Gone Surfing: The Golden Years of Surfing in New Zealand, 1950-1970
Over the past few years I’ve spent a considerable amount of surfing time sitting on various beaches, board beside me, wondering why I’d bothered getting out of the car. On these many occasions I’ve left home with high hopes, having checked the surf and tide reports and weather forecasts, listened to “Wavetrack” and looked at the surf cams on the Net. These “reliable” sources will inevitably have assured me that upon arrival I’d be greeted by clean three-to-four-foot waves rolling into the beach where a gentle offshore breeze would be holding up the peaks. However, more often than not I’m greeted by messy one-to-two-footers ruffled by an uncooperative sea breeze and the possibility of a sewerage warning. Either that or the surf is perfect, or at least it would be if you could get to it through the throngs of surfers, Mal riders, body-boarders, jet-skiers, windsurfers and surf-skis fighting for position in the line-up.
Such are the trials and tribulations of the modern surfer. Which makes the photographs and stories contained in Luke Williamson’s book Gone Surfing, which focusses on the years 1950-1970, all the more appealing. Back in the bad old, good old days, two surfers on the same coastline were a crowd. Not only did these intrepid surfers have the waves to themselves, they also had the joy of discovering new surfing locations and then hogging them. Mind you, it wasn’t all sunshine and barrels. In the early years, there were no such things as wetsuits or leg ropes, which meant winter surfing in freezing water wearing rugby jerseys and long trousers, and when you lost your board it was a long swim back to the shore to retrieve it. The boards themselves were also quite a challenge, being the size of a small whale and possessing all the manoeuvrability of a garden shed.
I found stories such as these fascinating and wish Williamson had concentrated more on the yarns of the surfers, rather than devoting a disproportionate amount of the book to board building. After the first few tales of the difficulty of finding resin and of the innovative spirit of the first surfboard designers, these backyard board building stories became a bit tiresome. Fortunately, whenever the text became repetitive, I had two things to keep myself entertained. The first was the fascinating photographs that are liberally sprinkled throughout the book. These images neatly capture the fashions and spirit of not only the surfing revolution but of post-war New Zealand in general. The shots made me yearn for simpler times when you could strap a surfboard to the roof of your Mark 1 Zephyr and tour the country without worrying about traffic jams, speed cameras or even seat belts.
My second distraction came from the cheap laughs I found in the names of some of our venerable surfing pioneers. I know this borders on blasphemy, but how can you not chuckle at Rick Stoner’s moniker or Chip Post and Hiho Silver (I’m assuming that’s a nickname: either that or his parents had a great sense of humour) or my personal favourite, Robin Hood.
Another problem was the format of the book. The stories are frequently broken up and then continued several pages later. For me, this disturbed the flow and made it unnecessarily difficult to read. But the book does contain some excellent individual stories. I loved the section on women surfers, appropriately titled “Girls can do anything”. These hardy young lasses not only rode boards twice their size but they also battled sexism on the beaches with male surfers who saw females and “grommets” (young surfers) as unworthy of decent waves and used to “drop in on” them regularly. Sexism occurred off the beaches as well. 1965 New Zealand Women’s Champion Cindy Webb relates how the NZSRA (New Zealand Surf Riders’ Association) contacted her to say they had three return trips to the world titles in San Diego available and wanted her to represent her country. She duly accepted, acquired a passport, had her smallpox vaccination and prepared to leave. Just before departure date, she was informed that one airfare was no longer available so she wouldn’t be going. Only the Senior Men’s and Junior Men’s Champions would have the privilege.
Stories such as this and tales of some of the more outrageous exploits of the early surfers are the highlights of this book. Unfortunately, they are few and far between. Which makes Williamson’s book a little like a bad day’s surfing, with too few peaks and too many troughs.
Glenn Wood is an Auckland writer and sometime surfer.