FOLLOWING THE LINES THROUGH SURFING HISTORY.
In an interview with Nat Young (the original one) that I did just a few months before the tragic passing of his nemesis Midget Farrelly, the 1966 world champion recalled his first years of surfing on Sydney’s northern beaches.
He said: “Midget was my hero. I wanted to do everything exactly like him. I wanted to surf like him, I even wanted to walk and talk like him.”
Of course in Sydney in 1961 Nat wasn’t alone in that, but his success in emulating his early surfing mentor and then surpassing him was as public then as it was rancorous later. More than half a century on, it is the feud that we remember, rather than the fact that this was the first real case of lineage in modern Australian surfing. After 1966, while Midget and Nat continued to compete against each other, there was no relationship between them and the younger surfer went out of his way to remove all traces of his mentor’s style from the new involvement school he pioneered with Bob McTavish. Nat, in his turn, was a huge influence on Ted Spencer and later Michael Peterson and Ian Cairns, while Midget’s legacy could be seen in the smooth lines of Russell Hughes and Keith Paull, and later Peter Townend. (Oddly, in the late 1960s, Wayne Lynch’s smooth approach to power surfing owed more to Midget than Nat, although he surfed around the world with the latter, and was considered part of his school).
These early examples of lineage were by no means cleancut, but over the years most surfers at the top of their game have looked around at what other people are doing, absorbed it and tried to emulate it. For example, a whole school of low centre of gravity power surfing flowed from the Sunset Beach bottom turns of Barry Kanaiapuni and Jeff Hakman in the early ‘70s, while the tracks on a wave pioneered in different ways by Reno Abellira and Terry Fitzgerald influenced another school of surfing whose most notable exemplar was Mark Richards.
And then, of course, lineage can sometimes work the other way. Simon Anderson was a direct throwback to Nat, as were Joe Engel and Gary Elkerton, with perhaps a tip of the hat to MP as well. In the current arena, Joel Parkinson is a near perfect hybrid of Midget and Nat, while also owing a few licks to Kelly Slater.
But probably the most interesting cases of surfing lineage are also the most clearcut. Although he wasn’t the first “Mr Pipeline”, Gerry Lopez smoothed out the rough edges of Butch Van Arsdalen’s approach and made the Pipe left his own, until a bunch of fearless young goofies began to emulate his every move. The best of these was Gerry’s Lightning Bolt team-mate and understudy Rory Russell, who did not have Gerry’s feline grace or natural talent but was a better competitor and all-rounder. Jackie Dunn and Jeff Crawford were also contemporaries who were influenced by the Lopez approach at Pipeline, as was the next generation’s Tom Carroll.
Lopez’s fluid approach to surfing Uluwatu (and later G-Land) was as technical and precise as his Pipe act, and it influenced a whole generation of Australian chargers in Indo in the late ‘70s, including Terry Richardson, Tony “Doris” Eltherington, Larry Blair and Jim Banks. If you watched Larry Blair tear up a Sydney beach break, or Richo hook his backhand high under the lip at Sandon, or Doris threading through the Burleigh Cove, the last person you would think of would be Gerry Lopez. But put them into a perfect left crackling over a tropical reef, and their inner Gerry shone like a beacon.
Today, the Lopez legacy lives on in the form of Rob Machado, and it was wonderful to watch the old master and the merely middle-aged drifter surfing Ulus together in Nathan Myer’s The More Things Change.
Finally, one would expect that the greatest surfer of all time would have a correspondingly vast lineage to be traced around the world, yet Kelly Slater’s superiority in every facet of surfing somehow renders him beyond emulation. Of course, you can see parts of him in almost every surfer of the new generation, from John John to Connor Coffin to Ethan Ewing (who also brings Andy Irons to mind), but there is too much going on for any one person to clone.
At least for the time being.