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When Worlds Collided

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Half a century ago, the world was a very different place than it is today. But few places were more different than the small state of Victoria, nestled along the rocky southern coastline of the Australian mainland.

In 1957, the English-Australian novelist Nevil Shute wrote a book titled On The Beach, in which a nuclear apocalypse leaves the Victorian capital, Melbourne, as the last habitable place on earth. Two years later, Hollywood made a film based on the book, starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. After spending a month filming on location, the screen siren with the husky voice famously said, “If you want to make a film about the end of the world, Melbourne is the perfect place to do it.”

A significant number of people would have agreed with Ms. Gardner. As the Swinging Sixties progressed, Victoria seemed to lag behind its northern neighbors in embracing a world in which the Beatles and the Beach Boys ruled the airwaves, the Summer of Love sent psychedelic pulses across oceans, drugs were cheap, love was free, and man was on his way to the moon. Throughout this period, sleepy little Victoria was led by one man, a tough but diminutive publican’s son named Sir Henry Bolte. His effort to put his state on the map was to cling to the death penalty while everywhere else the tide of public opinion was against it, and he oversaw Australia’s last hanging in 1967.

This was the state of Victoria as the 1970s began: conservative, isolated, terrified of social change. It was also teeming with good surf.

So imagine when, in May 1970, more than 100 of the world’s best surfers congregated between the small towns of Torquay and Lorne, which make up the ends of a starkly beautiful coastline that is now known as Victoria’s Surf Coast. They came for the running of the fifth World Surfing Championships, ironically made possible by some last-minute funding organized by Henry “The Hangman” Bolte. 

Within days of the surfers’ arrival, America’s best-known competitor tells the wife of the Torquay publican to perform a physically impossible sexual act upon herself and is kicked off the team, the youngest member of the U.S. team is busted for dope, and the Hawaiian team’s manager is kicked out of his hotel for allegedly having an underage girl in his room. The Melbourne newspapers forget about Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia to fill the front page with the surf scandals. Bolte, who had warned the administrators, saying, “There had better not be any nonsense, we’ll be watching you like hawks,” is livid with rage.

It seems so laughably quaint today—a bit of cursing, some reefer, a girl in a room. But for a few days back then, in another century and in the middle of nowhere, it seemed surfing’s future had shot itself in the foot and the damage might be permanent. Not that the World Surfing Championships hadn’t seen bad behavior before in its brief lifetime. The 1966 world titles in San Diego were played out in a haze of drunken and drugged-out naughtiness. But the Victorian frolics of 1970—an event that was never even meant to happen—was where worlds collided.

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The 1970 world titles were supposed to be held in South Africa. Then in Mexico. Then in Peru. Then in Sydney. That they finally went to Victoria’s Surf Coast is testament to the determination of two of the most conservative men to ever hold high office in surfing’s amateur ranks, and to a collection non-surfers  who leaned slightly to the right of Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun.

Stan Couper was a 45-year-old, pipe-puffing chartered accountant working for the Lands Department in Lorne when he first offered his services to the Victorian branch of the Australian Surfriders’ Association. Although he was a keen fisherman with a love for the ocean, he had never ridden a surfboard in his life. But he was a  “doer” according to his daughter Gail, a man who was driven to accomplishment ever since he served as a navigator on RAAF bombers in the European Theatre during WWII. While he had opted for a change from a desk-bound life in the city of Melbourne to one in the seaside village of Lorne, it was not because he wanted to be idle. In fact, Couper quickly became one of the town’s movers and shakers, involved in golf and tennis clubs, the local progress association, and various planning and environmental groups. When he saw Gail’s passion for surfing, the first thing that occurred to him was that, perhaps, he could help at an organizational level.

In Tony Olsson, president of the Victorian branch of the ASA, Stan Couper met his match as a doer. Born in 1939, Olsson was a star athlete at Melbourne’s Scotch College. In 1957, he ran the mile in four minutes and fifteen and a half seconds, a school record that still stands today. Awarded school colors in athletics, football, and rowing, Olsson seemed to have the world of sport at his fingertips. After being passed over for the 1960 Rome Olympics, however, he dropped out and went surfing. Still driven to succeed in everything he tried, Olsson became a competent big-wave rider at Bells Beach and established a mobile surf shop, selling surfboards and wetsuits from a van. That led him to establishing the Melbourne Surf Shop in 1964, where an upstairs office became the meeting room for the Victorian ASA.

Rod Brooks, a multiple-time Victorian champion and a delegate for the Torquay club on the state committee, remembers Olsson and Couper taking the state branch by the scruff of the neck and implementing new systems, bookkeeping, and accountability. “A few people didn’t agree with their methods,” says Brooks, “but they were the right people at the right time.”

