The Max Wetteland Story
29 August, 1938 – 5 July 2015
By Pat Flanagan (published in 40.2 of Zigzag)
When the time is ripe and the world needs to take a step ahead and explore new boundaries, someone like Max Wetteland will come along and shine his light.During a life spanning nearly eight decades, Max continually explored new paths. How to make boards and how to ride waves was his mission in life. He chalked up numerous firsts in those two noble endeavours and right up until his passing, his focus was always on riding waves more efficiently and functionally.
Long before most of us were born, Max was stroking into the lineup at Country Club beach on craft most of us would regard as a boat rather than a surfboard.
Surfing in the 50s was a peripheral activity that was tagged onto lifesaving. Paddling out, turning at the buoy then catching a wave had more to do with racing than the magic of the ride. Max cottoned onto the stoke early in the piece, but even so, finless 15 foot boards weighing 40 kilograms were not going to make surfing a lot of fun.
Max’s ancestry on his father’s side was pure Norwegian. After a barren time as an immigrant in the Dakotas near the Canadian border of the USA, he returned to the motherland to marry a fellow Norwegian who was on her way back to a missionary position in Eshowe in the heart of Zululand, South Africa. Those Nordic roots, full of seafaring legend, were to become apparent two generations later when Max was born in Durban to Gabriel Markus Wetteland and his South African wife Mertle.
Gabriel was a builder and bricklayer, a trade at which Max was to serve a full apprenticeship. Max spent his formative years at the beach and Pirates headquarters, down near the Country Club in those days, was where his real education took place. Formal schooling was not a big priority for Max, but learning the ways of the ocean and how a surfboard reacted in it held his attention with an intensity that was future bound.
Max’s board building tutor was Fred Crocker, the man responsible for the design of the Crocker ski which was a forerunner to surfboards in South Africa. Pirates seniors like Neville Callenbourne (who rode the famed Anstey’s wave in 1966), taught Max the ropes in the water. The 50s became the 60s and the boy grew into a lithe, raw bone man. By then Max was easily winning paddle board races at every level and was very much the main man in that first South African touring team that introduced lifesaving to Britain and the Jersey Islands.
Lifesaving was great but surfing was a lot more fun. The changeover to legit surfer was inevitable.
Around the same time, sticking your foot in the water to turn the board was getting to be a grind. News soon filtered out about Tom Blake’s urethane foam boards, complete with fin, and Max’s imagination caught alight. The new sport of surfing was born on the beaches of Durban.
With the invention of those large, box-like fins, surfers were able turn, cut back and unleash performance manoeuvres previously unheard of. The fundamentals of modern surfing and a common language of surfing spread throughout the surfing world. Max, along with John Whitmore in Cape Town, was at the vanguard.
The gravitational pull of the waves and his newly established business of Safari Surfboards ripped him away from building houses, a career his father was adamant Max should pursue. In 1963 – after marrying Lynette, his wife to be for the next 52 years – Bruce Brown, Robert August and Mike Hynson arrived in Durban after ‘discovering’ Cape St. Francis on their Endless Summer journey. The first thing that Max did when they arrived was to check out their boards.
Six months later Harry Bold, responsible at the time for distributing John Severson’s SURFER Magazine, received a letter from Manly, Australia. The letter asked Harry to select one South African to attend the first ever World Surfboarding Championship to be held in the Sydney beach suburb later that year. Max was the one chosen to represent SA.
Max gave a good account of himself competing against people he had only seen in magazines, like Joey Cabell, Mike Doyle and Nat Young. More significantly, Max met and befriended Midget Farrelly, widely regarded as ‘Mr Surfing’ circa 1964. Legend has it that Max gave him the wave that got Midget through a searing semi-final to go on to become the first ever world surfing champion, but anyone who knew Max might question whether he gave anyone a wave, ever.
A trip to Angourie with Midget cemented a life long friendship that grew into a business partnership that had global surfing consequences. Surfblanks, born in Mona Vale, Sydney opened a Durban franchise 25 years ago with Max at the helm.
