May 68. Back in Durban after nine months in the Navy in Simonstown, bright eyed and bushy tailed with my 9’10” Mike Hynson model three stringer Gordon & Smith under my arm, looking for a little excitement and a lot of waves.
Little did I know that the whole landscape of surfing had already changed, reducing my trusty G&S cruiser to a relic. Boom. A month earlier Surfer Magazine ran a watershed article by John Witzig – ‘We’re (the Aussies) the best now!’ that was ‘typeset’ around pictures of Nat Young and Bob McTavish doing stylish bottom turns at Honolua Bay on boards two foot shorter with a pronounced ‘V’ in the tail – completely different from anything we’d ever seen.
They were not alone. Rory Pheonix a stylish ex Durban goofy footer now residing in San Francisco explains “It was 68 I think. We heard these two Aussies, Tony Wright and John Bachelador had just arrived in Durban and there they were, paddling out next to the West Street groin. They were part of this new breed of short boarders we’d heard about. I remember them both ripping bottom turns and off the lips with a power and energy we’d never seen before. We knew right then that surfing had just moved into a new era.”
Up until then, almost every surfing manoeuvre was lateral – pivoting and trimming were prerequisites to the the holy grail of long boarding – riding the nose. Now, all that had changed in one foul swoop. These guys were putting tiny seven and a half footers on the rail, off the bottom and off the top altering the line of attack forever. Terms like ‘evolution’ and ‘s’ turns rang in our ears and before long the whole surfing world was under the spell of short board Aussie aggro. Californian cool had been unceremoniously replaced. Bang. What was good today was almost gone the next. Thing were moving fast.
But Durban was not the first place in SA to sample this surfing awakening. Tony Wright continues; “The Endless Summer started it for sure but John and I had been travelling up and down the east coast of Australia with older blokes all through school, sleeping on the beaches, misbehaving as much as possible, surfing new places like Crescent Heads , Byron Bay, Noosa with nobody in the water and were absolutely hypnotised by this whole surfing ‘around the world’ thing. I could say this five times because it’s true, that first South African adventure in 1968, sincerely changed my life – our lives. Whoever I am today is totally influenced by what went on there. John and I thought we were going to the bottom of Africa to surf those magical waves for 12 months or so, or until the money ran out and then come home (the money ran out pretty quick because, when we got off the ship in the middle of the night, a cab driver took us from the wharf to some hotel in Seapoint. and we got robbed of everything – passports, travellers cheques all gone. What went on from there is as real to me as right this minute when we walked up Buitengdacht Street with only the surfboards under our arms and the clothes on our backs). We walked straight into John Whitmore’s surfboard factory and said G’day to one of the most incredible people we’d ever met. It was as if he already knew us! We all but moved in with him, Thelma, Chele, Peta, in their house on the ocean at Bakoven. We dived for perlemoen and crayfish and met all his friends, and what incredible friends they became. Johnny and Rodger Paarman, Piers Pittard and Clive Barber and I won’t write another name in case someone says ” what about me ?” Bunny Shandler !!…you all know who you are.”
“We made short 7.6″ surfboards called, what was the bloody name of them? Not Winchesters but something like that. John showed us around the Cape, helped us get our cheques and passports back and then helped us buy a ‘ 48 Willy’s Overland for 300 Rand off some farmer “friend” of his (to us it seemed everyone was his friend and they probably were). We then spent the most amazing two months living the ‘day to day’ surfing life around the Cape, marvelling at the sights, visiting District 6 , Guguletu and Langa, not because you weren’t supposed to go there, but because we were enthralled by the black culture – the exciting newness of Africa ! Sleeping in our car – knock , knock on the window. A voice in the dark says “Too dangerous to sleep here “.
Living on Pro Nutro and bananas and freezing our arses off at Kommetje and Long Beach. I don’t think we had wetsuits. Racing up to Elands – nobody there – incredible waves. Meeting the Afrikaners at the pub and drinking beer with them.. Memories of thousands of dead crayfish on the beach. Muizenburg, anywhere you can think of and the whole time- the absolute whole time – being treated to a level of hospitality that we simply couldn’t believe !
To whatever degree we were a novelty as surfers from overseas riding short surfboards (on weekends we’d have as many as 6-10 carloads of surfers follow us around – unbelievable), the South African surfers embraced us! The told us about ” secret ” waves and insisted we go there. They drew maps, or took us there themselves and sat on the beach while we surfed, tried our boards, incredible until eventually all the stories came together and we started driving up the coast to whatever happened next – like surfing muddy river mouths at the end of nowhere dirt roads. Spending days on squeaky white sand beaches where we felt like the only surfers in the world, just us and the Zambezi sharks! If I think back on that time I’m amazed we didn’t get eaten!