And there was no doubt that the dynamic duo from Victoria got things done. As 1969 began, one of the things they wanted was to secure the 1970 International Surfing Federation world titles event. Victoria had missed out when Eduardo Arena managed to pull off the Puerto Rico event in 1968, but South Africa’s bid for 1970 was looking decidedly shaky as more and more international sporting boycotts were being put in place against the country’s brutal apartheid regime. The New South Wales branch also had its hand up, but Olsson was confident that Victoria could win the bid.

Reno Abellira (top) and Nat Young (bottom), find the best of the Bells Bowl. While conditions were overall poor at Bells throughout the week, the speed and flow of longer pintails won out when the elements aligned. Photographs by Drew Kampion.

After South Africa was excluded, the ASA put in a bid for Sydney, notwithstanding the Victorian branch’s previous offer to bail out the 1968 event when it appeared that neither Hawaii nor Puerto Rico had the capacity to stage it. With the 1970 bid open, it would have seemed logical for the national executive to give Victoria the nod, but this would be to ignore the intense rivalry that had developed between the two state branches over, effectively, the right to run the ASA’s national affairs.

In May 1969, the ASA had transferred  national executive authority to the powerful Victorian branch, led by Olsson and Couper. But that meant nothing to the influential New South Wales warhorses, Dr. Robert Spence and filmmaker Bob Evans. They wanted the world titles back where it had begun six years earlier, regardless of the fact that the NSW branch barely had the capacity to run its own state titles.

“I was led to believe there was a sponsorship deal on the table for the 1970 World Championships,” says Graham “Syd” Cassidy, a young newspaper journalist and later the head of the ASP, who joined the NSW branch committee in 1968. At some point in late 1969, Cassidy realized that NSW had no money to stage the 1970 World Surfing Championships. If there ever had been significant sponsorship in the offering, it never materialized.

Another matter canvassed by the NSW committee was the growing drug use among surfers, and its potential to create a backlash against the association. This may have been a cover for the funding embarrassment, but according to Cassidy the fears were real.

“There was a definite view that the cops would be all over it,” he says, “and you could blow surfing’s future right there. Wouldn’t it be better to take it to the Victorian coast and let Couper take the heat? That was actually stated. Couper was the man and everyone knew that he would never allow bad behavior on his watch. We were concerned about a drugs and sex frolic becoming very public at the championships, and it just seemed that the heat would be off a bit if you weren’t in the glare of a major city.”

Not all surfers at the time wore long hair and outlandish clothes, rebelled against authority, and used drugs. But a significant number of them did. If anyone thought that the 1970 World Surfing Championships was going to be totally free of those influences, they simply hadn’t been paying attention. None of it seemed to faze Olsson and Couper. Their essential credo was that if it wasn’t in the rulebook, it would only happen over their dead bodies. 

Besides, “The Big O” and “Stan The Man” had a more pressing problem. The contest was scheduled for May, just a few months after they got the bid. Like their colleagues in NSW, they had no money. Or at least not enough to stage an event of that magnitude. It says a lot about the character of these two men that they did not ever consider passing the baton. They just started to make it happen.

Early in 1970, Olsson printed a one-page plea for help that was mailed out to all ASA members: 

WORLD TITLE IN CRISIS
This May, Australia has the privilege and the problem of running the fifth World Surfing Championships…Australia was third on the list to run this world event. First, South Africa was unable to hold it, then Mexico was ruled out because the site was unsuitable. International Surfing Federation president Eduardo Arena offered to hold it in Peru, but Australia asked to take over the titles. That happened in October. The Australian Surfriders’ Association, led by Mr. Tony Olsson, immediately began the formidable task of raising $70,000 to hold the contest. This figure has not, at this late stage, been reached. We ask YOU to help ensure this spectacular event is not lost to Australia by giving generously to the ASA Save the World Surfboard Championship Appeal.

There is no record of how membership responded. Olsson used his professional ties to call in favors from corporate heavyweights all over Melbourne. Still, things were still looking bleak until he and Couper paid a visit to the Premier of Victoria, Sir Henry Bolte.  

Henry “The Hangman” Bolte was an unlikely candidate to dig deep in order save a surfing event, but the ASA duo must have been convincing. Not only did Bolte guarantee enough sports development funding to get the championships over the line, he got on the phone to a man who had real-estate developments in the Torquay area and talked him into donating a block of land to the Victorian ASA so that they could borrow against it, should the need arise. But Bolte’s support came with a stern warning that no bad behavior would be tolerated. For the two-week duration of the championships, the coastline between Torquay and Lorne never saw so many plain-clothes police.

