Kanga Cairns on surfing's transformation from a 'pastime for bludgers' to an elite sport

Anthony Pancia
Swellnet Dispatch

He was once a surf-crazed 22-year-old with a dream as big as the West Australian waves he would spend hours riding, often alone.

Now 65 and the subject of a new biography, Ian "Kanga" Cairns is looking back on his role in transforming surfing from a "pastime for bludgers" into a multi-million dollar international sport.

"I'd like to make enough money out of surfing, like other professional sports men like golfers and such," Cairns said to an ABC reporter in 1973. "I'd like to make enough money so that I can continue surfing forever."

Already well-spoken and media-savvy at that young age, Cairns was set on projecting a clean-cut, health conscious image. "At the time surfers were viewed as little more than bludgers, or possibly even worse," said Cairns, who lives in California but is back in Australia for the 2018 Margaret River Pro.

"No one was taking us seriously and myself and a few of my contemporaries like Mark Richards, Rabbit Bartholomew really wanted to change that."

But back then there was another chip developing on his shoulder — the perception that Western Australia's remoteness was leading to its surfers' exclusion from the global world surfing stage.

Kanga in Hawaii 1973

"We West Aussies were really hell-bent on making an impact anywhere we went, so we charged harder whenever the big waves presented themselves," Cairns said. "It was an approach and mind-set that really set me up for what was to come."

Fame, glory, and professionalism

What was to come was a decorated career as a touring professional surfer, with Cairns often notching up victories in waves of similar power and size as the West Australian breaks. But there was always that bigger picture too: pushing for surfing's acceptance as a sport in the eyes of the world — and the accompanying financial rewards.

"Sure, we wanted it all — the fame, the glory and all that came with it," Cairns said. "But really, it was always more than that. We wanted our sport to be something our parents would be proud of, we wanted to be proud about our sport."

But it didn't come without a fight.

The same unrelenting approach he took into big surf and competitions saw Cairns lock horns with surfing's other side, which did not appreciate the push towards professionalism Cairns was hell-bent on instilling.

The conflict resulted in Cairns and his good mate Wayne Bartholomew being forced into exile on the Hawaiian island of Oahu in the seventies, fending off criticism and death threats in the process. But Cairns, who has been based in the US for the past 35 years, does not blink when asked about his "outspoken" reputation.

Kanga claims victory at the 1980 OP Pro at Haleiwa Beach in 1980.

"My mum was black and white, in that it was her way or the highway, and I'm cursed with that gene," he said. "In so many ways it makes life simple, you say what you think and you move on.

"I mean, I'm not stupid — and I know there's consequences for having an opinion — but I want what I say to create positive change."

Ultimately, however, the uncompromising approach seemed to work.

Cairns spearheaded a drastic overhaul of surfing's then-governing body and its participants, particularly the superstars of today, have benefitted ever since.

A story worth writing down

Cairns is aware of the jibes that continue behind his back, which is in part why he initially rejected the offer by author Wayne Patrick Murphy to participate in the writing of a biography.

"I probably lost count of the amount of times he told me to get nicked," Mr Murphy said. "But he finally came around and told me, 'you're a persistent bugger Murphy, if nothing else,' and gave me the green light."

Nonetheless, Mr Murphy knew the real story wasn't just about the achievements Cairns made along the way.

"I told him there was one condition," Mr Murphy said. "I said 'are you prepared to let everyone else have their say, including those people who hate your guts?'

"And he said, 'yeah, that'll make a more interesting read."

The book, Kanga - The Trials and Triumphs of Ian Cairns, is set for release this month.

Validation of surfing dream

As the rich spectacle of the Margaret River Pro raged around him, Cairns took a moment to again cast his gaze over an Indian Ocean throbbing with enormous waves and energy.

For a moment he was again that 22-year-old subject of an ABC documentary, before the bark of the competition's commentators over the loudspeaker snapped him back to the present day.

"All of a sudden you wake up and you're 65 years old standing at Margaret River at an incredible event that used to be a dirt carpark," he said.

"This is validation of all those dreams I had as a kid and I'm forever stoked to have helped make it happen."

//ANTHONY PANCIA
© Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.

Comments

dr-surf's picture
dr-surf's picture
dr-surf commented Monday, 16 Apr 2018 at 9:23am

On Ya Kanga. keep Surfing.

daisy duke kahanamoku's picture
daisy duke kahanamoku's picture
daisy duke kaha... commented Monday, 16 Apr 2018 at 9:59am

Last photo.... looks like Caitlyn Jenner interviewing MR with ex-Republican Senator Fred Hemmings standing to MR's right.

