Wollongong surf pioneers look back to the beginning

An image of Wollongong surfing life featured in the Green Cathedral exhibition. Picture: RAY MILLS/DAVID MILNES

An image of Wollongong surfing life featured in the Green Cathedral exhibition. Picture: RAY MILLS/DAVID MILNES

"The Illawarra has the best surfers in the world," Terry Richardson says bluntly.

It is a bold call, but Richardson - known to surfing aficionados, local grommets and northern suburbs beach bums as simply "Richo" - is in a better position than most to make this claim.

A former Australian and world masters surfing champion, reaching No 7 in the world at the peak of his powers in the 1980s, Richo's contribution to local surfing is celebrated with an entire display case at Wollongong City Gallery's Green Cathedral exhibit.

His trophies, hand-shaped boards and well-loved rashies sit alongside a staggering collection of surfing history including the likes of local legends Mick Lowe, Pam Burridge, Phil Byrne, John Skipp and the Longbottom brothers.

World masters champion Terry Richardson says the best may be yet to come for the region’s surf legacy. Picture: KIRK GILMOUR

World masters champion Terry Richardson says the best may be yet to come for the region’s surf legacy. Picture: KIRK GILMOUR

But even in the shadow of the names and achievements hanging on the gallery walls, Richo ranks the current breed of Illawarra surfers - not just current superstars Owen and Tyler Wright or Sally Fitzgibbons but the juniors he judges in local competitions each summer - as the best.

"Wollongong is just as big a part of Australian surfing as Manly or the Gold Coast, but we never get the credit for it," he says.

"When you analyse what has come out of the South Coast, it's really a force to be reckoned with."

“We’d surf at Towradgi or Corrimal, or Bellambi and Sandon Point when the wind was up.”

“We’d surf at Towradgi or Corrimal, or Bellambi and Sandon Point when the wind was up.”

An analysis of surfing in the Illawarra reveals a region punching well above its weight.

A place with an evolving relationship with wave riding that mirrors the evolution of the sport itself.

"When I told my family I was going surfing, they all thought I was going to the surf lifesaving club," laughs veteran surf photographer Mick McCormack. Joining the surf scene in the early 1960s, Wollongong-raised McCormack is recognised as one of the most innovative and talented photographers of his day.

''Trying to convince your parents in the ’60s you wanted to hang at the beach was like saying you wanted to be in a bikie gang.''

''Trying to convince your parents in the ’60s you wanted to hang at the beach was like saying you wanted to be in a bikie gang.''

"Surfing was quite alien to Wollongong in the beginning. My family would watch surfers for the novelty value. Not many people knew what it was. Most of them thought it was a waste of time and said I should be mowing the lawn."

In the Illawarra, as all around the globe when surf culture began emerging then blossoming in the 1960s and '70s, the term "surfer" became synonymous with laziness, sloth and teenage apathy. 

The image of a hippie - the nomadic long-hair with baggy clothes, a bag of weed, a kombi van and no job - became co-opted as the image of a surfer in the eyes of the community at large, making for no shortage of ideological clashes between board riders and their parents, employers or elders.

''When you surfed, all you wanted to do was surf. You didn’t last too long in a job if the surf was good.'' Picture: RAY MILLS/DAVID MILNES

''When you surfed, all you wanted to do was surf. You didn’t last too long in a job if the surf was good.'' Picture: RAY MILLS/DAVID MILNES

"Trying to convince your parents in the 60s you wanted to hang at the beach was like saying you wanted to be in a bikie gang," explains Phil Byrne, one of the bedrocks of the Illawarra surf culture.

One of the region's premier board shapers since the 1970s, Byrne has shaped boards for world champion Tom Carroll and counts locals Owen Wright and Dean Bowen in his stable of surfers which he calls "the best youth team in the world," as well as operating arguably the region's best-known surf shop - in Fairy Meadow.

"Everyone thought you wanted to be a druggie, a layabout. There would be horror in people's faces when you said you were a surfer."

Richardson agreed: "A lot of people thought low of surfing back then.

 Richardson surfs the Banzai Pipeline, on Hawaii’s North Shore, in the 1980s.

Richardson surfs the Banzai Pipeline, on Hawaii’s North Shore, in the 1980s.

"There was a lot of mischief around, some riff-raff. But the big thing was, when you surfed, all you wanted to do was surf. You didn't last too long in a job if the surf was good. Some people didn't like that."

It was against this background of persecution and negativity towards the sport that the first steps towards professionalism - and, eventually, respectability - began in the region.

"As surfing started to grow, guys from good families who were ambitious and had a socially accepted outlook on life started to get sick of all that criticism," Byrne said.

"I was going to uni, doing a bachelor of commerce, and these guys think I'm a bum, just because I'm a surfer. I had better credentials than most of the guys looking down their nose at us."

Terry Richardson describes this wave at Bells Beach in Victoria as one of his favourite from the 1980s.

Terry Richardson describes this wave at Bells Beach in Victoria as one of his favourite from the 1980s.

