t seems frightfully obvious in hindsight… If you ride a shorter board, you can do a lot more. But it’s not that simple. …
It seems frightfully obvious in hindsight. If you ride a shorter board, you can do a lot more. But it’s not that simple. Surfing was so busy growing in popularity in the ’60s — thanks to Gidget, The Beach Boys and foam surfboards — that it failed to realize it was stagnating.
By mid-decade, two visionaries had begun altering the course of surfing. George Greenough and Bob McTavish, an eccentric Santa Barbara kneeboarder and a fledgling Australian shaper, were busy designing the tools that would take the sport from nonchalance to total involvement. But they couldn’t have done it on their own; fortunately, they had an ally in Robert “Nat” Young.
When Young strolled up carrying his new board “Sam” for the 1966 World Contest in San Diego, eyebrows were raised. McTavish had been thinking “short” since 1960, when his meager salary could only afford him a 6’6″ instead of the 9’6″ he wanted. He started shaping a couple years later but more or less stuck to the norm. In 1964, he stumbled upon Greenough projecting on his kneeboard at Noosa Heads and Joey Cabell defining surfing in the curl at Angourie, and it all came back to him in a rush. Short was it.
With basically a longboard template, McTavish had designed Sam far thinner than everyone else’s boards, and it was outfitted with Greenough’s bluefin tuna skeg. David Nuuhiwa’s effortless camping on the tip of his board had been all the rage in the years leading up to the event, but Young proceeded to blow away the competition, relegating the United States’ nose fixation to the trash heap in favor of committed curl involvement. Power surfing and radically new equipment — one would have been useless without the other. Together, it was the signal of a new era.
Despite Young’s success in San Diego, Sam wasn’t ready for the mainstream. The next year, 1967, would see the transition come to pass. Further refinements by McTavish and others in the areas of concaves, vees and pointy noses finished the job. Longboarding was dead. Melding with the experimental, psychedelic scene, surfing had become all about involvement.
Movies such as Hot Generation and Evolution broadcast the revolution around the world. The Fantastic Plastic Machine and Waves of Change — later renamed Sunshine Sea — also illustrated the transition but were late arriving on the scene.
Australian journalist John Witzig penned his infamous “We’re Tops Now” article for Surfer magazine, in which he railed the media for not abandoning their “nose fixation” in favor of the school of total involvement.
In Hawaii, which had long been the proving ground for any new designs, McTavish’s boards were hit and miss. A more accurate marksman was master craftsman Dick Brewer, who was making teardrop-shaped pintails for his elite stable of riders. Gerry Lopez, Reno Abellira and Jeff Hakman, in particular, were amazing on Brewer’s mini-guns, and the design outlasted the McTavish vee bottom to become the board of choice in waves of consequence.
With the innovations, new names rose to the fore as many of the first wave of surfing legends simply faded into obscurity. On the home front, “hip dudes” who had jumped on the surfing bandwagon, thanks to the beach movie bonanza hung up their Hobies and walked off the beach. The new surfing required an open mind. Wayne Lynch, Lopez and Barry Kanaiaupuni become gods. Despite a victory in the 1968 World Contest by old schooler Fred Hemmings, boards were shrinking around the world. By the end of the decade, a full 3 feet had been sawed off as designs were checking in below 7 feet. Furthermore, rails had evolved from 50-50 gravediggers to low models with a tucked edge. Shortboards were here.
The new mind machines were blazing paths in places never before imagined. The tube, previously a hot potato that no one would touch, became the surfer’s sanctuary. No longer were there limits to where one could go on a wave. With the development of the shortboard, performance surfing took its biggest leap ever, and it has yet to land.