“This is the board that changed everything,” says Gary Crockett. We’re in the basement of the Museum of Sydney looking at a 6 ft 2, pale green, sharp-nosed surfboard with three equal-sized fins on its underside. “It’s the actual board that Simon Anderson rode to victory in the Coke Surfabout in April 1981. Feel that,” he says, holding it out to me – “it’s incredibly light.”
Anderson, Crockett says, developed the Thruster in 1980 at the end of a decade that saw the emergence of the new breed of hardcore surfers determined to win contests and sponsorships. “It’s a board that enabled a surfer to do so much more on a wave. For the next 30 years, this board is essentially the only board.”
The Thruster bears little resemblance to the boards on the opposite wall that date from the early 1960s: towering nine-footers with thick, heavy bodies that must have been awkward indeed to handle in the swell. But they’re beautiful nonetheless.
The two kinds of board bookend the new show that Crockett has curated at the museum, Surf City, which showcases the importance of surfing culture to Sydney, and Sydney to surfing culture. Spanning the 1950s to the 1970s, the exhibition features vintage boards, surfwear, surf magazines, photographs, films and memorabilia.
Surfing as we know it today first reached Australia in 1956 when a group of Californian lifeguards came to Bondi for a surf lifesaving meet. The locals were still using lengthy hollow paddleboards called ‘toothpicks’. “The Americans had these fibreglass-covered balsa boards with fins designed for turning, cutting back and being expressive on a wave,” says Crockett. “They showed kids in Australia what they’d been missing out on.”
Australian surf culture at that time was dominated by highly regimented lifesaving clubs populated by World War II veterans. Standing up on the board was seen as an act of defiance. “The arrival of ‘malibu’ boards coincided with the coming of age of post-war kids,” Crockett explains. “It was this new tool for expressing their difference from their parents.”
By 1960 Sydney had gone surfing mad, fired up by American surf movies, music and fashions. Sydney produced its first surfing superstar in the form of Midget Farrelly, who grew up in Freshwater, won a major contest in Hawaii in 1963, then took out the inaugural World Surfing Championships in Manly the following year. He starred in Australia’s first surfing movie, Midget Goes Hawaiian – a play on 1961’s Hollywood surf comedy Gidget Goes Hawaiian.
Surf culture took a darker turn in the late 60s. Board riders were threatened by the draft and surfing became a subset of psychedelic experience. The exhibition reflects this era by way of a trippy three-wall mural. Visitors will also be able to take a seat on vintage car backseats and watch surfing footage.
For Crockett, who is curator of the Hyde Park Barracks Museum, this exhibition is well overdue. “I surfed seriously until my mid-20s and a couple of years ago it dawned on me that this was a story that has never been told.
“Surfing is a phenomenon that swept through Sydney and manifested in all sorts of ways. Surf culture invaded popular culture and became part of Sydney’s identity.”