A forgone conclusion, a PT bio was a case of us waiting for exactly the right writer to appear at precisely the right time. We got it half right. The scribe—heavily-decorated Phil Jarratt—delivered an immersive profile and summoned hot takes from our carnival-barker subject. But the story of the ebullient first pro champion might have been better served had it been held for today. Wave pools, the Olympics, atonal Tour management: PT would have been (and still would be) a font of incredulity and bemusement in the face of professional surfing’s modern era. As things turned out, subscribers still enjoyed a sprawling, insider perspective of a surfer for the ages. In the end, that’s the sort of depth we’re after anyway. —Scott Hulet
The short, thickset man in the pink shirt and matching sneakers moves through the crowd with the surefooted gait and the practiced patter of a minor league politician on the campaign trail. Here a shaka, there a handshake, always a beaming smile, cracking wise as he goes, squeezing in a selfie—his own as often as those of his adoring public—whenever the opportunity presents itself. “Yew, bro! Catch you at G’s Boathouse for some Happy Hour Heats? And what about your Jets, wooden spoon for them this year! Hey, mate! Good to see you’re staying vertical! Ha ha!”
PT is working the room, as he does, as he has been doing for most of the 40 years since he became professional surfing’s first world champion, as he was doing for years before that too, as he will be doing until they wheel him off to the Surfer’s Rest Home for soft food and senior nappies and Bruce Brown surf movies on the big screen before bed. He’s doing his thing as only he can, keeping the flame alight for the sport, the culture, the history, the heroes, the villains, the winners, the losers, the paupers and the gazillionaires.
Part booster, part huckster, part spin doctor, part self-promoter, part humanitarian, part soft touch, total enthusiast, total optimist, total bowerbird, and total genuine human being, the real PT is too often lost in the pink glare of the spotlight, a victim of his own excess. But those who really know him understand that one of the most stylish surfers in history is lurking just below the gaudy uniform, just west of the red carpet.
They called them the Coolie Kids, and they have often been depicted as working class urchins, stealing milk money off doorsteps as they made their way to dawn patrol sessions at Greenmount—MP, Bugs, and PT. In fact, Michael Peterson was the only Coolie Kid genuinely from the wrong side of the tracks. Rabbit Bartholomew’s parents were both professionals and the family only fell on hard times when the marriage ended. And Peter Townend was card-carrying middle class, the son and grandson of Gold Coast hotel proprietors who were almost royalty in the rough-and-tumble hotel trade.
His grandfather, Milton Hamilton Townend (known as “Les”), grew up in seaside Manly before lying about his age and enlisting to fight in World War I at 15. (He got as far as London before he was sent home.) Between the wars, Les was beltman with the South Steyne Surf Life Saving Club, played first grade rugby for Manly, and became an international referee, but when war broke out again, he was back in uniform despite his age. After his discharge in 1944, Les and wife Ruby moved their family to Queensland, taking a lease on a small hotel in Brisbane until a better offer came up in the form of a short-term lease of the two bars at the Coolangatta Hotel on a beautiful stretch of beach right at the state border between New South Wales and Queensland.
All the accommodation at the Coolangatta Hotel had been taken over by the U.S. Army, guaranteeing good turnover from the thirsty soldiers, but the Townends really hit pay dirt when the war ended and Les negotiated a longer lease on the entire hotel. Son Barry came home from service in New Guinea and ran the bars while Ruby ran the rooms, and the bars overflowed and the full house sign went up every weekend.
The Townends were cashing in on the post war resumption of a boom that had begun on the southern Queensland coast about 30 years earlier, when a flamboyant Brisbane hotel owner and former hairdresser named Jim Cavill had built the 16-room Surfers Paradise Hotel on a featureless beach then known as Elston. Within a decade, the persuasive Cavill had sold more than half of his 25-acre landholding on the promise of creating a tourist land boom, and had convinced the civic authorities to rename Elston “Surfers Paradise.”
By the time Les Townend moved his family to the coast, the real commercial opportunities had moved south from Surfers Paradise to the beautiful meta-curve beaches and rocky headlands stretching from Burleigh Heads to the border, and their success in Coolangatta prompted Les to take on another lease at the Palm Beach Hotel and management rights at the Kirra Beach Hotel.
Meanwhile, the family continued to expand. Barry married his girlfriend Hazel in 1952—a country girl from nearby Murwillumbah, a member of the Tweed Heads Rowing Club, and part of a rowing foursome that won a state championship. Their first child Peter was born at Kirra Hospital in 1953, and they moved into a little house on Adelaide Street, Coolangatta, on the side of Razorback.
