The History of Surfing - Part 8 - Going Global

Part 8 - Going Global

As the decades tripped by, surfing in all of its incantations was still trying to reconcile it’s many faces. Whilst peace had been made with certain aspects of the evolving culture, professional surfing was dragging its feet, at odds with other surfing ideals.

Meanwhile surf travel was carving out its own niches and nuances. Where previously travel had been about the surfing hubs of Hawaii, Australia and California, now exotic travel was stoking the flames.

This was the frontier of progression. And whilst everyone wanted to hear about the best and newest places to go, no one was talking about it. Part of exploring and discovering new waves was that you didn’t divulge these hard won secrets to the masses, or even your mates.

Simultaneously, surf travel writing got a much-needed overhaul from Craig Peterson and Kevin Naughton. Photos of good waves at this point in history were a given, but the accompanying writing had been boring at worst and dry and descriptive at best.

Naughton and Peterson delicately avoided outing their discoveries, choosing obscure photographic angles to illustrate the waves they scored without giving away their location, and then wrote about the travelling lifestyle, their rebel antics and abstract conquests instead.

It was way more interesting. Everybody liked them, and despite California still being shrouded in the fog of the anticommercialism movement, somehow their writing and likeability helped shrug off a little of the negativity surrounding their home scene.

Travelling and exploration led to the unveiling of Indonesia. This chain of thousands of islands, spread across the Pacific and Indian Ocean, was a convenient hop from Australia and Bali was the first to be found. Russell Hughes explored the breaks around Kuta and Sanur and whispered as softly as possible to other surfers and eventually Alby Falzon and Rusty Miller went to check out the action. Kuta and Sanur kept them occupied for all of two weeks, before itchy feet and a growing rapport with the locals led them down a dusty, overgrown road to a cliff top temple.

From here they had an uninterrupted view of a mesmerisingly consistent, hollow, clean, left hand reef break. Mechanically churning toward the cliffs, the first peak exactly like the next, this wave was perfection personified. They named it after the temple on the cliff top, Uluwatu.

Whilst this wave had the power and size of Hawaii it was cleaner, more consistent and sheltered from the ragged storms that beast the Hawaiian coastline on a regular basis. It also ticked all the boxes for a self respecting surf traveller – exotic, cheap and friendly. The rest of Indonesia was rarely considered because it was remote or suffered poverty, unrest and unchecked urban development. 

Bob Laverty was one of the first to consider exploring further. He had seen swell lines traipsing across the ocean near Java on a plane ride to Bali and talked to Bill and Mike Boyum. Bill was game and went with Laverty by boat, then motorbike and then over the beaches on foot to a raw and wild break tacked onto an outcrop of jungle headland. They stayed until the water ran out, vowing to return to the newly christened G-Land as soon as they could. Tragically Laverty never made it back. Two weeks after returning he had an epileptic fit at Uluwatu and died.

Bill convinced his brother to come with him this time and the Boyum brothers returned ready to claim G-Land as their very own slice of heaven. They bribed the right people and set up camp right in front of the break. They swiftly built a treehouse to avoid the big cats roaming around the jungle and invited only the most tight lipped of surfers to join them.

For several seasons they kept it to themselves, quietly soaking in the majesty of their private playground, until they eventually decided to start taking bookings. Popularity increased, as did the prices - the first pay to play break was born. Once other surfers saw the potential, new camps sprouted and the line-up began to heave under the weight of this new capitalism. The spell had well and truly been broken and there was no going back.

Meanwhile Indonesia kept on producing new perfect waves. It seemed like every week the next ‘best wave in the world’ was announced, until the surf media became almost complacent, rolling their eyes every time a wave was discovered with trademark clean, uninterrupted peaks of consistent glassy stoke. 

Surf travel switched up a gear and now rather than focusing on the journey to and from these tropical utopias, surf trips became focused on wave count. In the past, travelling was where the action was at, and if you scored empty pits in the meantime, then all power to you. Now the journey was almost obsolete. Unless you were able to surf the best waves in the world until your body was broken there was little point.

At this moment in history, about 20 surfers were travelling the world to compete in a list of unrelated surf comps in between searching for new and never surfed breaks. Fred Hemmings, a successful competitive surfer in his own right, began to speak out about the need for commercialisation of surfing contests in the media and was the first to suggest that professional surfers should be revered in a similar way to professional golfers and Grand prix drivers.

Eventually he organised the Pipeline Masters. But the first few events were thrown together with little more than cheap bunting and a megaphone. In almost all surf communities around the world there was no distinctive difference between a professional competition and a local amateur event. Competing in events didn’t pay well either and most surfers held down jobs to fund their competitive career.

An important change of attitude was happening very gradually. More than a few surfers trying to make a living from the pittance they earned travelling to comps were talking about an official world tour and reaching out to other like minded surfers, creating a ground swell of support.

Peter Townend and Ian Cairns, two Aussie surfers, came up with a points system based on where you placed in professional events, as well as any amateur contests attended. They talked to Randy Rarick who also wanted a pro circuit and he contacted Fred Hemmings, the original champion of the surfing professional. 

