Illustration by Nanda Ormond

The Short History Of Surf Mysteries

Is out there.

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Once upon a time surfing was rife with mystery. What’s around the next point? Will the swell turn up next week? Could all human hair be made to grow like Terry Fitz’s under the right conditions?

Technology, intended to liberate us, has done nothing but snuff out the enigmas. Here, on screen is what’s round the corner you gormless thumb-swiping mouth-breather. Stop pretending you paddled there on your olo.

Yet riddles persist. Some of them are the tiny things, hiding in the everyday. How does the sea-breeze know you left work early? And consider the nostril: periscope or treasure cave? How extensive are the back alleys of the human face, that a nose can continue to gush litres of seawater hours after the hold-down that put it there? Has anyone ever spelunked deep enough to know? Who is planting silver rubics inside my steamer? Where does ones sock disappear to when you’re getting dressed after a winter surf? Will all the lonely socks be reunited one perfect day? And further up the leg, exactly what is connecting TC’s shinbone to his thighbone (because it sure as hell isn’t a knee)?

If the Duke introduced surfing to Australia in 1915, then howcome Australians had already exported surfing to South Africa, and Tommy Walker was already importing boards to Australia, before he arrived? How were there already Australian women surfers before Isobel Letham climbed onto the Duke’s shoulders at Freshwater? Was Harold Holt’s disappearance a surfing mystery (it happened in the surf) or the reason why all mums say you can’t go swimming for an hour after a roast chicken, three bottles of shiraz and a round of ports?

Some surfers exist outside the evidence, and the years render them more mysterious, not less. Some seem to have been born under a dark star. It’s what drove The Search for Captain Zero. Where are Dora’s rumoured millions? Was Mike Boyum’s death a mob hit or a cautionary tale about macrobiotic diets? What would Australian surfing look like now if Bobby Brown and Kev Brennan had survived their youth? And what became of Roy Norris, inventor of the ‘Skins’ format and creator of Billabong Surf TV? He’s thought to have disappeared at sea off Austinmer in 1999, but no body was ever found, and he is almost totally expunged from the internet.

Contest history, seemingly an evolutionary scramble to sap the mystique out of surfing and reduce it to numbers, in fact reveals a welter of Stuff Wot Doesn’t Add Up. Who took the $1 bill out of the original Duke trophy won by Jeff Hakman? It was a bowl, intended to contain $1000 in $1 bills, but when Jeff counted it there was $999. In Jack Eden’s iconic shot of Midget’s World Title-winning wave at Manly in 1964, Midget’s wearing singlet #3. Thing is, he competed that day in #2. The 1970 World Titles at Bells, which finished at Johanna, were a contest straight out of The Twilight Zone: the country soul movement colliding with nascent professionalism and about ten different kinds of boards, the finals held in the dark behind a remote dairy farm, all of it won by an 18-year-old kid from a family of actors who promptly disappeared from surfing to focus on psychedelic jazz. Weirder still, how did Medina’s fairly ordinary air beat Fanning’s barrel in the 2015 Pipe Masters to hand Adriano the World Title? (And has Gab now been punished enough?)

If you’ve found an answer to each of these, you need to get out more. So the bonus round, for three points: will future navigators ever chart the mindscapes of Greenough and Curren? If success has many fathers, who hired Bernard Mariette? Does anybody actually know what “buttery” means? Why do 24-hour convenience stores have locks on the doors? And why is “I’ll call you back in five” the only part of a badly-connected phone call that you always hear clearly?

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Jock Serong