With perfect righthand point waves breaking right out in front of two of the family businesses, and going largely unridden, it might have been expected that the newest Townend would automatically morph into a surfer, but hoteliers are a nomadic breed, and while patriarch Les kept the Gold Coast businesses pumping cash, Barry and Hazel became “hotel gypsies,” heading south with young Peter to manage a hotel in Hobart, Tasmania. By the time sister Tessa was born in 1957, the family had moved on to a pub in Camperdown, Victoria. Twins Craig and Duncan came along at Nhill, Victoria (where Barry and Les had bought the local pub) in 1959, followed by Serena in 1961. Barry and Hazel brought their brood back to the Gold Coast in 1963, where Alex was born in 1964.
Up to this point, Peter Hamilton Townend (all the Townend males share this middle name), a small, slight, sweet child who had a determined streak and an extraordinary attention to detail, had been kicking a footie around hotel car parks and developing an obsession with the Collingwood Magpies football team. Now his real life began.
By the mid-1960s, Queensland’s point breaks had become almost famous, which is to say that on any given weekend, locals like Terry Baker, John Sims, Bully Arnold, Brian Austen, Mal Sutherland, Graham Black, Neil Turner, and the young Deane brothers, Robye and Wayne, might be joined by a couple dozen “Brissos” from Brisbane, or “Mexicans” from across the border in NSW. In fact, many of the foundation members of the Sydney surfing fraternity had been sneaking over the border to escape the southern winter since filmmaker Bob Evans began including the perfect point waves in his early movies. One of them, filmer and surfboard builder Joe Larkin, had moved north permanently and opened the first surfboard factory at Kirra.
Peter Townend was not quite a teenager or a surfer as 1966 began, but he was every inch a beach kid. He recalls: “I was actually a clubbie, a junior lifeguard in the Tweed Heads and Coolangatta Surf Club. Everyone joined the surf club in those days. I was in high school and playing rugby league football at school and Australian Rules football for the Coolangatta club, so there wasn’t a lot of time to do much else, but somehow I was constantly in the water, riding plywood belly-boards that we made in the school wood shop, and body surfing and competing in lifesaving competitions against the other kids around my age, like the Ryan brothers and the Peterson brothers, Michael and Tommy.”
In June of 1966, a late-season tropical cyclone in the Coral Sea delivered huge and out-of-control conditions for the first Australian national surfing championships to be held in Queensland, at Coolangatta’s Greenmount Beach. Out of the cross-chop Nat Young emerged triumphant in the open mens, while Peter Drouyn from Surfers Paradise completely annihilated all opposition in the juniors. Although he didn’t really appreciate that the surfing he was watching was defining a new era in the Australian interpretation of wave riding, Peter Townend was spellbound. He loved what he saw, particularly the radical moves and theatricality of Drouyn, and cut a deal with his dad, Barry: once he had qualified as a lifesaver and received his Bronze Medallion, he could buy a surfboard.
That done by late spring, his mom, Hazel, told him to go to Joe Larkin’s factory in Kirra and order a custom board. Up to this point Peter had only ridden a handful of borrowed boards (although he had become adept at standing up on a Coolite compressed foam board and on rubber Surfoplane mats) but he had an idea of what Peter Drouyn may have been riding at Greenmount. He ordered an 8’6″ noserider with a Stage 3 Greenough fin, to be shaped by Brian “Furry” Austen. The color scheme he chose was a white pigment deck and royal blue bottom. At Hazel’s suggestion, Peter’s uncle sign-painted “Peter Townend” on the nose, under the finish coat, so that it wouldn’t be stolen.
Young Peter usually surfed with Alan Miscamble, who lived across the street and would accompany him for the dawn patrol and the after-school sessions, both groms slavishly copying poses they saw in the surf magazines or the styles of local heroes like “Snake” Sims or Terry Baker. But it soon became evident that Alan was progressing faster. He had joined the Snapper Rocks Boardriders Club and was also on the Merrin Surf Team. By comparison, Peter was still a part-timer, playing footie for Coolangatta when he should have been surfing.
But fanaticism was only a moment away. Determined to overhaul his buddy, Peter started to surf longer sessions more often, while at home he began making scrapbooks of every piece of information on surfing he could gather. It would become a passion for life. The story the scrapbooks began to tell was the arrival of the Shortboard Revolution, and the accompanying social reconstruct of the Summer of Love. Peter and Alan were both a bit young for unbridled sex and LSD, but they sure as hell wanted one of those V-bottom shortboards.
Townend recalls: “One day I rode Miscamble’s new lightweight Merrin V-bottom, and figured I better find some way to get new equipment, so I got a job for the Christmas holidays in the Coolangatta pie shop as a pastry cook assistant, which worked out great as I had most of the day free to surf after baking meat pies through the early morning hours. I was able to get a new board, a Joe Larkin 7’8″ Black Tracker pintail, which I rode into the end of the 60s.”
