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  bob mctavish : pods for primates #1

Pods for Primates
By Bob McTavish
Tracks March 1973
Reprinted in The Best of Tracks 1973, pages 120 - 121.

Bob McTavish's ground breaking and inspirational historical overview of Australian surfboard design from the early solid timber boards until the current designs, circa 1972, is a major influence on the creation of this web site.
The sub-title, possibly added by editor John Witig, is possibly an oblique reference to Kenneth Clarke's outstanding 1969 BBC television documentary and subsequent book, Civilisation - A Personal View.
My notes in brackets note spelling errors, some historical clarification and associated links to relevant material in

Also see Part 2.

Though old time shapes seem crude in retrospect, you can bet their creators put as much thought into them as any modern-day shaper does.
It's just the accumulated knowledge and competition that have whittled the board down to what it is today.
And anyone's story on shapes can really only reflect their own personal experience.
Some of the boards I thought were outstanding, other people have glanced over, and vice-versa.
This story is an attempt at a knowledgeable and open minded general view.

Ok, starting our general view from under a palm tree on Waikiki Beach two hundred years ago, the nearest thing to Eden, almost permanent offshore winds, perfect climate, magic iridescent water and lots of swells.
The few guys out would have been on "Olo" (errata : Alaia) boards, round-nose square tail 8-12 feet long, solid wood, good for low buoyancy and going straight off on the beautiful greenies.
Out comes the king after awhile on his deluxe model (Olo), 16-18 feet of solid wood.
A bit easier on the paddle, built for the big days, when it was time for him to show why he was king.

So when Duke Kohunomuku (sic, Kahanamoku) came to Australia it was an Olo (Alaia,#100) he shaped out of a slab of pine, and showed the amazed beach goers how to get some value out of the surf.
Mainly the rides were straight ins, but there was some angling going on.
So on through the hollow board era.

The hollows were a radical tangent from centre.
Basically 14-16 feet with extremes on these figures.
Paddling became the feature, probably partly because the surfboard contests were simply paddling contests, out round a buoy thing.
The surf club era in Australia.

The (United) States was a little less far out.
Boards stayed more around the 10-12 foot mark, with a school of 8 foot devotees.
They utilised the hollowness to improve performance, getting into mild turns and some pretty hot angling, the era of taking your girl out on the front of your board, or a dog.
Also drag foot turns, headstands, backwards rides.

Basically, the hollow boards were plywood deck and bottom, a few spares (sic, spars) and ribs, and redwood, cedar, or pine rails, square or solid shaped round ones.
A few people were experimenters, the most famous was (Bob) Simmons in the States, a true gremmie.
Lived in his car, with blacked out windows for sleeping, cruised the coast surf hunting, when it was free and easy, discovering super spot after super spot.
Rincon, Malibu,Windansea.
Simmons lived and died surfing.
He was the one who put a fin on a board (debateable, usualy credited to Tom Blake, circa 1934).
And it's stayed there.

One of the interesting designs in the end of the finless era was the "hot curl".
A long narrow rolled bottom shape, with a deep vee, which served some of-the functions of a fin, mainly holding the tail in the wave for hot trims.
There were some searing rides on faster waves of California and of course, Hawaii's racey walls were the perfect challenge for the "hot curl".

Some of the early finned models weren't a lot different from some modern shapes, with some elaborate woodwork to give the desired shape.
Then when Simmons put together balsa and glass, things started to cook.
The shapes (#101) were wide and long, but pretty much along the modern concept, speed from the tail, emphasis on turning and speed, with the forward shuffle being popular, and even a few bodgies walking forward.

Pretty soon a little tail-lift came in, to make the turns a bit sharper, and it was found that the walking and shuffling became easier, and it was advantageous to get forward  as you'd lay the whole board on the water and speed would go up.
Enter the trimming era.

This was where the states (sic, States) were at, when a visiting team of lifeguards brought their little sticks to Australia (International Surf Carnival Torquay 1956, held in conjunction with the Melbourne Olympic Games).
Balsa and glass, teardrops or (sic) around 9'-9' 6" and speed shapes, 10' 6" or so.
I cannot convey to you what a sensation these little pods seemed to us primates, champions of the bronzed sands, patriots of the paddle board.
Shock, delight, scepticism.

But there it was.
Turning, walking, trimming, noseriding, outbacks (sic, cutbacks) even.

No balsa at first, so it was a rapid redesign of the hollow idea (the Okinuee).
The makers of the paddle boards, the sixteen footers, Bennett, Wallace, Woods, kept on going.
Joe Larkin , Mick Hall, Bill Climer (sic Clymer), were the early employee shapers, Les Patterson, Midget (Farrelly).
A bit later Nipper Williams, who got one of the original American balsas, became the early glasser.

Greg McDonagh got into the coolite foam and epoxy resin making strong, light and cleverly made boards.
But, for some reason they didn't make it big.

