Men of wood and foam

Phil Jarratt
Swellnet Dispatch

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.

gordon_woods_0.jpeg
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_bare_island_1962_0.jpg
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

Comments

zenagain's picture
zenagain's picture
zenagain commented Wednesday, 16 Dec 2015 at 9:55am

Gold but too short.

Guessing this is only a teaser?

Watashi wa metabo oyagi desu.

atticus's picture
atticus's picture
atticus commented Wednesday, 16 Dec 2015 at 9:59am

TV documentary? When and where is it on Phil.

tootr's picture
tootr's picture
tootr commented Wednesday, 16 Dec 2015 at 1:09pm

Spent some time with Scott Dillon at his surf museum north of Coffs a few years back. Walked around with us looking at the boards and memorabilia, yarning away, telling tall tales and true.
Classic bloke.

tonybarber's picture
tonybarber's picture
tonybarber commented Wednesday, 16 Dec 2015 at 1:56pm

Denny Keogh also got it distribution of Neil Pryde sailboard gear. Never to far away from waters edge. Looking forward to the doco…
The bombie at Bare Island (photo) has a great left also - short but sweet.

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy commented Wednesday, 16 Dec 2015 at 2:05pm

You should ask Barry about the day Dion Chemicals blew up! Must have been around 1970. 44 gallon drums of acetone going through the roof like sky rockets!

talkingturkey's picture
talkingturkey's picture
talkingturkey commented Wednesday, 16 Dec 2015 at 5:18pm

Absolute gold. Look forward to the doco.

waterhen's picture
waterhen's picture
waterhen commented Wednesday, 16 Dec 2015 at 8:03pm

good work mr jarratt and team. this is a great piece of surfing history in australia. looking forward to seeing the finished product.

peterb's picture
peterb's picture
peterb commented Thursday, 17 Dec 2015 at 7:35am

Phil, didn't happen to ask Scot what he did with his old boards did you? He was holding a few in his museum on behalf of their owners.

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy commented Thursday, 17 Dec 2015 at 6:58pm

The first board I surfed regularly was a Scott Dillon the owner used (foolishly) to store at our house. The first board I owned was an 8'10 Keyo shaped by McTavish. Don't think I ever had one from Gordon Woods but I know I rode a few when the Scott Dillon wasn't available. When board lengths dropped I had a 5'8" from Bill Wallace and 2 Bennets shaped by McTavish again. I then had some more Keyos shaped by the late Jim Beardsley (a victim of US gun violence) and was working there the year they got the Hobie licence. I remember them experimenting with blowing the foam into the hulls. Quite a few failures along the way. Lots of good memories of those days. I used to walk past most of the factories on my way home from school.......on the days I actually got there!

rule303's picture
rule303's picture
rule303 commented Friday, 18 Dec 2015 at 7:18pm

Might have to dust off my circa 1962 Gordon Woods Mal tomorrow in honor of the man, 90 still going well done.

For anyone who has forgotten or never seen check out for a bit of history
http://www.surfresearch.com.au/mWoods.html

velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno commented Friday, 18 Dec 2015 at 7:29pm

Great stuff Phil, are you going to go further to include other areas - the pioneers on the West Coast for example?

tonybarber's picture
tonybarber's picture
tonybarber commented Friday, 18 Dec 2015 at 9:47pm

Now gents, as you reminisce back to those times, wax up that old log and give it another go - bloody ain't easy.

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy commented Friday, 18 Dec 2015 at 10:01pm

Nah those days are dead and gone I have never been able to understand the mal thing. Short boards were the best thing that ever happened to surfing.

Blowin's picture
Blowin's picture
Blowin commented Tuesday, 22 Dec 2015 at 7:28pm

I could google it a lot quicker, but the response would be a lot more dispassionate....

Anyone ever attempted to " blow" their own blank and if so, how the fuck do you go about it ?

Well done Mr Jarrat.

Mark warren looks healthy as all get out.