Surfboard lengths were dropping at such a rate that soon the Tracker, too, was out of date. Back at school, and off the pie assembly line, Peter found another way to keep up. He and beach buddy Michael Peterson started a “cut-downs” factory under Michael’s mom’s house, stripping back beater longboards and reshaping them. Townend remembers: “I hate to think how many collectible longboards we destroyed, but business was brisk. Some of them turned out pretty good, especially a 6’10” racy square-tail that MP shaped for me. That board took my surfing into the next phase, and got me into the Kirra Surfriders Club.”
Becoming more enterprising as the months went by, Peter found that with rocky point breaks and no leashes, there was a lucrative business in ding repairs. When he wasn’t cutting down longboards at MP’s, he was fixing dings in his dad’s shed. But MP’s was increasingly where the action was. Says Townend: “Michael was becoming the hot kid around town and he was hanging out with a wild bunch that descended on Coolangatta each weekend. They all dug the way MP surfed and took him and his brother Tommy surfing, and all were dabbling in building surfboards, so they’d end up under the house.” (Building surfboards wasn’t the only thing they were dabbling in, but Peter kept well clear of that.)
By 1969, he felt ready to enter a real contest, and put his name down for the Queensland Junior Titles, to be held at Snapper Rocks over several weekend rounds. The first round didn’t quite go to plan, with Peter quickly eliminated, while Michael finished fourth to the state junior champion, Paul Neilsen. In the senior division, Coolangatta hero Graham Black pulled off an upset when, surfing on his backhand, he took out the favored Peter Drouyn, who stormed out of the water before the heat had ended, tied his Hawaiian-inspired narrow pintail on the roof of his car, and carved donuts out of the car park, leaving his beautiful girlfriend to eat dust. This was the first, but by no means the last time that Peter Townend would see his surfing heroes behaving badly, but it did little to tarnish his image of the flamboyant older surfer.
Just a year into his competitive career and with not a lot to show for it, he started the 1970s with an ambition that was far bigger than him—to qualify at the state and national levels and make the team for the bi-annual World Amateur Surfing Championships, to be held that May at Bells Beach, Victoria. In the junior division at the Queensland Titles, favorite Michael Peterson was penalized for an outrageous drop-in and relegated to third, opening the door for Townend in a hotly-contested final, but he was pipped by another of the emerging Gold Coasters, the underrated goofy Andrew McKinnon. But his first mission was accomplished, and the trio went on to represent Queensland at the Nationals held at their home break, Greenmount Point.
This was the money shot for Townend, a conscientious student at Tweed River High who made a written application to the principal for time off to compete. He fancied himself to beat any of the juniors, especially on the peelers in his own front yard, except maybe MP. But he hadn’t accounted for Wayne Lynch, enjoying his final year as the unbeatable powerhouse of Australian junior surfing. Peter finished out of a place, and out of the world titles.
Because Tweed River High was across the border in New South Wales, Townend qualified to surf in that state’s schoolboys’ titles, and later in the year he took the biggest trip of his young surfing life, spending 17 hours in a coach to Sydney, his 6’0″ diamond-tail stashed in the luggage compartment. He’d met Narrabeen’s hottest junior, Mark Warren, at the Australian titles, and stayed with Mark’s family above Narrabeen, but that didn’t stop Mark from whipping his butt in the final. Coming second was becoming a habit—one that Peter Townend did not like.
Mark Warren remembers him as a likeable spin doctor: “I had a job doing pin lines at the McCoy factory, so we’d be down at Narrabeen and I’d have to leave to do a couple of hours work. When I’d get back, it was always the same story. ‘Mate, it got perfect and you missed it!’ PT was always seeing things the rest of us missed, but you had to love his obsession with surfing, with everything about it.”
Back home in Coolangatta, Peter was becoming a big noise. MP might have had the edge, and Andrew McKinnon seemed to have emerged from nowhere and was red-hot, and a scruffy younger kid they called “Rabbit” was starting to impress, but Townend, with his distinctively smooth style and methodical approach to surfing, had carved out a special place for himself in the hierarchy. People were even starting to call him by his initials, just like MP. He was on the Joe Larkin team, getting discounted boards and appearing in ads, but there was another reason he was starting to attract attention: when he ordered his next custom Larkin board at the dawn of the 1970s, he asked his mom Hazel at breakfast one morning to choose an appropriate color. “Hot pink,” she said. “That way they’ll never miss you.” It was to be his identifying color throughout his career, and beyond.
