Writer, activist and surfer Sean Doherty is as iconic as the surfers he has spent years writing about.
His prolific writing across major surfing publications across the globe, alongside biographic books on surfing’s outsiders and more recently, his activism protecting the natural environment from development and destruction, have seen him double stitched into the fabric of Australian surf culture.
Doherty has also now done a couple more things to strengthen that claim. He wrote an extensive Australian surfing anthology called Golden Daze and he bought Australia’s oldest and now longest running surf publication, Surfing World Magazine.
Like the rest of the surfing community, Doherty despaired when the longest running surfing magazine, USA’s Surfer Magazine closed its doors this year in a Roman Empire sized collapse.
Unlike the rest of the surfing community, Doherty didn’t enter a brief period of public mourning via an Instagram post. He brought a magazine to rescue it from becoming another casualty of new media.
Surfing World will continue as a quarterly in print and continue to build its online presence.
Golden Daze, his most ambitious book yet is essential reading for surfers young, old and aspiring. Doherty tells the story of Australian surfing one year at a time, through the lives of our greatest surfers.
And there are some big names. People like Bob McTavish, Wayne Lynch, Nat Young, Layne Beachley, Phyllis O’Donnell and Joel Parkinson candidly reveal tantalising slices of Australian surfing’s biggest moments.
According to Doherty, focusing on a year in the life of one our great surfers, rather than their whole life elevated and accentuated those big moments.
“I thought rather than do their whole life, I’d pick a year from their life. You get a sense of who they were, so in a sense it works as an autobiography, but at the same time, like Claw Warbrick’s, set in Torquay, you get a sense of the time,”
“Some of the crew have steel trap memories and remember everything and for other people the years have all blended together. The beauty of picking one important year is that they tended to remember it, in pretty vivid details.”
Doherty said the opportunity to talk to surfing luminaries turned him “into a grom again”.
“Getting the chance to chat to Phyllis O’Donnell, who I had never really hung around before, was amazing. She is a riot – a huge character. And getting the chance to chat to Ted Spencer, who no one had really spoken to for 40 years.
“It was unreal, I’d be thinking, “I can’t believe I’m sitting here on the phone to Simon Anderson chatting about 1997,” he said.
The story starts in 1915 at Freshwater Beach when Duke Kahanamoku delivered his much mythologised surf demonstration, to the delight of the big crowd that had gathered. Doherty used Duke’s trip to focus in on Isabel Lentham, who was selected as Duke’s surfing partner during the demonstration. It was a significant step forward in a conservative society in which ‘mixed swimming’, where men and women could swim together, was only just becoming acceptable.
The book continues through surfing’s transformative and revolutionary moments, of course with many based in and around the Surf Coast.
Incredible stories of adventure, courage and the unknown – in the days before crowds, wetsuits, leg ropes and big cumbersome barges for boards.
Unfortunately, not every pivotal figure was available for the book.
“There were a few interviews that I couldn’t get because some people have passed. Midget (Farrelly) would have been the one – he is one of, if not the most pivotal guy, but he passed in 2016, so I didn’t get the chance to get to him.
“I’ve interviewed him before – he is a challenging subject. He never got due recognition and he felt that way, it kind of twisted him. But he is so pivotal in the whole scheme of things that it would have been epic to have him around to chat.”
Golden Daze – Australian surfing: then to now
1967 – DOUG WARBRICK
Torquay in 1967 was still Old Torquay. There might have been a thousand people living in town, tops, Pawson’s Palace Hotel was still rocking and wouldn’t burn down for another decade, and the Boot Hill boys were still singing terrifically bawdy jazz numbers in the bar. Bells was still a longboard wave and the old bakery in Boston Road was still selling pies. The bakery would soon close however and a year later be reborn after a bunch of local surfers moved in and started making wetsuits in there. One of those surfers was recognisable around town by his glasses and the gap between his front teeth. Old Torquay would soon become New Torquay and it was the surfers who would change the place.
