Midget Farrelly and Makaha Trophy in January 1962. Photo: Ron Church
Monday, 31 December 2012
Australia's first surfing world champion has ridden plenty of big waves but he never thought in 1963 that he'd be the cause of one.
Midget was in a shed on a beach on the wave-swept west coast of Hawaii's Oahu island changing out of wet boardshorts when he heard his name – Bernard Farrelly – on the public address system.
Somewhat incredibly, the 18-year-old from Dee Why had won the Makaha International Championship, the world title of the time. In head-high surf, he'd dusted the best of the Waikiki beach boys and transplanted Californians. None of his Australian mates were on the beach, so he hesitantly stepped forward to accept his trophy, a wooden spear-carrying Hawaiian warrior. The following day the Honolulu Star-Bulletin newspaper lamented: "Hawaiian Surfing Prestige Wiped Out".
It was January 2, 1963. It was the moment 50 years ago that helped Australia turn from England as its cultural inspiration and finally look the US in the eye.
Of course, Australians had been flirting with Americans for years. They'd seen the overpaid, oversexed, over-here variety wade ashore during World War II, they'd been watching Hollywood's output most of the century and became even more captivated by Yankee know-how with the advent of rock'n'roll and television.
But Farrelly's truly Pacific moment at Makaha was the first time Australia's locally grown beach culture – born in the surf at Manly's South Steyne courtesy of a Kanaka body surfer, fostered in lifesaving clubs around the nation, but by then a strapped-on combination of Californian cool and Hawaiian aloha – had stood on its own two feet and become part of a newly emerging sense of what it meant to be Australian.
On that day in 1963 Australia was then a much smaller, modest, even self-effacing society, shaped by Depression and world war, a place where news travelled lethargically and social change moved with a kind of glacial pride.
Farrelly did not know he'd changed the world.
"They gave me the trophy. I remember an Australian couple in the Makaha crowd saying, 'Good on you,' and Ron Church taking that photo of me with the trophy on the Keyo board I'd shaped for Hawaii," Farrelly recalls in his Brookvale surfboard factory. "I got into my car – you could buy a bomb for $50 without windows, $100 with windows – and drove back to the north shore to tell the other blokes I'd won. They probably had some beer."
The story of Farrelly's win took a day to hit home. On Thursday, January 3, it ran on page four in the Herald, under the heading "Sydney man has world surf win". Above it was a photograph of a couple at a New Year's Eve party in Chatswood; Gilbert Bogle and Margaret Chandler had also attended the party and a few hours later their bodies were discovered on the banks of the Lane Cove River.
Their mysterious deaths still echo down the years but, along the east coast of Australia, baby boomers who had seen American surf movies at lifesaving clubs, or maybe the 1959 film Gidget, which gave Australians their first distorted view of Californian surfing, suddenly had a local hero. Overnight almost, "Midget" entered the lexicon of sporting Australians, like Bradman, Cazaly, Messenger and Hoad, for whom one word said it all.
The first Australian face of surfing, Farrelly's success launched a million surfboards, created a surfing equipment and clothing industry and resulted in the multibillion-dollar coastline development south from Noosa Heads in Queensland to Lorne on Victoria's west coast.
Developers later moved into Western Australia's Margaret River, then Tasmania, and now they're crawling off the Eyre Peninsula towards the Great Australian Bight.
Farrelly went on to win an official world championship and have a long career shaping boards, but few of the 18 men who made the initial surfari to Hawaii shared in the cornucopia. In fact, when they hit upon the idea to go to Hawaii, Farrelly and his mates were only interested in one thing: riding big waves.
"We got the idea on the headland at Queenscliff in 1960," Farrelly says.
"We were all standing there watching Dave Jackman paddling an 11-foot Joe Larkin balsa gun into the Queenie Bombie. When we saw him do it – we'd seen the movies – we'd gone 'Wowww', we had our balsa, we were getting our foam, so when Dave went, that was it. Everybody agreed: we should go to Hawaii."
In late spring 1961, 18 of them boarded the Oriana – including Farrelly, Charlie Cardiff, Jackman, Bob Pike, Owen Pilon, Mike Hickey, Mick McMahon, Tank Henry, Gordon Simpson, Nipper Williams and Graham Treloar – and headed across the Pacific to ride the swells generated by storms off the Aleutian Islands. They slammed unimpeded into Hawaii's fabled north shore beaches. And when the north shore closed out, the waves marched down the west coast to unload along Makaha Point.
Farrelly remembers that first trip and the 1962-63 stay through the eyes of a teenager from the northern beaches seeing the world open before him.
"The north shore was so beautiful," he says. "Quite country-esque. There seemed to be only three Hawaiians, Kealoha Kaio, Henry Priest and Tiger Espere, surfing on a day-to-day basis and a couple of houses full of Californians.
"There were also a few white guys who lived there: Ricky Grigg, Jose Angel, Fred van Dyke. They tended to gravitate around Bud Browne, the guy who made the movies we'd all watched in the surf clubs years before. Those guys weren't drop-outs. They were divers, lifeguards, firemen, school teachers, jobs that allowed them to be ready when the big waves came.
"Us Australians surfed as a group, which could have been a bit of a nuisance for locals but it didn't seem to matter as there were so few people there and we'd turn up in three or four cars. Put it this way, I learnt to surf Sunset [Beach] – admittedly small Sunset – by myself.
"Many of the Australians were extremely good and rounded watermen. I mean, for the time, Dave Jackman used to swim, run and keep to a strict diet in preparation for riding big waves. The Hawaiians saw the quality of the big-wave surfing by Pike and Jackman and they were impressed.
"Maybe they were impressed, too, by our Australian sense of 'fair go', or maybe our 'normal' attitudes. I remember a lot of the Californians were sort of into drugs. Besides, racism was a big deal in Hawaii then. The locals had it in for the Haoles [the Hawaiian term for mainland Americans]; they'd taken their land, taken their culture and given them nothing in return . . . bit like here, really.
"Anyway, Hawaii was quite poor; it was R&R for US forces, and Honolulu was kind of a place you didn't want to be much."
But Makaha was different. The setting sun backlights the waves, and compared with the green water of the north shore, Makaha's reputation is for offering the bluest of blue waters. It is also the place where ancient Hawaiians rode the waves and still resonates among the locals as their special place.
That first winter in Hawaii, some of the Australians entered the ninth International Surfing Championship at Makaha. But their lack of big-wave chops left them quickly bundled out.
The following December, just before Christmas, Farrelly and a few other Australians took the drive to Makaha. He was the only one to survive the free-for-all rounds, in which heats of up to 24 men scrambled to hook into the giant six-metre point surf. Then the ocean went flat.
On New Year's Day, with two-metre waves trying to enter the bay, the finals were called on. Much of it has faded from Farrelly's memory. He recalls past champions such as Rabbit Kekai and Nappy Napoleon, but forgets the Californians John Peck and Chuck Linnen, who took out the minor placings. He remembers the big-wave riders waiting out the back for point waves. They never showed. Meanwhile, Farrelly wailed away in the shore break on his nine-foot balsa board, reeling off ride after ride to take the title home to Australia.
- Damien Murphy - Sydney Morning Herald