PT was in his final year at Tweed River, and he genuinely tried to focus on his studies. But it was hard, having already decided that somehow he was going to make surfing his career. When he graduated, winning a scholarship to study industrial arts in Newcastle, NSW, it was time to confront his parents. Barry Townend struck a deal with his eldest son. They would see about deferring the scholarship and PT could have a year to chase his dream. He figured that would be enough.
The sand banks at Kirra, just beyond the far end of Coolangatta Beach, were as perfect as anyone could remember—long, draining cylinders from point to beach, and the performance emphasis shifted north from Rainbow and Snapper (not yet known as the Superbank). MP was the standout, developing his own powerful, slightly manic style and riding deeper than anyone, feats that were captured by filmer Albert Falzon that season for his first film, Morning of the Earth. But not far behind him, PT and Rabbit also traded licks way behind the curtain.
Always serious about improving his skills, PT had cornered Gerry Lopez (the first international surf star he had met) at a contest in Noosa and asked him how he consistently emerged from those deep Pipeline barrels. Lopez told him he aimed his leading hand, fingers extended, where he wanted to go, and his body seemed to follow. PT adopted the technique at Kirra and suddenly started to pop out of the tube more often than not.
Fortunately for PT, on a mission to save himself from Newcastle Technical College, 1971 was a banner year. MP had moved up to the seniors, but Andrew McKinnon again had his measure in the state junior titles, with Rabbit Bartholomew completing the trifecta for the Coolie Kids. PT added yet another second to his resume, but it was enough to see him qualify for the Nationals, being held that year at Bells.
The Coolie Kids and local legend, Terry “Weenie” Baker piled into Joe Larkin’s blue van for the long journey the length of Australia to the legendary big wave spot. Bells lived up to expectations on the party front (“I got drunk on red wine for the first time in my life,” PT recalls) but he also managed to put up the best performance of the Larkin team, finishing second (yet again) to Simon Anderson, while MP missed out in the seniors to fellow Queenslanders Paul Neilsen and Peter Drouyn.
If the trip south had been kept in check by the over-arching importance of representing your state at the Nationals, there were no checks or balances on the way home. Elder statesman Joe Larkin raised his eyebrows behind the wheel as Peterson filled the van with marijuana smoke. There were also frequent beer stops, and small towns were terrorized as they surfed their way up the coast. It was PT’s introduction to the party program, as well as the great Australian road trip. He liked both.
Back in Queensland, the visionary shaper Dick Van Straalen approached PT one day at Snapper about joining his Spirit Of The Sea shop at Kirra, where he was starting to produce down-railed, Hawaiian-influenced speed machines. The first board they made together was a 6’2″ “Joint Effort,” a combination of PT’s preferred diamond tails, and Dick’s perfect point wave design sensibilities. It turned out to be the board that he would ride to qualify for the ’72 Australian Team with a second in the Queensland Titles and second in the Australian Titles at Narrabeen.
Dick then shaped him a 6’9″, 17-inch wide, pocket-rocket gun, and PT began making the run south to the more power-packed point waves of Lennox Head with MP to put it to the test. During these trips he met a fledgling filmmaker named Steve Core, whose film debut, In Natural Flow, provided Townend with the first showcase for his flowing, classic style, and is still regarded as an Australian classic.
PT was soon honing his shaping skills at Spirit under the watchful eye of Van Straalen, who would become a major influence over the next couple of years, as would Steve Core, directing his growing media profile. He finished the year, and his junior career, regarded as the hottest junior surfer in Australia.
With his leave pass from industrial arts now permanent, PT made it his mission to qualify for the 1972 Australian team for the World Championships, to be held in San Diego. Having missed out on the Bells world titles in 1970, his determination to make a mark within an international field was palpable, but poring over his surf scrapbooks, Townend also saw that there was an historical imperative at work. The last time the world titles had been held in San Diego, Australia’s Nat Young had won, demonstrating a new, power-driven approach to riding waves. But in the two world titles since then, no Australian had won. Since Nat rode “Sam” to victory at Ocean Beach, surfboard lengths had dropped by three feet, and the Coolie Kids were in the vanguard of the new school’s high performers. PT genuinely believed that this could be their moment. But first they had to get there.
Peterson and Townend finished one and two in the Queensland and Australian titles, making them the first selections for San Diego. Rabbit Bartholomew, the Queensland junior champion who’d finished third in the Nationals, made the team as reserve. Australia’s top six selections qualified for a sponsored Qantas flight (which bizarrely took them to Vancouver, at the wrong end of the west coast), chaperoned by Rip Curl’s Doug Warbrick. This was the Bells road trip all over again, with most of the team overindulging in the complimentary drinks service.
