand to her chest with pride.

“The [Tasmanian] run itself was torture and my shoes were too small. My mum told me to get bigger shoes and I was like, ‘Oh, whatever’, and I’m looking at my toes and day by day they have gotten purple, more purple, and one of my big toes is almost black right now – a little confession, we kind of didn’t train,” she says, laughing.

Light’s family has always been environmentally active. “All my life it was our normal,” she says, “and it was just something that we did, you know, as a family and everyone [around us] advocating, protesting and campaigning.”

Her Ecuadorian father and Australian mother actually met on World Mangrove Day in the Bahía de Caráquez in Ecuador, “helping to re-forest the mangrove ecosystem”, says Light.

“As soon as I was able to be a part of anything [Mum] was doing, I was like, ‘I’m coming with you, let’s do it together.’ ”

Light’s passion for the planet is unsurprising given her first name comes from the Quechuan indigenous South American goddess Pachamama, which translates to Mother Earth.

But while Light is enjoying exploring the natural wonders of Australia and is currently on the road again, she does not rule out recommitting to competitive surfing.

“Every day is a new day, there’s always a new kind of experience to unfold,” she says. “I feel so much stronger and a bit more free and fluid to step out on my own path and the next chapters.” 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 15, 2021 as "Waves of hope".

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Pilar Paredes is a Sydney-based writer.