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Surf pioneers: Empty waves and heavy boards

IT WAS 1960 and Bob Weeks was about to witness the moment a cutting edge military weapon was launched on the Woomera Rocket Range at speeds humanity had only recently reached.

He was sitting in a tower five hours' drive north of Adelaide, miles past where green coastal grasses gave way to cracked, red desert clay. Film ticked through an early black leather-cased video camera and a young Weeks placed his eye over the view-finder. A well-paid government job filming rocket launches for the Royal Australian Air Force had drawn him west from Sydney to inland South Australia.

The machinery that would drive the Cold War was just firing up and 16 hours down the road at Maralinga the British were letting off nuclear bombs. However as he sat there, his skin hardening in the bone dry wind, Weeks made up his mind. There was an altogether different explosion happening on Australia's east coast and it was one he was much keener to get close to.

 

Keith Paul Crescent 1964 (p279)
Keith Paul Crescent 1964 (p279)

Weeks had been out on the Range for about six months but a short stint of leave had afforded him the time to return to his parents' place in Sylvania, at the back of Cronulla on Sydney's southern beaches. And as the white-hot desert sun bit at his face he could think of nothing but the smooth deep blue ocean and perfect little waves peeling across a white sand bank.

You see, Bob Weeks was not just any photographer. Fate had placed him in a moment far bigger and far more significant than he could ever have comprehended at the time - and it had nothing to do with the military testing its weapons. Australian surf culture was just about to put down its roots and at the heart of the scene were the kids Weeks knew from around Cronulla.

 

Wanda Girls, 1964, (page 82 of the book).
Wanda Girls, 1964, (page 82 of the book). Contributed/Surfing in the Sixti

Surf pioneers like Frank Latta and Garry Birdsill were among the first people Weeks photographed on his Kodak Brownie. And a young Bobby Brown - one of the great surfing talents of the generation - had been a regular subject.

"I was lucky, really, a lot of the top guys were just the blokes down at my local beach," Weeks would reflect years later.

A few years after his return from Woomera Weeks had shot the cover of two of Australia's earliest surfing magazines - Surfabout, which was started by his friend Jack Eden, and Surfing World, which was founded by pioneering surf entrepreneur Bob Evans. There was no money to be made - a far cry from today where the cover of a major surf magazine can catapult the career of an aspiring surf photographer and almost every town on the coast has at least one committed waterman trying to ply the trade.

 

Alan Sharp Cronulla Point, 1964.
Alan Sharp Cronulla Point, 1964.

Weeks doesn't even remember being paid for most of his photos. However, like so much of the '60s what early surf media efforts lacked in refinement and commerce they more than made up for in originality and authenticity. By 1963 Weeks and the Cronulla crew had made some trips to the New South Wales south coast - surfing now famous breaks like Green Island and Sandon Point with virtually no one around.

Weeks would run his Vanguard panel van down the dirt roads that covered much of the area at that time, reaching as far south as Broulee. However, persistent whispers were flowing back to Sydney of great, long right-hand, sand bottom point breaks in the state's north and just over the border in south-east Queensland.

This photo was taken by Bob Weeks at Tea Tree Bay in Noosa in the '60s. The waves still look the same today but the crowds are a lot bigger than three guys.
This photo was taken by Bob Weeks at Tea Tree Bay in Noosa in the '60s. The waves still look the same today but the crowds are a lot bigger than three guys.

"My first trip up the north coast from Sydney was in '64. Bob Evans had some movies taken a year or two earlier," Weeks said.

"And he'd filmed Crescent Head and Currumbin on the Gold Coast and there were a couple of Cronulla guys that had found surf up there."

These days Crescent Head is a tightly controlled line-up with a cluster of locals shrouded around a rocky take-off zone and everyone has to bide plenty of time to get a wave.

 

 

"I don't think many locals surfed in those days, it was all guys travelling," Weeks said of finding places almost empty in the winter of '64. "And of course it was a long drive from Sydney because of the Pacific Highway - it was just a long windy road and from Port Macquarie to Kempsey was terrible."

The Pass at Byron Bay was missed on that trip, and a stop at Angourie just south of Yamba yielded empty point surf. Then with a solid ground swell rolling in Weeks and his crew made a dash for Currumbin on the Gold Coast. They scored long, peeling right-hand waves running all the way from Elephant Rock into the river mouth - with virtually no one out.

It's something that's hard to imagine today, with Currumbin's ever crammed car park perched on a bustling road and high-rises looming on the horizon. Back then Weeks said the place mostly consisted of beach shacks. But all good things come to an end and soon everything would change.

 

 

Perhaps the definitive moment was the death of Bobby Brown. Brown was just a teenager in the early '60s and arguably Cronulla's most iconic surfer from the period.

The Americans were just gliding across the face of waves when Brown was one of an elite few pioneering what modern surfing would eventually look like - hard arcing turns and dancing in the curl of the wave. And while the likes of Nat Young and Midget Farrelly remain household names today, few know that nipping at their heels and chasing surfing world titles in those early years was the teenage Brown.

By 1967 he was dead and with him went part of the sport's innocence.

"It was hard to even imagine him getting in a fight, he was just such a placid, quietly spoken bloke," Weeks said of the incident in which the recently engaged 20-year-old died after being glassed in the throat in a fight over a game of pool.

The sport's image too was on a collision course with disaster. As Weeks says of the early '60s: "You'd never really hear of anyone talking about dope in those days, we didn't even drink much - everyone was just really fit from spending so much time in the ocean."

The following decade changed all that - the early surfers, bronzed Aussies with short back and side haircuts, were slowly superseded by long-haired, glassy-eyed, emaciated dropouts.

The pure fun had also run dry for Weeks. While in the early days he describes surfing in Cronulla as carrying with it a kind of friendly camaraderie, more and more crowded beaches were causing the goodwill to wane.

Pretending to be 18 and 60 kg via @surfcheckau

A photo posted by Thomas Bexon (@thomassurfboards) on

And in 1970, chasing empty waves and with a young family on the way, he packed up, largely left the surf photography scene behind and moved to Woolgoolga to take a job at a Waltons department store in nearby Coffs Harbour.

While the move symbolised the end of his career as a surf photographer other camera work soon followed and ironically one of the more significant personas in terms of documenting the sport's golden age would come to be better known, in his local area, for shooting weddings.

9'9 new issue for @haydenqueensland 10 ounce volan, glass on, resin bands and polish.

A photo posted by Thomas Bexon (@thomassurfboards) on

And while the influence of the era would fade as the sport progressed, long boards and the style in which they were ridden during the 60s have made a resurgence over the past decade. 

Indeed few make the boards better or ride them as well as Sunshine Coast local Thomas Bexon. 

From his small factory at the back of Noosa Bexon makes boards which in a way combine the characteristics of the longboards from the 60s with modern design developments.

Ask @cut_lap about his favourite glass job. Via our stint @uwlworkshop

A photo posted by Thomas Bexon (@thomassurfboards) on


And while waves have become more crowded and broken down jalopies have been superseded by rusted out Landcruisers there are still those finding quiet surf and enjoying the glide of long, heavy single fin boards. 

Sunset, fins, car on beach. Blah blah dam Sunday was better than Monday

A photo posted by Thomas Bexon (@thomassurfboards) on

Now, more than 50 years after they first picked up cameras, Weeks and three other photography greats from surfing in the early '60s, Mal Sutherland, Barrie Sutherland and John Pennings, have put together more than 500 iconic images from the era to make a new, hardcover coffee table book titled Surfing in the Sixties.

The book is presently on sale at Booktopia or at Dymocks for $55.