Midget recalls “I first met Maxie at Manly in ’64 at the first World Contest. I learnt that he had been a Springbok lifesaver and was very good in the ocean. He was super interested in the shapes I was making at the time and went on to reproduce some of them in Durban. I met Maxie again in Peru at the ’65 World Contest. We had big waves at Punta Rocas for the event and Maxie was very much at home.”
Bursting with stoke from rubbing shoulders with the likes of Midget and his all time favourite surfer Phil Edwards, Max returned to South Africa and within a year the first SA Championship was held at Long Beach. Surfing had arrived on South African shores.
The Wetteland brand was born and opened the very first surf shop in Durban at 58 West Street. By late 1966, some of the best SA surfers like George Thomopoulos, Ant van der Heuwel, Robert MacWade, John Plater, Michael Ginsberg and Errol Hickman were part of that famous Wetteland team. Some even had their own models. The famous green and black logo was on many boards. But Max knew it would all change. Two years later it did.
The ‘V’ bottom board was invented in 1968 and both Max and his Cape Town equivalent, John Whitmore, came under the spell of Tony Wright and John Batcheladore. These two travelling Aussies revolutionised surfing in South Africa with their McTavish-esque shapes, which were absurdly short for the time. The world of surfing turned again. Tony was soon making boards in the Wetteland factory. At the same time influences from Hawaiian shaper Dick Brewer’s pintail designs were also piquing Max’s interest and for a time, there were two very distinctive trends – the narrow, pulled-out pintail ‘gun’ like boards and the much wider, boxier Aussie inspired double enders. Unsurprisingly, Max had other ideas. He exploited wider noses and narrower tails, as seen ridden by Shaun and Michael Tomson in Bob Evans’ movie The Way we Like it (ITALS) on the winding waves of J-Bay. The Tomsons were only groms at the time but the boards required a definite front foot approach that would later help revolutionise surfing yet again as the cousins took barrel riding to new limits in Hawaii. The unmistakable stance can still be seen in Shaun’s surfing today. The boat-nosed design was a direction that quickly died away, however, and was replaced by the continuous foil pintail in the spirit of Mike Diffenderfer.
Establishing pro surfing was next on Max’s agenda. Before the Bells Beach event was even on the world calendar, Max started the Durban 500 with Ian MacDonald and Ernie Tomson. It would later become the Gunston 500.
Midget tells the story: “Towards the end of the 1960s Maxie contacted me, very excited about an event he had helped create and was part financing. In 1969 I came to Durban as the guest of the event. There was a civic reception and the council got right behind it. Heavy rain looked like it would destroy the day but miraculously blue skies appeared for the start and we had magic waves for Gavin Rudolph to win in. Max and Lyn had been on a knife’s edge hoping to get their money back with spectator fees and happily, karma paid them. Renamed though the event is, it runs to this day, all because Max and Lyn drove the first one to succeed, and all out of their own pockets.”
Midget competed and won the second event. Through Peter Burness, Winston Tobacco picked up the sponsorship and renamed it the Gunston 500. The rest is history. And so South African pro surfing was born, a maligned stepchild of a then burgeoning amateur code led by John Whitmore. I have yet to hear a credible account of the cause of the animosity that existed between the two bulls of South African surfing, but I hasten to say that the fracture ran deep.
The Wetteland clan was also growing by then, with two young daughters Leigh and Tanya. Max and Lyn decided to move to the quieter life that J-Bay offered. Max set up a factory near Magna Tubes, but this escape to the heartland was short-lived. This was the 1970s, when Jeffreys Bay was reaching its counter-culture zenith. Board builders flocked to the bay, along with surfers from around the world. For someone who had been part of the quiet pioneering days, it began to resemble a circus more than an escape. Along with the excessive behaviour that was becoming the norm in that neck of the woods, Max and Lyn decided it was not a place to bring up children. For the restless Wetteland soul it was time to move on.