Hemmings came up with a winnings based ranking and from this list it was obvious where the tour was lacking. The top two or three surfers did alright for the times, but the surfers on the lower end earnt practically nothing. Nobody was interested in looking at the women’s rankings either, as they earnt less than 25% of what the men made (for the same events), so they were never going to convince sponsors there was potential there. 

Hemmings and Rarick set up the International Professional Surfers (IPS) World Tour. Hemmings was director and handled the organisation of the tour, whilst Rarick took to overseeing the surfers. This group also came up with the first, most persuasive and longest standing argument for the organisation and growth of professional surfing. They said that professional surfing pushed the progression of the sport. That was their line and they were sticking to it.

It’s worth considering here that surfing had been progressing just fine without a professional tour for several decades. But it’s also valid to suggest that if a surfer is able to make his sole income from surfing on a professional tour they have more time available to… surf. Not having to work a second job to afford to live means more time in the ocean, travel to new and different breaks and space to try different approaches to wave riding.

Hemmings wanted to use his winnings based ranking system, but he was persuaded to use the points based ranking instead. This was useful because not every event had the same prize purse. They then sat down and retrospectively awarded points from the nine previous events of the year. The last four events in Hawaii would decide the first world champion. However they did this in isolation so most surfers didn’t even know they were on a world tour at all.

Confusion reigned. No standard event format or judging criteria and a lack of understanding of what was even going on, meant no-one was really sure what was happening. The icing on the cake was that a bitter feud had broken out between the Hawaiians and the Aussies thanks to some over-zealous journalism about the previous years Australian winnings. Several pros turned around at the airport, not wanting to wear the wrath of the Hawaiians, whilst some that were brave enough to approach the North Shore were subject to some brutal beatings and harsh localism.

This was the story that everyone was talking about and the world championship paled in comparison. It didn’t help that Peter Townend won and Ian Cairns came runner up on the tour they had created…

Despite this there was now a world championship contest and it was interesting and exciting and gaining traction. A seemingly insignificant but important explanation of professionalism arose. Professional surfing became accepted as one aspect of surfing, rather than the definition of it. This freed up the thinking surrounding the culture and finally some of the old battles could be laid to rest. You could be anything you wanted.

Previously events had been attended by invitation only, but now the ratings sheet dictated who could enter. Judging criteria were defined and rather than letting anyone’s mate judge, they now had to be IPS approved.

The1977 Stubbies Classic at Burleigh introduced man on man heats. Peter Drouyn predicted fans would love the drama and unsurprisingly they lapped up the tense exchanges, the need for power, style and flow and the nail biting finishes this format encouraged. Events were growing in popularity and prize money was increasing as a result.

Mark Richards, Wayne Bartholomew and Shaun Tomson defined this era and were winning most contests. But it was Wayne ‘Rabbit’ Bartholomew who was the first professional surfer to properly think about and initiate tactics. Michael Peterson had worked out how to put competitors off years before, but Rabbit had tried and tested ideas about how to approach heats and came up with set plays detailing the best way to win in varying circumstances. He approached the tour as a campaign, using a string of tactical wins to position himself at the top of the rankings.

Shaun Tomson pioneered the ‘pump’ but Mark Richards had a vertical attack like no other surfer. It took a while for his style to be accepted, but his vertical game was unparalleled. One of the only surfers on the professional tour to still shape his own boards, he was determined to make a short board that could carry his large frame in the small surf that several of the world tour events were held in.

Ben Aipa of Hawaii invented the Stinger with a swallowtail and extra width in the middle of the board to increase planning speed. Richards rode one for a few seasons and occasionally liked to ride a Steve Lis Fish model in the shorebreak for kicks.

Eventually he made a hybrid of the two. He kept the swallowtail, added a pronounced v to the bottom and placed two fish style fins angled towards the centre. Behold the Twin Fin. It suited Richards’ vertical style, had speed, turned on a dime and floated over flat spots. With a quiver of Twin Fins, and some single fin guns for Hawaii, he was unbeatable and won four world titles in a row.

This ushered in a new level of acceptance. Where surfing had been concerned with ‘cool’, it now seemed there was no ‘right’ way to surf, it was ok to have your own style and technique. Richards retired at the ripe old age of 25 and went into shaping boards full time. In 1985 and 1986 he accepted wild cards into the Billabong Pro at Waimea and won both. This cemented his reputation as a surfing legend and proved that you really could be whatever you wanted.

The History of Surfing Series

This article is the eigth in a series that we are penning about the history of surfing and the surf industry. Stay tuned for the next instalment...

Part 1 - Origins
Part 2 - Growth and Spread 
Part 3 - The Innovators 
Part 4 - Technology  
Part 5 - Maliboom 
Part 6 - An Industry? 
Part 7 - Culture Shock  
Part 9 - Trust the Thrust 
Part 10 - You Should Have Been Here Yesterday
Part 11 - About Time
Part 12 - Bigger, Better, Slater

Posted by: Sarah Price, on March 2, 2015
Categories: Articles