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet commented Monday, 16 Apr 2018 at 10:46am

Good spotting. Also a small amount of irony with Kanga receiving the trophy from Fred, while only two years later he'd wrest control of the sport from Fred when the ASP quashed the IPS.

tango's picture
tango's picture
tango commented Monday, 16 Apr 2018 at 6:59pm

I'm not so sure he deserves those sort of accolades when you consider his "achievements" in the broader context of surfing, as opposed to competitive surfing and the juggernaut we have today. It might be great for him to be 65 and standing there watching a comp at Main Break, but there is a lot of collateral damage strewn behind him.

I wonder what surfing would be like these days if Kanga and the boys (and girls) had taken a different path. All the "participants" in pro/commercial surfing might have benefited, and recreational surfers might have been better off for the product development which has followed it, but I'm not sure the benefits outweigh the costs.

I'd prefer a less crowded Margarets lineup and dirt car park any day.

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy commented Monday, 16 Apr 2018 at 7:52pm

The bludgers comment is self serving. This was the line that the proponents of pro surfing took, that surfers were, or were seen to be, anti-social, while they, being respectable sporting types,would rescue surfing for the sons and daughters of the middle classes. It's true that the tabloid news outlets of the time were just as anxious then as now to create stereotypes and demonise any group who did not conform to their own narrow views. The reality was very different. In my experience of the times surfers, as a generalisation, were infinitely better behaved than many more respectable groups. Think footballers, clubbies, university college types etc etc. nor were we bludgers. My mates were tradesmen, journalists and engineers as well as shapers and glassers. So to see someone who should know better resurrect the tabloid line as a justification for their own career is a bit pathetic.

memlasurf's picture
memlasurf's picture
memlasurf commented Monday, 16 Apr 2018 at 8:15pm

Never a big fan of Cairns thought he was an arrogant prick back in the day. Wouldn't say hello to fellow Aussies who weren't up to his standards. I personally wouldn't deify him as I reckon he had a fat head. MR, Simon of course, him and his mate Townend, Nup.

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy commented Monday, 16 Apr 2018 at 8:40pm

He was outstanding at Sunset so you have to credit that. Also, much as I disagreed with him, he was absolutely up front, what you saw was what you got.

memlasurf's picture
memlasurf's picture
memlasurf commented Monday, 16 Apr 2018 at 9:45pm

Fair enough, and your right he was a beast at sunset, a real power house from what I saw on the vids and you would have seen him first hand, so no argument there. When I saw in on Breaking down the door, I thought you are still a dick as did my sons and his mates, and they had never heard of him.

Phil Jarratt's picture
Phil Jarratt's picture
Phil Jarratt commented Tuesday, 17 Apr 2018 at 10:41am

Kanga was always an acquired taste, like a really smelly blue cheese. But as BB notes, you always knew where you stood, he never left you wondering. Murph is a fine writer, I can't wait to read how he handles the complex issue of Ian, who, whether you loved him or loathed him, was a dominant and dividing figure of his era.

Phil Jarratt

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy commented Tuesday, 17 Apr 2018 at 12:05pm

I just want to find out if he talks about that Waimea wipeout. He bit my head off once for mentioning it. I reckon it was the heaviest fall of that generation. Has time healed the wound?

CryptoKnight's picture
CryptoKnight's picture
CryptoKnight commented Tuesday, 17 Apr 2018 at 3:23pm

Here’s a very positive view of a scientific surfing technique for dealing with such atrocities blinder. Dare I even raise the truth, but in a nutshell, it was actually you who introduced the technology and technique to the surfing world. It was you who pointed out the remarkable infallibility of the famous Sydney Giggling Circle technique for dealing with chomped scones etc. Even including smashing and defeating a rampant, boogying arnie. However, again dare I even raise the truth, but in a nutshell again, it’s you who continually highlights the technique’s continual failures. To this day you often relive through these journals, Prawn’s off the charts sneer/fade/laughter and lecture debacle, where you were that hapless, giggleless I might add, victim. Now you relive the kango head chomping debacle, again as a hapless, giggle free victim. I think it’s only fair to point out that the technique is well, a dud. To be honest a quick slap and dunk works wonders. Although again, dare I be honest, and I’ll understand that the ‘official’, ‘officials’ version of surf history is often bereft of anything resembling the truth. So MR, Richo and those other fuckwits lied about those stinking, shitbox, crappy, ###***ing, lousy, ****’n twinnies! Even though they didn't. Blame me if it helps, load up the big shoulders, that’s what they’re for. Not to mention the back.