Roger 'Duck' Keiran in Queensland had the first shaping machine, milling out balsa shapes.
And spray gun glosses.
Duck had many good ideas.
Removal fins even.
Small fins.
His timing was wrong that's all.
Ducky's glasser Dick Laycock came to McDonagh's when Ducky's 'Okinui Club' factory folded in Queensland, and the foam era began.
All the shops started blowing their own blanks in fibreglass and iron braced moulds.
(Barry) Bennett, (Gordon) Woods, (Greg) McDonagh, young Denny  Keogh on the North side and Bill Wallace in a leaky Bronte shed, and Noel Ward and Scotty Dillon in a Bondi basement (errata : "a garage, not a basement" - Scott Dillon).

In 1960 the first magazine came out - Severson's Surfer annual - Bennett imported a stack - foreshadowing later moves.
Lee Cross did an Australian version later that year, and a second in 1961.
In that magazine we saw the first media look at design.
The ads featured foam details.
The back pages had a little story on Midget's & (Dave) Jacko's (Jackman) boards for Hawaii.
11 foot guns.

Dillon came northside.

McDonagh developed textured decks, a glue up machine, experimented with a sanding machine.

Woodsie pumped 'em out.
Bennett was clean.
Joe Larkin moved to Kirra to become Queensland's fourth shop.
Ray Woolsey had been going for years in Brisbane.
A carpenter with surfer son (, ?) Jeffries had made beautiful balsa boards in Brisbane but faded when foam came in.
A plastics firm, MPI, had powered on the foamies for a while in Ducky's Qld shop, and a few years later Jeff Godby slipped into the same factory.

For some reason, Scott Dillon (Surfboards) started to boom in Sydney, probably because it was the gremmie shop and gremmies were the thing.
The yank Dewey Weber in his rip-zip-pivot shoulder roll turn style had a fair following.
Rodney Sumpter and Mickey Mabbit (little Dooley) had the Peninsula guys buying boards there, and Nat (Young) and  Kenno (Bob Kennerson) got the Collaroy/Narrabeen guys buying.
Shapes didn't do much in this era.
The standard tail lifted things.
Square fins were big, then the Phil fin or Reverse fin.

In 1962 Foley boards had a bit of interest.
A 6 ' 6" wide tail board, another foreshadow.

Midget got with Keyo (Surfboards) and he did things.
He peeled Gopher (Rodney Sumpter) and Nat away, put 'em on little 9' 9", thin pippy hot doggers and Nat came on.
Midget did a balsa board 9' 7" and won Makaha (Contest, December 1962), went to California, and matured rapidy .
His shapes on his return looked very Reynolds Yater, a fluid design leader in the states (sic).
Longer up to 10 feet, softer bottoms, littler round rails.
Continuing his run he went into 'hook' tails, lengthening one rail by an inch or two and slightly offsetting the tail shape.
They didn't last, but don't give up!
They still could get going.
Especially the asymetrical or offset part.
A few guns took on in these mid-years.
Scott Dillon and Bob Pike shaped quite a few, along the lines of Dick Brewer's Surfboards Hawaii designs (#102).
10' 6"-12' 6" huge bowls under nose, and six feet of dead straight tail ending in an elaborate laminated wood tail block.
But the dream of Balsa guns was done by Les Patterson, both at Dillons and when he started up Dales (Dale Surfboards).

Dale's hot-dog boards were nice.
Hippy, with more tail lift, and beautiful color pigment jobs.

Dave Chidgey, who had been a Foley board fanatic, got Midget and McTavish to shape him an 8 foot gun, of balsa.
This little zipper did it, Dee Why point got done over, if only he'd stuck it out and they'taken on then, we could have had hot sticks in the uncrowded days.

Surfing Hollowdays (film, by Bruce Brown) came out and Phil (Edwards) was really up there, the man. The American Surfer (magazine) featured Hobie (Surfboards) ads of  Phil's model; enter the golden model era!
Enter three stringers!!
Enter the super- smooth "functional" era.

The Didge (Midget Farrelly) took the lead, going to 10' 6" heavy, speed lined multi - stringer boards, first at Woodsey's (Gordon Woods Surfboards), then his own shop.
The thing was to surf loose, slack jointed, feel the flow, sensitise the equilibrium, trim, trim, trim, trim, but keep it smooth.

Looking back, this thing got pretty ridiculous, so many people thinking it was the outward traits that made it work.
Shot wrists, bandy legged forward stances, wiggle waggle the head.
But the thing really was that the speed potential was so great,  a 10' 6" stream-lined trimmer, and lines were the most conducive to carving turns yet seen in "hot dog" shapes.
Midget really saw the potential and transcended "functional", allowed  the wave to become the base, the rhythm, the platform, the basic frame to build on.