Although many commercial enterprises, including the Australian airline Qantas, had contributed cash, goods, and services, the fifth ISF World Surfing Championships carried no sponsor naming rights. This was due to the fact that the state of Victoria was by far the biggest sponsor, kicking in $20,000. Instead, decals and other souvenirs produced for the event called it the Captain Cook Bi-Centenary World Surfboard Championships, possibly because Bolte had wrangled some funding out of the Sydney-based Bi-Centenary Celebrations Committee.  

Following ISF conditions, the host had to provide fares and accommodation for the teams of all competing nations. While it didn’t happen in Peru, San Diego, or Puerto Rico, the Bolte bequest enabled the ASA to actually make it happen in Victoria, with a lot of help from Qantas. The general information sheet sent out to all international teams advised that all airfare, ground transportation, and accommodation at Lorne from April 30th to May 10th would be covered by the sponsors.

Accommodation at the Lorne Motel-Hotel was five dollars a night, and competitors would have to pay for any extra nights they stayed outside of the event dates. Hot dinners were available for 60 cents. When he checked out after 11 days, Hawaiian competitor Randy Rarick had racked up a bill of $6.24.

The Bells Beach Easter contest—won by Nat Young in the men’s division and Gail Couper in the women’s, and with Michael Peterson leading a trio of young Queenslanders onto the junior’s podium—had been held in good, solid waves. Bells continued to produce excellent surf over the following weeks as the early-bird internationals began to arrive. One of the more interesting early arrivals was Japan’s Doji Isaka, who had set off from his homeland almost six months earlier to surf in the Makaha contest in Hawaii and then went to Mexico, believing that the world contest was going to be held there. The ever-smiling Isaka just got back on the plane and crossed the Pacific when the plans changed.

Another early arrival was Rolf Aurness, son of James Arness. The latter was the star of the long-running western television series Gunsmoke, and he accompanied his boy to Bells Beach and cracked a few waves himself on an old longboard. Rolf, who retained the original spelling of the family name, was a wiry, soft-spoken 18 year old who had enjoyed a blessed surfing childhood. His father drove him up and down the Californian coast to compete, took him to Hawaii every winter season, and frequently flew him down to Baja California in the family’s private plane for solitary surfing adventures. Despite this background of privilege, Rolf was humble and quite shy. He let his smooth, accurate, goofyfoot surfing speak for itself.

Controversy erupted before the contest even began. Top American competitor Corky Carroll allegedly told a woman, who turned out to be the wife of the town’s publican, to “go fuck yourself” after she complained about the language being used by the American team.

“A couple of days before the contest was to start, the rest of the American team arrived in Torquay,” writes Carroll in his memoir, Not Done Yet, putting the incident in a clearer perspective. “We all got together at a local pub for dinner and were having a great time until there was a sort of nasty confrontation with the lady who was serving us. It was over somebody asking for a little bit more butter for his roll and the lady rudely saying it would cost more if he wanted more butter, explaining, ‘You yanks are all rich, you can afford it.’ This set off a number of rude and ruder remarks…I admit I said a couple of things I would have liked to take back…But this was clearly a case of anti-Americanism and we all reacted badly.”   

The police were called and the matter was referred to ISF President Eduardo Arena and event managers Couper and Olsson. They suspended Carroll from the event, pending an apology being accepted by all offended parties. Despite the best efforts of team manager Brennan “Hevs” McClelland, who was not a fan of “Corky Carrot,” the American team voted to boycott the event unless Carroll was reinstated, which he was after an 11th-hour emergency meeting.

So while about 80 competitors, including most of the American team, wandered up Lorne’s main street from the cinema to the pub with some in official team uniform and some in hippie garb, and while Owen Yateman’s jazz band played Dixieland classics from the back of a truck and a few locals applauded, a small group of pissed-off Americans huddled outside the hotel and discussed their next move. 

It didn’t help the situation when the fiery Arena publicly tore strips off women’s world champion Margo Godfrey for not marching. According to some reports, the Americans also raised the ire of the locals and the media when they talked and laughed through the playing of the national anthem. 

But the late Joe Sweeney, a Bells Beach pioneer, recalled it rather differently when interviewed in 1988: “The event began with a big march through the streets of Lorne. It was a very big deal. The Americans, the Japanese, the South Africans, and all the rest were dressed nicely in their team uniforms. But the Aussies, mate, they were a bloody disgrace. Jesus, they were scruffy. Full-on hippies.”

