Men of wood and foam
No offence to any old-timers that might be reading this, but now that I’m seriously late-middle-aged myself, I sometimes find that after spending time with elderly folk I come away feeling exhausted and, well, just a little depressed.
Together with filmer Shaun Cairns and former pro Mark Warren, I recently spent a couple of weeks in the company of men ranging in age from 75 to 90, and guess what? I felt exhilarated and inspired by the experience! What amazing lives these old blokes have led, and what reserves of energy they still have left!
We’ve been filming a TV documentary about the pioneers of the Australian surfboard industry, the men who set up factories on an old market garden at Brookvale, behind Sydney’s northern beaches, in the postwar years and built a tiny cottage industry into a surfboard boom that changed our beach culture forever. The grandest old men of the industry are Gordon Woods, 90, Billy Wallace, 89, and Scott Dillon, also 89. Given his seniority, the remarkable Mr Woods seemed like a good place to start.
Gordon’s not as nimble as he once was since having a stroke, but after a three-hour interview in his penthouse apartment overlooking the Sydney Heads, he thought we needed to visit his man-cave where he keeps the first finned surfboard made in Australia, one he built in December 1956. Keeping up with Gordon as he flashed through the back streets in his sporty car with personalised plates was not easy, but we made it to the cave in one piece, and he unveiled the hollow ply “okanui”, still in immaculate condition.
As we filmed him with the board, I suddenly realised that Gordon was buggered. “Do you need a breather, old mate?” I asked. “Perfectly fine,” he snapped, and continued posing with undisguised pride with his creation, the board that started it all nearly 60 years ago.
That board was a copy of a red balsa board that Gordon had seen ridden at Manly by American lifeguard Bob Burnside, in Australia for an international surf carnival held in conjunction with the Melbourne Olympics. He’d been amazed by the way Burnside had turned the shorter (only 10 feet) and lightweight board with a big D-shaped fin across the wave and ridden diagonally to shore as he walked up and down the deck. Gordon drove to the Games in Melbourne, then on to Torquay, where he extracted a promise from Burnside that he would sell him the board before leaving the country.
That board became the template for the entire Australian surfboard industry.
Shaun Cairns, Gordon Woods, Mark Warren, and Phil Jarratt with the red balsa board that became the template for the Australian surfboard industry
If Gordon Woods was the man who kick-started the industry, Barry Bennett was the engine that kept it running. When we caught up with Barry, now 84, at 7am on a warm morning that would reach 40-plus by lunch-time, he’d already been at work for two hours, supervising the first of the day’s two production shifts at Dion Chemicals, where about 200 foam blanks are popped out of ancient concrete moulds each day, supplying not only the Australian market but about a dozen export markets as well.
When foam began to replace balsa as the preferred surfboard core in the late 1950s, most of the Brookvale board builders blew their own, with their eyes stinging from the weird and wonderfully toxic plastic mixes they poured into home-made moulds. But by the time the surf boom kicked in around 1963, Barry Bennett was the king of blanks, supplying them all. He still is.
A quiet, reserved man, Barry rarely gives interviews, but he seemed to enjoy recalling the old days, when he would strap his 16-foot toothpick board to the side of a tram to ride from the family home at Waverley to Bondi Beach.
Surfing has been exceptionally good to Bennett, but the flip-side of that is that many board shops would have gone under, were it not for the generosity of the “bank of Barry”. He is an institution in Brookvale, but admits that there is a bit of family pressure on him to slow down now. “Maybe next year,” he grins, flicking some foam dust from his hair.
Denny Keogh and Greg McDonagh share the honours for being the first boardbuilders to experiment with foam blanks back in the late 1950s, just as balsa supplies became more constant and the lighter wood replaced the hollow okanuis. But Keogh and McDonagh almost leapfrogged the balsa era, even though Denny for a time produced balsa kits, one of which provided the young Midget Farrelly with his first “shortboard”. But Keogh and McDonagh both had their eyes on a much bigger prize, lightweight poly-foam surfboards that they both knew would transform the industry.
In the end it was Barry Bennett who took on blank production seriously, and established a virtual monopoly, but not before young turks McDonagh and Keogh courted disaster with factory fires and explosions, and came up with a formula for strong, durable blanks that wouldn’t blow up or shrink in the sun.
We interviewed Denny and Greg separately but found many parallels not only in their surfboard manufacturing stories, but in their fit, slim presence close to 80, and their easy-going attitude to life, possibly due in part to the financial successes they enjoyed after surfboards, Denny with Hobie Cats and Greg with the Surf Dive & Ski retail chain.
Outside of Sydney, we interviewed Billy Wallace at home in Noosa, where he put down his shaping tools for the last time about three years ago, and globetrotting Joe Larkin, who was briefly home on the Tweed Coast before heading to New York for Christmas. There were interviews too with the surfer/shapers who had learnt from the pioneers, among them Farrelly and McTavish. But the Brookvale story couldn’t be told without the inclusion of one guy who was its heart and soul.
For about a year I’d been trying to track down the whereabouts of Scott Dillon. Scotty just could not be left out, but where was he? He’d gotten himself into a bit of strife in Hawaii a couple of years ago when he disappeared for a few days, leaving his rental car at an airport. He was declared a missing person and police began combing the islands for a feisty old bugger in boardies, wearing a lot of bling and a lot more attitude. He’s been an international man of mystery ever since.
Scott Dillon at Bare Island, La Perouse, winter 1962
I tracked him to Tasmania and was about to fly there when I got a tip – a nursing home in Coffs Harbour. Yes, Mr Dillon was in residence and would I like to speak to him?
“Phil,” he bellowed, “where ya bloody been?”
Born in Bondi in 1928, Scotty rode toothpicks from the age of six, and in the immediate post-war years was one of Sydney’s finest and gamest surfers. In the 1950s he turned to surfboard production, but would never be found at the factory when the surf was up, and his many employees loved him for that.
Everywhere he went, Scotty was the life of the party, even as he got older. In Coffs Harbour we shared some chuckles about the many Noosa Surf Festivals he’s attended, and the year he and Midget Farrelly were guests of the Biarritz Surf Festival and we showed them around the wineries and tapas bars of the Basque Coast. It was not the Scotty of old, but he still had spirit.
“I think I might go back to Hawaii and ride some proper waves,” he said as we signed him back into the home. “As soon as I get me life back together and get out of here.” He winked and made a rude gesture as a pretty nurse led him back to his room. //PHIL JARRATT