Doug Warbrick lived at 66 Zeally Bay Road with a bunch of the good old boys, who knew him simply as ‘Claw’. It was one of the old quarter acre blocks with two small flats on it, and framing for two more that had never been completed. The flats had been built originally for the ‘56 Olympics when the exhibition surf lifesaving carnival was held in Torquay. Claw had bought the property for six-and-a-half grand, a decent chunk in those days but even in his early twenties Claw already had a mercantile streak and was spinning a few plates.
Young surfers were fleeing Melbourne for the surf of Torquay, although at that point there wasn’t much else to do in Torquay in those days but surf. Claw found himself in the rarefied position of being over-employed. ‘I had several jobs and several interests all going at once,’ he remembers. ‘I’d do a bit of work for this bloke or that bloke. One job would run into another in those days.’ Claw had already dabbled with his own surf shops in Melbourne, Torquay and one down in Lorne where he’d employed a local surfer named Brian Singer. ‘I’d started 1967 working with George Rice in Melbourne on the surfboard production line, a four-day a week commitment before three days down the coast.’ Claw’s trips back to Melbourne however became less frequent and he soon moved to town full time. ‘I was working in the surf industry, pursuing the dream of making a living out of surfing. It sounds lofty, but the basics back then were to make enough money on Monday to go surfing Tuesday. We needed fuel in the car to go down the coast and enough for three meals a day and that was it. Beyond that we had no real grand plans.’
Claw’s main gig in ’67 however was working at the Torquay Golf Club. ‘It was fantastic,’ he remembers. ‘First up I was a full-time greenkeeper. I signed on in the morning and signed off in the afternoon and had little supervision but I was quite fastidious in raking the bunkers. They told me that was an important job and if I raked the bunkers they seemed to be happy. I’d mow and tidy up but I also used to leave a surfboard down near the beach at Ben’s Moll, hidden in the bush and I’d surf at lunch and after work. Ben’s Moll had pretty good lefts and as a goofy I appreciated them. I’d knock off, have a surf after work, change my clothes then go back to the golf club and work in the bar. That was my other job. I’d work till we ran out of people to pour beers for. It was low pay but a lot of hours and meals were included, so I made quite good money. I was in my early twenties so I could burn the candle at both ends. They wanted me to do lots of hours though and that restricted my ability to go surfing.”
Like every other young guy in Torquay, Claw was mostly busy surfing. They’d been drawn from Melbourne to surf Bells, but found Torquay was a good springboard to a whole coastline of empty surf. ‘Locally we were surfing Point Impossible a lot at the time. We’d head down to Lorne and Kennett River, which was a secret spot at that point, a new discovery for the Noosa Heads type of surfing. Heading the other way, we’d go all the way to Lonny and we’d started surfing over at Corsair. We didn’t have our own boat at the time, although we bought one soon after.’
Claw’s EK Holden panel van also disappeared ‘down south’ to the Otways and beyond, coastline that still felt like a surfing frontier. ‘The first jaunt I had down there was Johanna Beach, and once you’re down there, there’s any number of secret and less-secret spots. We’d occasionally go further – down to Port Campbell, Portland, Port Fairy, Warrnambool – there were plenty of waves down there. We didn’t know most of their names and just stumbled upon them. I’m sure they were already being surfed but to us we felt like we were pioneering them as there was nobody around most of the time. There were small communities down there but not a lot of surfers and they were generally pretty happy to see you back then. It was generally big, treacherous and sharky. You wanted some company.’ You also needed a campfire on the beach and plenty of warm clothes, because surfing wetsuits were rare and rudimentary. The first locally manufactured surfing wetsuits weren’t made in Australia until ‘67.
The real scene though was Bells. The annual Easter Rally was now drawing surfers from around the country, and Claw was in the middle of it despite originally wrestling with the idea of surfing competitions. ‘I felt surfing was a purist activity and we were free spirits and we shouldn’t be in this organised surfing thing. I felt it was quite strange.’ Watching Doug Andrew win the ’63 Bells contest had warmed him to the idea, and after travelling to the World Titles in Manly in 1964 there was no going back.
