A MAN OF MANY DIMENSIONS
Midget’s presence was felt through all of modern surfing. In the earliest years, 16 foot paddleboards had taken dominance and everyone was riding on those big toothpicks, until the US and Hawaiian lifeguards introduced what we called the ‘shortboard’ at the Olympic Surf Carnival at Torquay in late 1956. It liberated surfing. Midget had become the dominant surfer only within a couple of years of this transition. By the late ‘50s he was absolutely ripping, doing moves that these guys hadn’t seen before. And he’s been there ever since.
I first met Midget in 1963, when he came to Torquay, Bells; on the surf coast after winning the Makaha International. This turned out to be somewhat of a Duke Kahanamoku tour. When midget paddled out, most of the Victorian surfers returned to the beach and stood there to watch Midget’s surfing. I particularly recall him surfing at a storm surf break called Point Lonsdale, on front beach, ripping the smaller waves by himself with almost all of the Victorian surfing community at the time standing around the natural ampitheratre watching his performance. In 1964, there was the Bells rally, which some years later became the Rip Curl Pro. The event was run at Easter at Bells Beach, and the Australian Surfrider Association ran the Victorian surfing championships parallel with the rally. We had a celebrity judge – Midget Farrelly. Interestingly, Brian Singer ( fellow Rip Curl founder) and myself both qualified for the Victorian team, meaning a couple of months later we went to Sydney to the first World Surfing Championships, where we surfed in the early rounds. The state champions and a few other top surfers from around Australia were seeded in the main rounds against the international competitors. Midget had a Californian style approach to his surfing in this period, with the classic drop knee cutbacks. When he won the World Title at Manly Beach in 1964, myself and Brian were among the 60,000 strong crowd that were very delighted to see an Aussie beat those top ranked Hawaiians and Californians. That was a beautiful thing. Midget’s popularity skyrocketed after the win, and I recall he dyed his hair black so no one would recognise him. Almost 20 years ago, Mick Fanning did the same thing. It’s a little bit of going incognito. I wonder if their popularity might’ve been growing faster than they could quite deal with at the time?
When Midget won the Australian Titles a year later, at Mid Steyne in 1965, the forecast was for very small surf. By forecast, I mean there were a few wise heads around
One does not simply turn up the beach and surf. One must consider every aspect of surfing, from the smallest detail to the biggest picture, factor it all together and make conclusions with actions. All while wearing top hats and tails. Midget and Claw, Bells, 1975. Image courtesy of Keith Platt.
that could predict the surf by the old school methods. Midget was an absolute master of this. At the time, he was under attack from other strong surfers from around Australia. Nat Young was surfing in the open, as was Bob Mctavish. What Midget had done in the 36 hours before the event, was predict the surf was going to be very small, and made a smaller, much lighter surfboard. No stringer, one layer of glass. He’d won the ’64 World Title on 9’6” three-stringer California inspired traditional longboard. And this next year he appeared on the beach that day, with a shorter, 9’0’’ stringerless surfboard. The first stringerless board we’ve seen. So that was a very innovative, progressive thing that he did. And he won. The board went well and he won. They attribute the shortboard era to others, but Midget was right there. He was certainly always part of that movement. When the American club, Windansea, came out and surfed Long Reef in 1968, I recall Bob
Mctavish and Russell Hughes were surfing well. The ones who probably surfed the best in reality were Wayne Lynch, Nat Young, and Midget Farrelly. Midget had his own vee bottoms that he shaped himself. Stringerless, vee bottom, lightweight boards. He’d modified his surfing style a bit, and he was representing that modern style of surfing.
