A Farewell to Clubs

Yallingup, W. Australia, 1957. Photo: Brian Cole
Sydney surfers, around 1960
"Service in the Sun" promo film, 1957
Melbourne surfers, 1956

Side-by-side with the regulation 1956 Aussie toothpick board, the balsa chips that Greg Noll and his pals brought to Australia were so small and rounded as to appear toy-like. But on closer look, the imports were almost space-age by comparison. Local boardmakers had no experience with resin and fiberglass, and had shown no interest in balsa—Australian surfcraft was made of framing timber, marine plywood, and varnish—and they were astonished at the Malibu board's strength and lightness. The new boards' design features were just as intriguing, starting with the fin, and moving on to the rocker and foil, the rolled edges, and the wide-backed outline.

The American surfers sold or gave away their boards before flying back home. The select few Aussies who now owned a genuine Malibu were among the country’s best surfers, but riding the new equipment still proved difficult. “I couldn’t really paddle the thing,” a Torquay surfer said of first attempt, “and when I did try and stand up, it just flipped out from underneath me.” The process was made harder by the fact that—apart from everyone’s recollection of what they’d seen the Americans do at Torquay and the Sydney beaches—there was no guide or example to follow. It was therefore an intently studious nation of surfers who filed into movie theaters and surf clubs a few months later to watch Service in the Sun, a half-hour SLSA promo film. Service was funded by Australian oil giant Ampol, who had also sponsored the International Surf Carnival, and the cameras were trained on the Americans throughout their visit: exiting their Qantas DC-3 at the Sydney airport, throwing boomerangs on a headland, and finally—in a tidy three-and-half-minute sequence, much of it filmed in slow motion—surfing at Bondi Beach. Greg Noll and Malibu golden boy Tommy Zahn were the stars as they turned, stalled, trimmed, cut back, and cross-stepped their way across the smooth bottle-green beachbreak waves.

The Americans’ 1956 visit triggered a reset for Australian surfing, of which adapting to the new boards and mastering new maneuvers was just the beginning. SLSA officials had dismissed the Malibu-style riding as “indulgent,” making it clear that from now on dedicated surfers would be setting up camp, literally and metaphorically, on the opposite end of the beach from the surf lifesavers. Here again, the Yanks showed the way, starting with the idea that a surfboard belonged with its rider, not at the clubhouse. Another thing: always go for the best surf. Noll and his friends came to Australia for the lifeguard competition, not to chase waves, but when they did surf they drove around to different beaches, hunting the best conditions. The Aussie surfer, even following the break with the SLSA, would always have a strong tie to his home break, but from now on the higher allegiance would be to finding the best waves possible. (Australian mobility in general got a huge boost with the 1948 introduction of the Holden FX sedan, the country’s first domestically-produced car. Not long after the Americans left, the dull but dependable Holden wagon become an Aussie surf-world icon—much like the woody wagon in America.)

There were new style markers as well. Australian surfers had worn the same high-waisted drawstring bun-hugger “costumes” used by the clubbies; most now began wearing American-style trunks, which were long and loose, and cut low on the hips. Also, where the toothpick board had to be hoisted onto a shoulder, propped against the side of the head, and carefully walked across the beach, the Malibu was carried under the arm, which let a surfer run to the water, arm and shoulder muscles neatly flexed as the board was pinned to the hip.

For the hundreds of mostly younger surfers who snuck into their local theaters two, three, or four times to watch Service in the Sun, it was clear that there were now two ways to be a surfer. Nothing, really, had been taken away from the surf clubs. Lifeguarding was exciting and competitive, traditional in the best sense of the word, and gave wave-riders a chance to honorably serve the community. But club life also meant discipline and rules, schedules and practice. The final split between surfies and clubbies wouldn’t happen for a few more years, but it became inevitable once the Americans showed that waves—and a surfing life in general—could be riffed on, danced with, not just manhandled. The choice for Australian surfers came down to training or wave-riding, patrolling the beach or hanging on the beach, tight trunks or loose trunks, duty or indulgence, past or future. And for most of them it was, Sorry daddy-o, we're with the Yanks.