Those little windswells bred a specific type of thinking about surfboards. In 1967, when Bob McTavish and Nat Young took their vee-bottoms to Haleiwa and Honolua Bay, the classic Australian design concept was out in public for the first time. It drew a lot of mockery from the Hawaiian gurus of the time, mainly because, unlike the forward-foiled Brewer and Abellira miniguns, Bonzer Bob’s vee bottom was all about the back end. Tail-oriented design is the only logical response to short-period windswell conditions. Look through Australian design history and you’ll see the same theme repeated, numerous different ways. The original twin-fin, the no-nose, the Lazor Zap; the modernised twinnie and thruster; the Queensland pointbreak roundtail single-fin; all these boards are built to pivot, snap and drive with the nose clear of the water. They’re exactly what you’d expect to emerge from a surf zone with typical Aussie east coast conditions.
Yet once again, most of these designs were seen – both by Australians and surfers from other nations – as almost purely competition-related. It’s part of Australian surf legend that Simon Anderson came up with the three-fin thruster in order to do well in competition, but this isn’t quite accurate. In fact, Simon came up with three fins as a response to Mark Richards’s twin-fin, which came originally from a flash of inspiration on MR’s part after he’d seen Abellira riding a Californian fish-style board at Narrabeen in 1976. Perhaps more typically Australian was Simon’s response to the thruster’s immediate success – a truly competitive person would have patented it, while Anderson just handed the idea over to the rest of the surfing world, deciding the patent route was too much trouble.
It’s even possible to trace the development of Australia’s many boardriding clubs to the natural state of our surf zones. Why would such clubs appear here and nowhere else in the developed surfing world? Simple: other nations don’t have headlands. A casual study of the Sydney area’s coastal environment will reveal just how many separate beaches – over 40 – are packed into such a relatively short piece of coastline. These beaches, flanked by prominent headlands which act as barriers to sand and wind movements (and to kids on pushbikes), become their own worlds for the grommets who inhabit ‘em – worlds defined and enclosed by those rocky headlands.
Contrast the appearance of this coast with the long, barely interrupted sand stretch from Seal Beach to Laguna in California, or the similar stretch from Velzyland to Waimea Bay on Oahu. Like rivers or mountain ranges on a national scale, the Sydney headlands provide ready-made political boundaries. Can it be any surprise that Sydney is where boardriding club culture first truly prospered in Australia, with clubs like Maroubra, Narrabeen, Bondi’s ITN, Cronulla, NASA, Manly Pacific, and later Newport Plus and QBC? Australians, like any other surf culture, are a coastal people; we took our cues from the coasts we inhabited, and ran with them to unique effect.
Will the six-second secret continue to define Australian surfing? It’s hard to say. Other parts of the world rely on windswell, too, and their surf cultures have developed in remarkably similar fashion to ours. (It’s no coincidence, for instance, that almost all the mainland USA’s current crop of top competitive pros, including two of the past four world champions, hail from the US east coast – a place where six-second windswell is almost the whole surfing story, and where organised competitive surfing is a regular part of life.)
Yet just as cultures take unique form as they grow, they also tend to blur into one another over time …. And as surfing styles and wave-riding techniques have grown closer worldwide, the Ultimate Cause gets harder and harder to detect. It’s more and more difficult these days to distinguish between a hot young Hawaiian, European, Brazilian and Australian surfer; the cultural differences are flattening out under the pressure of highly designed modern equipment, carbon-copy media, and top-level global surf competition.
Perhaps that’s why some surfers seem to cling to the artificial distinctions: the beer-drinking flag-waving Aussie archetype, or the Soul Californian Stylist, or the Hawaiian Shaka. Yet these things will only ever be signals, the outward signs of a surf culture that renews itself in one place and one only: the water.
A slightly different version of Nick Carroll’s “The Six Second Secret: How Windswell Shaped Australia’s Surf Culture” first appeared in Australia’s Surfing Life.