But this was only the start. What most of the new school Aussies didn’t know was that in 1966, San Diego had become a two-week long party venue for the surfers, who, fueled on booze and Peruvian coke, had trashed their luxury hotels and generally ran amok. Why the city fathers invited them back was anyone’s guess, but the 1972 Worlds—the death knell for the original amateur event—was even wilder. The surf was ordinary and the surfing even more so, particularly from those fully committed to the party program. Most of the Australians fell away, but PT managed a respectable third behind Hawaiians Jimmy Blears and David Nuuhiwa.
PT and Mark Warren stayed on in California, spending the fall living in Topanga Canyon and surfing Malibu. On this, his first trip outside of Australia, Townend was developing a reputation for his consistency and seriousness in competition, and his smooth, fluid style. To many Californians, he seemed to represent the acceptable face of the growing (and somewhat brash) Aussie presence on the world stage. When he made his Hawaiian debut in November, the same applied, with older North Shore hands noting his politeness in the lineup and his flowing style, which he rode into the final of the Duke contest at Sunset and a fourth-place finish, qualifying due to his result in the San Diego World Contest.
Not all of his countrymen were as impressed, however, notably a skinny kid from Western Australia who had been turning heads himself. Says Townend: “On my first wave at Sunset I dropped in on Ian Cairns as he came from behind the peak. By the time I saw him I was committed and had no choice, but he gave me a never-ending mouthful about being a shoulder-hopper. The following winter he and I shared a house and we’ve been friends ever since, so I suppose he got over it.”
Although Michael Peterson rarely seemed comfortable surfing the powerful waves of Oahu’s North Shore, the other Coolie Kids reveled in it. The North Shore winter season became an annual pilgrimage, and both PT and Rabbit became respected performers. But PT’s image had been built on surfing Queensland’s paper-thin zippers, and while Cairns’s shoulder-hopper jibe was a little on the cruel side, he was known to be conservative in his approach to waves of consequence. That all changed at the Smirnoff Pro in November 1974, when the event was called on at Waimea Bay in the biggest waves ever contested to that point.
Event impresario (and former world champion) Fred Hemmings was to make some controversial and life-changing calls in pro surfing’s early days, and this was the first. Many saw sending untried teenagers out into potentially lethal 30-foot waves as irresponsible. Hemmings saw it as the essence of proving yourself in surfing.
Peter Townend, for his part, took advantage of the situation to silence his critics, surfing monster sets all the way to the final and finishing fourth behind a charged-up Reno Abellira, who later commented: “This was the day PT became a man, not just a small-wave hotdogger.” Back home, Tracks magazine ran as its headline: “PT: No longer the four feet and under man.” PT himself, still somewhat in shock, said, “I’d never been out there before, and suddenly I’m the only Aussie in the final! Those were the biggest waves I have ever ridden in my life.”
Pro surfing had started in earnest on the North Shore in 1970, and by 1973 there were money events in Hawaii, Australia, and South Africa. The total prize purse wouldn’t have covered one surfer’s airfare and accommodation, but the young men (no women yet) who aspired to be surf stars willingly set off on the so-called “gypsy tour.”
PT recalls: “There was a crew of us, particularly from Australia and South Africa, that saw the potential for professional surfing to be like tennis and Grand Prix motor racing. Because we went, the tour grew, and soon we had four or five stops.”
According to Shaun Tomson, 1977 world champion and PT’s tour contemporary, “PT’s biggest problem was that he couldn’t decide if he wanted to be James Hunt or David Bowie! The rock star persona always came out when we had big parties after each event. PT invented the purple flyer game, where you had to stand on a table and pour down a flaming shot of Southern Comfort. I remember at one party he set his goatee alight!”
In Australia, 1974 was the breakthrough year, when the 2SM-Coca Cola Bottlers Surfabout became the richest event in the world, joining the year-old Rip Curl Pro in an Australian tour. Although he couldn’t seem to fire in Hawaii, this was when Michael Peterson emerged as a competitive machine, his staccato style totally in tune with the points-for-maneuvers judging system. MP took out the first Coke and the first three Rip Curl Bells Pros, while PT remained in the mix throughout 1974 and 1975, notching up finals appearances and a couple more seconds, while never taking that elusive first title.
But the bridesmaid’s role didn’t stop him from being proactive in the development of pro surfing, developing a ratings system (with Ian Cairns) before there was officially a tour, and as one of the core group who formed the Australian Professional Surfers Association. When Fred Hemmings and Randy Rarick founded International Professional Surfers (IPS) in Hawaii in 1976, they adopted the Townend ratings system and announced that they would crown the first world professional surfing champion at the end of the 1976 Hawaiian season. Since it was already mid-year, and this meant that points for the Australian tour would be tallied retrospectively, not everyone was delighted, particularly when it was discovered that, thanks to high placings in Australia, the two creators of the ratings system were both in contention for the title!
