Maybe, when all this is done, the defining image of the time will be the unknown surfer sprinting up the beach in La Jolla, on the run from a lifeguard boat. He’d just paddled out and broken the San Diego surfing ban, his act of civil disobedience cheered on by the crowd in the street. Local surfer Derek Dunfee, who captured the whole thing on video, described it as “one of the best things I’ve ever seen at the beach.” Surfing as defiance. The waves weren’t even that good, but nothing was going to stop that kid from paddling out. When interviewed later—his identity hidden behind a mask—the fugitive teenager offered, “Surfing should be brought back to the world because we really need it.”
Back in April, they were simpler days. We only had to deal with a pandemic and a few corona cops—not the breakdown of social order, the upending of world geopolitics and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Since the scattered beach bans lifted, however, we’ve at least had surfing. With many liberated from employment and free to surf, surfers around the world have been able to paddle out at their local break and wash it off. As the world went mad, the people went surfing. It was a splendid, simple spell, with the experience rendered back to its elemental parts—surf, surfer, surfboard. The worse things got, the more essential surfing became.
Less essential, it turns out, was a world surfing tour. This was the first year in 45 that the Tour didn’t run. Not a heat surfed in anger. The Corona Open on the Gold Coast was the first event cancelled by the coronavirus. As it turns out, this virus wasn’t just deadly to human beings—it was deadly to professional surfing. The Tour has been on a ventilator all year. You could not have engineered a more fatal condition for the sport: not only were borders closed, not only was the global economy tanking, but there was something deeper happening with surfers themselves. It was a shift in attitude. They were too busy surfing to even notice the Tour was gone.
The Bells Beach Easter contest didn’t run this year—a first since 1962. If Bells had run, it would have scored. Easter Monday and Tuesday were bluebird days. Light offshore, double overhead on a 16-second period. Sunny, warm and not a pro surfer in sight. No bleachers, no broadcast, no Kelly Slater and no “Hells Bells” blaring from loudspeakers to start the day. Instead, there was a very different energy. Bells was still full of punters, but they were all in the water surfing themselves.
What was happening at Bells was happening everywhere. The world stopped turning but the waves kept coming and people reconnected with their surfing in a way that a warp-speed world never seems to allow. Week after week, it got into a beautiful rhythm, and concern for the looming End of Days stopped at the tide line. In the water, no one talked much about competitive surfing. That seemed to belong to another time entirely.
Ian Cairns hitched a ride to the 1970 World Contest at Bells Beach. In the car headed south from Sydney was a cosmopolitan crew—Californians Corky Carroll and Dru Harrison, Hawaiian Dana Nicely and Kiwi White from South Australia. It rained the whole way and the windscreen wipers didn’t work. Cairns, a very serious 18-year-old, spent much of the trip with his head out the window in an effort to avoid second-hand smoke. It was still raining when they arrived at Bells late in the afternoon and with nowhere to stay, Cairns grabbed his swag and curled up in the corner of the beach bathrooms. He pulled out his copy of “Man-Eaters of Kumaon” and drifted off to sleep reading about Colonel Jim Corbett hunting tigers in colonial India. Young Ian was all blood and thunder and he was very ready for the World Contest.
It didn’t quite pan out as he imagined. SURFER’s coverage of the 1970 World Contest was headlined, “The Death of All Contests”, and it wasn’t hyperbole. With the exception of young Cairns, it appeared very few people actually wanted to be there. Nat Young had just moved to Byron Bay and showed up looking like he’d been harvesting mushrooms down the back paddock. Ted Spencer bailed the day before the contest started and soon found Krishna. David Nuuhiwa went home to California early in protest against the Victorian weather. Wayne Lynch was about to disappear from pro surfing entirely to conscientiously object the Vietnam War. Everyone was on their own trip, including the guy who stayed long enough to win the thing. Rolf Aurness collected his trophy at the Lorne Hotel the night after the event ended and never surfed another contest again. Cairns watched on bemused, part of a new breed whose time hadn’t yet come.
The competitive paradigm had totally receded. The World Contest 2 years later in San Diego flopped in shitty gray surf and it was only the Peruvians and their supplement program that lifted communal spirits. The ’74 World Contest was cancelled due to lack of interest. Small enclaves fought pitched surfing battles at places like Pipe and Bells, but the idea of these tribal rituals coalescing into anything remotely resembling a “sport” seemed fanciful. Cairns, at his competitive peak during this period, referred to it disdainfully as “sham amateurism”.
Surfing elsewhere became kaleidoscopic. The zeitgeist was freedom and self-expression and it manifested in the first great wave of surf travel, shape-shifting shortboards and country soul escapism. None of this was happening in isolation, of course. The changes in surfing were set against a backdrop of wider social upheaval. Surfers were being carried along with it, but in many ways were also out in front. Timothy Leary’s throw-ahead and all that. Contests sat as a thoroughly-uncool counterpoint to all this.
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