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy commented Tuesday, 17 Apr 2018 at 3:54pm

Yeh I shoulda slapped him down but he had already copped a hiding that year from the aloha, peace, love and let's sort this out like civilised humans, Oahu welcoming committee. Shit my whole life is a failure, I even missed my chance with the twinnies, I look back and think how I could have ripped up those 2ft shories on one of those original McCoy models you're probably too young to remember. But now I got more fins than I know what to do with, three, four, I'd even try five but couldn't be arsed working out where to put it.....and no I am not going to put it there.

CryptoKnight's picture
CryptoKnight's picture
CryptoKnight commented Tuesday, 17 Apr 2018 at 3:57pm

And while we are at it, as for the phenomenal muscularity, bodybuilding, and triceps that I am continually accused of by trolls, and continually have highlighted, well you know what I didn’t even want them! They just kept growing and getting younger to this day! I want to be a flabby, crippled, sensible, injured, responsible old fart unit like you guys, and it’s not my fault I’m the total opposite!

CryptoKnight's picture
CryptoKnight's picture
CryptoKnight commented Tuesday, 17 Apr 2018 at 3:57pm

And while we are at it, as for the phenomenal muscularity, bodybuilding, and triceps that I am continually accused of by trolls, and continually have highlighted, well you know what I didn’t even want them! They just kept growing and getting younger to this day! I want to be a flabby, crippled, sensible, injured, responsible old fart unit like you guys, and it’s not my fault I’m the total opposite!

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy commented Tuesday, 17 Apr 2018 at 4:26pm

Yeh totally screwed, hips gone, sacro-iliac stuffed, brain turned to jello, gut turned into a methane production unit. How I envy you for all those hours in the gym while I was out there partying, seeing great bands, meeting exciting people etc etc, what a wasted life......and I am still up for a surf off on neutral territory, best of three heats, small, medium and large.

CryptoKnight's picture
CryptoKnight's picture
CryptoKnight commented Tuesday, 17 Apr 2018 at 8:29pm

Oh no!!! No!!! Et tu Blinde?

I honestly just got home from training others, and in the dark of night I, in a nutshell, now the world’s last honest surfer, clung tenaciously to the thought of a ray of truth from blinde, author of the famous Muscles thread, only to be shocked to the core. None of it was true! It meant nothing to Blinde!

I can understand Soph, forcing her boys to delete the truth, because well, the image... it wasn’t like that! It never happened in surfer history! I can understand forum official officials deleting the truth because well, in a nutshell, shit happens! But, et tu Blinde?

I’m a simple, honest, muscular, raw boned, good looking soul. Did you ever surf blax, is all I ask them? By the way, I never did see you, is all I say. A simple no, I didn't, would suffice. In a nutshell, is that too much to ask? I wouldn’t laugh too much (of course I recognise that too much is an individual thing). Instead the answer is reams and reams and reams of, in a nutshell, bullshit and untruths!

And now this bold affront to honesty, this savage mockery of surf ing honour, in the form of this despised ASP like, mano e mano challenge! Well I haven’t surfed for around 6 months since returning from far away. I had a few surfs at blax on my return. My aim is to finish my house, far away, that’s the truth.

But as the last honest surfer, this final fib, shocking as it is, comes as no surprise. Remember when I asked you to join me in waves of consequence, as goofer bravely pitted himself against the ferocious ocean! Remember your honest reply? On page 2. This, in a nutshell, your honest pike’, so to speak. That I wrung out of you? I do, I always do even though it pains me.

‘And yeh, it's still there to do if you want to put yourself out there. Me? I'm probably too used to ease and comfort these days.‘

https://www.swellnet.com/forums/wax/356969

When I start surfing again, I’ll join you in this mano e mano quest, oh fibbing one! Train what little is left hard, my little sneak!

In the meantime, in a nutshell, why can’t I just lie, why can’t I just be crippled and injured, why can’t I have next to no brain cells or memory left! Why do I have to be the world’s last honest surfer!

Et tu Blinde? Who’d have guessed that you hated even innocent muscles!!!

goofyfoot's picture
goofyfoot's picture
goofyfoot commented Tuesday, 17 Apr 2018 at 8:47pm

Did I just get a mention? Oh my I’m blushing :-0

goofyfoot's picture
goofyfoot's picture
goofyfoot commented Tuesday, 17 Apr 2018 at 8:48pm

....and I’ve never surfed blax

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy commented Tuesday, 17 Apr 2018 at 8:59pm

I'm actually pretty good! Surfing 5 days a week 6'0 or 6'3" but haven't been training much beyond that. Good to hear you are planning a comeback. Did kanga ever make it go blax? He was a big raw boned lad, like yourself.

