WE’VE LOST OUR DUKE
Midget Farrelly lived his whole life in one of the most idyllic coastal localities in the world. He called Palm Beach home and surfed locally almost every day. It was hard to miss him on the weekends when his big white van, affectionately named Midget’s Fun-mobile, would pull up in the carpark, stacked full of gear. It was fitted out like a small surf shop.
He’d sit in the driver’s seat in his Ugg boots as the sun rose between the headlands, reflecting warm rays off his sunnies into the lineup, his chin nestled in his hands on the steering wheel.
“Have you decided which board I can have yet?” I’d pester him, month after month, eager to get my hands on a dreamy violet Farrelly log or his six foot red quad. “Nope.” he’d reply each time, “But you can have a go of this one today,” pointing into the depths of the van.
A ski and SUP were often both strapped on the roof and sometimes his lilac surfboat, ‘The Barrenjoey’ was intow, but everything got real inside the van. The darkness lit up in an instant like a fluorescent shop display as he rolled open the sliding van door.
Three wetsuits were hanging neatly on hangers across the far side panel, plus two skateboards, boardshorts, leggies, wax, folded towels (not to be used until after showered), a bike and a handful of his latest handshaped Farrelly Surfboard models.
This one particular Sunday morning, my favourite to reminisce about now, Midget had just returned from surfing Pasta Point in the Maldives. He wasn’t all happy with a couple of specs in the quiver he’d taken over and was still trying to pinpoint the exact issues to correct in the next design. He slid out two boards and we made our way out at South Whaley.
Just 10 strokes and he was out, with only two others sitting patiently in the spring sun. We sat and discussed the turmoil and triumphs of the surf industry at that time, before he’d drift off mid-sentence with a sniff of something looming on the horizon.
I turned around still yapping and he was 50 metres away, travelling with the momentum of a runner that morphed quickly into a threefoot peeler off the pool. At 69 years of age, he danced up and down that board, light as a feather. He was a golden silhouette through the glistening turquoise morning waves with a satisfactory smile on the kickout.
Just three perfect waves were all he needed to slake his need that session, and it was mesmerising to watch.
As the father of three daughters, Midget had a naturally affinity to encourage and support women taking on leadership positions in all areas of the surf and Surf Life Saving community. Despite providing solid and unmatched guidance, he would never lay down a smooth path, instead assisting with the preparation of challenges, arming you with a mental tool-kit of strategic, fast thinking, thought provoking know-how and wit. Invaluable skills from a successful international businessman, a pioneer and innovator till the end. When he thought you could do something, get a job done, he had your back and wanted to see you succeed just like the progression of his young boat crews.
Throughout his life on the northern beaches he was a member of a number of Surf Life Saving clubs including Manly, Freshwater, Whale Beach and Palm Beach where he patrolled as a volunteer each month, as well as developing and mentoring hundreds of teenagers into champion surfboat crews.
His training was solid and not for the weak but he had an ability to build a crew and connect with the kids like no other sweep. When you were in a surfboat with Midget at the helm, despite the dangers, you knew he was in complete control and it was unlikely that any waves or conditions could surprise him.
There was this same unspoken trust – a trust in him, his intelligence, intuition and creative flair – that saw him quietly and modestly followed by tens of thousands of everyday Aussies and surfers worldwide.
When my baby-boomer dad was 12 he sat in front of his Pye 21” black and white television in the Sydney suburb of Denistone and watched as this bloke called Midget Farrelly won the first world surfing championships in Manly. My dad didn’t surf but he spoke about Midget as one of the country’s greatest sporting icons.
Midget didn’t like to think about the fact that he was so deeply loved and esteemed by so many – so many strangers, kids of my dad’s generation, people he’d sold boards to, sat next to silently in the lineup, and aspiring surfers who sought a lead back in the sport’s earliest days.
He didn’t like to talk about it, but I hope he thought about it a little, and I hope that wherever he is now he can maybe begin to understand how much of an influence and a hero he was to so many.
For some reason, and despite his hard resistance to illustriousness, Midget’s name will always be synonymous with the legends of Australian sporting history. It will exist in the same realm as Don Bradman, Rod Laver, Dawn Fraser, Herb Elliott and Phar Lap. As film maker Dick Hoole put it last week, ‘Losing Midget is like losing Australia’s own Duke.”
Phil Meatcham’s incredible 2010 portrait captured the modern day Midget at his best. Happy, relaxed and soaked in post surf stoke.