Vancouver on the west coast of Canada became the Wetteland home for the next eight years. The newest addition to the family, Mark, grew up speaking differently to the rest of the clan. In winter, snowboarding replaced surfing as Max’s core activity and pretty soon he had designed and patented a snowboard that might well have revolutionised that sport. Summers were spent surfing the Pacific Northwest and particularly Vancouver Island with Springbok goofy footer, Kevin Todd. But too many long, cold winters took their toll and by 1982 the Wettelands were back in Durban.
Max started tinkering with a new combination of materials for his boards. Although he still shaped, his interests now centred on innovative ways of making board. Blocks of styrofoam would be delivered at his house in Westville and before long he started experimenting with a nylon, fiberglass-like membrane covering the blank using epoxy resin. Styro was the brand.
Once again Max was working away from the norm. Lesser mortals thought he was an oddball, an eccentric who made faddish boards. Max persevered. By late 1986, the Styro system was perfected and ready to be rolled out. But it needed scale to make money. Pretty soon an investor was brought in and a beautiful old colonial two-story building was secured next to the Vic Bar in Point Road. The factory started spitting out surfboards and even more sailboards than anyone else in town. Errol Hickman was shaping, Stork Holmes was glassing and it was happening in a big way. The boards were seriously good to the extent that some of the best surfers of the day were riding them. Locally, Dean Geragthy and Mike Roscoe were dominating on them. On the world stage, Glenn Winton loved them and even had his own Mr X model that was a popular seller. Then greed set in.
The investor started making unrealistic production demands on the process and started playing games with the money flow. Before long the goodwill and the energy had been stripped out of the business and Styro closed its doors. A strong concept was put down prematurely and it would be decades before surfing would see the re-emergence of alternative materials used for board building along similar lines.
For a time Max was in a financial black hole, put there by lawyers representing unsavoury characters. Inevitably, he bounced back like only he could.
By the end of the 80s Max had secured the Surfblanks franchise. Midget continues: “I watched Maxie pouring blanks, he gave me the best education of how to do it. The body language was purposeful and fluid and I never forgot it. Over the following decades that simple instruction was responsible for turning over many millions of Surfblank dollars in South Africa, Brazil and Australia”.
With his late son Mark as his wingman, Max established a lucrative, stable and relevant business. However, life dealt him the hardest of blows with the sudden passing of Mark in 2003. Max was never quite the same again.
Like Midget, he was uncompromising in his pursuit of excellence. He had a very well defined and often vocal position on every subject relating to surfing. Besides, he didn’t suffer fools. Some lifelong friendships suffered when loyalties were challenged. His opinionated views on life were not always shared and some of his ideas were harebrain to say the least. But this was part and parcel for someone testing the limits.
In 2010 Max was hit by his board in the ribs and unbeknown to him at the time, punctured his lung. Soon he was in hospital and the prognosis was that he had lost a significant amount of lung capacity.
It almost curtailed his surfing. By that time he had long since officially retired from an active business role, but he couldn’t stay away from his factory. Often he would be back in the shaping bay, crafting those magnificent multi-stringer longboards that, sadly, he could no longer surf in the manner to which he was accustomed. Gallons of tea were drunk, chewing the cud with visiting friends from all over the world. Guys like Derek Hynd would pitch with a couple of Johnny’s Rotties every time he was in town.
The last time that I saw Max surfing he could barely manage to stand up and his final wave of that session was ridden on his knees. But true to form, just before he passed away in July 2015, he was still looking forward to another session with friends.
Max touched the lives of many. Some of the finest shapers learned how to make boards from him. He helped lay the blueprint for the South African surf industry and professional surfing. He also aligned himself to his Viking roots through his love of the ocean and the craft that we ride on it.
Max Wetteland’s achievements in the shaping bay and in the water will long be remembered across the world. He could claim so many firsts, but claiming was not his long suit. Rather, Max was always looking ahead, shining his light on the future.
© Patrick Flanagan 2015
All photos courtesy of the Wetteland family.