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