Both Cairns and PT brought their Australian form to Hawaii that year, finishing one and two in the World Cup. PT also made two of the three other finals, and when the points were finally tallied, Peter Townend, who had never won a surfing event, professional or otherwise, was declared IPS world champion. Cairns was second.
Shaun Tomson recalls: “When PT and Ian finished one and two it was an incredible contrast in styles. PT was Mr. Consistent. Ian was this radical guy whose maneuvers were insane, like his snapback. But PT had the moves too—they were just smooth rather than radical. He was a beautiful tube rider, with a delicate, flowing style. He was like a synthesis of Russell Hughes and Skip Frye or Phil Edwards. His soul arch was his tip of the hat to his roots, but his layback cutback was totally progressive, and you can still see flashes of it today in the way the best guys surf.”
In a fairly major oversight, the IPS had forgotten to have a trophy made for its first champion, but Fred Hemmings quickly improvised, arranging a media photo opportunity at the Outrigger Canoe Club, where he borrowed one from the trophy cabinet. In that historic photograph, PT is beaming at the camera, having achieved his lifetime ambition at the tender age of 23. But what is also striking is his attire—a black jumpsuit right out of Studio 54. The flashiness was part of the Townend character that had been developing for some time, perhaps since his mom suggested a hot pink pigment for his board.
I saw this happening at fairly close quarters. Since taking over the editorship of Tracks magazine at the end of 1974, I had become close friends with him, playing drunken party games (including purple flyers) in the wee small hours and dancing on table tops in night clubs. On the North Shore, he showed me where to sit in the lineup at Sunset, took me to his favorite bars and restaurants, and introduced me to his Hawaiian friends. He was somewhat obsessed with the idea of fame, and his idols were not surfers but David Bowie and Arthur Fonzarelli. (He later claimed Fred Astaire as an influence too, but I never saw that). PT was also something of a sponge, soaking up ideas and information from whomever he spent his time with. I was a journalist and had basic skills that he wanted to acquire, although I don’t think I ever helped him write anything, and soon he was churning out more column inches than I was.
But in 1976, PT’s professional life had come under a far greater influence, ironically from another journalist. Mike Hurst was a Sydney sportswriter and sometime rock band manager who met with Townend and Cairns at the Sydney Hilton in September over coffee, with a novel idea for promoting themselves and attracting sponsorship. They should form a team, he suggested, like a band. Like, well, the Beatles. The gimmick would guarantee exposure and the money would flow.
This got PT’s attention. Not only did he want to be a rock star, but he wanted real sponsors. The best he’d been able to manage to this point was $60 a week from Gordon & Smith and free boardshorts from Quiksilver. Ian Cairns had managed to get a car dealer to give him a sign-written vehicle. With the possible exception of Shaun Tomson, Townend and Cairns were the most serious, career-driven surfers on tour, and this was the best they could do. So when Hurst talked, they listened.
Later in 1976, the Bronzed Aussies jumped out of a cake (figuratively speaking) in matching black jumpsuits, and announced they were taking on the world. (While Townend has taken most of the flak for introducing the jumpsuit to surfing, he has revealed that the credit truly belongs to Ian Cairns—who started wearing them first—and, oddly enough, to Gerry Lopez. “During the Big Wednesday shoot I was hanging out a lot with Lopez,” PT says. “One afternoon we were walking down Kalakaua Avenue and we came to this menswear hipster place, and the mannequin in front has on a gold lamé jumpsuit. Lopez turns to me and goes, ‘You’d wear that, right?’ And I go, ‘Well, yeah!’ So I walked in and bought it. Later we got black ones as well, and mine is now hanging in the Huntington Beach Surfing Museum.”)
Townend and Cairns had been joined by Mark Warren as a trio after Mark Richards had dropped out at the last minute, preferring to “stay home and mow foam,” as he put it. But even without the highly-regarded Richards, there was no denying their firepower. By year’s end, they would be first, second, and fourth, respectively, on the IPS world rankings.
As a promotional unit, they made a lot of noise but not much money. There were plenty of cheap shots to be had, and at Tracks, I took most of them. Oddly enough, only PT took the ragging in good humor. Mark Warren was never really comfortable about any of it, and would soon leave, but Cairns and Hurst railed constantly about the “negative media.”
In retrospect, I probably could have been kinder, but there was something vaguely un-Australian about their glitzy approach. This was surfing, for Christ’s sake, and these were three of the best surfers in the world! Did they really need to do this?