The road less travelled, x million miles, to Humansdorp, Coetzee’s fish shop, meeting and surfing with Gavin Rudolph and over time spending months living in the sand hills at Jbay and that was just the start!”
What Tony leaves out is that both he and his compatriot were surfing at a level never seen before.
The Modern Collective of that time. Welcome to the new world order.
The background layer to this was another kind of evolution. Young people all over the world were dropping out, outraging, and in some cases, disowning their parents. New value systems, just like the ‘v’ machines that Tony and John had brought to our shores, were raw, exciting and fully embraced. Psychedelia’ was a word being included in the collective vocabulary of youth. The Doors, Love, Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead and Clear Light filled our ears and hearts. Our education had began.
The times were a changing in every way. The purple corduroy bell bottoms, tie dye t-shirts and long hair were almost acceptable, but runaway teenage girls and the presence of illicit substances started making the locals at Die Baai feel a little queasy. Jbay was getting attention from people who didn’t really belong. Joburg hipsters arrived, freshly tuned into “San Franacisco with Flowers in your Hair”, looking for a free ride that didn’t encompass any waves. Juxtaposed to this was the Apartheid Government in full swing. Well connected right wingers in their private ‘Idaho’ up in the hills took it upon themselves to rid Jeffery’s of its newly found notoriety of ‘Capital of Surfing Bohemia’. How could this be happening in one of the most conservative parts of SA? The axe was about to fall.
What did we know? All we were interested in was the super sexy fluted stringerless ‘V’ bottomed boards. Life for some was about earning enough cash to buy a board and go travelling just like Tony and John, This could mean a stint on the docks in Durban working shifts as fire watch or stacker drivers. Then it would be back to Jbay for another two or three months of blissful times mostly punctuated by pristine, almost always empty waves.
On to Durban. Tony started shaping boards for Max Wetteland in Durban. A typical day would see them surfing quality waves between Addington and the Bay, shaping a few at the factory then carousing Prince Street at night looking for a beer and a bunny (chow).
Eddie Concar takes up the story. “When Tony and John arrived in Durban they were riding Plastic Fantastic boards that McCoy and Greenough were designing and building up at Angourie. Super wide tails with huge “v” bottoms and long flexi single fins that, when coming out of the bottom turn, seemed to thrust the board forwards. To say the least, we were in total awe of John, he absolutely ripped, drawing out these long bottom turns in the most critical Tramps sections. Tony surfed the lefts at Kontiki a lot, and of course the Wedge. The crew at the Wedge at that time was Espo and Jeff Sanders, Bill (Roberts) Sharp, Kenny Andrews, Sludge? Rudi, and lot of guys that sadly I cannot recall the names of.”
“Hanging out with Tony and John was really cool as they were quite happy to let us use their boards when they weren’t in the water themselves. After a couple of weeks John Cerff (Loopy) and Maxie hooked up and we started seeing a new batch of short boards coming out of Maxies’ shop. Major plan and bottom shape changes. One day Tony arrived at the Bay with a board with multiple channels all the way from nose to tail, almost like roof sheeting in profile. Very difficult to ride, but super fast. This was a time of major experimental change. From 9′ 10″ down to 8’6″ to 7’6″ in the space of weeks. We thought we could knee paddle the short boards and that obviously didn’t work. It’s very hard to describe the difficulty in making the transition because they just didn’t paddle the same. You needed different strategies to get through the waves. The boards were so skittish compared to the 9’6”s and most of the time you fell flat on your face at the bottom of the wave.
Finally you got that first wave where everything came together and then it all made sense.”
One guy to which this really made sense was Espo.
“I remember these two Aussies, I often wonder what became of them. Anyway, there was once during a Gunston 500 event, I was paddling out in my heat next to the Bay side rock pier, and remember Tony shouting “go for it Espo”. The surf was 6-8 feet, and every now and again the sets would clean everyone up paddling out. I got absolutely pounded by a set, I got dragged near the pier, and was under water for, what felt like a week, when I felt someone grab me, and pull me up out of the turbulence, it was Tony Wright, he had dived off the rocks and grabbed me, thank God, I was heading for real trouble, had no air, and no strength left, but he managed to keep me afloat and away from the pier, it ended well. “
“The next time I saw Tony after that was at Pipeline in Hawaii, I think it was 1972, I was walking down the beach heading out at Pipeline, and saw Tony on a wave, unmistakable style, with his white hair, goofy footer, looking like Lopez, cool calm and collected while being slotted in the barrel.
Never saw him again.”
The influence those first short boards had on what guys like Espo were to ride in the future were immense.
