There’s not much that writer Phil Jarratt doesn’t know about surfing in Australia. Now he’s put his knowledge into an Australian history of the sport, writes HELEN GREGORY.
Veteran surf journalist Phil Jarratt’s first meeting with former professional Mark Richards was as poignant as it was indicative of the history of his involvement with the dynamic sport.
Jarratt had arrived in Newcastle in 1970 as a Sydney Morning Herald cadet, working in Bolton Street, living in shabby digs in the East End and attending shorthand and typing classes as the only male student at what he recalls was Newcastle Ladies Business College.
Working afternoons allowed him to devote the mornings to surfing, which he had fallen in love with as a child growing up in Wollongong in the 1960s under the wing of the celebrated Bobby Brown, who died in a pub brawl in 1967.
Jarratt had surfed competitively up to the age of 18, then mostly hit the waves for recreation.
‘‘I would get to the city beaches in the morning and I kept running into this tiny, scrawny kid who always looked like he was about to burst into tears,’’ Jarratt recalls, his deep voice seeped in fondness.
‘‘You know how just before you start to cry your chin starts to wobble?
‘‘He always looked like that, but he could really surf, he was amazing, he had this unique style.
‘‘That was my introduction to Mark Richards.
‘‘A few years later I ran into him again as a journalist covering the beginnings of world pro surfing and I was astounded by the improvements in a few short years between 1970 and 1974 – Mark had gone from strength to strength.
‘‘You could see in the early days he was going to be somebody special.’’
Jarratt’s decision to leave newspaper journalism, follow his passion and dip his toes in the world of surfing magazines would set into motion a gambolling career in the industry that has spanned more than 40 years.
‘‘I think anybody that’s really involved with surfing and really loves it as a sport and lifestyle wants to try and make a living out of it,’’ he tells Weekender matter-of-factly from his home in Noosa Heads.
‘‘Back in those days when I was starting out professionally in journalism in the early 1970s there wasn’t really the career option to work as such in the surf industry and I certainly wasn’t good enough to ever become a professional surfer.
‘‘In the early ’70s professional surfing didn’t really exist either.
‘‘There were guys out there on a tiny little world tour but they weren’t really making money out of it, they were losing it.
‘‘I knew I wanted to do something that kept me involved in surfing and really the only option at the time unless you were a pioneer in the surfing industry – and a few of my friends became that – was to get a job in the media.’’
He edited Tracks magazine and Australian Surfer’s Journal, was a contributing editor to Surfer and Pacific Longboarder magazines, wrote 27 books, was a scriptwriter and consultant on surfing films, worked for Quiksilver in Europe and the US and collaborated with Surfing Australia on projects that included the recent release of a commemorative stamp set to celebrate the Year of The Surfer.
He has launched this month his most recent project, Surfing Australia; A Complete History of Surfboard Riding in Australia (pictured below) which chronicles the development of the sport over the past 50 years from the rebel fringe to the sporting mainstream, as well as the 50 years of adventure and experimentation that preceded the half-century of organised surfing.
Jarratt said he had ‘‘rooms full of research’’ following his last book Australia’s Hottest 100 Surfing Legends, which was packed with profiles on the sport’s greatest athletes.
‘‘After all these years of being involved I felt that all this work had one place, between one set of covers,’’ he says.
‘‘There had been histories of Australian surfing but I wouldn’t regard any one of them as really comprehensive and what I wanted to produce was a book that would stand the test of time, could be updated eventually but one that really told the whole story.’’
It also happened that 2013 would be the 50th anniversary of the birth of Surfing Australia, the governing body for a sport that had traditionally been the domain of the rebels and outsiders who had resisted governance in any form.
‘‘It has played such an important part in grooming Australians for the world tour and creating champions like Layne Beachley and Mark Richards and so many others and I thought I should combine my idea for a comprehensive history of the sport with Surfing Australia’s desire to have a book that comprehensively told their story.
‘‘So it’s a combination, my book tells the story of the whole century of surfing in this country but its also got a very strong emphasis on the organisational side of it, the contests, how we created so many champions over time.’’
Jarratt’s enthusiasm for the sport and attention to detail is evident in the hardback book, which follows surfing pioneers; the birth of clubs, contests and board-building; surfers sent to World War II; big characters and gangs; to the first of Australia’s many international surfing champions, Bernard ‘‘Midget’’ Farrelly and the significance of the 1964 inaugural Surfing World Championships at Manly.
‘‘I’ve tried to use the skills I have as a storyteller to make it accessible to everybody,’’ he says. ‘‘I’ve devoted a lot of space in the book to getting the detail right.’’
The book also dispels some long-perpetuated myths, including that newspaper man William Gocher walked into the water in Manly in 1907 and swam during the day – in an era when ocean swimming was illegal after 7am – was arrested and, in doing so, changed the law.
But Jarratt says it wasn’t like that.
‘‘My reading of it [the truth] was that he was primarily drawing attention to his newspaper but at the time he played it up, ‘I’m testing the law here and if they arrest me I’ll put it in the newspaper and we’ll get this law changed.’
‘‘He did go for a swim at Manly and it did make some difference but the fact was that it was a campaign over the next five years that eventually caused the laws to be changed.
‘‘In Sydney and other populated areas you could go swimming in the surf in daylight hours and that was the beginning of the whole surf culture.
‘‘Everyone started doing it, and people started drowning while doing it, so the surf lifesaving movement began to try to get the fatalities down. Out of all that came surfboards, you could use a surfboard to try and save people.’’
Another myth was that Hawaiian surfer Duke Kahanamoku introduced surfing to Australia when he visited in the summer of 1914-15.
‘‘In fact we had a small but very keen tribe of surfers trying to ride surfboards several years before that,’’ he says. ‘‘This book tells that whole story, how they tried really hard but they didn’t quite have it, didn’t quite understand how to do it, then Duke came out here for that summer and really set things alight.’’