‘I remember some of the good old boys, Joe Sweeney and Al Reid were starting the Victorian surfing organisation and they convinced me to join. I got membership number 14. I soon became a committee member, God knows why. I wasn’t that into it but the contests were cool I suppose. So in ‘64 they had the Easter Rally that doubled as the Victorian titles and tripled as selection for the World Titles in Manly. It was small, sloppy southeast swell and I don’t remember what I did, but somehow I made the team for Manly. That was another pivotal moment for me, meeting the cognoscenti of world surfing at Manly.’ Claw did no good in the contest but did finish fifth in the board race down at South Steyne, which had been won by Nat. ‘Afterward I was part of crew who drove up to Crescent Head and Angourie, which was still a bit of a secret. While we were there Bob Evans turned up with Joey Cabell and Nat Young. Their surfing on the point at Angourie was extraordinary.’
Claw soon became a central player in the running of the Bells Easter contest. ‘I was a big supporter of “Stan The Man” Couper and “The Big O” Tony Olsson in the Victorian ASA. I was probably number three in the organisation.’ Claw however at the same time had never fully cut ties with the clubbies. While in other parts of the country there was a huge ideological divide between the old way of the surf clubs and the new generation of surfers, Torquay was a little small for that. ‘In those days we were all mates with the people from the surf club, and there wasn’t a huge split like there was elsewhere. I could paddle a surfboard fast, and I loved board paddling. At Torquay Surf Club I used to pace myself against Peter Troy and Terry Wall and I could paddle.’ The old allegiance would put him in an awkward spot on ’67. ‘One of surf club guys asked me, “You can paddle a board, can’t you?” I said, “Well, yeah.” The surf boat captain I think it was put the heavy word on me to go, so in ‘67 I actually competed in the Australian Surf Lifesaving Titles in South Australia as a board paddler. I won a medal in the Taplin relay, which was good… then I pissed off back to Bells.’
The awkward part was that the clubbie titles had been held at Easter and clashed with Bells. It wasn’t just any Bells either. Bells in 1967 was hosting the Australian Titles for the first time. Claw drove overnight to get back. ‘I missed two or three days,’ he remembers. ‘Once I got back to Bells, Stan Couper went, “Where have you been?” He kicked me up the arse and said, “You’re our most reliable judge!” The waves were good. It was six-foot-plus at Bells and got bigger. They ran the event over three rounds including a round at Fishos in town and I think a round down at Lorne. Nat was in all his glory. He was the reigning world champ at the time and he won the opens, Gail Couper won the women’s while Wayne won the juniors, the first of his four in a row.’
It was early in ’67 that one of Claw’s road trips saw him land at another pivotal point in surfing time. Claw packed the wagon and drove north to Noosa. As a kid, Claw’s family had moved south from Queensland, and he’d been, ‘up and down those highways all my life. I had family at Maroochydore, which was my old stomping ground, so I saw them first and did a bit of surfing there. I surfed The Bluff, Point Cartwright… I even surfed Old Woman Island.’
Eventually he ended up at Noosa, surfing the points with a loose collective of surfing souls drawn from all over the world. ‘It was a real melting pot,’ he recalls. ‘There were a bunch of Kiwi guys like Wayne Parkes, Al Byrne and Taff Kennings and South African guys like Andy Spengler.’ Noosa had become its own scene, and in the middle of it all sat Bob McTavish. ‘Bob was holding court about surfboard design and breaking the shackles of surfing and going vertical which of course he’d got from George Greenough, who was living there with him on the Sunshine Coast. Every day we’d surf with those guys and every day there’d be a new discussion about where surfing was going and how surfboard design could liberate surfers.’
McTavish would turn up to Bells at Easter that year in ’67 with a couple of distinctly shorter boards and instead of surfing the contest at Bells surfed the adjacent Winkipop. Boards were already in a transitional phase. By the following year they would be unrecognisable. McTavish would be a key player, but it was in the air. Bob took particular interest in Claw’s 9’3” Pat Morgan. ‘I had a good board with a shallow vee bottom and a fin somewhere between a Bob Cooper and a Greenough stage one. The board had high-low rails and the boys were quite enchanted by it. I was a kook compared to those guys but I’d get a good one and every now and then they looked at my board. It was easily as advanced as what they were riding at the time, but then Bob was about to make the next jump.’