He goes on. “I remember borrowing John Winship’s (one of the orignal owners of Quiksilver France) 8′ board, and never gave it back for weeks. He chased me for weeks, I just couldn’t see my surfing life continuing without this board, it was a time when everyone was surfing the Bay, high tide lefts in the bowl, and I was like a kid in a candy store, perfect 4-6 foot high tide lefts, riding a “short” 8 foot board, so loose, I could do anything in the Bay bowl, must have ridden Mike Burness over a hundred times, poor guy, he was only little, but has since forgiven me…..I hope.”
Back in California, the shaping landscape was also changing on a daily basis. Pintails, mini guns and double enders started to fill the racks of surf shops. Cosmetically the boards had changed as much as the dress of the people that rode them. The button down checked shirts, Bermuda shorts, buzz cut look – along with a 9’6” competition striped three stringer bench-marked the early part of the decade. Now it was Floral board shorts, floral screen printed boards and home made leather sandals. It was a very strange and exciting time.
Two goofy footers, David Nuuhiwa and Wayne Lynch personified a major diversion that had occurred between Hawaii and California surfing on one hand and Australia on the other. David started using smaller fins on tighter tails – controlled slid slipping on the steep faces. Meanwhile Lynch was driving his wide tailed, large finned double ender off the rail and inventing the round house cutback.
Back in the RS of A another iconic Australian, Keith Paul had arrived bringing a more refined, snow skiing inspired dance. Power (always an Aussie prerequisite at that time) combined with ‘weight on weight off’ rotations became his trademark moves. But what set him apart was his Curreneque, constant motion, smooth stylish lines. Sadly Keith is no longer with us.
In August of 68, Sydney film maker, Bob Evans accompanied by photographer Alby Falzon and his delectable girlfriend, Tanya Binning drove into Durban in a Mini Clubman looking to capture the African experience for their movie, “The Way We Like It”. They quickly teamed up with Max , Tony and Ernie Tomson and a trip was on to the fabled Jbay, which was fast becoming a quintessential venue for intrepid surf travellers.
For the first time two young groms, Shaun and Mike Tomson were featured in an international surf movie. Coincident I drove down on a low budget, deep winter dash with some friends, one of which was JJ who reminded me the other day that one of his waves was in the movies’ opening sequence. It was freezing. Rain, rain and more rain. And then, one of those perfect days with overhead waves and a strong southwester arrived. Goofy footers Tony and Loopy, natural footers Max and Ant were blitzing. Shaun and Michael Tomson drew different, new lines. Somehow never tainted by the long board era, these kids were about to take it on.
Two years later at the World Titles at Johanna in 70, Nat and Wayne Lynch were down to riding 5’8” boards and got totally shut out by 18 year old Rolf Arness, a mild mannered Santa Monica surfer on a six ten that was better suited to the long heavy Victoria waves. Within weeks Nat and Wayne arrived in Jbay and Nat shaped himself a rolled bottom, seven foot board and went about muscling Supers with the belligerence of a dictator. Never seen before, figure eight cutbacks on 10 foot waves. Lynch went out on one afternoon when the Southwester was over 40 knots and between being pitched by the lip a few times, gave a backhand display never seen here or anywhere before.
In less than thirty months, surfing had changed and then changed again.
Tony Wright goes on
“I was always a beach kid.- my parents were “beach kids ” too – just a little older than me ! They owned a guest house at Bondi Beach in the early 40′s and my dad was a member of North Bondi surf club. He and his mates made and rode those 16′ plywood boards and left them resting up against the promenade through the week and surfed all weekend. One Friday afternoon he came down to surf and his board had been stolen. My mother told the story that they sold the guest house in a matter of weeks and we moved down the south coast of NSW to a weekender cottage. “So the kids could grow up in the country ” (best thing ever !)I walked or rode horses to school and on the way the track passed though John Batcheldor’s place. We became friends and started walking or hitch hiking back and forth four miles across the Cornfieds to Shellharbour Beach to go body surfing . We were were probably 12 years old and I reckon we walked that walk a 100 times..(running in the dark at 4am to get to the beach at first light )- stumbling home – sunburned – exhausted – starving !
We rowed surf boats and surf skis and did the ‘clubbie ‘ thing until a bloke showed up one day with a 9′ fibre glass surfboard. That was the end of surf clubs and the start of a lifelong obsession that has taken both of us on 50 years worth of adventuring around world and a connection to a life we could only have dreamed of as kids. The Endless Summer was the nail in the coffin for any further academic achievement and we couldn’t wait to leave school at 15! (illiterate but full of life!) A familiar story of the life changing movie that hatched a million dreams ! We saved as much money as possible to buy a berth on a ship and left for Cape Town.