Mark Warren recalls: “There were some healthy egos involved, and we didn’t agree on much, but at the same time it was pretty amazing, some of the shit we generated. I think surfing’s inevitable lean towards commercialism was sped up by what we achieved, but to succeed with a team concept in an individual’s sport was always going to be a hard ask.”
Shaun Tomson agrees: “I don’t think the Bronzed Aussies worked too well because they were targeting a demographic whose time had already passed. Teams in surfing had their day in the 1960s, and by our time it had become more lifestyle oriented. The Bronzed Aussies were too overtly sporty for the tastes of the time.”
During his triumphant North Shore winter of ’76, PT had met a Californian girl called Loyann, and was looking for excuses to jump the Pacific pond to see her when he got an unexpected phone call from Hollywood. After the 1972 world titles in San Diego, when he and Mark Warren had based themselves in Los Angeles, he had met the movie star Jan-Michael Vincent during a filming session with Hal Jepson at the Hollister Ranch, and they had become friends. Now Vincent had been cast as a surfer in a new John Milius film, Big Wednesday. Did PT want to be his stunt double? Did he what! This gig ticked all the boxes. He jumped on a plane.
When director Milius saw how much PT looked like William Katt, he changed doubles (with Malibu surfer J Riddle standing in for Vincent) but the fee remained the same—a whopping $1,000 a week for the time on location—and he and Loyann were soon luxuriating at a resort hotel in El Salvador while shooting began.
Looking at the much-loved cult movie today, PT’s surfing as Jack Barlow remains one of its best elements. His Coolangatta soul-arch bottom turn fits seamlessly into the time and place being depicted—Malibu in the 60s. His cropped blond hair in silhouette looks not just like Billy Katt’s, but like the whole Severson image factory of early 1960s California. He seemed to belong, and when filming ended, he moved to the Golden State, setting up home and shop with Loyann in Huntington Beach.
“This was PT’s time,” Mark Warren says fondly of his friend. “When he played the Jack Barlow stunt role, he totally became that guy. He seemed to always have half a ‘mongrel’ (an erection) hanging out of his boardies, and he had this new movie star aura. We had some incredible times around that period. He’s still dining out on it!”
PT was living with Loyann’s family in Fountain Valley, behind H.B., and Mark Warren remembers the Bronzed Aussies moving in and taking over. “Loyann’s dad was just a gem of a guy, which was just as well, because we really overstepped the mark in accepting their hospitality. We overstepped the mark in a lot of ways and I could see that was where it was heading for the Bronzed Aussies. Then my dad died and I had to go home and take care of business, so we parted ways.”
PT and Ian Cairns, who had also relocated to California, established the Bronzed Aussies Surf Shop on Main Street in Huntington Beach with industry veteran Chuck Dent. In 1978 and ’79, the Bronzed Aussies won the Katin Team Challenge, and ads for their clothing range were plastered all over the surf magazines. Taken seriously at last, the Bronzed Aussies seemed likely to thrive. PT’s tour ranking, which had dropped to 14 when he took time out for filming, bounced back to five, and in 1979 he finally took out what was to be his only tour contest victory at the Hang Ten Pro in Durban.
Mark Warren, who relegated him to second on several occasions, believes the only reasons PT didn’t win more tour events was because he was a victim of bad luck and circumstance. “But I certainly wouldn’t call him a victim. In my eyes he’ll always be a champion, because he was such a pure surfer. He had the tactics and he knew how to put a heat together, but nothing was ever more important than putting on a show.”
Says Shaun Tomson: “He had incredible contest savvy and great style but why didn’t he win more? Well, maybe he lacked the killer maneuvres, but he kind of made up for that with his consistency. And he was a very tough competitor. He’d almost paddle over the top of you to get the wave. And he really thought about every aspect of competing too. After man on man was introduced in 1977, events turned into hassling contests until PT and others lobbied to introduce a priority system, which was interesting, because PT was the biggest hassler of all of us.”
PT and Loyann were married in 1979, and their first child, a daughter, Rana, was born in 1980. Sons Jye and Tosh followed. Life was looking sweet for the Townends, but despite its early promise in California, the Bronzed Aussies concept did not set the industry alight, and PT and Cairns formed a sports marketing company, Sports and Media Services, to help pay the bills. SMS found work immediately, taking over the running of the National Scholastic Surfing Association and in 1982 helped launch the OP Pro. PT then coached the U.S. mainland team to the gold medal at the 1984 ISA World Surfing Games, before taking another turn in his career and going to work for Australian media magnate Clyde Packer at Surfing magazine, where, during more than a decade, he rose to the position of associate publisher before going to Rusty as marketing director in 1993.
