Australian surfing in the late ’50s still felt very much like a cultural carbon-copy of Hawaii and California. As written by Matt Warshaw in The History of Surfing, “Gidget was as popular in Brisbane as it was in San Clemente, The Australian Surfer was a SURFER replica, and domestic boardmakers stole logos from Jacobs and Hobie.” It would take a determined, omnivorous mind — one in the same league as SURFER founder John Severson’s — for Australia to shape, and later create, its national surf identity. The answer was Bob Evans, the do-everything organizer from Sydney whom many credit as the father of modern Australian surfing. Evans, at 28 years old, haggled his way to Greg Noll’s surfboard when the American Lifeguard team visited Australia in 1956, and the encounter led to a personal obsession to dabble in all forms of the sport’s media coverage, be it editorially, on film, over the radio, or on the contest circuit. Here’s Warshaw:
[By 1960,] Evans gave up his job as an insurance salesman to devote all his time to surfing. He shot film during exploratory trips up and down the coast, and organized surf contests. When Australia made its first real push in Hawaii, with several boardmen sailing off to Honolulu on the SS Oriana in late 1961, the whole trip was arranged up by Evans—or “Mr. Surf,” as the local press called him. Two of the surfers Evans brought along, Dave Jackman and Bob Pike, were about to earn international distinction as big-wave riders; Jackman had already done so in Australia, as the first man to charge the Queenscliff Bombora, a fearsome reef break on Sydney’s northside.
Surf Trek to Hawaii, the first of Evans’ twelve full-length movies, toured Australia beach towns in 1962, the same year he launched Surfing World, the country’s most successful first-generation surf magazine. Evans was a clumsy filmmaker and just marginally better as a magazine writer-editor—but technical merit wasn’t much of a concern. The important thing was, Australian riders were getting some well-deserved recognition, and the “new” surfing Evans was presenting was homegrown, rather than imported.
Then there were all those incredible Australian surf breaks. Sydney was home to a huge majority of Australia’s wave-riders, most of whom hadn’t yet ventured beyond the greater metropolitan area, much less out of state, and what Evans presented to them was overwhelming: the long aqua-blue point waves at Kirra, Burleigh, and Snapper Rocks on Queensland’s Gold Coast, and the Malibu-like perfection of Noosa, further to the north; the thick walls at Victoria’s Bells Beach; even a glimpse or two of the distant reef waves of Western Australia. Some of the best breaks were closer to home: Angourie, Lennox Head, Byron Bay, Crescent Head—A-grade pointbreaks, every one, strung together in close proximity along the north coast of New South Wales.
All this and more was revealed in Evans’ movies and magazines. No wonder Surfing World was a newsstand hit. Of course Surf Trek played to screaming full-capacity houses. Aussie surf pride—celebrated and reviled in years to come—was perhaps Evans’ greatest achievement.
We asked Warshaw for more on Evans, on his support of a teenaged superstar named Midget, and more.
In what ways were Bob Evans and John Severson similar, and in what ways were they different?
Bob and John were both excellent surfers, and both hugely ambitious. John came from an art background, while Bob came from sales—that would be the biggest difference. John made himself over into a businessman, and was good at it, but he mostly viewed his work in terms of design, color, balance. His early surf movies were great, the best out there. I always got the feeling that John worked so that he could create, make art. Bob’s movies, on the other hand, were important in that they focused on Aussie surfers at a time when that nation was really heating up surf-wise, but they were paint-by-numbers. Same with his magazine, Surfing World. But Bob moved heaven and earth to bring the 1964 World Surfing Championships to life—John couldn’t have managed that. Bob aimed so high with that event, and pulled it off with massive style and efficiency.
Evans’ movies of Australia’s set-ups must’ve looked like Valhalla to the country’s surfers.
Oh my God. All those early Sydney surfers charging off to the North Shore, and it turns out the waves are better just a few hours up the coast.
Did Evans enjoy the filmmaking and the publishing, or was it a means to expand his influence in organizing competitions?
I think he enjoyed making the last film, Drouyn and Friends. Before that, my guess is that the magazine and movies were a means to ends. Bob wanted surfing to be big and popular and profitable, and he was going to push it in that direction any way he could.
What were the firsthand accounts like of the the inaugural World Surfing Championships in 1964? In what ways did it improve off of the Makaha International?
Makaha by then was the “old guys” contest, the Establishment contest. Biggest waves, longest rides. The ’64 titles were about high performance. Makaha didn’t have an interference rule, the ’64 titles contest did—that by itself was a big step forward. The Makaha judges were in their 30s and 40s. Some of the world title judges were older, like Phil Edwards—actually, Phil was still in his 20s—but the panel also had guys like John Witzig, who was barely 20 and all about the latest, hottest surfing. So people were grumbling about Makaha already, then the 1965 Duke contest comes along, and Makaha was fully knocked off the pedestal.
Same question as with Evans: what were the biggest difference between Midget and Phil Edwards, as their country’s ambassadors?
Midget started off as a pocket-sized Phil. Which was smart. Phil was the best, and by following him, imitating him, Midget sailed past everybody else in Australia. But by ’64 Midget had angled off onto his own trip, still very Phil-like, but super smooth and polished. Phil was powerful, gnarly, smooth in his way, but rough at the same, always pushing out past the edge. Midget was refined, almost mannered, beautiful, but always colored within the lines.
In 1968, Midget told Drew Kampion, “I feel that California’s great period of surfing was terminated when Phil Edwards gave himself over to the idol worship, hero worship thing that swept over California around 1961-62. The surf media became so powerful that surfers after Phil, including Phil, felt they had to participate.” Why the sudden criticism about Edwards, from a surfer who revered him?
You know, I’m surprised by that, too. Especially since Midget himself was sponsored by Norelco Shavers, had his own signature skateboard, the whole nine. I don’t know. Kill your idol, I guess.
I’ve always been interested in the relationship between personal tragedy and professional success, though maybe that’s simply the mark of a good story, and that we naturally want to pin that hero narrative to stories like Midget’s. But I wonder if he would’ve had the same hyperfocus and self-discipline, were his parents to not pass away back to back.
He won at Makaha in 1962, his parents died in ’63, then he won the ’64 world titles. I don’t think the death of his parents affected his drive to compete. But Midget himself changed. He became less social, quieter. He was just 20 when it happened. Nobody would be the same person after what he went through. In his autobiography, Midget wrote about how winning the ’64 titles wasn’t especially satisfying, which I think makes sense given it was just a year removed from the his parents’ death. And yes, Midget did stay hyperfocused on surfing and competing, and in fact could have easily been champ in ’68 and ’70—he was runner-up both times. All that, and he made the best surfboards of the late ’60s. That’s a whole other story. Midget was remarkable in every way.