CryptoKnight's picture
CryptoKnight's picture
CryptoKnight commented Tuesday, 17 Apr 2018 at 9:34pm

I’m glad you survived that horrendous swim, goofer. I’ll try not to laugh re blax, I really will!

No, blinde, he didn't. However, dare I tell the truth as it gets much more exciting! No doubt the well, officially official fibs will go in the history book and rule the day, however! Yes kango did come this way, but only as far as the mighty dribs etc, including the Victor pub. All I can say is that a hotted up, orange dead beat hoon mobile piloted by a bronzed flared up geek, was rampaging through, and dead beat hooning about the streets in gay abandon! Burnouts through the wee hours, destroying any hope we surfers had of gaining official respect!

I had occasion to ‘chat’ to kango, pt, and another golden, bead encrusted unit earlier on on proceedings, and... dare I say it...

Ahh, what’s the use! Just ban me, just delete honesty from existence!!! Again. Buy your ‘tell all books’, weave, stretch and distort the truth! Fuck the truth and fuck twinnies while your at it!

They crucified the last honest bloke, why should I be any different!

Give poor fuck’n kango his threads back! Jumpsuits are back in (although, in a nutshell, perhaps a little ‘stretched’ so to speak).

Bourneagin's picture
Bourneagin's picture
Bourneagin commented Wednesday, 18 Apr 2018 at 11:58am

Thanks Murph for having the persistance to get the man to spill his guts .

Now it totally gives a few of us ageing warriors a chance to regale everyone with our version of history .
But for me personally it has inspired me to re visit the Gym for the first time in a long time . And now i've been a few times , but only when its not busy as i have some real issues with lifting weights around real weight lifters .
Or i wait in the carpark and wait for when new members arrive and hope i'll be lost in the crowd if someone that knows what they are doing shows up . Nothing worse than lecturing newcomers and then someone who knows what they are talking about interupts .

Now back to Kanga , should of seen the mess i made in the toilet this morning .
Hercules , my cat was well impressed and decided to re enact it in the kit.........................

Anyway gotta go and take my meds ..... oh sorry i meant supplements ...

I don't call it growing old , more like rapid cell deter..ia ... tion......................

Clam's picture
Clam's picture
Clam commented Wednesday, 18 Apr 2018 at 10:15pm

Anyone see Kanga surf the Box years before anyone else ?
Have heard rumors but not sure how the true story goes ?
Was it on a single fin ???

BaSz's picture
BaSz's picture
BaSz commented Saturday, 21 Apr 2018 at 11:32am

Mr Cairns lives in California, where he will help Perth’s Smart Marine Systems try to penetrate the local market with the company’s Clever Buoy technology.

https://www.perthnow.com.au/news/sharks/ian-kanga-cairns-blasts-decision...

truebluebasher's picture
truebluebasher's picture
truebluebasher commented Sunday, 22 Apr 2018 at 1:37pm

Clam! Nailed it! (Cape Crusaders) Uni Paper on Cape Naturaliste /WA surfing pioneers.
Late 60's- 70's Only crazies buddy lone wolf Kanga surfing wild breaks in wilder weather.

Obvious now that WA wild breaks progressed Ian's board design for chunky wave hunger.
By 1973 on his tri-fin. Ian was crowned the best big wave surfer on the planet.

Robert Anthony Holt's theses also touches on the competitive bent of Kanga.
Cape Crusaders (Free read) Pages 98-100... re: Ian Cairns

truebluebasher's picture
truebluebasher's picture
truebluebasher commented Sunday, 22 Apr 2018 at 5:11pm

I doubt very much any sport could rival surfing elites.
Anglo Bodysurfing has centuries old links to princely Royal background.
Prince Philip has long been No 1 SLSA Patron.
Both he & Queen enjoyed countless OZ surf carnivals . (They loved the raw Surf athleticism)

His son soon to be King Bodysurfed & crewed a surf boat on Gold Coast WSR in 1974.
Even W.A. he won the kiss off the girl bodysurfing a crackin Cottesloe shorey in 1979
Last visit his misses detoured Comm games hangerons to dip toes in Broadbeach Shorey.
Hard to recall any Royal family visitor of 100 years more that didn't hit the surf or wish to.

1829- Pioneer surfcraft was shipped out/shaped into worlds most sought after furniture.
Original pro surfers made more than today's divas. Their surfcraft now thru-out the palace.
Happy Birthday Queen of our waves.

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