How Australian surf culture became the envy of the world

“It was a way to escape the city and the boring nine-to-five routine, live in cheap roommates and surf whenever they wanted.”

With rent spread $20 per weekshared among many housemates, and vegetarianism the standard food choice, all most local surfers had to find was around $10 a week to maintain their utopian lifestyle.

Doug “Claw” Warbrick, co-founder of Rip Curl: “Me and my childhood friend Dick Milledge with my first car, an EJ Holden, in Bell Street, Torquay, parked outside Dubby Davis’ milk bar, circa 1961 .”Credit:Courtesy of Rip Curl Story

And while modern surfers lament having to contend with crowded lines, Butch Barr, Rip Curl’s first accountant, says ’70s surfers actually struggled to find company.

“There were so few surfers around, especially mid-week or winter – I often struggled to find someone to surf with,” he says.

“[Torquay] was different – it was very rural with hardly any businesses [for employment] unless you work in a pub. Mail was still delivered by horse and cart and if you had to run errands or go to the bank or the doctor, you had to go to Geelong. I don’t think any of us went there thinking we could make a living standing on a surfboard.

A perfect melting pot

Surfers who lived to tell the stories of this ‘golden age’ of surfing say the folklore is quite successful; it was truly a liberating time where friendships – and waves – were everything.

“It was such a rich time [thanks to] a combination of [surfing] short board revolution and counterculture and recreational drugs, anti-Vietnam [sentiment]sexual liberation and the pill,” says Baker.

Video credit: Torquay Museum Without Walls

Bohemians across the country were rejecting city life in favor of coastal hamlets where they organically created a new surf culture that became the envy of the world.

Baker attributes much of the global influence of Australian surfing to the way Australians adopted short boards that were better suited to our ‘punchy’ beach break waves, as opposed to the long surfers of California’s point breaks. At the same time, surf movies depicted Australia as isolated and untouched.

“In California, the dream had already been tarnished a bit by a lot of coastal development, so I think a lot of surfers were looking at Australia as that new frontier,” says Baker.

“The Americans who came here for the 1970s world titles in Torquay just never left.”

Northern influence

Victoria wasn’t the only corner of the country with cottage industries operating out of every shed and kitchen table. Gordon Merchant had started making Billabong boardshorts on the Gold Coast in 1973, and Brookvale on Sydney’s northern beaches was another hotbed of surf culture.

“Those were wonderful days – all we did was party and go surfing,” recalls 81-year-old Shane Stedman, who founded Shane Surfboards and Ugg Boots.

“We had a brand new factory in Brookvale in 1967 for rent of $60 a week. Within six months, we were making 150 boards a week and selling Ugg boots to people who bought our boards.

Like most surf start-ups of the time, he hired local surfers with a passion for work who worked nights if the surf was up.

Shane Stedman in his Northern Beaches studio in 1972.

Shane Stedman in his Northern Beaches studio in 1972.Credit:Photo: Supplied

“We were a nation of workers – we had been taught to work since we came out of the chains of convicts,” Stedman says.

“You got paid for what you did, and those of us who wanted to work could make a lot of money.”

When the surf called, he strapped boards to the roof of his Jag and sped off to the Sunshine Coast, stopping at surf shops along the way.

“You would never [drop below] 100 miles an hour – there were no speed cameras back then,” he says.

“You would say, ‘I’m in town, come surf’ and you could buy them a meat pie for lunch and that was the extent of the bribes and the bribery. They would order half a dozen of planks and you would assemble them in three or four weeks.

Capitalize on culture

It’s easy to take for granted the well-shaped surfboards and warm, flexible wetsuits that fill surfshop shelves today, but step back 60 years ago and you’d see an era of primitive designs begging for major innovation.

“I remember seeing guys surfing from a school bus window in 1962 and it was like seeing something out of space – it was remarkable,” Paul Trigger, 72, of Trigger Brothers, Victoria’s Mornington’s iconic surf brand. Peninsula.

“There was no one to tell you what to do, you just saw something on TV or saw what other people were doing and you tried to copy that.”

While the “surf’s up, tools down” attitude of surf brands reigned supreme, a cohort of thoughtful entrepreneurs spent enough time on dry land to build their brands using relentless trial and error.

“The Americans who came here for the 1970s world titles in Torquay just never left.”

Tim Baker, author of The Rip Curl Story

“We were very experimental, going from the surfboards that surf clubs used to foam and then fiberglass. It all happened very quickly and things just got better and better,” Barr says.

Rip Curl co-founders Brian Singer and Doug Warbrick at Bells Beach at the start of the Rip Curl Pro-Surfing Championships in 2004.

Rip Curl co-founders Brian Singer and Doug Warbrick at Bells Beach at the start of the Rip Curl Pro-Surfing Championships in 2004.Credit:Paul Harris

“It was a revolution rather than an evolution.”

While Rip Curl focused on boards and wetsuits, Torquay’s other big export, Quiksilver, founded by former Rip Curl alum Alan Green, did gangbusters with boardshorts.

“In Hawaii, Quiksilver boardshorts have become a hot item,” says Baker.

“They were comfortable and durable [unlike] wear shorts not made for surfing [that] would crumble and rub you in places you don’t want to rub.

A golden age

In 1969 Stedman spent his year’s profits—$25,000—on a block of land and a house, and in 1974 he moved to a $30,000 house at the headland’s end in Mona Vale.

“You can’t do this anymore [you] poor buggers – it’s a totally different place.

There were four sets of traffic lights between Mona Vale and Brookvale, and now there are about 34,” he says.

“We had the best surfers, the best beaches and the best surf. It was total freedom with few restrictions. It will never come back again.

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