The conversations became more animated. ‘We’d have these round tables after we got out of the surf at National Park, we’d sit there and have these discussions every day. I think we talked more than we surfed. At one point late one afternoon Bob declared he’d had enough of this bullshit, he was going to Sydney to change the world of surfing. “I’m going back to Brookvale,” he said, “I’ve been talking to Denny Keogh and I’m going down to make a new style of surfboard.” He wasn’t being too secretive, he described it to me and a few others. It was going to be even shorter and with more vee.’ He’d convinced Claw. ‘I said to him, “Look, I’ve got to go back to Victoria. I’ll drive back through Brookvale in a few weeks’ time and if it’s all happening I’ll talk to Denny to see if we can be the distributor of the board in Victoria.”’
By ’67 there was a movement of surfers across the bay from Bells to the racier walls of Winkipop. ‘Most of the people who liked a bit of power surfed Bells, but then there were the early adopters at Winkipop,’ recalls Claw. ‘We’d only go there when Winki was shoulder high but by ‘67 people had started surfing it on a wider range of swells and tides. The boards could finally keep up with it. They changed the way the wave was surfed. They liberated surfers to go vertical and Winki was a more vertical wave than Bells.’
A few weeks later Claw left the Sunshine Coast and on his way home stopped by in Sydney. ‘I went in and saw Denny Keogh and told him we’d love to sell Bob’s new boards and he said, “Yep Claw, I like the sound of that.” The other Brookvale guys had doubts about where these boards were headed. They didn’t think it was going to work. Denny asked me what I thought. I told him that I reckoned he was onto something. Denny said, “All right then, you and your mates can have the agency for the Plastic Machine,” which is the name Bob had settled on for the board.’
Back at home Claw went into partnership with Brian Singer and Terry Wall to sell the boards. One small problem: ‘We had no store.’ Opposite the Palace Hotel on the corner of Bell Street was a mechanics garage owned by Mumbles Walker’s dad, Ted. ‘Mumbles was a surfing beatnik,’ recalls Claw, ‘a great character. There was a little office next to the garage where Mumbles had started a little surf shop selling wax and fixing dings. We asked Mumbles if we could set up on the vacant block next to it and he said no worries, so Brian and Terry went into Geelong and came back with do it yourself tin shed. That was our store. We’d sell the boards out of there.’
Second small problem: ‘The surfboards didn’t arrive. What arrived was Plastic Machine number four for Wayne Lynch and another one I’d ordered for myself. That was it.’ Claw remembers the initial reaction to seeing the board. ‘It was a shock. It was fat at the back with a hell of a lot of vee in it… a hell of a lot of vee. Most of your turns were done at the back of the board and it was clear you would be turning from one side of the board or the other. That’s how big the vee was.’ The long and the short was they had nothing to sell. ‘Keyo had hundreds of orders, the thing went ballistic and they couldn’t produce them. Bob was away in America taking surfing where it needed to go, he wasn’t interested in being a production shaper so we had maybe 30 or 40 orders but no boards.’
Brian took the matter into his own hands. ‘Brian goes, “Right, I’m going to Brookvale to get our boards!” Turns out he found another young bloke on the rise who could fill the order of vee bottoms. Shane Stedman had just started a surfboard business and he said to Brian, “I’ll make the boards for you.” Brian returned home and said, “I’ve got someone making the boards, now we just need a name.”’ Starting with the words McTavish had written on an early incarnation of the vee bottom – ‘Hot kid, rip board’ – they played word jazz using every hip surf word they could think of before settling on Rip Curl. Local surfer and artist Simon Buttonshaw designed a black and yellow sticker with the lotus flower, and, as Claw puts it, ‘We were off. Our first boards were on the way, although as it turns out we didn’t get too many of those boards either.’
An extract from “Golden Daze – Australian surfing: then to now” by Sean Doherty. Published by Hachette Australia, 2020. Hardback, RRP $45.