If Sweeney’s memory was correct, perhaps blaming the Americans for everything that went wrong was a more palatable way of addressing what was to become a burning issue for Torquay. While the town had felt totally at ease with the boozy antics of the trail-blazing surfers of the Boot Hill Gang, surfing’s marijuana-fueled “flower power” era outraged their sensibilities. It wasn’t until the surfers began to hold economic sway in the town that they were fully accepted again. Rod Brooks, who moved permanently to Torquay just after the contest, remembers that the divide fell across the cottage surf industry, with the founders of the surf start-ups Rip Curl and Quiksilver—Brian Singer, Doug Warbrick, and Alan Green—representing the free-spirited lifestyle and boardbuilder Fred Pyke representing the traditional work ethic.

In the decades to come, these surfing entrepreneurs would completely transform Torquay’s struggling economy and turn the entire Surf Coast into a tourism mecca. In the eyes of the majority of residents in 1970, however, they were surf bums, dole bludgers, and drug addicts.

The three-round contest finally got underway at Bells, but suffered mediocre conditions and cold, wet weather. Adding to the bad mood growing around the event was the obvious presence of dozens of undercover police, Premier Bolte’s “hawks.” The whole thing was too much for long-haired and paisley-shirted David Nuuhiwa, who, after being eliminated in a heat and then stared down over dinner by a table of cops, packed his bag and boards and left town. 

“It was a bit intimidating,” recalls reserve NSW judge Graham Cassidy. “The cops knew we knew who they were, of course. It was almost like they were daring you to make a wrong move.” 

In fact, it was the youngest and straightest Californian on the U.S. team, Brad McCaul, who became the scapegoat, busted for alleged possession of marijuana. He

was bailed out within hours and no conviction was recorded, but the Melbourne newspapers and the TV news had a field day with the images of young McCaul being hauled out of his hotel room with a towel covering his face.

Of course, not all the media attention was bad, although some of the gushing was wildly off-point. “Nureyev was never as artistic and as graceful as he,” wrote

Melbourne Sun columnist Keith Dunstan of Midget Farrelly. “The way Farrelly sideslips and climbs, doing an incredible slalom across the front of a wave, is one of the great sights in sport, to be compared with Rod Laver conducting his execution at Wimbledon.” 

Not that Farrelly or anyone else got too many opportunities to perform incredible slaloms. Conditions at Bells went from bad to worse, with the organizers resorting to novelty exhibition heats to appease the big weekend crowds who braved the bad weather. 

As the event dragged on, Cassidy was called onto the judging panel from time to time, and at one point he was given a lesson in interpretation of the interference rule by head judge George Downing of Hawaii. “There was a fuss over whether Nat Young had dropped in or not,” says Cassidy. “I was the drop-in judge and I was of two minds, so I ruled that he didn’t. Downing came up and kicked me in the leg. He said, ‘If that happened to you in the water, would you call it a drop-in?’”

The revered Downing also became the unlikely subject of further controversy when the manager of the hotel where he was staying got a tip-off that the Hawaiian had a young girl in his room. Outraged, the manager burst into the room to find Downing lying on his bed alone reading a book, whereupon the legendary big-wave rider rose up and knocked his apparent assailant to the floor with a tasty right cross.

With Bells flat and time running out, Olsson and Couper listened to the advice of competitors, took a deep breath, and moved the whole show to the remote beachbreaks of Johanna, a three-hour drive from Bells Beach. In front of a few bemused farmers and their cattle, the World Surfing Championships played out in near-perfect waves, with the final being decided in the chill of the gathering dusk. 

Throughout the event, battle lines had been drawn. Not between old school and new school, or functional versus involvement, but between the vertical, staccato shortboarding of most of the Australians, and the cleaner, longer lines drawn on the waves by the Hawaiians and Californians, particularly Rolf Aurness, who was the popular winner for both his skills in the water and his demeanor out of it.

“If nothing else,” wrote NSW judge Geoff Luton, “the contest managed to produce a unanimous world champion and this in itself is quite an achievement.”

“It was Rolf’s contest,” concurs John Witzig, Australia’s leading surf writer of the time. “He was a fine surfer amongst fine company.”

That fine company included Midget Farrelly in close second, with Peter Drouyn third and Nat Young sixth, proving that the Australians were still in the hunt despite their frequent bogging down on too-short boards. Hawaiians Reno Abellira and Keone Downing, both practicing the long-line approach, finished fourth and fifth, respectively. 

Hawaii’s Sharron Weber took out the women’s title, decided the day after the men’s division at Skenes Creek in abysmal conditions, as was the sexist custom of the times.

In its original form, the ISF World Surfing Championships would get worse before they disappeared—the 1972 San Diego event played out during a Peruvian snowstorm and the trashing of hotel rooms—but half a century on, as surfing goes to the Olympics, the 1970 Victorian world titles remains an odd footnote in surfing’s competitive history. It was truly a time when the old world and new world, the traditional and the counterculture, collided in the middle of nowhere.