In the new century, however, he found himself back in the magazine business as publisher of Primedia Surfing Group. PT’s career in publishing came about in no small part through his friendship with Bob Mignogna, a surfer he met on the North Shore in 1973, and who three years later hired him as “Raging Journalist” at Surfing, writing “Notes From The Pro Tour” every issue. But publisher Mignogna soon realised that PT was a born salesman whose talents were needed in the advertising department.
According to Mignogna, there was criticism within the industry of PT’s appointment, his first real job since being a baker’s helper in Coolangatta, but Clyde Packer backed him, and as advertising director, PT was a huge success. “He was a tremendous salesman, manager, and leader of the sales and marketing team. He helped to elevate everyone’s game, including mine. PT was the first person I knew with a computer. When he arrived at the mag he had a KAYPRO computer, and he began delivering competitive analysis reports using Lotus 1-2-3 software on floppy discs. This was the tool we needed in order to target our business goals.
“PT was also the first person I knew to have a mobile car phone. He asked me to buy one for him and one for his sales manager, Jimbo Gaskin, and when I finally gave in, the price tag for the two phones was over $5,000. Within the first 24 hours after the phone was installed in his car, on the drive home from work, PT sold Body Glove a four-page gatefold, thus paying for both cell phones in a day!”
While all of this was going on, PT kept himself upfront with his fans by becoming the voice of the Bud Surfing Tour and the ASP World Tour on ESPN, his enthusiasm for the task sometimes endearingly getting way ahead of his ability to enunciate. The folks loved it!
In 2003, he put up his own shingle again, this time as The ActivEmpire, an action sports consultancy that he still operates today, with a client list that includes Hurley and Sanuk. In recent times the company has been working closely with the development of surfing in China, producing the Red Bull Qiantang Surfing Shoot Out in Hangzhou for the past two years, while Townend coached a six-member Chinese team in the ISA China Cup in Hainan.
Over his many years in California, PT has been tireless in his pro bono work within the surf industry, notably with the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association, where he served two years as president and received a lifetime achievement award in 2013. He remains a constant supporter of numerous surf-related charities, and rarely misses a fund-raiser or a photo call. His honors span the Pacific, having been inducted into the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame in 1998, the Gold Coast Sporting Hall of Fame in 1999, and the Surfing Australia Hall of Fame in 2001.
Says Shaun Tomson: “PT is tremendously respected throughout the American surf industry and our community, but he does sometimes get criticism for being a bit over the top. When he started writing about the world tour in Surfing back in the 1970s, he started referring to himself in the third person—like, ‘PT surfed brilliantly only to finish second to Mark Richards.’ And he’s still doing it! I think PT has always been a little bit insecure because of his string of seconds, and that loud, garrulous personality is his way of compensating for it. He always seemed to think he had to talk himself up, but I don’t think he needed to at all. I don’t think he has any right to feel insecure, either. When we made Bustin’ Down The Door, we set the record straight about PT. He had incredible courage, great vision, great style.”
On the personal front, his California life has not always been easy, although you would never know it from the vibrant, pink-clad presence at every surfing-related event. His marriage to Loyann broke down quite early, but he has remained close to his three children and regards their development into good citizens as one of his greatest achievements. (Younger son Tosh established his own fame as a professional skateboarder.)
For years PT has talked about going home to Coolangatta, but for the moment he stays in touch with the wider Townend clan, visiting a couple of times a year. Since Hazel’s death, patriarch Barry Townend, now in his 90s, has watched the world from his apartment above Rainbow Bay, immensely proud of all his brood, not just the noisy upstart in pink. The Townends are a classic Australian family, matter-of-fact in times of sadness and stalwarts always, such as when PT’s younger brother Duncan died in 2013 after some troubled years. PT says: “It [Duncan’s death] brought the family and friends together again as those things do, and more recently all the Townends came together from everywhere to celebrate Barry’s 90th birthday in Rainbow Bay.”
Mark Warren insists that PT needs to come home and run for mayor of the Gold Coast. “He’d be awesome,” he says. “I’d support him all the way, and so would everyone in surfing.”
PT once said that surfing was 80-percent ability and 20-percent entertainment. He was ridiculed at the time, of course, but he was probably right, as Matt Warshaw observed in a perceptive interview for Surfer: “The older I get,” wrote Warshaw, “the less serious surfing becomes. The less serious it becomes, the more I enjoy the 20 percent. The more I enjoy the 20 percent, the more I love and appreciate Peter Townend. He did not have a ridiculous natural talent, like Shaun Tomson or Mark Richards. He made up for it with keen intelligence, a fine design eye, and a Rommel-like drive to succeed.”
To that I would add a love of surfing that surpasses all, and continues to shine in him.
Photo by Jeff Hornbaker