The town where everyone rode channels, thanks to one man.
I was recently asked by an Europe web based publication to come up with a list of the best surfer shapers of all time. Myself and the editor were throwing around the long list that included Reno Abellira, Wayne Lynch, Terry Fitzgerald, Ben Aipa, MP, MR, Simon, Gerry Lopez, Mr X, Col Smith, Richie Collins, Tyler Warren, Dylan Longbottom, Tomo and Ryan Burch.
“Col Smith from Narrabeen?” was the inevitable reply. “No, from Redhead, Newcastle.” I replied. It was, to be fair, an emotive pick. Col Smith grew up at my local and being the only professional surfer from our beach, then, and still now, he had rightfully been accorded Zeus like status.
Nick Carroll recently described him in Beach Grit as having “short dark hair, crinkly smiling eyes, perfect teeth, and one of the most fantastically graceful surfing styles I’ve ever witnessed. That was surfing at the time, when a small, poor NSW ex-mining town at the end of a potholed coast road could produce someone who was the surfing equivalent of a rock star.”
Now by the time I had started surfing Col had relocated to Margaret River, before tragically dying of cancer at just 31. I never once saw him surf my local break, but it didn’t matter. His influence was everywhere. There was the ephemeral stuff; the older guys talking in reverential tones through plumes of bong smoke. Hanging around the Surf Club courtyard any wave was seen in terms of what Col would have done on it. Plus any new talented surfer was compared, unfavorably, to the legendary grace and style of Smith. In fact the only surfer who ever came close to mimicking Col’s radical and smooth approach was his son Rique, now based in West Oz. We also had footage of Col, which everyone from groms to his grizzled peers would play endlessly. His section from the movie Fantasea, featuring Smith’s successful first trip to Hawaii on his Jim Pollard shaped channel bottoms, I must have seen over hundred times. That section also showed Smith ripping at our local Second Creek, the narrator comparing the four foot beachbreaks to Pipeline. My heart still swells with pride at the, totally inaccurate, analogy.
But his greatest influence came with the very craft we rode. Smith was the first pro surfer to take channel bottoms to the mainstream and in our small pocket of the surf world, it was unthinkable that you would ride anything else. In Redhead Col first worked under Martin Littlewood (now of Delta Designs) who had taken the hard channel idea from the clinker hull of wooden boats. After Littlewood, Smith later worked with shapers such as Sam Egan and Phil Myers. Plenty of locals all had Col Smith handshapes (Col’s unique channels were longest in the centre of the board) including a series of way-before-their-time asymmetricals, and these boards were ridden well past their due by date before being passed down the food chain to us groms.
When Col’s death stopped the original supply we swapped to FreeFlights and Al Byrne shaped “channelys”. The Redhead channel connection continued with local shaper Wayne “Pommy” Stoddart whose Krackas (yep, now the famous clubbie brand) were almost always channel bottoms. In the late 80s it was totally natural to see six, 15-year-old groms walking down to surf three foot slop all armed with six or eight channel pintails. Our world was very much a convex one.
Those 15-year-olds are now 45 and without a doubt every one of them, including me, has always had a least a couple of deep grooved channel bottoms in their quiver. It’s in our DNA. It is part of our surfing identity. Now in the end Col didn’t make the short list of our six best surfer/shapers of all time. His influence was curtailed by his early death and maybe his fairly radical designs. Yet in our small ex-coal mining town, his shadow still looms as large as the massive ochre coloured bluff that protects the beach from the nor’easter. And for that, I’m eternally grateful.