His speed carried  him through, past, and off and back on and in then fast fast fast through again.  Even the white water was territory to be exploited for racey trims.
The weight that could be sunk into the turns was pretty great.
Leverage off a 35 pound board, especially moving fast could really make a mess of a section, or propel you from one direction, for example a left fade, through a muscle straining turn behind the curl, and the momentum would carry you right back along the bottom up into the tube again, if you could extend it that far.

The man himself arrived back here in 1964 in all his quiet glory.
The occasion was the first world contest, a real thriller, with Midget putting it together to edge out (Mike) Doyle and (Joey) Cabell.
Phil surfed around a bit, Palm Beach, Burleigh, Kirra (and Byron Bay).
Just to see him made your eyeballs spin, but witness him wait for His (sic) wave, set it up in his paddle, fade, turn, then somehow wind it out to maximum speed and hold it there for timeless second after second, with section after section ripping by, grasping for him but without chance, then when he was ready, he'd slam it into reverse, fling himself in full layout fashion against his momentum, pendulum his giant board back under him and trim it out left under the soup of the wave had just desecrated.
So artful, graceful, powerful, and so fine!

Cabell really impressed some with his opposite approach.
His thing was to stuff himself into (the) curl at every opportunity, foresaking almost anything to do it, then dress up the situation with a noseride if possible.
This meant the wave became everything, every nuance and change in the rate of peel had to be answered.
He rode high, swooping out of the top to accelerate, trimming it through, then stepping up to hold it back in there as long as he could.
This approach captured the imagination of those that had the nice waves to work on, so up at Noosa it got going, with (Bob) Cooper, Russell Hughes, Algie Grud, myself, Kevin Platt, making the boards to suit at Hayden's (Surfboards).

Mickey Dora, the Malibu Monster, was the Californian idol of the time.
His cat like pussy footed grace has not been forgotten.
No man ever surfed sneakier, sleeker or slipperier, and the boys in the Noosa toobes loved it!!
But no one ever came near the man himself.

Shorter, 9'- 9' 6" fuller throughout, thin rails, finer.
Cabell's model made at McDonagh's was the forerunner.
The Hayden boards soon took on in Sydney, Brian Morris and Bondi guys took to them.

Meanwhile the Nat was coming on strong on massive Gordon Woods boards, 10' 4" and 10' 6", giant maroon planks, which were merely toys to the big kid.
Long Reef, Collaroy and Narrabeen were his hang-outs, and hang out he did.
To see Nat rip down an eight foot Reef peak, charge off (a) huge backside turn and start stepping for the nose while still at the bottom, arrive at the tip as he hit the top, curl both feet over the nose and just fly across a big slope, all  loose and gangly, sent terror to your heart!
This kid could do anything!!
Have mercy!!
To see him crocodile paddle out overtaking everyone, knee paddle up on tow (sic, toe) tips, digging deeper and faster than was humanly possible, then stop and glide, let out a string of obscenities, paddle out past everyone, take anyone's wave, it was his, even if you were his best china plate (sic, slang: china plate - mate - friend), noseride for seconds, slam cutbacks, swear again, step up there again, laugh loud, step back, flutter 10' 6" around like a paddle-pop stick, charge up front and gun the shorebreak, swear a few more times.
And do it all day.

Next Midget wowed everyone by winning the ' 65 (1965 Australian) Championship on a stringerless (sic) clear piece of plastic, little, wide, goodbye Phil.
Stringerless came on strong. (#110)

Nat made Sam, a 9' 5" super thin, and went off to win the (1966, San Deigo) world championship, with tight, fast, busy surfing, as opposed to (David) Nuuhiwa's ultimate trim noseriding - rubberman style.

So that was the thing that was going in Aussieland in 1966.
Shortish, 9'-9'6", 221/2 wide, hot dog shapes, Greenough fins,very very deep, 12" at least.
Top shops were Haydens, Cords where the Hayden gang went, Keyo's, who'd always done well since the Farrelly days, Farrelly's small business at Palm Beach, Woodseys, Bennetts, who'd always made nice boards, Wayne Burton and Ron Grant shaping, and over the southside Peter Clarke had Keith Paul (sic, Paull) doing nicely, and Jacko's (Brian Jackson) always in there, shaping.
Queensland and Sydney were the real centres, the other states often bought or thought their boards from there.
Local shops were going, now manoeuvres consisted of turning from the tail, walking to the centre to turn and maybe to the nose to tail.

The stage was set for change.

Despite the poor editing of the article, the selection of images and the design layout are to Tracks usual high standard. The photographs have been widely reproduced.
1.Duke and board, 1935
2. Surfer, Waikiki, circa 1900. Background image to text.
3. Phil Edwards, noseride.
4. Bob Simmons' Balsa, Plywood, Styrene laminate surfboard, circa 1949.
5. Standard malibu surfboard, circa 1966.
6. Joey Cabell, noseride

Also see Part 2.

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Geoff Cater (2000-2021) : Bob McTavish : Pods for Primates Part 1