The baggy hippie threads were swapped out for sports clothing and T-shirts, sneakers and white socks. Long flowing locks were shorn short. Byrne said he and a small crew including Richardson began putting the word out in radio interviews, starting surf clinics for young board riders, and trying to present a more respectable face for the sport.

"In the start all we wanted to do was have fun and be healthy," Richardson said. "There was uncertainty about surfing, it wasn't understood it could be a career."

"That's how professional surfing evolved here and around the world, people wanting contests and to turn it into a proper sport," Byrne said.

Of course, that process was a success. Today surfing is one of the biggest, most recognisable and desirable sports, past-times and industries on the planet; in the early 1970s, as surfing began to move from what Byrne calls "a 'cult' culture" into a professional, socially accepted activity, some within the fraternity were not so eager to share with the world.

"Some didn't want it to go that way, they thought commercialisation was bad. We got a lot of flak for trying to make those changes," Byrne said.

"People would come and pee on our surf shop, I'd come back from the surf and the tyres on my car would be let down."

He says it was not a trend isolated to Wollongong. He recounts swapping stories with former world champion Mark Richards, whose family operated one of Australia's first surf shops in Newcastle, which was similarly targeted by surfers incensed by efforts to move the sport into the mainstream.

"We would exchange notes because Wollongong and Newcastle were similar places," Byrne said.

"We knew it was going to be harder in a place like this, that wasn't a big city. There was definitely that tribal feel here more than in the bigger areas."

Locals-only beaches. Fights in the water. The Bra Boys. Weighed against the sheer tonnage of benefits offered by surfing - health, social, travel, a connection with nature - the idea of a "tribal" mentality of surfers is one of a fleeting few negatives associated with the sport but one that nonetheless occupies a large space in the public perception of surfing.

"We'd surf at Towradgi or Corrimal, or Bellambi and Sandon Point when the wind was up," Richardson said.

"We didn't go to Wollongong much, and the surfers from there didn't come up here. They were a different breed there, more upper class, while we were more hardcore."

Byrne agreed. "The beaches were more localised then because there wasn't nearly as many people surfing.

"There weren't many recreational surfers, everyone was very full-on, which made for a very tribalised situation that continued until the mid-80s."

While the Illawarra did not experience the tribal surf mentality to the same extent as the popular beaches of Sydney, the consensus was that Sandon Point was one of few areas where tribalism has had - and perhaps continues to have - an effect.

"Definitely Sandon Point. When I was young, it was taboo to go out there because of the localism," said surf photographer Ray Collins.

"The guys there have got a bit of common sense now, they realised they don't have to bash everyone that went in the water, but it was there for a long time."

Phil Byrne and fellow shaper Dave Porter, of Treehouse Landscapes and Handshapes, both recount personal experiences and hearsay stories of troubles at Sandon Point.

The "locals only" attitude is most obviously linked to a desire to preserve the "cult culture" of surfing - a mindset that has faded away as surfing culture ballooned into the behemoth it is today.

"These days surfing is so popular, there's people from everywhere at all the beaches," said Porter, who shapes his custom, eco-friendly boards out of a studio in the old Bulli timber mill.

"There's sometimes a bit of tension when there are more people in the water, but you get that anywhere. Part of it, I think, is because people grow up here and stay here. They feel a lot of history with the water, and sometimes don't like others coming in and spoiling their fun."

Ray Collins agrees.

"It's all smoke and no fire these days, as far as I see. The fights aren't there any more, but the mateship and camaraderie is. It's not always about the wave, it's about the lifestyle of being a surfer."

It is that lifestyle which carries on, reshaped and reimagined by the newest generation of local surfers. With the numbers of surfers swelling each year, quiet waves are becoming harder to come by at hotspots up and down the coast - except, it seems, in the Illawarra.

Sally Fitzgibbons leads the charge for the Illawarra’s new stable of surfers. Picture: KELLY CESTARI

Sally Fitzgibbons leads the charge for the Illawarra’s new stable of surfers. Picture: KELLY CESTARI

"It's the reason I'm still based here," Sally Fitzgibbons says simply.

"When you go to a popular spot in Sydney, it's like peak hour. There's people everywhere and you can't find a place for yourself. Down here, you can sometimes have an entire beach to yourself."

One of the most popular, recognisable and successful female surfers in the world, Gerroa-born Fitzgibbons credits her form to the coast that nurtured her. Runner-up on the 2010, 2011 and 2012 ASP world tour, and third in 2012 - just behind fellow South Coast product Tyler Wright - she says the variety of waves in the region are unlike anything she has seen in her travels across the world.

"As a pro surfer looking back, I learned the fundamentals on different waves; that lets me adapt faster than anyone when we go to a new spot," she said.

"Whatever I get, big or small, reef breaks, points - we've got it here whereas some of the other girls might have grown up only surfing one type of wave."

Porter and Byrne talk of the shift in culture from global brands back towards homegrown, sustainable products.

"There's a real sense of pride about the area. You see terms like 'Coal Coast' bandied about on social media a lot now, and people are proud of being a Coal Coast surfer," Porter said.

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