Sydney’s surf mania in the 50s, 60s and 70s
Feel the sand between your toes, the zinc on your nose and the salt in your hair as we wax lyrical on Sydney’s love affair with surfing
The hedonism of surfing took over popular culture with such speed and energy that it frightened the bejesus out of our parents’ generation
surfer and writer Phil Jarratt on the early 60s
As the dark clouds of world war two cleared and life returned to normal, a scruffy bunch of kids on surfboards, with a hunger for social change and a lifestyle based around escape and pleasure, reshaped Sydney’s identity. In just a few years, the combined onslaught of television (1956), the first wave of surf movies (1957), the big screen adaption of Gidget (1959) and plastic foam (1960) saw surf culture boom.
Between Broken Bay and Port Hacking there are more than 30 surf beaches, with enticing names like Bilgola, Curl Curl, Voodoos, Wanda and Sandshoes. There are rocky points, bomboras, shallow reefs, sandbars and alleys. There are headlands cloaked in angophora, others crowded with apartments. There are sheltered coves and wild, windswept crescents. Sydney is a city brimming with surf.
Until the 1950s Sydney’s lifesaving clubs were the traditional guardians of surf culture. With a military-like hierarchy and ample opportunity for ‘serving the community, with brave exploits amongst the lines of white-water’ they’d attracted large numbers of returned servicemen. However, post-war kids with more interest in board riding than in beach patrols and bronze medallions were drifting onto the beaches. Rock and roll was in the air, along with a hunger for independence.
Unaware of developments overseas, local surfers in the mid 1950s were still riding hollow, marine ply paddleboards called ‘toothpicks’. When balsa and fibreglass ‘malibus’ arrived from California in 1956, the hefty plywood brutes were abandoned. Instead of gliding only straight ahead, the malibus could be flicked, stalled and sliced sideways along the wave, in a hip style known as ‘hot dogging’.
By the end of the 50s a handful of Sydney board builders were glassing up balsa ‘pigs’ and ‘teardrops’ in newly established factories with far too many orders to fill. Surf mania hit Sydney around 1960, just as it had in southern California five years earlier, with the arrival of polyurethane foam, a cheaper and lighter alternative to balsa.
‘It was amazing the way surfing was beginning to effect the younger surfers’, recalled eyewitness Bob Evans. ’What had been an awakening interest overnight became a raging psychedelic giant. Bleached hair, scruffy appearances, baggies, wildly painted surfboards, duffle coats, huarache sandals, bottle-top flicking, loud mouths – all of the manifestations of ocean-based “out-of-control” gangs.’
Inspired by movies and magazines from California, Sydney surfers were soon bleaching their hair with peroxide and lemon juice and pulling on tapered jeans, sneakers, stencilled skivvies and ‘sun goggles’. As John Witzig claims, ‘Everything we looked up to came from the states – styles of surfing, surfboards, clothes, music, even the language. There was nothing that was exempt. To own a pair of Levis and a surfboard manufacturer’s t-shirt was pretty close to personal heaven.’
Three local surf magazines appeared in 1962, with articles on Sydney breaks and ‘gas’ updates on home-grown stars and surfwares. The same year, Australia’s first surf flick, Surf Trek To Hawaii, premiered at the Colloray clubhouse before a large and rowdy audience. Pretty soon mobs of wide-eyed surfers, crammed into ‘flea-pit’ halls and theatres to watch big wave action and death-defying spills, began dreaming of trips abroad. Local rock bands were equally hip to the tremolo twang of surf music, again drifting in from America. Before Beatlemania swamped it in 1964, surf music was the sound of Sydney, together with its rhythmic accompaniment, the primal surfer ‘Stomp’.
The 40,000 kids hitting Lane Cove River Park for the national Stompin’ Championships in January 1964 was nothing compared to the crowd that gathered at Manly a few months later for the first official world surfing contest. For postwar ‘boomer’ boys like Phil Jarratt, ’Surfing, girls and puberty came all at once while the hedonism of surfing took over popular culture with such speed and energy that it frightened the bejesus out of our parents’ generation.’ It also rankled the ‘rockers’, the Brylcreemed bodgies from western Sydney. As The Denvermen’s My Little Rocker’s Turned Surfie climbed the charts that year, ‘surfer–rocker’ dust-ups were making headlines and occasionally turned into ugly battles at Bondi, Cronulla and Manly.
The growth of boardriding clubs saw parkas, board shorts and boards emblazoned with patches and competition stripes. Sydney papers and magazines carried ‘expert’ surfing columns and a wide range of businesses and manufacturers were using surf culture to leverage wares into the booming youth, pop and leisure markets. ‘Sun, sand and surf’ radio reports crackled on the airwaves.
Around 1966 a new style of ‘power-surfing’, spearheaded by aggressive Sydney riders, marked the end of the malibu era. Nose-riding was out – getting ‘involved’ was in. Lengthy old models, now derided as longboards, were outmoded by ever shorter and more manoeuvrable shapes. In a matter of months, boards went from 9 feet 6 inches in length to agile 8-footers, with long fins, sharper rails and wider tails primed for hotter and edgier wave riding.
By the end of the 60s, surfing was back on the cultural margins, where changes in equipment matched an altered social consciousness. Surfers feared the Vietnam draft, while elsewhere a psychedelic mindset in art, music, religion and drug use, and a pervasive shift in sexual politics and personal freedoms, prevailed. Surf movies and the surfing press were well placed to mobilise this spirit of revolution, targeting whaling, sand mining and coastal development, along with contests, crowds and uptight city living.
As the hazy zeitgeist of ‘country-soul’ cleared and the 1970s unfolded, a young crop of movers, shapers and businesses led a new era of high-performance surfing and commercial growth. Leg-ropes saved endless swims, meaning more thrills and spills in the waves, while a skateboarding revival took surfing to the streets. Big-money contests and sponsorship deals saw career-minded surfers go professional and the sport crept closer to mainstream acceptance.
At the same time, the surprise success of the book Puberty Blues in 1979 posed timely questions about the perennial sidelining of women in the waves.
In three eventful decades, with an unrivalled line-up of champion riders, designers, writers, rebels and shapers of culture, Sydney’s surf scene had clearly outgrown its origins as an unkempt, underground fad. But it was the arrival in 1980 of Simon Anderson’s ‘Thruster’ – the radical three-finned board from Narrabeen, with its increased versatility and performance potential – that changed the face of surfing forever.
Thanks to a bunch of scruffy haired kids, a relentless hunger for waves and a wayward spirit of freedom, surf culture endured. With the innocence and edginess of its first three decades fast fading from view, a new generation waxed up their boards. Post punk posturing and day-glow décor replaced surfing’s soulful vibe. And while future decades would see surf culture ever more enmeshed in commerce, crowds, celebrity and a flashy pro-circuit, Sydney’s love affair with the sand, sun and surf continued to burn brightly.
So don’t throw that zinc cream away just yet.