For the manoeuvres of the day, he could do all of them. If we take the era immediately before that, in the late ’50s and early ’60s where he was regarded as far and away the best surfer in Australia, his style of surfing at that time was very representative of the Australian surfing today. He was young and fast and energetic and made a lot of manoeuvres. For that era he was doing a lot of Aussie ripping and tearing. Then he smoothed the style out when he went to longer boards, but he didn’t stay on them. He was always a classic surfer, he took a lot of inspiration from the leading Hawaiian and Californian surfers. He had a lot of respect for them, but he was an Aussie and he did rip and tear like an Aussie. He was a little bit of a surprise to people who were supporting other Australian surfers and styles of boards. At that time the Australian pack stood out head and shoulders above the Americans, because they hadn’t changed the equipment or their style of surfing. They hadn’t adapted to the new thing, so there was a stark difference in performance. Midget, who may have been regarded in that style of surfing, had made the change and he was displaying the high performance surfing of the era. Where the board designs changed rapidly from late ’67 through to the early seventies, there was radical change in surfboards. Certainly by months and even week by week at times. Midget participated in this as a shaper. In 1969, his most radical design was the side-slipper. It was called this because you could slide the tail out. A little bit like what you can do with an alaia or the finless boards of today. The board almost had a slightly triangular shape, a bit like a kite. The wide point was in the middle of the board, quite straight, tapered to the nose, somewhat squared off nose, very distinct hip or bend in the middle, then quite straight to the tail that was somewhat square. So you had this pivot point, where you could jam the rail in and drop the tail out. Midget Farrelly was quite a master of sliding 360s. Surfboard designs were changing
rapidly through those years, and the side-slipper just became a piece of the puzzle in designing the modern surfboard. As a modern shape it was passed over, but the sliding 360 endured.
There were different schools of surfing and each had their heroes. As surfing developed, the community branched into different styles and techniques. As a result, there were huge rivalries between the leaders of those schools, whether they really wanted to be the leader of that school of surfing or not, Midget was certainly the leader of his own style and always did things his own way. I think the popularity was divided for a while there; divided between your favourite surfers, and it still is today. With the judging today, they’re the best judges and they’re not judging to suit a certain school of surfing or a certain nationality but back in those days all of that was in play, or suspected to be in play. It was certainly political at different levels. Today it’s more accurate and conducted in a far more balanced and objective kind of way.
Midget was complex, a very complex person with many dimensions to his personality. He always conducted himself with style, with a little bit of the Aussie larrikin in there too. He did have that Aussie humour and once you understood his take on it, he was a lot of fun to be around, but a lot of people would misunderstand him, or not get it. He was a true gentleman. He would share and offer that you paddle for waves. He also had a great understanding of the ocean, and a remarkable eye for a wave, a quality which I’ve only seen since from Tom Curren and Michael Ho. Whether it was Bali on a reefbreak, Sydney beachbreaks, Hawaii or any sort of wave anywhere. He had a great sense for the ocean, and not necessarily textbook. He had his own version of that. If you were surfing with him, and the known intelligence was you surf this break on low tide. Midget would often come up with a variation like “Oh let’s not go out on exactly lowtide, because I noticed yesterday that something a little bit different was happening. I’m sensing that the swell is a little bit different today.” Nine times out of 10 he’d pick the eyes out of it and they would be the best waves of the day; it was both intuitive and learned practice knowledge. Typical of Midget, there might have been a couple of other dimensions there that I can’t identify, but he had ’em.
He was a real student of all the breaks and never probably had a bad ride. Certainly never had a bad session. He was one of those guys like Tom Curren – at a new break, his first wave would be absolutely commanding. But I know in Midget’s case, he studied the surf a little more closely than others before he paddled out. While everyone was goofing around I think he was sizing up the break and how the waves would form and run.
Midget was a good friend. Whether it was the Australian Titles, the industry events, buying surfboard blanks from him, going on surfing adventures. Multiple levels. I recall being at Noosa 35 years later, and they had a rematch of the ’64 World Titles. Unfortunately Bobby Brown wasn’t alive, but the five remaining finalists surfed at Castaways Beach. The surf was pretty good, 4-6 foot rights and lefts, solid beach breaks, and Midget beat all those guys once again. He’s been a part of every era of surfing. Sometimes clearly in a leadership position and other times maybe not seen out front leading, but certainly providing his own angles. It’s a long time, more than 50 years that Midget’s been at the forefront of Australian surfing as a significant elder. Things will be different now without him. His is a big loss to Australian and world surfing.