All roads led eventually (via years of travel in non surfing countries) to Hawaii and I spent two winters and a summer on the North Shore meeting those people everyone has heard of and sharing their waves. I then met a girl working at what is now Turtle Bay who was a snow skier (good kisser) and if anyone had said ” Yeah, you’re going to spend the next 30 years skiing around the world in a parallel universe with surfing , I’d of thought they were clearly insane.” (Funny how it goes).
I now have a surfers /travellers /skiers house at Yamba / Angourie on the north coast of NSW. There are always people coming and going whenever I’m home. Loud music, kayaks, stand ups and surfboards laying around. Golf clubs, sports junkie stuff. My lifelong friends live nearby and they’re all ‘beach kids’ as well! Nowadays they have a few more wrinkles perhaps, but still fired up, still coming ’round to watch surfing DVD’s and following the ASP live.
There are plenty of uncrowded waves where I live if you’re keen enough but I like going to Indo when I can to surf incredible waves with maybe three or four like minded friends in that tropical climate ‘Your wave mate!’ is an anthem. Maybe I’ll see you there.”
Tony broke new ground as an avant guard surfer of the late sixties and is still breaking ground so to speak.
He travels to Colorado to ski and West Sumatra to surf most years at a time when guys of his age are getting set up in old age homes. His raw enthusiasm for surfing and his mild mannered, easy going attitude to life are as refreshing today as seeing him on his first wave back in the day. Thanks for the memories.
“Brian Jackson made the short board I took to Africa; I used to work for him. The boards were called Plastic Fantastic machines. Bob MacTavish and George Greenough invented them in the Yamba/Byron Bay area. They were very experimental board makers; MacTavish is still making boards today. I was riding a short board for about a year before me and Tony left for South Africa.
The boards were revolutionary. They were very different from the normal Malibu’s we’d been riding. They were much shorter, lighter and had “V” concave bottoms and also a long flexible fin.
The board I brought with me was 8ft but when we got to Cape Town John Whitmore made another board down to 7ft 6” which was much more manoeuvrable. The “V” bottoms gave you drive off the bottom. The speed and power enabled you to make sharper turns to ride closer to the curl. It was all about the manoeuvrability that let you perfect later take-offs and steeper turns.
When we got there everyone was amazed we could even stand up. When I got to Cape Town someone asked if it was a knee-board, they hadn’t seen anything like it.
Every board builder we came across wanted to shape one of them. They were very interested in them. In East London we shaped a board for a local board factory about 7ft 6” like mine. When we got to Durban Max Wetteland wanted to shape them. We became friends with Max and he shaped some boards for local surfers. “
1968 Fact sheet.
R75.00 per month was the average first year wage for banking clerk.
R100.00 is what you paid for a new surfboard.
TV had yet to arrived in SA.
Black folks were legally not permitted on most SA city beaches.
The Vietnam war was in full swing. The Tet Offensive had just happened.
Draft dodging was a serious option for Vietnam bound surfers in the USA and Australia.
Jim Morrison, Jimmy Hendrix and Janis Joplin were still alive.
The Beatles were still together.
Some wetsuits, usually meant for divers, had a flappy tail. (Spot the Cape Town surfer.)
Most of Supers, Tubes, the Point and Albatross were a farm called Noors Kloof Point. No houses.
The Beach Hotel was already a venue for bad behaviour.
The predominant surf beaches in Durban were South Beach and the Wedge. The Bay of Plenty was almost at the end of the line. The South Pier was at least a hundred metres shorter. So south swells got into more beaches.
VW Kombi’s were the vehicle of choice for beach people. Often they doubled as homes.
Eight track tape decks were getting big especially in the dashboard of your Kombi.
Petrol cost 10c a litre.
The Flames were Durban’s premier band.
Freedom’s Children had just arrived.
You could hitch to Jbay in less than 48 hours. (Especially if you wore a military uniform).
The first generation of skateboards had come and gone.
Long hair was getting longer.
Nobody had ever heard of Zig Zag, Quiksilver, Billabong, Playstations, thrusters, leashes, Macdonalds or CD’s, or Aids.
‘Free love’ was more than just a concept.
Money was called ‘bread’.
Cops were called ‘pigs’.
Surfers were called ‘stokies’.
Branded surf wear was imported.
Big up to Eddie Concar, Prince Street original, now of Cape Town and regular boat tripper to the Mentawais, for getting in touch with Tony and John and articulating long since forgotten memories and Maroubra legend Mark Scott (1980 World Amateur Surfing Champion) for finding three articles from Surfing World’s issues of that time.