If you run into him again, you reckon you could give him a tiny uppercut for all those hours of cricket, footy, MotoGP and darts the prick made me sit through as I waited for the surfing to appear on Wide World of Sports as it was always allegedly " coming up soon".... Like fuck it was.

fullyloadedman's picture
fullyloadedman's picture
fullyloadedman commented Wednesday, 23 Nov 2016 at 3:04pm

Build a mould, mix the foam, poor it in. Cant be that hard... ;)

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy commented Tuesday, 22 Dec 2015 at 7:42pm

Muzza has a portrait in the attic I reckon.

Blowin's picture
Blowin's picture
Blowin commented Tuesday, 22 Dec 2015 at 7:56pm

It looks like the result of happiness to me.

And that's coming from personal experience, both for the better and worse.

But if it's a portrait holding back the tide , then I'm in the market for one myself.

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy commented Tuesday, 22 Dec 2015 at 8:02pm

I might have to take a drive out to Avalon to check on that Blowin' I haven't seen him for a while, but yeh he was always a positive and cheerful character.

Blowin's picture
Blowin's picture
Blowin commented Tuesday, 22 Dec 2015 at 8:08pm

Positive and cheerful....never been too much of that in the world.

Good luck to him.

Leen's picture
Leen's picture
Leen commented Thursday, 24 Dec 2015 at 3:55pm

Still got a GW at home 1964 9'2 triple string, god its heavy.GW wanted to buy it back 20years ago but no, too much history.

sidthefish's picture
sidthefish's picture
sidthefish commented Saturday, 26 Dec 2015 at 8:54pm

Awesome. I love a bit of heritage & nostalgia especially as I get older. These guys godfathered an Aussie lineage of board craftsman. Their protege's transplanted themselves north, the likes of Van Stralen, Joe Larkin, Gordon Merchant (yes he shaped). The Aussie brookie lineage then collided with the USA Yater / Wilderness lineage of Bob Cooper, Cundith , Greenough, West etc. for what was a great creative explosion in Aussie surfcraft.

freeride76's picture
freeride76's picture
freeride76 commented Monday, 28 Dec 2015 at 8:36am

McTavish deserves a mention there, and Brocky.

tonybarber's picture
tonybarber's picture
tonybarber commented Monday, 28 Dec 2015 at 9:28am

And Wallace and Denny and ...

sidthefish's picture
sidthefish's picture
sidthefish commented Monday, 28 Dec 2015 at 10:27am

Was talking to sidthecrim over Xmas and mentioned this article. He fondly remembers the Keyos, and his old mate the late Micky Mac who got taught by McTavish. I think Richard Harvey also had these origins.

Ah, the genisis of Brookie.

fullyloadedman's picture
fullyloadedman's picture
fullyloadedman commented Wednesday, 23 Nov 2016 at 3:08pm

What a great bloke Micky Mac was... Surely those chemicals aren't good for you.

david browne's picture
david browne's picture
david browne commented Thursday, 8 Dec 2016 at 10:16pm

I still have my old Scott Dillon pig board. Foam and balsa d fin. It has been fully reconditioned and is in absolute pristine condition and sits in the garage on the wall. Andy, the restorer, actually was able to save the Scott Dillon sticker and reapply it. We did lose the registration sticker from 1963. I rode that board all over the North Shore but chiefly at North Avalon, Newport and Long Reef. Dee Why Point in the winter. No wet suit though - football jersey and jeans. Could have told you where Scott was - emailed him at the museum a few years ago. Maybe it was ten years ago. The time flies the closer you get to nappies and Sustagen.

David Fletcher's picture
David Fletcher's picture
David Fletcher commented Sunday, 8 Jan 2017 at 9:36pm

I've just pulled out my 1962 Gordon Woods board from under my parents house. Anyone give me a rough idea what it may be worth? The nose has been repaired, about 2" in, a little bit of yellowing ( good for its age) otherwise great condition.

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet commented Monday, 9 Jan 2017 at 2:29pm

Need to see photos David. Though what I do know is that prices for 60s boards peaked a while ago. The big money is now being spent on late-70s and early-80s boards, as the demographic with the most disposable income are those who started surfing then.

Feel free to post photos here (use Imgur or something similar), send to me at: [email protected], or even join Vintage Surfboard Collectors on Facebook and ask the question.

curly2alex's picture
curly2alex's picture
curly2alex commented Thursday, 19 Jul 2018 at 5:45pm

Just read Greg McDonagh passed away recently...R.I.P

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