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The Golden Age and Evolution of Surfing

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Woman on surfboard.

The 1950s were the Golden Age of surfing which emereged from a long and somewhat turbulent history. All along Southern California, coastal communities from Santa Barbara to San Diego, literally 1000s of gremmies (young surfers) took to the waves and beaches like never before. Because of the post war prosperity and the commercialisation of board manufacturing, almost any child could mow enough lawns, deliver enough newspapers, or collect enough bottles to get himself onto a good lightweight board.

By the end of the decade, manufacturers were about to brake the techno barrier, with the new advances in foam and resin technologies. Bob Simmons had opened the door to this technology in the late '40s when he created a plywood covered foam and fibreglass board. Ten years later, Hobie Alter, Gordon Clark, Harold Walker, and Greg Noll began producing all-foam boards. These boards didn't change surfing style particularly - the light weight balsa boards were responsible for that - but the foam boards made board design more predictable and consistent. You could make the same board over and over again without worrying about different weights of wood, bad grain, or whatever problems there were with wood.

1959 was an epic year for surfing, and it was thought that a heavyweight like Dora, Noll or Edwards would make an impact on surfing. However, it was Kathy Khroner who made the break. More commonly known as Gidget, she became a star, releasing a steady stream of Beachy movies onto the American public1. About the only good that came from these corny cinematic embarrassments, aside from providing some part-time employment for Mickey Dora, Munoz, Johnny Fain and Tubestake, was the new style of music they featured. The surf guitar and the 'screamin reverbin'' surf sound was born.

The movie Beach Party marked the first time Dick Dale and the Deltones played to a national audience and a short time later another inane beach movie Muscle Beach Party announced the introduction of Little Steve Wonder. This time marked the beginnings of a serious tribal revival, and serious surfers weren't at these movies, because when they weren't surfing you could find them at places like the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, Harmony Park in Anaheim, or at the Aragon Ballroom at POP in Santa Monica. These places were a sea of Goodyear treaded Huarache sandals, Pendleton shirts, and faded Levis as 3 - 4000 people a night packed these halls to stomp the night away. Groups like the Bel Airs, Dick Dale and the Deltones, The Baymen, or the Chantay's rocked the halls. Who could forget such memorable tunes as 'Taco Wagon', 'Let's Go Trippin'', 'Let there Be Surf', 'Mr Moto', or 'Pipeline'? This was music you could get into, and within a couple of years there were more than 40 surf bands in and around Southern California, pounding out the surf beat in halls and auditoriums all up and down the coast.

Along with the surf beat came surf fashion. Everyone wanted to at least look like a surfer, even if they couldn't be a surfer. Beyond the faded Levis, huarache sandals, and pendleton shirts, the first true fashion created for surfers were the baggy surf trunks which were worn long to keep the wax rash from your legs. Hang Ten was the first company to mass-produce surf trunks. They advertised in Surfer magazine and sold them in all the local surf shops. Mike Doyle was one of the first models for the company. As Mike remembers, surfers were into anti-fashion so much that as soon as Hang Ten became popular with non-surfers they stopped wearing their trunks. But by then surf posers were everywhere.

What most people didn't realise at the time was the intense amount of creative energy that was focused on the sport of surfing. The '50s were no doubt the most prolific period in the years of surfing's history. Within these ten years surfing went from an arcane coastal pastime to a multi-million dollar industry supporting entrepreneurs chemists, engineers, artists and craftsmen. There was no good old boy network to rely on, no deep pocket defence contracts for funding, and there was no national marketing scheme in place. What there were some sawhorses under a pier, some garage workshops, a few cameras, and a couple of Bell and Howell 8mm movie cameras, and that was about it.

Surfboard Evolution

The 1960s were a time of refinement and growth of surfing. The boards became more and more complex as the theories of hydrodynamics were being applied to surfing. The new boards had channels and vees cut into their bottoms. New theories were tested and new designs proven. Though longboards remained popular during the early '60s, balsa wood had been almost exclusively exchanged for foam and fibreglass. The jet-propelled introduction of the shortboard transformed the way that everybody looked at surfing, and pretty much converted every surfer to a shortboarder overnight. Between 1968 - 1970 the average length of the surfboard went from ten to six feet, and lost about eight pounds. Manufacturers could hardly give away the longboards and many ended up shaving off a few feet and reselling them as 6.5 footers.

It is debatable who started the shortboard revolution, though George Greenough (AST) was of major influence taking positive qualities from the designs of his knee boards, along with the influence of Bob McTavish (USA). Shaper Bob Simmons (USA) and Surfer David Nuuhiwa were also prominent influences in the transformation to the shortboard during the sixties. The major advantage over the new shape was its emphasis in speed. Making good use of the foam and fibreglass technologies, the shortboard was extremely manoeuvrable and enabled the rider not only to surf the waves vertically like the longboard, but also to ride inside the pipe, and carve radical turns in and out of the white water. During its early stages, the shortboard went through several progressions, one being the lack of control of the tail end, hence the creation of the pintail design to add stability in the pocket of the wave. In Australia, designers were making their boards thicker to aid flotation, though this restrained its speed, while in the USA the board remained thinner, but didn't hold its buoyancy as well. Shortly after, a little lift was added to the nose of the surfboard to help with flotation. The flexible fin also came into the picture and eventually the shortboard became the basis of the all around performance board of today.

The excitement of the shortboard in the late sixties carried though into the early 1970s as surfers started to get the hang of the new riding style. Unfortunately, improvements made to the surfboard during the '70s were few, with the exception of general experimentation relating rail curve and the shape of the tail.

One of the biggest things to happen to surfing occurred in 1973, when surfer Jack O'Neill invented the leash, or leg rope. This piece of stretchy yet extremely strong surgical tubing enabled the surfboard to be attached to the leg of the surfer, hence keeping the board from washing ashore every time the surfer missed a wave. Leashes were designed in different sizes depending on the size of the wave and are attached to the board at the tail end by a plug that is soundly embedded. It is truly a great design because it allows the leash to be interchangeable between boards and easily replaced in case of damage.

A huge change came with the introduction of tri-fins, or the thruster. The three-fin layout increased the board's ability to change direction quickly without losing much speed. The introduction of the three-fin surfboard in 1981, with its three fins permanently glassed on became the standard board for most surfers. In the meantime, the longboard was entering a revival phase, which expanded into the '90s where it remains influential to the board design industry today. In fact, half of today's surfing population ride the same style of longboard as the boards designed almost 50 years ago.

1If you wish to see a good theatrical film centred on surfing, watch Big Wednesday, or The North Shore.

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